Book Review: THE WITCH BOY by Molly Knox Ostertag

Aster has a problem. He’s 13, the age at which he should know the animal into which he will shapeshift, a crucial part of growing up as a boy in his magical family. But Aster feels no connection to any animal, and doubts he will ever learn to shift. He’s far more interested in the potions and spells that his sister and female cousins are learning as they mature into full witches. But he’s always being chased away as he tries to eavesdrop on their lessons.

“This lesson isn’t for you,” his aunt tells him in the first pages of Molly Knox Ostertag’s graphic novel The Witch Boy. “These girls are learning secrets.”

Secrets of more than one kind abound in this book. Sensitive Aster isn’t the only family member who has known he’s a witch deep down inside: He’s heard the cautionary story of Mikasi, his matriarchal grandmother’s twin brother, who sought to become a witch and became a monster instead. Read More…

(This review was posted on www.mgbookvillage.org on January 17, 2018.)

Book Review: THE PRINCE AND THE DRESSMAKER by Jen Wang

In 2014, Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant introduced Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress to the picture book scene, a story about a boy who liked to wear a dress. Progressive parents and schools snapped this up, and many children learned that a boy who wanted to wear a dress was no big deal, just part of who he was.

Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker is for an upper middle grade crowd, but is also a welcome addition to its own scene of books. In certain school plays for this book’s readership (including one that I saw last year), boys in dresses provide comic relief, teaching boys and girls that mockery is the expected response. I’m glad that this beautiful, engaging, and fun graphic novel will stand up against those responses. Read More…

(This review was posted on www.mgbookvillage.org on March 23, 2018.)

The Power of Children and Children’s Literature

I don’t rant very often on Twitter, but I did recently have a wee soapbox moment, inspired by a so-called C.S. Lewis quote that was getting a lot of attention. Perhaps you’ve seen this quote: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children isn’t a good children’s story in the slightest.”

What C.S. Lewis actually wrote (from “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”) was “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” (From The Misquotable C.S. Lewis: What He Didn’t Say, What He Actually Said, and Why It Matters by William O’Flaherty).

That’s pretty much the same sentiment (but sounds a lot more like C.S. Lewis!). And I disagree with it just as much. Here’s my Twitter thread, edited for flow (but not edit much):

Since I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that C.S. Lewis quote, pull up a chair, friends. This is going to be a thread on children’s fiction and the kids who read it.

There’s a pretty common belief out there that children’s literature isn’t as important, hard to write, or profound as fiction for adults. I can see that when I mention to people that I have a book out, see their faces brighten, and then see that brightness disappear when I say: “it’s a middle grade novel.” (Now, say that to me about your own work, or a favorite book, and my eyes will brighten even more!) For a lot of people, a book for kids is a lesser book than one for grownups. And embedded in that belief is a belief about kids. And a smug superiority.

Talk to just about any teacher—people who spend the majority of their waking hours with students, so true experts—and ask what they think. Remember, they’re experts. Yes, they love their students, but they can be objective about them too.

Teachers know that kids are smart. No, kids may not all ace their assessments, but they’re capable of thinking hard and deep about what matters to them. They make connections. They have deep interests. They ask questions that lay bare the foolishness of so much adult thinking. And they challenge us. So many of those challenges are good. Kids today are incredible thinkers, and it would behoove us all to listen a little bit more to them, to hear and respect their passions: video games, television, music, sports.

And to respect the books they love. We adults may not love every one of kids’ favorites. And we’ll find books we adore that kids can’t get through. (That’s okay; some kids will love them.) We adults need to look at the books that kids love that we may not like and look for the beauty, the power, the humor, or whatever makes that book special. You’ll find not only a glimpse into another world, but a connection with a kid. You may still not like that book, and that’s okay. Just understand and respect why kids do. And you’ll find your own appreciation of literature, and reading experience, blossom.

By the way, it isn’t easier to write middle grade than adult fiction. I used to write literary fiction. I never want to go back. I’ve put much more effort in Drest’s world than any of those bleak, dark worlds. And when you write for kids, you want it to be meaningful, but also fun. Sincere “fun” is harder to pull off than it may sound. And remember: Kids are smart. They can tell when you’re not being genuine. And they do not forgive insincerity easily. (Neither do I, actually.)

What books have you read thanks to a kid’s recommendation? Please leave some titles in the comments so we all can be enlightened! I’ll name two myself: Maxi’s Secrets by Lynn Plourde and A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord. I’d missed these when they came out. My son, however, hadn’t, and told me I needed to read them. So I asked him what he liked about them, and read them, and loved the heart, humor, and beauty of them both.

Sherman’s in Portland, Maine

Sherman’s (a local bookstore chain in Maine) was the bookstore I grew up with, and so it was great fun to be on a tour of several Sherman’s stores this summer. On Saturday, we were in Portland. Usually when I drive down to Maine’s largest city, it’s to go to my day job, but for this trip, it was to the Old Port, where I was greeted by this:

Photo: Michael Magras

I had a lovely place to sign books and chat with readers in this Sherman’s—a spot with a cushioned seat. And, as you can see, I had people to chat with moments after getting settled. And I read the first chapter of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter aloud to three different kids who took me up on it when I offered to! (Just know that I love to read aloud, so go ahead and ask me if you’re ever at one of my book events—in fact, if you have a favorite part, I’d be happy to read that! And, of course, I do voices.)

Photo: Michael Magras

I also had the great pleasure to meet an author I’ve known online only for about a year: Ginger Johnson, whose middle grade book, The Splintered Light, is coming out on September 4, 2018.

Photo: William Johnson

My next stop on this Sherman’s tour will be in Damariscotta, up the coast a bit, on July 21, 2018, at 1 pm. And then I’m onto other places. Check out my Appearances page to find out where to catch me in person!

Drest (and Me) in Scotland: Part 2

The National Museum of Scotland’s wide-open hall. Photo: Diane Magras

One of our first visits in Edinburgh this year was to my favorite museum ever: the National Museum of Scotland. It’s an incredible place. What makes it especially close to my heart are the magnificent exhibits of Scottish history, starting from the forming of the earth, lochs, mountains, and hills (the Borders!!!!) to the modern day (including a description of what led to the #IndyRef movement). Naturally, with its ancient and medieval Scotland parts being so inspiring, Drest had to visit.

We stopped by to say hello to the ancient kings who share Drest’s name. I describe in my Author’s Note to The Mad Wolf’s Daughter  (and in the book itself through Emerick’s comment) how “Drest” comes from the ancient Picts. (As I say in my school talks, these people were the reason for Hadrian’s Wall.) This museum wall depicts the names of the ancient Scottish kings. There are ten variations of “Drust” (along with patronymics, in some cases), one spelling of my wee lass’s name.

I love these names. (Perhaps I’ll name someone Caíltram in a future book!) (Photo: Diane Magras)

Our next stop was to a beautiful ancient stone. These carved stones are one of the great treasures of this museum. They show religious imagery or the Roman influence from the very distant past, stones with carvings that tricky to understand, and then ones like this that give a glimpse into of what life had been like. This stone from the 900s tells the story of a war-band (perhaps several, in fact). Note the intricate carvings of horses, helms, swords and spears, and round shields. My wee lass would have been fascinated by all of this, and any stories that came with it. But no one knows precisely what this stone’s story is, which leaves it up to us to imagine it.

I shall make a bold claim: Pictish stones are the best. (Photo: Michael Magras)

And finally, to my favorite Scottish king! Here we have a claymore as part of the exhibit exploring the world of Robert the Bruce (pictured in statue form behind Drest). Robert the Bruce was a pivotal king of Scotland, a man with a complicated past who helped the Scots win the Wars of Independence against England. He spent a good chunk of his life on the run in the Highlands (a life Drest would easily sympathize with), and every part of his life was a fascinating story. I don’t think I’ll ever write it, though; I like to explore the people who don’t make a mention in history books, “real life” people, as it were, with their small legends, and to show how much they mean in their own worlds, even if they’re not famous kings. Still, this king was one whom I wanted Drest to meet. I think she’d have liked him.

And what a lovely claymore! (Photo: Diane Magras)

That’s this entry, ending with a view of the exterior of this beautiful museum. It’s so worth a visit (and, indeed, my family visits at least twice each time we’re in Edinburgh).

The National Museum of Scotland from the outside. Photo: Michael Magras

Drest (and Me) in Scotland: Part 1

Scotland, and Edinburgh and the Borders in particular, are places very close to my heart. Early this summer, I made my third trip in my adult life. As usual, it was a part-research trip and part-family vacation. Because The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is in print, I took along a copy with the idea to pose it at various sites (I ended up posing it at a lot of sites!).

So here’s what Drest (illustrated on my book’s cover by Antonio Javier Caparo) and my family did.

Here we are on Frederick Street in Edinburgh, the day we arrived. We’re jet-lagged and tired, but walking helps. If you look in the top right corner of this picture, you’ll see a castle. This is Drest’s first of many sights of the iconic Edinburgh Castle, which looms over the city on a crag of volcanic rock. A defensive settlement has been on that site for more than 3,000 years, making its presence obvious no matter where you stand. This particular castle is part of the UNESCO World Site of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh. More on this beauty later, but for the moment, here’s my beloved Edinburgh.

Photo: Diane Magras

Next: the New Town from out our flat’s window (later I’ll share a pic from the front!). This is a ten minute walk or so from the first picture. The New Town is a series of Georgian row houses, many in crescents, and many with parks nearby. It’s an absolutely gorgeous area, and atmospheric, which is intentional; the local council has restrictions on what owners can do to their properties, with the goal of keeping everything historically accurate. (Now look at all that beautiful old stone!)

Photo: Diane Magras

And here’s a bit of porridge and tea. As I said, on this day, we were exhausted. This was my late breakfast, and of course I wanted my wee lass to join me.

Photo: Diane Magras

So, Edinburgh to start. I’ll have more pictures in another post. I hope you enjoyed this one.

Bookstore Signing—With Flowers

I wasn’t presented with flowers in the traditional sense during my first bookstore signing on the Sherman’s circuit, but I snuck in a visit to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens while I was in Boothbay Harbor, so I did get to see their magnificent display. And so my memories of this day will include the following:

Seeing my book on the shelf (always a fun experience! I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling the little thrill that comes from spotting Drest’s face glaring up at me)…

Drest on the shelf (art by Antonio Javier Caparo). Photo: Diane Magras

…gazing out at the street whilst sitting at my table right in front of Sherman’s…

My view. Photo: Diane Magras

…and chatting with customers about castles both Scottish and Welsh (and Dumfries and more!), the industry of children’s literature, and a great exhibit at the Farnsworth Museum up the coast in Rockland, all while signing books (I’m getting quite good at signing while chatting!).

A quick shout-out to the kind man who took this pic and then fetched me the most glorious cuppa right after (it was a wee bit chilly on the street). Photo: Michael Magras

Then off to the gardens for a tulip extravaganza!

Photo: Diane Magras

With more…

Photo: Diane Magras

…and still more…

Photo: Diane Magras

…and (happy sigh) ferns:

Photo: Diane Magras

It was a lovely day, made all the more special by the Lad’s and my husband’s company. It’s fun being an author, but especially fun to share this with my wonderful family.

Independent Bookstore Day

Bookstores have always meant a lot to me. I grew up in rural Maine (yes, Mount Desert Island is quite rural, especially in the winter), and I was lucky to have an indie nearby: Sherman’s Books of Bar Harbor. I remember walking up the wooden step into the shop and spending a good hour in the stacks. When I began writing seriously at age 14, my parents told me that they wanted me to amass a library of books that would help me become a writer, and so they bought me books, a few every month, up to a certain price. I indeed amassed a library (many Penguin classics in there!) that were to serve me well throughout the years.

These days, bookstores have a new meaning for me. I still love to explore the stacks and pick up a book or two to add my current library (or my son’s). But they’re also places where I see my own book, and experience the quiet thrill of my protagonist looking at me from the cover. I’ve been fortunate to get to know the enthusiastic, eager readers who are bookstore staff, people who have kindly included my book in the stream of fiction they champion to their customers.

One of my favorite bookstores in Maine is Bangor’s The Briar Patch. It’s a tightly packed indie with a great staff and a wonderful selection of past and current favorites, children’s books from picture books all the way up to young adult. They’re also in the process of expanding with an adult wing. I love exploring this bookstore, and I wish I lived closer.

I was delighted when owner Gibran Graham asked if I’d visit for Independent Bookstore Day this year. On April 28, I sat at my table, chatted with customers, read a few chapters, and signed a lot of copies of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. Here I am, in action.

I’m at The Briar Patch, chatting with an incredible 2nd grader who loves to read. Photo: Michael Magras

Story Bite #8: On Building Stakes

It’s fairly easy when you start a story or a novel to come up with a basic character and a goal. The next part of building a story—the conflict—is a little bit harder, but not bad. And then comes the hardest part: the stakes. This is what’s missing when a lot of people try to describe their plots: a good character, a strong goal, a compelling conflict, but no powerful stakes that make the story move.

Stakes are why everything matters. Here’s an example of what that means.

We’ll start with the character and a goal: A girl who’s the daughter of a hotel owner in St. Agatha, Maine, wants to save enough money to buy a plane ticket for Scotland.

Scotland by plane. Photo: Diane Magras

Now for a conflict: She doesn’t have a lot of money. But one day, as she’s sorting through the storage closet of the historical society (organizing their unsorted collection is her summer job), she discovers that a smuggler from early in the town’s history left a chest of gold coins buried by the lake. Yet just as her enthusiasm rises, a volunteer at the historical society hears her asking permission to use the map, and plans to go after the treasure as well.

Sound good? It could be an exciting story of a hunt for the treasure. Only…why does it matter? Does any reader really care if she gets the treasure and has enough money to go to Scotland? Why anyone would care are the stakes.

Let’s try a few, phrasing it as one phrases stakes, with words like “must” and “if not, then what”:

  • The girl must obtain the treasure because she wants to go to Scotland. If she doesn’t, then she’ll be sad. (Being sad doesn’t make for the strongest stakes.)
  • The girl must obtain the treasure because she has to go to Scotland to turn off a switch linked to a powerful explosive. If she doesn’t, then the world is going to blow up. (Saving the world is in some ways powerful stakes, but it’s too broad, unless we know more about the girl and her relationships in the town, and more about why she has to be the one who must turn off the switch.)
  • The girl must obtain the treasure because getting the treasure will help her escape something that’s crushing her or frightening her or about to disrupt her life in her small town. If she doesn’t, then she’ll be trapped. She’s picked Scotland because she has a cousin there who will meet her at the airport and take her home, but neither of them have any money. It’s really her last hope, because she’s running out of time. (I like these stakes best of all: They’re powerful with a good emotional punch that the end-of-world scenario was lacking.)

For this story bite, think about stakes. I’ll give you a basic premise (or come up with your own), and think about why this story matters.

Here’s our picture for this story bite:

A bridge leading into another dimension, though it appears to be leading just into the woods. Photo: Diane Magras

A boy is facing another world beyond a bridge, a world in another dimension. He’s been over once, and he knows that this world can offer him something important. But if he goes, he must return within a certain amount of time or else he’ll be stuck there forever. Yet it holds something important. What makes him need to cross the bridge?

Is there another character involved? A sibling? Parent? Relative? Good friend? Are they stuck over there, or pressuring him to go, or are they involved in some other way? Why does their role matter?

Is there an item he needs that he can find only in the world across the bridge? How is it worth his risking his freedom to fetch it?

Is he running away from something? Does he hope to hide in that world long enough to escape?

What other possibilities can you think of?

Stakes always add a layer to the plot and a feeling of urgency to the story. As you can see, they can change a story’s purpose considerably. Whenever you’re thinking about stakes, think about the emotional heft. That emotion will make readers really care about your characters and their adventures—and want to keep reading.

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.

Sherman’s Bookstore Appearances

I’m thrilled to be doing a series of appearances at Sherman’s Books, Maine’s locally-owned indie bookstore chain, starting this month. Sherman’s was a very important bookstore in my childhood, and I’m delighted to go back to these fantastic indies in this way.