Rough Times and Reader Impact

(Content warming: suicide)

I originally wrote this post (and shared it in my enewsletter) close to the start of the school year, when a tragedy struck my small town:

A teenager had disappeared and was found dead. It had a huge impact on everyone in my community, even those of us who didn’t know the boy or his parents.

As we’re nearing the end of this school year, I’ve been thinking about that poor boy, and all the other kids in communities nationwide who are struggling with something. This time of year is tough for many kids for a lot of reasons. I’ve been thinking about how that pertains to writing and, specifically, writing for children.

When I start musing like this, I often think of  John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, a book I read when I was a teenager. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: Write stories that help people who are a crisis point in their lives find ways to live.

As a children’s author, I’m always thinking about the impact my work will have on its readers. I want it to be a positive one. I want kids to see themselves in my characters, and to feel that someone understands.

I’m finishing up the final revision of a new novel, which includes a scene that I’m very pleased with: one in which my young protagonist, who has done some things that once made her proud but which she now realizes could be evil, has to come to terms with her actions. I remember that when I was first writing this novel, I’d struggled with that scene to get it just right. I ended up making two big changes to it: One, I have her come out and say what she was thinking to an adult; and two, I have multiple adults, at different times and in different ways, tell her that it’s okay to make a mistake, that she’s of value, and that she’s loved.

My son (now in high school) often remembers details and scenes from middle grade books he read years ago. I hope these scene and the message they convey will, in a similar way, stay in my readers’ minds for years to come. I want these scenes to be something that my readers can call up during rough times in the future and remember: It’s okay. There are options. They are loved.

Libraries and Bookshop Runs

Books are crucial in Secret of the Shadow Beasts. They provide an essential escape for Nora and the Order of the Hawk whilst they’re on duty, but also during training. Library time is an important part of every day, and Nora often uses this time to read up on her new world and try to learn.

Midway through the book, Cyril takes Nora to a bookshop to try to help her feel better about something horrible that’s just happened. Archie, the bookshop owner, choses books for her fellow knights. In later scenes, the Order of the Hawk talks about their books.

For each of those books, I had an author in mind. I’ll let my characters speak (from page 205) and share what books in this real world might have been these much-needed reads:

“So far, most of the characters in mine have died and turned into zombies, except the heroine, who’s been ripping them apart.” Eve grinned. “It’s fabulous.”
—For Eve’s grimdark fantasy, I was actually thinking about Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, so this is a pretty accurate description!

“Mine’s about Vikings invading a bug-infested town that uses bugs in its defenses. It’s the grossest thing I’ve ever read and I love it.”
—Cyril’s graphic novel would absolutely be written and illustrated by Ben Hatke. I had the humor and heart of his Mighty Jack series in mind when I wrote this description.

“Mine’s sweet and powerful. The protagonist’s trying to run her family’s bakery, and everything’s going wrong.”
—Tove’s gentle romcom starring a trans girl was, in my mind, a variation of Kevin Panetta’s and Savanna Ganucheau’s graphic YA Bloom.

Amar doesn’t talk very much about his book, but it’s all about Brannlandian history by an authority in the subject. Amar likes his history strong, and so Magnus Magnusson’s Scotland: The Story of a Nation is the parallel I had in mind.

I created Nora’s book—The Umbrae: Nature’s Perfect Revenge— to tie into her world, so there’s no real equivalent in ours. But I’m sure you’re see covers like this: pink, sparkly, and over-the-top. Maybe some of those in our world are hiding secrets too.

Outtake 1: Secret of the Shadow Beast

“Everyone talks about my first battle when I became a Legendary. I was only seventeen, but no one got bit. I was so used to fighting out there with them as their senior knight, and then there I was, sitting in the car, telling them how to manage, but not out there with them, which…” [long pause] “…I managed.” [pause] “As I said, no bites.”

—Sophie Moncrief, Legendary, Order of the Oak, The Noye’s Hill Interviews (internal)

In a later draft of Secret of the Shadow Beasts, I had a snippet like this at the start of every chapter: interviews with every knight and every Legendary at Noye’s Hill, the training ground. I did this to deepen characters and highlight aspects of the world. And also to flesh out these characters and that world. Part of my goal with this novel was to depict every character as real, to know clearly who they were and what they cared about. These snippets helped with that.

The problem, though, with snippets like these for every chapter, is that they slowed the action (assuming people read them!). And so I cut nearly all of them, keeping only the interviews with the major characters (the Order of the Hawk, including Lucy Ahn, the knight Nora was replacing, and Murdo).

I was sorry to cut this one, though. This gives voice to a character that some readers may find challenging. I originally had this quote late in the novel, after the reader learns secrets about Sophie that would create that opinion. In writing this, I hoped that readers would better understand the pressures Sophie was under, what her world was like, and, hopefully, gain a little sympathy for her. This snippet shares an aspect of Sophie’s character and what she carries. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean.

World Read Aloud Day is Coming!

World Read Aloud Day with Diane Magras: Wed, Feb 1, 2023

I’m so excited to once again be offering virtual visits for World Read Aloud Day: Wednesday, February 1, 2023! It’s been a joy each year to meet your wonderful classrooms and connect with your students. I have a full-time job, so I can’t afford a complete day of visits, but I’m taking a bit of time off to meet with a few classes or library groups.

This sign up form will give you a chance to sign up for a visit from me! Just pick a slot from the list and let me know when will be the best time for you (first come, first serve). The actual visit will be 15-20 minutes, and will include a read-aloud from one of my books, a Q&A with students, and a few book recommendations from me. My WRAD presentation is best for grades four through seven.
To make the most of WRAD, please share the book you choose with your class beforehand (or at least the trailer, which you’ll find on the linked pages below). I’ve found that students who are familiar with my work get the most out of these visits and really enjoy asking detailed questions about the book. Having such questions answered by the author can be very powerful for students.
Thank you, and I’m looking forward to meeting with your class!

Coming Event: The Bath Book Bash!

On Saturday, September 17, 2022, I and other New England authors will be appearing in person at the Bath Book Bash at the Patten Free Library in Bath, Maine. From 11 am to 4 pm, this will be a fabulous day with authors and illustrations giving talks and presenting on panels, as well as signing books and chatting with readers. (And there will be food trucks, music, and more!)

I’ll be presenting a monster-building writing exercise, as well as participating in a middle grade fiction panel. If you’re in the area, I hope you can join me!

Secret of the Shadow Beasts: Teachers’ Guide!

On this busy weekend, I’ve been getting a lot done. As well as the trailer  for Secret of the Shadow Beasts (see this post), I’ve finally managed to finish up my Teachers’ Guide for the book:

I decided to do something a bit different this time around. Secret of the Shadow Beasts is packed with themes—so many, in fact, that in the months running up to its publication date, I was often thinking about those themes and not the absolute fun of the book. I wanted to list those themes on paper, once and for all, in a productive way. It turns out that naming the biggest of those themes (Leadership, Environmentalism, and History) made for some fantastic discussion questions or writing prompts. And there was room for some fun themes (Books and Food) in there too. I had great fun posing questions for each one.

I also wanted to honor my son’s creation of Warriors of the Frozen Bog, the video game that features so prominently in Secret of the Shadow Beasts. I made that into a creative writing exercise, inspired in part by some incredible writing on gaming that I’ve seen from kids. The ugly-cute caps that feature in the book provided a place for a creative (and potentially quite wild) art exercise. And there’s even a recipe for a literal “taste” of what the characters eat!

This Teachers’ Guide has, I hope, enough weighty content to be useful in a rigorous classroom, but also enough relaxing and fun content too—rather like the book itself! I hope it’s useful in the classroom—traditional and homeschool too.

Secret of the Shadow Beasts Trailer

I never got around to pulling a trailer together before Secret of the Shadow Beasts was out (too much going on in all parts of my life!), but at last I had a free morning (and afternoon) where I could work for five hours straight on this! These vids certainly take some time. But I’m thrilled with the result:

The art is, of course, by the incredible Vivienne To. The music is called “Beyond the Warriors” and it’s by Guifrog. I love how well it goes with the spirit of the book.

This was a lot of fun to create. I hope you enjoy it!

Secret of the Shadow Beasts Launch Events!

I can hardly believe that my third book is about to come out, but in just three weeks, it will be here! To celebrate in this time of the pandemic, I’m holding just two launch events: one Zoom, and one in-person but outside (during which I’ll be masked anytime I’m remotely near anyone). Expect to see more from me this autumn as well, but here’s what’s coming up soon!

On Tuesday, June 14, 2022, at 7 pm, the wonderful Rajani LaRocca (who kindly blurbed Secret of the Shadow Beasts) will be chatting with me about this book on Zoom. Print: A Bookstore (which will have signed copies of both my books and Rajani’s) will be hosting us. I’ve presented with Rajani before, and she is so much fun to chat with! If you join us, you’ll learn a few secrets about the book, including something that her Red, White, and Whole and Secret of the Shadow Beasts has in common. This will be my big Zoom launch event, and I hope you can join us! Register here.


And then, for my in-person event (I’ll be masked up, except when I’m reading aloud and far enough from everyone to keep everyone safe):

Later that week, on Thursday, June 16, 2022, at 3:30 pm, I’ll be appearing for a reading, Q&A, and signing at Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth, Maine. This event will be outdoors in their garden. It will be so much fun to see readers of my previous books, but also new readers. Expect a few surprises too! There’s no special registration for this; just show up. If you have questions, though, contact Merrill Memorial Library.

It’s going to be so much fun to connect with my readers again. It’s been so long! I hope if you’ve enjoyed any of my work, you’ll join me at one or both of these events.

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.)