Inspiration with a Cuppa: Memories of Eileen Curran

I was going through my files recently, and noticed a tribute I’d written for a very dear friend I had during my early career here in Maine: Eileen Curran (born 1927), the Victorian scholar, who I’d met in 2004. Every once in a while, I’ve found that I meet people with whom I have an instant bond. Eileen was many years my senior, but she came into my life as I was researching the Victorian period for a historical novel I was writing. Back then, I was fascinated mostly with England (Scotland was certainly an interest, but not the obsession it is today—it became that shortly thereafter). My interests at that time made my meeting Eileen quite advantageous, in many ways, and for both of us, I think. Here is the tribute that I spoke at Colby College’s Special Collections in October 2013 for the Maine Humanities Council board. (I thought it might be fun for readers who know only my attention to Scottish castles to see that I’ve had other influences.) —Diane Magras

Columbine and chives in Eileen’s Cottage Garden. (Photo: Diane Magras)

Each summer, Eileen Curran’s garden was the most colorful on her street: with pink lupine, ivory scabiosa, white violets, and golden gloriosa daisies among the most outstanding. Other perennials wove between them, creating a 19th-century tapestry of color and texture, like the gardens that had inspired the very concept of English cottage gardening. It made perfect sense that such a garden would surround Eileen’s home, or that you’d find further evidence of a Victorian life inside, where illustrations from Punch hung on the walls over William Morris “Willow” patterned wallpaper.

The first time I met Eileen in 2004, on a sunny early July day when her massive hedge of lilacs was the most striking thing in bloom, I had no real idea that I would be stepping into the home of a person who would inspire me so thoroughly. I’m one of those Americans who looks longingly at Anthony Trollope’s world: at the sense of adventure laced with certain good manners—not to mention the long country walks over a verdant English countryside and, yes, that abundance of boldly-patterned skirts—and I didn’t have many people in my life who were quite as obsessed about these things as I was.

Eileen, however, was. And obsessed with far more.

Eileen was like the Victorians she researched: while honoring the past, she embraced new technology, to the point of exclusively publishing her work online in The Curran Index of Additions to and Corrections of the Wellesley Index of Victorian Periodicals. Biographies of Some Obscure Contributors to 19th-century Periodicals, published on the Victoria Research Web, expanded the Curran Index’s content. These resources delved into the prolific world of Victorian men and women who published their articles, stories, poems, and essays with their real names, pseudonyms, and anonymously, but whose identities help researchers today weave together the booming industry of letters. (Dickens’s famous Household Words was only a small part of the picture.)

This is one of Eileen’s passport photos. She’d saved many from many years of primary source research in England, Ireland, and Germany.

The most obscure of these writers—writers who never published more than a few articles, those who were never sufficiently established, or those whose anonymous paths seemed to peter out in old parish registries—were Eileen’s special delight. She believed in the important contributions that anonymous writers made, and was like a private detective in seeking their identities—a detective who parsed through birth, death, and marriage records in small country churches, online, by phone, through microfiche, and through mail, to find all these “Obscures.” When I first met her, she had already mapped out hundreds of families in Britain. In my many visits to her house, with my cup of loose leaf Lapsang Oolong (Eileen’s favorite) and the most wonderful homemade biscuits outside of England, I heard stories of her “Obscures,” their families and their aliases and who they might have been but really were (as far as she knew; she was always open to corrections that might come up in future research, and never made assumptions without being clear that they were just that).

We also talked Victorian literature, but in a way that I certainly had never talked it before. Eileen spoke in casual conversation about the great Victorian authors and their characters as if they were old friends, often in present tense. And she spoke in gorgeous sentences, the kinds that these authors had written, composing in her head as she spoke. I don’t know how she did it (I need paper to build such sentences). She rearranged how one would normally speak a sentence, roll out a clever and unusual verb, and end with a punch line that caught you a second or two after you heard it. Eileen never laughed at her own jokes; she hardly waited to see if I caught them, though once in a while she’d pause with a slight eyebrow arch.

I spent the whole day with her on my visits. During those rewarding hours, Eileen also told me stories of her family, of her parents’ upbringing and her own. She was a precocious child (of course) who surprisingly didn’t speak until she was three years old, but began speaking almost at once in complete sentences. It was as if she had waited, listened, and learned. She had many opportunities to listen: her parents included her in conversations about educational theories, business, and WWII. They respected her mind. She graduated from Cornell University, where she also earned her PhD, and also was among the first graduating class of Cambridge’s Girton College in 1948. She experienced Austerity firsthand, living with a Cambridge family in town, and shared the care packages sent from home with them: packages of sweets, tinned foods, chocolate, and cigarettes (an excellent currency, she said).

This is an early passport photo when Eileen was still a student.

We went out to lunch in Waterville most days that I visited. Once, in the private dark corner of a busy restaurant, hearing a story about her independent, free-spirited, curious, and intellectual schooldays, I felt a powerful connection: I had been exactly the same at my school nearly fifty years later, reading big books for fun in the corner of the library, finding few like spirits around me. If time and place had somehow put us together in the same town, I suspect we’d have been best friends. And she’d have probably egged me on to become a Victorian scholar, too.

The last time I saw Eileen, her eyesight was nearly gone—a huge blow for a person whose life was built around her scholarly research—but she was still able to see some of the walk we went on. I pushed her wheelchair around the oceanside path of her assisted care facility, up to the fading rosebushes and cold chrysanthemums. She spotted in the distance a yellow flower and though her distance vision was quite impaired, she opined its identity. I darted into the grass and fetched one for her. She was right. It was goldenrod, a weed in America, Eileen told me, but a fine addition to a cottage garden in England. We found a cup for a vase in her room.

Eileen died on April 22, 2013, at the age of 85. It’s been hard for me to drive past her house, but the last time I did, that massive hedge of lilacs was in bloom.

 

Historical Novel Society Review

The Historical Novel Society is a great resource. On their website, aficionados of historical fiction may learn about what historical novels are out in the English-speaking world, or research ones from the past. I’ve gone to their website many times to look at reviews. It’s especially nice because the people reviewing are as big on history as I am (or are actual professional historians!).

So imagine my delight when an editor of the Historical Novel Society emailed me this review of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter! I especially like the ending, where the reviewer notices how Drest’s reliance on her brothers’ voices shifts to a reliance on her own.

Book critics don’t write reviews for authors, and authors really shouldn’t read reviews with their author brain switched on. We’re not the audience. And that’s fine. But that truth doesn’t take away from my pleasure in this review as both an author and someone who loves historical novels.

Classroom Book Club Giveaway!

There’s a great movement among teachers these days to put books in students’ hands that students want to read, not just books that adults admire. It’s the best way to ensure students’ love of reading. I’ve been thrilled to hear about student choice like this happening all over the country.

But I know that it can be hard for teachers to be aware of all the incredible new books out there. Often, stellar novels that would be great for the classroom—and favorites too—are missed.

A group of middle grade and young adult authors are joining me for a massive giveaway to bring discussion-worthy books across genres into the classroom. We’re offering three groups of middle grade books, one of upper middle grade, and one of young adult (five books in each) to teachers and school librarians in the U.S. (sorry to restrict, but this helps with mailing costs). These are books published in 2018 and in 2019 that we all think could have a strong place in future classroom book clubs.

Below, I’ve posted a list of all the books, in order of their groups, with themes we think teachers would find useful, author websites, and, where available, teacher and discussion guides.

But first, here are the giveaway instructions:

1. Choose which group of books would be best for your classroom or school library: middle grade group A, B, or C (for grades 3 through 6), upper middle grade (grades 6 through 8), or young adult (grades 8 through 12). Retweet the post, and tell us which category’s giveaway you’d like to enter.

2. Follow all the authors in your chosen category.

3. Retweet before Monday, November 4, 2019. We’ll be drawing winners for each category on that day.

And now for the books! Be sure to scroll to the end to see the amazing upper MG and YA contributions!

MIDDLE GRADE: GROUP A

Skylark and Wallcreeper (Little Bee Books, October 2018)

Anne O’Brien Carelli, www.anneobriencarelli.com

Themes: Understanding and respecting contributions of elders; persevering under challenging circumstances; and girls can be clever, strong, and brave

Discussion Guide

 

 

Unwritten (Jolly Fish Press/North Star Editions, October 2018)

Tara Gilboy, taragilboy.com

Themes: Finding your own identity, sometimes good people do bad things/forgiving yourself and others, controlling your own destiny

 

 

 

The Three Rules of Everyday Magic (Boyds Mills and Kane, September 2018)

Amanda Rawson Hill, amandarawsonhill.com

Themes: Kindness, mental health, music, dementia and multigenerational relationships

Discussion Questions

 

 

If This Were a Story (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, August 2018)

Beth Turley, bethturleybooks.com

Themes: Friendship, bullying, speaking up, grief; there are also elements of magical realism

 

 

 

Spin the Golden Lightbulb (Amberjack Publishing, January 2018)

Jackie Yeager, www.swirlandspark.com

Themes: This is a STEM/ STEAM type book (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) that promotes teamwork, creative problem solving, and pursuing dreams in the face of huge obstacles.

 

 

MIDDLE GRADE: GROUP B

Everlasting Nora (Starscape, A Tom Doherty Associates Book, Macmillan Publishers, October 2018)

Marie Cruz, www.cruzwrites.com

Themes: What does home mean to you? Building empathy for how people live in other parts of the world. How does empathy play a role in how we treat each other? What is perseverance?

A discussion guide is in the back of the book.

 

 

The Key of Lost Things (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, September 2019)

Sean Easley, www.seaneasley.com

Themes: Listen to others. Everyone is just as valuable as you. Asking for help is not weakness. Don’t lose yourself while trying to be what others want you to be.

 

 

The Cryptid Catcher (Farrar, Straus & Giroux (BYR), August 2018)

Lija Fisher, www.lijafisher.com

Themes: Friendship, learning to trust yourself, protecting our natural world

Research Game

 

 

The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter (Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin Young Readers, March 2019)

Diane Magras, www.dianemagras.com

Themes: Determining your own identity, challenging expectations of birth and gender, standing up to those in power, living with the consequences of mistakes, seeking ways to heal, forgiveness, and gender equality

Teachers Guide and Discussion Questions

 

 

A Swirl of Ocean (Knopf Books for Young Readers, August 2019)

Melissa Sarno, melissasarno.com

Themes: Choosing family, discovering connections to the natural world, learning to let others in, accepting that friendships and families change.

 

 

 

MIDDLE GRADE: GROUP C

Where the Watermelons Grow (Harper Collins, July 2018)

Cindy Baldwin, cindybaldwinbooks.com

Themes: Tolerance/acceptance of differences, resilience, community, and disability

Teaching Guide

 

 

 

 

The Serpent’s Secret (Scholastic, February 2018)

Sayantani Dasgupta, www.sayantanidasgupta.com/writer

Themes: Bengali/Indian folktales, string theory/astronomy/space, immigration and immigrant identities, prejudice and discrimination, oppression, parent-child relationships, girl power

 

 

The Battle of Junk Mountain (Running Press Kids, April 2018)

Lauren Abbey Greenberg, laurenabbeygreenberg.com

Themes: Dealing with change as we grow up and get older; intergenerational relationships; how our attachments to things, places, and even people can sometimes affect our well-being; showing empathy towards mental illness

Study Guide

 

 

The Fang of Bonfire Crossing (Henry Holt for Young Readers, February 2019)

Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester, www.bradmcbooks.com

Themes: Teamwork, friendship, justice versus revenge, family

 

 

 

 

The Spinner of Dreams (Harper Collins, August 2018)

K.A. Reynolds, www.kareynoldsbooks.com

Themes: Mental health, courage, empathy, and identity

 

 

 

UPPER MIDDLE GRADE

Tiny Infinities (Chronicle, May 2018)

J.H. Diehl, www.jhdiehl.com

Themes: Family: How a young teen finds resilience to cope with family trauma (a parent with mental illness, parents separating, a child with challenging developmental delays);    Friendship: How the good friends we make – and sometimes the most unexpected friends we make – can help us to grow up; STEM: Math concepts of Pi and infinity, and the science of fireflies; Sports: Competitive swimming, and, more generally, the learning experience of participating on a team.

Teacher’s Guide

 

Up for Air (Amulet Books/Abrams, May 2019)

Laurie Morrison, lauriemorrisonwrites.com

Themes: Honoring your unique intelligence and strength, developing self-esteem that’s not tied to external validation, managing the emotional and physical changes of puberty, the social pressures of having older friends

Teacher’s Guide

 

 

Good Enough (Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends, February 2019)

Jen Petro-Roy, jenpetroroy.com

Themes: Self-esteem, body image, mental health, self discovery

Teachers Guide and Discussion Questions

 

 

 

The Prophet Calls
(Yellow Jacket/S&S, November 2018)

Melanie Sumrow, www.melaniesumrow.com

Themes: Figuring out who you are and what you believe, female empowerment, toxic masculinity

Discussion Guide

 

 

The Woods (September, 2019)

Rachel Toalson, www.racheltoalson.com

Themes: Family, loss, grief, escape

 

 

 

YOUNG ADULT

 

What the Woods Keep (Imprint (Macmillan), September 2018)

Katya de Becerra, katyabecerra.blogspot.com

Themes and Discussion Guide

 

 

 

Sanctuary (Simon Pulse, July 2018)

Caryn Lix, www.carynlix.com

Themes: Personal identity, corporate power in the world, prejudice, thinking for yourself

 

 

 

 

Nothing But Sky (Flux, March 2018)

Amy Trueblood, amytruebloodauthor.com

Themes: History, found family, chasing your dreams, risk vs. reward.

Classroom Discussion Questions

 

 

Paper Girl (Entangled Teen, December 2018)

Cindy Wilson, www.cindyrwilson.wordpress.com

Themes: Inner strength and courage and overcoming fears. The book talks heavily about anxiety as the MC is agoraphobic. Also, homelessness and substance abuse.

 

 

The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig (Hyperion, October 2018)

Don Zolidis, www.donzolidis.com

Themes: 1. Break-ups, 2. Learning how to see people for who they are, 3. Family struggles, 4. Funny animal stories

 

 

 

Thanks for participating in this giveaway, and good luck!

Story Bite #13: The Very Beginning (Part 2)

In the last story bite, we came up with an idea. Now we’re going to put that idea on the page. And what we’re looking for is…an opening line.

First, I want everyone to know that it is extremely rare for a professional author to nail that opening line in the first writing of the first draft. It took me about three tries and at least three tweaks to get the opening line for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter:

“The fog drew back upon the dark sea and revealed a gleaming point like a ship’s bow, which seemed to nod at the girl brooding by the glowing bonfire.”

Opening

This is a picture drawn by a 6th grade student of this opening line. Cool, isn’t it?

An opening line is your entry into your work. Often referred to as a hook, it can also be an open door with a soft carpet. It’s something that will make your reader want to come in.

And opening lines are hard. It’s not uncommon for a professional author to sit in front of a blank page agonizing over that opening line. If you can’t think of a good one, you might feel stuck on the whole piece of writing. But there are ways you can write an opening line that will put you on your path, and I’ll let you into one of my tricks: It’s to use mentor texts.

A lot of you will have heard of this concept: Using a work of published fiction to help inspire or educate you about writing when you’re struggling with your own work. When I’m struggling with an opening line, I look at some of my favorites of my author peers to see how they managed to invite the reader into their story. Here are a handful:

1. “The first time the horn sounded on the hill, Wolf mistook it for a sheep bleating or a bird crying, and thought no more of it.”
—from Katherine Langrish’s The Shadow Hunt (first published in the UK as Dark Angels)

2. “Even the woods are burning.”
—from Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur

3. “I have a secret.”
—from Megan Shepherd’s The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

And here’s mine again, just to compare:

4. “The fog drew back upon the dark sea and revealed a gleaming point like a ship’s bow, which seemed to nod at the girl brooding by the glowing bonfire.”
—from The Mad Wolf’s Daughter

Each one of these opening lines does something different.

1. In The Shadow Hunt, a character hears a sound, but mistakes it for something else. This kind of opening hints at tension. Why write about this unless it’s important, and the character is wrong in his assumptions? To model this opening, write about your character making a mistake about something: a sound, a sight, a taste, a smell. After this, you can have a line about why your character made that mistake—they were busy, distracted, unwisely certain—and go on from there.

2. Something very dramatic is happening in Here Lies Arthur. The author wouldn’t share that “even” the woods are burning unless that’s important. This opening implies that the woods shouldn’t be burning, but they are, because everything’s burning. And that immediately introduces tension. But it’s a basic statement, an observation. Write an observation beginning with: “Even the…” Think of something that shouldn’t be happening but is happening. It could be something disastrous that leads into your story, something that your character sees or feels as a result of a momentous event. (In this case, someone has just attacked the protagonist’s home, and everything is burning around her, and she’s woken up to the terror and chaos.)

3. In The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, the character declares something, and a secret is a wonderful something to start with: By its very nature, it has mystery and tension. Why keep it a secret unless it’s important? Think of what your character could declare. Start with “I have…” or “I know…” or “I saw…”

4. In The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, I wanted the reader to see what the character sees just as she sees it: something unusual, unexpected, sometimes that bodes ill. Put your character right in the start of an action and show something happening from your character’s perspective: something flying toward your character, or retreating. Modeling this kind of opening means you need to sketch out your character in a scene. If it helps, actually the scene with a pencil on paper (like the picture above) and see what you can write about.

If you’re still stuck after reading these examples and can’t figure out how to start, that’s okay: Open a book that you love and examine the opening line. Do you feel drawn into the story by that line? Write your own version of it for your work of fiction.

Once you have an opening line packed with tension or mystery, it’s a lot easier to write the next: You already have a sense of where your story might be going.

 

I hope this helped! If you’d like to share your an opening line with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make this story bite part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And I’d love to see your students’ work.

Story Bite #12: The Very Beginning (Part 1)

One of the hardest parts of writing is getting started. This is true for a lot of students I speak with, but also for professional authors. This Story Bite (the first of two) will help you with one part of getting your work of fiction (or nonfiction, though my examples here are fiction) underway.

This post is about starting with an idea.

You need to find something you want to write about.

And this—that want—is crucial. Sometimes someone might try to help by asking you what you care about or are interested in. And that doesn’t necessarily lead the idea that’s going to carry you into a piece of writing with the enthusiasm you need to sustain it. There’s one more step.

I’ll get into that in a moment, but let’s have a picture:

Caerlaverock Castle

Caerlaverock Castle in Dumfries, Scotland. (Photo: Diane Magras)

This is part of the inside of Caerlaverock Castle in Dumfries, Scotland, a very strategic castle in the medieval times: It was on a waterway, which meant arms and supplies for an army. You can see in this picture the benches and the information signs (which are fantastic, by the way). And you can probably tell my enthusiasm for visiting this castle.

I love to visit castles, but I never want to write about visiting castles and the fun I have there. What kind of interesting story would there be in walking around, learning the history? It’s fun to do, something I’m interested in, but not very dramatic. I’d much rather live the history through a work of fiction and write about a conflict in the life of someone who lives at Caerlaverock…or is invading Caerlaverock…or descending on it in a mass of flames or rainbows or insects…you get my drift.

Writing about what interests you, however, can be a gateway into the idea that will sustain you in your piece of writing. Try this: Come up with a list of three things that you care about, or that you’re interested in, or like to do. For me, that might be:

1. Visiting castles

2. Wynncraft

3. Crows

Now delve into each of your listed items for writing ideas. Here’s how I’d do it with my list:

1. Castles: Castles are full of stories, and, to me, the interesting stories are all about people. I could write about someone who works in the castle’s kitchen, or the armory, or is running messages during a siege. Or a mason’s apprentice who helped build the castle. Maybe there’s a demonic creature involved, and the apprentice had sold their soul for talent. (Ooo! I like that one.)

2. Wynncraft: I love the lore, the classes, the weaponry and spells, and the complicated landscape of this incredible MMORPG. If I were to write a story about this, I’d be inclined to imagine an addition to the map and create my own lore—my own history. And my piece of fiction would be written as something that a NPC would relate to the player when they came to my region. I’d figure out the quest too, and the names of the mobs…

3. Crows: Crows are loyal and smart. My idea here is a story from the perspective of a crow that’s had to battle another species—say a natural enemy like a hawk. Or, this would be a fantasy and the crow would see a dragon destroy a village, and decide that since there aren’t any people up for the task of slaying a dragon, the crow will do it.

Have you written ideas for each interest on your list? Read through them. Which are the ideas you’d like to read about? (That’s another great way to find an idea to write about: Write what you’d like to read.) If you’re not sure, think of ways you might combine ideas. (My crow could live at the castle, a pet to someone running messages during a siege, and has been brilliant in helping defend against sieges, but the dragon invading makes the crow realize that it alone needs to save its world—and the story of that crow is the lore of my new piece of the Wynncraft map!)

Have you found an idea? If so, wonderful! That’s going to be your idea for your piece of writing. If you don’t like any of your ideas after this, see if you can come up with new ones, or new interests for your list. Sometimes it takes a few tries.

Thinking about an idea that you really want to write is one of the best ways to start a piece of writing that you’ll keep writing. Once you know your basic idea, or your basic premise, you can go onto the next step, the subject of my next post: your opening line.

 

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

At Edinburgh Castle

Naturally, any visit by my family to Scotland includes a stay in Edinburgh and a stop at my beloved Edinburgh Castle. Rebuilt considerably over the centuries, the fortress in Scotland’s capital has a rich history with many fascinating stories. “Castle at War,” a new exhibit in Argyle Tower, was spectacular, a dramatic multi-media display with incredible artifacts and videos, brilliantly introducing visitors to some of the stories of this castle’s role—and changing hands—during the 14th century.

One of my favorite parts was this video, which illustrates a story that I love: In 1314, when the castle was being held by the English, a small Scottish force of 20 led by Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, climbed up the castle’s crag on a path known by a local guide. Moray and his tiny force defeated the whole English garrison in a very successful stealth attack. How Scottish! (Note the great animation, from the Scottish invaders climbing the cliff, then in the background the English guards watching, then being overwhelmed.)

Real Medieval (and pre-Medieval) Scottish Weaponry!

In my school talks, I chat a wee bit about the weaponry mentioned in my books. And after a visit early this summer to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh (my favorite museum ever, by the way), I’ve some wonderful examples of medieval weaponry and armor that link nicely to my books.

First, here’s a piece of pre-medieval chain mail to get a sense of what Emerick‘s wearing early in Book 1. Remember that hauberk that Drest helped him remove? This weave of metal rings would have been what she was touching. They were a bit more densely patterned in the time of the novel (1210), but this gives you a nice close-up of what chain mail was (and now imagine the intricate work of blacksmiths who created it).

 

 

Next, I was thrilled to see this Viking-era sword pommel. While it’s a ceremonial one that was likely never used in battle, it’s similar to the one I envisioned for Borawyn (based on a pommel in the collection of the British Museum). This is such a gorgeous, ornate treasure. Frankly, I’m always in awe (and in envy!) when I see this museum’s amazing collections!

 

 

Next, this sword is almost a perfect match of Tancored’s hilt, from The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. And this is exactly the right style and era (which makes me very happy, as I had not seen a sword I was using for this book, and just made it up based on research)! The only difference from Tancored is that the pommel of Drest’s sword is square, not circular. (But she gets one with a circular pommel later on.) This sweet hilt is a bit careworn, but that comes with being a 13th century piece of metal.

 

 

 

Last of all, I figured I owe the kids at my school talks who ask me about my sword pin a picture of what that sword really is. Here’s a real claymore, which comes from the 1300s, which is about 100 years too late for the Drest books.

But a claymore could very well show up in another book…

Book Review: TIN by Pádraig Kenny

It’s not much, really, but the orphan Christopher is pleased to be the only “real” boy among his companions in Mr Absolam’s scrapyard, a place where mechanicals—boys with some human parts but mostly metal ones, parts joined by magic—train to be as real as possible for the human families that will, they hope, one day buy them. It’s a bleak existence made bearable by the warmth between the mechanicals and Christopher, and Estelle, a human girl whose artistry can make what it metal look very human. But an accident reveals a gut-wrenching secret. Then a very talented mechanical-maker who has plans to make a new kind of mechanical, an illegal kind that would change the world, kidnaps Christopher. It’s up to the denizens of Mr Absalom’s scrapyard to rescue him.

This is Pádraig Kenny’s Tin (published February 1, 2018, in the U.K.; March 26, 2019, in the U.S.) a warm, swift-plotted, steampunk tale of rescue, coming to terms with the past, and what it means to be truly human—and what it means to be a family.

In the very beginning, Kenny presses on that last theme powerfully. Christopher and Jack, his best friend among the mechanicals, are going with Mr Absalom to present Jack as a potential new “son” to a family that has just lost their son. Christopher’s memories of his dead parents still hurt, and when he learns why Mr Absalom had picked this family, he “tried to dampen the hot, sickening anger he felt.” The market is for mechanical servants, but Mr Absalom has discovered a niche. But Christopher knows that it’s simply wrong. A family can’t just be purchased.

But a family can be formed by love, trust, and even sacrifice; Kenny smoothly sets that theme in motion as soon as he introduces the reader to the cast of rescuers. There is Rob, the mechanical who wants to be human and wants most of all to whistle; Grabber, whose language is muffled but understood by his friends, and whose immense body and strength ensures that he will never be mistaken for human; Jack, who questions the world and demands justice very much like certain middle grade kids we all know; and Estelle, the one human, who is dogged in her determination to rescue Christopher, and has her own family secrets.

A brilliant, crusty, selfish old inventor with ties to Christopher plays a crucial role in the story, as does a cast of broken mechanicals, depicting a “family” built on dependence and hope. Their first scene shares intricate details, fantastic invention, but a tragedy pulls at it, since none of these masterful mechanicals quite work. And this is one of the emotions that runs through the book: the sadness of life. This is not a steampunk tale thrilled with its own marvelous creations, but one that feels distinctly real.

Even with that reality, that tinge of melancholy, the story is rich with warmth. Jack is nearly always upbeat and confident. Estelle is serious and fiercely determined, and they’re emotional foils for each other. Rob is a wonderful comic presence, always trying to do what’s right and not always quite understanding what that means. And Grabber—far more machine than human—has a beautiful sweetness, even as he’s tearing apart an impassive metal fence to let his companions through.

And Christopher, as he learns about his identity, his past, and determines his presence, his brave, fallible, and utterly real.

Teacher’s Guide: Update

With the school year about to begin (and having already begun in some parts of the country), I’ve finally got around to updating the Teacher’s Guide for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter to include some new resources, as well as discussion questions for The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. I realize that sequels are rarely used in classrooms as a primary study text, but are often used in classroom book groups, and so the discussion questions will, I hope, be useful in that context. It was a lot of fun to look back over the original guide and imagine how this might have been used in classrooms.

Enjoy! And if this Teacher’s Guide has had a place in your classroom, please let me know if it’s been useful.

Story Bite #11: This Builds Character!

How many times have you been forced to do something that wasn’t a lot of fun and were told, “It’s good you did that! It builds character!”

I think this is pretty common, whether it’s going for a hike in the pouring rain, going camping when the ground is frozen, having to speak in front of a crowd and being ready to pass out or throw up…and while none of these things are necessarily fun in real life, they create fantastic problems for your characters.

When you’re writing fiction, one of the most important things you need to do with your story is ensure that your character has something very basic and human that causes problems. Call such things “challenges” if you like, or “conflicts,” but at their core, they’re problems that have the potential of making your character miserable.

Time for a picture:

Model of Walter Scott and his nursemaid Janet

This is part of a display at Smailholm Tower, a wee castle on the Scottish Borders. This case shows a scene from the life of Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish novelist who popularized the genre of historical fiction. He visited this region as a child. Photo: Diane Magras

Here’s a model of Sir Walter Scott as a boy when he was visiting his grandfather’s farm, back in the early 1800s. Young Walter had been quite ill, and the thought was that he’d feel better being in the fresh air of the Borders, and well outside of Edinburgh (cities during that time had pretty foul air). I read that young Walter got tired easily and had trouble getting around. I’m going to imagine a bit more: Perhaps he couldn’t eat a lot without getting sick, and so he was pretty weak. And perhaps one day his Aunt Janet went for a walk with him and forgot him on the hillside when she drifted off to meet a friend. There he was, sick, needing a crutch to get around, faced with the task of having to get back to his grandfather’s farm on his own. And then it started to rain.

Does this build character? It creates drama and tension. And loading the problems upon poor young Walter will show a lot about the kind of person he was.

Will he curl up on the ground and wait for someone to come looking for him? Will he try to get back to the farm? If he tries, does he walk carefully—and does he get soaked and even more sick as a result?—or does he try to rush back—and does he fall down and get badly hurt?

Try this:

Write about either young Walter or a character of your choice. Put that character into a situation, and think of how to make their life difficult.

  • Are they alone? Are they with people they don’t like—or who don’t like them?
  • Are they on a hillside? In the woods? In a city? In a boat on the water? Do they know where they are, and is there something wrong or dangerous about the place? Or are they in an unknown place?
  • What’s the weather? Sunny and hot? Rainy and cold? Spring? (My husband is allergic to grass pollen, so being in a field in early summer can be a big problem for him.)
  • How are they feeling? Did they not have enough sleep last night? Do they have a cold? A fever? Are they just nervous?
  • What happens? What’s a little thing that could occur to make your character uncomfortable or nervous? (For instance, a dog starts barking nearby.) What’s a bigger thing that you can add onto this? (The barking dog starts snarling, and gets loose.)
  • How does your character react?

Your story bite should be a paragraph to a page, describing your character’s situation, then an action, and then a reaction—what your character does in response to the action.

I’ve seen in some of my recent school visits that writing a paragraph can be hard, so I’ll let you in on a trick that a lot of professional writers use: Try drawing this scene instead: as a comic, a single panel, or something else. (Stick figures can do a lot!)

When you finish, ask yourself: Has lobbing problems at your character helped you build them?

Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.