Coming Event – “All About Castles” – May 31, 2022

Hear all about these mighty fortresses of stone that featured moats, murder holes, portcullises, arrow loops and more. During this event, I’ll share a detailed view of what castles looked like inside and how they functioned in medieval times. Imagine yourself both as a castle defender and invader and learn what to think about when designing your own castle.

Date: Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Time: 4:30 – 5:30 pm (Central Time)

Location: Online (hosted by Arapahoe Libraries)

Register here.

Story Bite 28: Figurative Language

April is National Poetry Month, so here’s a writing tip that’s extremely useful in poetry as well as prose: figurative language.

Start by picking an object, feeling, or scene.

Right now, outside my window, it’s raining (and I mean serious rain). So I’m going to start with that. And with this simple statement:

It’s raining.

Figurative language expands the boundaries of a concept. So with that in  mind, how could you expand “It’s raining” to represent more than what you see outside?

The rain by my window is cold, bleak, and wet. Come up with your own list of what rain feels like (or sounds like, or looks like). Imagine what you see while rain splashes into a puddle. Think about language that implies movement. Use literal language (describe exactly what’s happening) if that helps.

Here’s my own list of gloomy rain words: cold, bleak, wet, sharp, slithering, sleek, drenching, bone-chilling, pinging, pounding, roaring, (and then, for the puddle) drops dropping, covering the surface; and then for a few common descriptions: buckets of rain, sheets of rain.

From that list, pick several words you’d like to work with (and feel free to go back and harvest any more that you like). Look for alliteration (words that begin with the same letter) if you’re having trouble starting (I have pinging and pounding and slithering and sleek).

Now think about what those words mean in isolation (forget about the rain for a minute). What do they make you think about?

To me, there’s music in “pinging” and “pounding”: chimes might ping, while a bass drum could pound. My figurative language would imply music. Here’s how I might write that in a very simple, quick, literal way:

It’s raining:
pinging and pounding, chimes and a bass drum,
wet music outside my window

Now pick something else from your list. I like “slithering” and “sleek” from mine, so I’ll go with that. I think of snakes with those words, but also river otters, and eels. I’ll need to pick one, and it might look like this:

It’s raining:
slithering and sleek, a rush of otters on my roof,
delighting in the wet

If you keep going back to your list, you could come up with many different images (I have buckets of rain and sheets of rain—maybe I could write “a whole barrel of rain rolling down the street”).

Come up with enough of these (even three), and you’ll have your own poem rich with figurative language.

The next step would be to revise, to tweak what you can, thinking about rhythm, and what kind of story you might be telling with your poem. But this is a wonderful start.

(And you may have noticed that I was quite literal with these examples. I’ve known students who struggle with figurative language, and I hope this will help them in particular feel good about using metaphors.)

Book Recommendation: Too Bright to See

I’ve always loved monster stories where the “monster” isn’t evil and, while creepy and maybe a bit scary, is there to do good. Most ghost stories don’t do this. In middle grade fiction in particular, ghosts are common devices of spooky evil. And so the fact that the protagonist of Kyle Lukoff’s Too Bright to See lives in a haunted house but was taught by her uncle to love the house and not worry too much about its ghosts made me sure I’d enjoy this novel.

Lukoff does a beautiful job creating a warm, gentle story of a kid who isn’t comfortable in her own skin—and certainly not the clothes and makeup that her best friend Moira wants her to wear. Bug lives in rural Vermont, where everyone knows everyone else. There are clear expectations for middle school, as Moira tells her. Their first year of middle school will be an opportunity to remake themselves anew.

But Bug resists Moira’s attempts to remake her into a girl who looks and acts like a girl—which Moira is certain will help them both fit in at their new school. To Bug, it doesn’t feel right. She wishes she could talk with her late Uncle Roderick about this. He was the kind of uncle she could talk with about anything.

While Bug misses her uncle immensely, she isn’t sure that she wants him to come back as a ghost. But early in the novel, it certainly seems as if he has—and he has a message for her. There’s something important she needs to figure out: a secret that will change her life.

And it’s a secret which I can’t give away (in fact, Lukoff writes in the author’s note precisely how to talk about this book so that reviewers don’t reveal the secret). I loved this story for its secret, and for the warmth and caring that surrounds Bug as she struggles with her identity. Uncle Roderick’s character comes through clearly, not as his ghost, but as Bug’s memories of him.

And that love between family members, and Bug’s coming-of-age, will feel real, strong, beautiful, and familiar to just about every reader who gets into this sweet, refreshing story.

Story Bite 27: Shifting Perspective

My writing tip for this month is shifting perspective: describing something that might inspire a strong negative reaction in people with positive words. This can be a fun linguistic game, but also a chance to think of how we view things beyond our own initial perspective. In this exercise, we’re going to:

Describe something disgusting with positive words.

Think about the tone you want to take. Be meaningful, or funny, or bitterly ironic. And decide how gross you want to get with your initial image. Here are three mild suggestions:

  • A bug in a piece of fruit
  • A slice of moldy bread
  • A cat’s hairball (recently puked)

Pick one (or your own image). To go beyond the obvious, you’ll want to think about your image from a perspective that would not find it disgusting. What might that be? A scientist or artist might see any one of these three examples as fascinating. Or…someone with an unusual perspective toward life.

Let’s try a scientific perspective first with the bug and apple:

Dr. Singh held up the plum. A small, iridescent green beetle paused in the wound it had eaten in the dense orange flesh. Cotinis mutabilis: a figeater beetle. And yet—Dr. Singh turned the plum to better see the beetle. For an instant, she saw not a pest but a facet of life, a thing of beauty. She watched as it crept, tiny, trusting, and vulnerable among the fragrant fruit.

I’m not a fan of similar beetles that I have in my area (which decimate my roses each year), but I’ve sometimes noticed that they’re actually rather beautiful. And so in this description, even with a scientist who knows well what damage a figeater beetle will cause, she’s able to feel wonder and see it as a fellow creature in this world.

Now let’s try an artist looking at the piece of moldy bread:

That moldy bread—it was a canvas, so colorful, a sea of textures and shapes. I touched my brush tip to my paint and speckled black onto the crown of blue and white on my own canvas. That mold—it was soft, towering, encompassing. It was like the earth coming back, demanding its wheat and water, a full circle of life given to life.

A visual artist would take apart an image into its color and shape. In this brief sketch, I wanted the artist to also think about what their image could symbolize.

Now let’s try the cat’s puked-up hairball from the perspective of someone who has a slightly different perspective:

There it was, on the carpet, glistening in the sun: a boon from my princess. I could not believe she had left this glorious mound of fur and saliva for me, her sniveling, miserable underling. In awe, I crept close. It was warm to the touch, soft against my fingers. As I lifted it, my eyes grew wet. When had I ever deserved this bounty?

I’m not sure that anyone has ever had this reaction to a cat’s puked-up hairball, but what if someone was so obsessed with their cat that they saw it as a gift? This would be a fun character to write!

Part of this exercise is to experiment in perspective, but also to expand what you see. A crack in the sidewalk might be the entrance to a fantasy world. A decaying tree is most certainly home to many creatures. And a moldy piece of bread could be a metaphor, as well as a nice addition to a compost pile.

Now how about a snack?

Spinning the Yarn of Action, Depth, and Meaning

I’ve always loved layering timely topics in the action of my fast-past novels. For the last four years or so, however, I’ve been thinking about how to do even more. Not just weave one timely topic into a story, but many; or to weave one in are a very deep core. I like the analogy of spinning yarn because every thread of the story (yarn, in both a real and metaphorical sense) will carry those elements and, woven into the whole novel, will fill the work. I think that’s especially important these days, with the enormous issues facing us and children today (from threats to democracies around the world to state challenges of the rights of LGBTQ2A+ kids). We live in a heavy world. I think we’ve always lived in a heavy world, actually, but we talk about it more, and so it’s all part of the threads of our lives these days.

Back to writing. As I wrote my third novel, Secret of the Shadow Beasts, I addressed many big concepts through threads of this story:

  • the impact on ongoing environmental degradation (the shadow beasts)
  • pandemic denial (people who refuse to listen to government safety rules and go outside after twilight, thus putting themselves at tremendous risk, what with the shadow beasts going after them)
  • anti-trans sentiments (with a trans girl as a major character whose bravery, kindness, and wisdom make her a crucial member of her team, and, at one point, enable her to save someone’s life when no one else could)
  • the importance of knowing history beyond the heroic stories (that’s a secret of the book)

I also feature a cast that includes important characters of Pakistani, Nigerian, Japanese, and Chinese ancestry—because we live in a global world and that’s what our communities look like.

And I feature a world where kids come first, where adults are there for them, where children’s mental health needs are considered and met.

All woven into a fast-paced, high-stakes narrative.

As I write this kind of children’s fiction, I hope I’m having an impact in this world. If I can model the way things should be, or depict through action the way things shouldn’t, I can take real steps toward making the world a better place. That’s a privilege that all authors of children’s fiction have if they want to take it. And it’s one that I intend to take seriously for this and all my books to come.

Book Recommendation: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is Anne Ursu’s latest delight. I’m one of her fans—Breadcrumbs and The Real Boy were inspirations to me when I first began writing middle grade fiction—and I saved this as a special treat.

Talk about special treats. This was one of the best books of the 2021 for me, and also one of my favorite books ever, a classic on my shelf.

One reason is that it’s such a clever story. Ursu introduces a strong premise, then layers questions and mysteries upon it. The story spreads out—complicated and rich—and then slowly comes together. In the end, Ursu neatly ties the answer to the book’s core mystery to the society’s whole structure. This is no less than a brilliant feat of storytelling.

Here’s the story: Marya Lupu is a girl in a society that represses girls as a matter of course—though she believes in her right to be herself (a little bit). Whisked away to a school for “troubled” girls after a mishap during her brother’s magic test (which would have marked him as an all-important sorcerer if there were any magic in him), Marya’s self-belief begins to crumble. And that’s no wonder: She’s been shown in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t matter in her world, that her family doesn’t care what becomes of her, and her best future would be on a sorcerer’s estate in one of the supporting roles that women always have. Marya tries to see Dragomir Academy as an opportunity for the education she was denied at home. She also tries very hard to be true to herself, and this will win over many young readers.

Marya is thoughtful, brave, capable of intense self-reflection, and questions everything. She’s cautious, though, and at first attempts to follow the rules. As a young reader, I would have noticed the relentless demand of Dragomir Academy to follow the rules, and would have begun to challenge them just as Marya does. Marya also asks, “Who does the story serve?”, a question that becomes power, a means of seeing through the tangle of secrets and lies.

All the secrets and lies build into a magnificent conclusion. This is a deeply satisfying book that will both give its readers important tools for reflecting on their own lives, and stay in their minds for long, long after.

(This book recommendation first appeared in my enewsletter, Adventures From an Open Book.)

Book Recommendation: Cuba in My Pocket

Like two of my characters in Secret of the Shadow Beasts, I love history and  historical fiction. Because I’ve read a lot of this genre (and written it!), I have very high standards. For me, the research needs to be spot-on, making the world feel real and full of life, and wholly individual. So many historical stories of certain time periods feel like every other story set in that time, the setting and motivations so predictable that I sometimes wonder why people are still writing them. When I come across a historical novel written about a time period or experience you don’t often see in children’s fiction, I’m delighted. And when the writing is spectacular, I’m thrilled.

Cuba in My Pocket, one of the best works of historical fiction for children that I’ve ever read, surpassed my high expectations. Adrianna Cuevas begins this powerful story in a tense and vivid Cuba. It’s 1961, and Fidel Castro is newly in power. Soldiers rule the streets, harassing families that have any member who has ever disagreed with the regime—or challenges it now in any way the regime defines.

Cumba, the protagonist, is constantly aware of that danger. He’s facing a ticking clock: When the revolutionaries deem him old enough, not even his father’s status as a doctor will protect him from being taken away and forced to train as a soldier. Cuevas’s portrait of a certain revolutionary who has his eye on Cumba is particularly terrifying. Fortunately, Cumba escapes to the U.S. in the nick of time. His journey alone is tense and frightening, though, and the reader will let out a sigh of relief when he arrives.

And here is part of Cuevas’s brilliance as a writer: She gives the reader a moment to breathe, a period of warmth and safety, before introducing the next conflict.

Cumba is safe at last. He’s living with a kind host and two other Cuba immigrants, so he’s not completely alone. But life isn’t easy. He can’t stop thinking—and worrying—about his family back in Cuba. English isn’t an easy language to learn. And his loneliness is overwhelming: He’s been parted from everything he knew and loved. His world is bleak, in a different way from before, but no less powerful.

Yet the storytelling is not bleak. Even in the tensest scenes, Cuevas balances the terror, loneliness, and worry with hope and warmth: interactions between Cumba’s family, the food they share, the basic kindness of some people in the U.S. This is a marvelous book, filled with tension, despair, and hope. And it’s a vivid look at an important historical moment.

(This book recommendation first appeared in my enewsletter, Adventures From an Open Book.)

Book Recommendation: The Shape of Thunder

I’ll share this right away: The Shape of Thunder is a book about a very tough topic: the aftermath of a school shooting and how those closest to it deal with it.

Jasmine Warga makes this topic bearable for a young audience through several brilliant technique, and here’s the first: She sets the story a little less than a year from the tragedy, providing distance. And she shows how some people have moved on (like the community). But not Quinn, the sister of the shooter, or Cora, the sister of one of his victims. Both are still struggling with their grief, loneliness, and love for their lost sibling. The other people in their households are trying to move on, with varying levels of success. And their efforts aren’t helping either girl.

The story is largely about Quinn’s plan to save their siblings through time travel. This isn’t sci-fi, but an attempt to harness science with those moments and places that evoke in us experiences beyond our understanding. And it stems from desperation: Quinn misses Cora, her former best friend, who won’t talk with her. And Quinn has a secret—something she saw at home—that makes her blame herself for her brother’s actions. Cora, meanwhile, keeps her sister’s part of the room they shared exactly as it was, and cannot forget or let go. All of this turns into another chapter of the ongoing tragedy.

This may sound like a challenging read, but it’s not, and therein lies Warga’s skill: Each girl has people around her who care and want to help. Nearly every adult is warm, and most of the kid characters are supportive. And yet even though this warmth, adults make mistakes, fully-formed characters with their own story arcs, and feel utterly real. But they try. And that means a lot.

In this way, Warga has written a book that will make kids who love to cry at realistic middle grade fiction have that reaction, but will also satisfy kids who want just warm family-and-friendship stories. It’s a gem.

(This book recommendation first appeared in my enewsletter, Adventures From an Open Book.)

On Banning Books

Back when I was a kid, I remember reading about repressive societies in the 20th century who banned and burned books. I felt grateful that I didn’t live in such a place. I couldn’t have foreseen what’s going on now, that school districts and community members across the U.S. would put so much energy, hatred, and rage into removing books from libraries: books by and about Black, Jewish, and LGBTQ2A+ people. If I’d heard about this happening in my time when I was a kid, I’d have some of the same questions I have today:

How can we have an equitable, inclusive society if children aren’t allowed to read stories that reflect their identifies or share with them the experiences of identifies that are different from their own? How will our society survive if we don’t celebrate the differences that make us, as a society, strong and vibrant? How can anyone not want such a thing?

It can be hard not to feel weak in the face of such virulent attitudes. Yet there’s much that we can do. We can write letters to school boards—that’s starting to work in many communities—and support the students who are speaking up for the right to read what they want and need to read. We can join school boards, join local government, and always be sure to vote. (And here’s a very powerful article from Martha Hickson, a New Jersey school librarian, about her experiences with book banning, with action steps she recommends for librarians dealing with these issues.)

Children’s authors have a certain power in this as well. We regularly enter classrooms, libraries, and school assemblies, and for a few moments have a platform from which we can talk about the importance of reading books that reflect us and reflect experiences that are different from ours. We can recommend titles that show kids that even if we’ve white and cis, we authors read broadly beyond our own experiences. And in our own books, we can depict worlds that look and feel like the diverse, vibrant world that surrounds us today (and do our research, and hire expert readers to double-check our research when we need to).

This is part of my own vision of myself as an author. I need to be a proud ally to my fellow authors whose books are being banned, and to the students who need these books in their libraries and classrooms. I know my young self would feel that strongly too.

(This post first appeared in my enewsletter, Adventures From an Open Book.)

Story Bite 26: Starting a Story (With Just Three Words)

For many students who struggle to write, coming up with an idea—or even a sentence— that feels like a good one is one of the biggest challenges. Often, writers are told to just get words on a page, and the rest will come. But what if your initial words look pitiful and nothing else comes? Bolstering your confidence is a crucial part of getting started. And here’s one way to do it:

Write a simple, three-word sentence. Then ask yourself questions to figure out what might come next.

Let’s come up with a few sentences (remember just three words!):

Snow is falling.

My dog snores.

Music is loud.

When I first wrote those, they were more like this:

The snow is falling.

My dog is snoring.

That music is loud.

In general, you don’t have to stick to just three words. But in doing this exercise, trimming sentences to just three words will make the writer think about what’s most important in that sentence. Each trimmed, three-word sentence will sound a bit like poetry, like a haiku. The simplicity of such a sentence holds so much promise too.

Once you have your three-word sentence, start asking yourself questions about it, questions like these:

Snow is falling.

  • What does the snow feel like? Is it cold? Light? Wet? Heavy?
  • Who is feeling the snow? Why are they out in the snow?
  • Or is someone watching the snow from inside? Where? What does it feel like where they are?
  • What are they thinking while watching the snow or being in the snow? Do they need to go somewhere? Or are they happy, about to play?

My dog snores.

  • Where is the dog? Where is the speaker? Is the speaker in the same room, or watching from another place?
  • What’s going on around the dog?
  • What does the dog look like? Fur? Size?
  • Is the dog having a dream, or sleeping peacefully?
  • Is the dog about to wake up? From what?

Music is loud.

  • Does the speaker like the fact that music is loud, or not? How would the speaker describe music, in positive or negative terms?
  • This is a general statement, so bring it to the present. Who or what is playing music right now?
  • How is the speaker, who has already observed that music is loud, reacting to music in the present?
  • Where is the speaker now? How does the speaker feel being in that space?

There are so many directions to go with these questions, but once the writer has them, they should provide some help in getting started, and hopefully help the writer begin to think of a story.

Let me know if this story bite has been useful!

(This story bite first appeared in my enewsletter, Adventures From an Open Book.)