We authors are always a wee bit terrified to read reviews of our books, so it was with great relief that I read this review of my second book from Kirkus, which includes these lovely lines:
“Magras deftly balances introspection and action as Drest proves herself willing to risk everything—and the result will leave readers cheering. Fair-minded men and strong women in unusual roles make this a standout among quest tales for middle graders.”
The ranks of strong girls in middle grade fiction is growing. (Thank goodness for that!) These girls come in all forms: tough, spunky, wild—and occasionally soft and gentle but with a core of steel. They’re fantastic models for girls (and boys) to see diversity in how girls are represented. And often, these days, they have male sidekicks who play the time-honored role of helper. It’s a nice transposition of gender roles in books. And I applaud that.
But I applaud even more books where the boys who are helping out the girls and taking risks to do so. These books are models that the world needs to see: It’s important for boys and men to back up girls and women and hear their voices, especially when the easier choice would be to turn away and pretend they never saw or heard what’s happening.
If readers of this post have read The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, my debut novel, you may have noticed that Emerick and Tig (my two primary male characters) listen to, support, and rely on Drest (my female protagonist). Her brothers and father also believe in her unquestioningly; hers is a world where she knows her voice matters. And Emerick and Tig risk much to follow her, in the end their very lives.
I was delighted when I read Laura Shovan’s newest book Takedown to find some of these themes as well. The risks Lev takes to support Mikayla’s wrestling show how hard it can be in today’s world for a boy to support a girl, and indeed, he doesn’t at first. But the way he does, and his final acts of support, are magnificent. Part of this book is about finding yourself and having the courage to be yourself, but also the courage to stand up for someone else.
Dystopian books explore what might happen to our world when something fundamental is different from what we know. Often, it’s society-based, though sometimes technology is part of it. These are books that start with a “What if” world tangled into our own. We see aspects of life we recognize, but something feels off or wrong or just plain disturbing. And it’s the main character’s role to figure out how to survive, or escape.
When I first read Melanie Sumrow’s middle grade debut The Prophet Calls, I knew it was based in the real world, and what is no doubt a very real world for certain populations in the United States. But this book felt dystopian to me. I’ve known people from religions akin to, but fortunately not as restrictive, as the one that dominates this narrative, and I’ve read of the religions that keep similar tight bonds on their women and girls, but never explored the story of one of those girls.
Here’s a post for children’s authors, first shared on Twitter, where it went a wee bit viral (for me), about the “Best Book” lists that are ubiquitous on social media this time of year. (As you might guess, “Best Book” can be hard for the many, many children’s authors who don’t see their works upon them.)
All these “Best Book” lists are lovely, and congrats to the authors whose wonderful books are on them! But if you’re not on on those lists, you’re on *this list*. Ahem:
1. A kid rushes home from school, dumps their homework in a heap on the kitchen floor, and picks up your book, retreating to the quietest corner of the house to read. And keeps reading. Up to dinner, after, past their bedtime. Repeat: your book.
2. A kid brings your book to school, sandwiched between folders and binders in the crush of their backpack. This kid is shy, and lonely. Your book is their friend at lunch time, at recess in the cold, after school on a 40-min bus ride. Your book comforts as little else does.
3. A kid who lives in a group home. Another kid with tons of siblings and a house of noise. A kid who hunkers down in their room when their parents fight, your book before their face. These kids need a book that will love them back, that will help them escape. That’s your book.
4. A kid who loves to read, and swallows two books each week, but regularly returns to your book on the weekend, or in the middle of one of the others, because it’s the book that makes them feel the best about themselves and the world around them. Your book is a constant friend.
5. A kid who hates to read—except your book. Yes, your book, which touches them in the right way, drawing them in, entertaining, engaging, delightful in ways people may not understand. Your book shows them that they’re truly a reader, no matter what anyone else says.
Your book may not appear on any of the formal lists. Your book may be called not serious enough, or too niche, or vague insults that make you feel small and meaningless. But know your book is loved. It’s part of a huge library of books that are needed. Always remember that.
I love to give books for holiday gifts. This year, some of the books I give will be reaching recipients in book boxes, so a book with a few other little things that go with the theme. As I was thinking of what would go with each book, it occurred to me that I have some lovely wee pieces that could go with any copy of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter that someone else might like to give: the character buttons of Drest, Emerick, and Tig that are so popular at my in-person events; a personalized bookplate to sign the book for the intended recipient, as well as themed bookmark; and a personal note. I’ve done a few of those in giveaways, and it’s been fun to write as an author to a student who loves to write, or a student who needed a book friend. And I figured I’d offer that as well in my own hand-sketched castle cards (every one of them is different).
Comment here or DM me on Twitter if you’re giving the gift of Drest to a student this holiday season, and I’ll send you the book box parts pictured above. I’ll send these out until the end of December, or as long as my supplies last. Happy Holidays!
I’ve been pondering this week about what book for which I’m most thankful. And while there are many that I’ve read this year and in the past few years, the one that comes to the very top is a book that made me who I am as an author. It’s a book that was dropped into my hands by my mother when I was 13 and lounging in a flat in North London. “I think you might like this,” she said.
It was Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, a tale of British lore and a midwinter’s night from a New Englander from England.
And though it took place in another world from the Maine where I’d grown up, I’d never read anything that felt more like home.
Will Stanton was like me with his chore-filled childhood in a rural place. He dealt with siblings who were not always kind, but ultimately were good to him. He had to go out into the dark to feed the chickens. (I remember my own treks to our shed in the snow at dusk, shooing hens and ducks in, feeding them and giving them fresh water from a bucket I carried all that way; then wandering back in the utter darkness knowing that there were foxes, coyotes, and maybe more in the woods around me.) I feared the dark of those woods. And I felt a tinge of them in Will’s Dark, which wasn’t simply the world after dusk but a malevolent force intent on world mastery. Yes, I was at home.
This story—of the seventh son of a seventh son, an Old One with powers that came on his 13th birthday, a boy who sought to outsmart a cruel force throughout shifting times with mysteries, ancient texts, betrayal, and hope surrounding him—showed me how a book could feel like home while opening up a whole new world.
I’m most grateful to it because it inspired me to start writing my first novel.
Anyone who’s read The Mad Wolf’s Daughter will have a few adjectives they might use to describe my protagonist, Drest. “Strong” is probably the first. And “strong”—physically, emotionally, morally—is accurate. It was great fun to write a girl character who was so powerful.
I’ve been hearing the word “strong” used a lot these days as people talk about role models for kids. Yet in watching kids—and grownups too—I’ve begun to wonder: What does being “strong” mean as a crucial attribute? Let’s unpack a little what “strength” means, if you will.
And let’s start with this: How does being told that strength is crucial if you don’t consider yourself strong, or capable of being strong?
Lots of kids I know wouldn’t use that word to describe themselves. It can be a positive word, certainly, but it can also be a word that beats down on kids who aren’t physically powerful or dominant or in charge. A small kid might not consider themselves strong. An introvert who can barely talk in class might not either. I worry about what we’re telling them if we’re always showing one version of strength—the one that fits a physically powerful extrovert—as the only way to be.
Here’s are a few questions for discussion:
What does strength mean to you? Is it crucial to you, in your own life, to be strong? What are alternatives?
This is Drest, hero and legend, protagonist of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. (Art by Antonio Javier Caparo.)
In my book, Drest has incredible military training. I think most readers will get that: She’s practiced wielding a sword since she could first lift it. But one of the women she meets early on (and she’s never met a woman until she starts on her adventure) impresses her, and Drest can’t quite describe her accurately. This is Wimarca, a healer, of whom everyone seems to be afraid.
Is Wimarca strong? What do readers think? She’s old, wears a cloak of many different stinky animal skins, and a string of mouse skulls around her neck. She also totters somewhat, and needs an arm at times to help her. But she’s an incredible medieval medical professional. Her salves keep Emerick, who is dealing with a serious injury throughout the book, going at a crucial time. Her remedies do a lot of good for a village boy whom Drest almost does in. The people of Wimarca’s village have experienced her talents. She’s a healer, not a fighter, physically weak. But everyone listens to her. And values her.
Drest likes her military training and playing around with a sword and challenging herself physically, but she becomes aware of what it means to be something other than her version of “strong.” And she tries, in the first book, to fit Wimarca into that box of “strong,” equating “strong” with “good,” but can’t quite do it.
And this is Tig, physically weak, but mentally and emotionally extraordinary. (Art by Antonio Javier Caparo.)
Tig, one of my three main characters, jokes at his own lack of strength. I’ve found that while a lot of kids love Drest, quite a few say that Tig is their favorite character.
So here’s another few discussion questions: Is it crucial for everyone, in the greater world, beyond you and your own life, to be strong? What are ways in which different people can be strong?
Personally, I think it’s wonderful to have someone like Drest in the world, standing up for everyone left and right (and I wish there were more people like her).
But not everyone can do that. And I think it’s crucial to have people like Tig and Wimarca in the world, people with talents in other ways.
And I think it’s most crucial to be proud of who you are.
When I first wrote The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, several people told me that they could envision kids going trick-or-treating as my wee lass, and that certainly made me smile. How incredible it would be to see a crowd of kids with dirt on their faces, tattered sleeves, and a mighty sword at their sides!
Yet…that sword. It’s hard to find good toy swords, and Borawyn, Drest’s beloved sword, has a unique pommel that I’ve not seen on any replica swords (it’s based on a pommel at the British Museum). And swords are expensive.
I’ve always been big on homemade costumes, the more intricate the better, and so I figured I’d design a Borawyn for any of my readers who might like to be Drest this Halloween. It took me about 90 minutes (including correcting a mistake, and waiting for glue and paint to dry), but I’m rather pleased with the result. It’s a bit of a floppy sword if your cardboard isn’t tough, but it will be a decent one to hang by a belt at the hip (the right hip, please, since Drest is left-handed). I shared the instructions, with photos included, on Twitter, where I have the most audience, so here’s that thread for a step-by-step, kid-friendly means to create a Borawyn of your own (click anywhere on the link below to get to the thread):
Do you know a kid who wants to be Drest this Halloween? A big part of the costume is Borawyn. Not everyone has the money to buy a sword or to customize the pommel, so here are kid-friendly instructions to make a homemade Borawyn. Needed: Cardboard, tape, glue, foil, yarn & paint. pic.twitter.com/3XfKBX8km2
Every author loves seeing fan art. I saw my first example when my friend Henry Lien (Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword) shared a picture of a recommendation he’d spotted at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California:
Artist and bookseller Eva Andrew. Photo: Henry Lien
And with this recommendation is Eva Andrews, who works in the incredible children’s department at Vroman’s—and by the way, this is her website, which features her incredible comics. (I hope that some of her own work will be on her bookstore shelves soon; her “Playing with Autism” comics are wonderful, and her “Gest” series with Erica Hardy and Sara Puranan would be a beloved graphic novel series for a lot of people I know.)
I love her depiction of Drest, Emerick, and Tig—based loosely on the cover art interpretation by Antonio Javier Caparo, but very much with Eva’s own style. I love especially how she’s captured the feel of the characters’ emotions (poor Emerick!) with just a few lines.
A quick selfie outside the Lithgow Library, a gorgeous library in Augusta, Maine.
This summer was a busy one, with a string of appearances that kept me on my toes!
I wanted to share a few pictures from the one of my last summer appearances. This was a tween book club at the Lithgow Library in Augusta, Maine, which I visited early in August. The participants had read my book, and asked great questions—about some of my choices in the plot or with characters—and shared their opinions and analyses for about an hour. Then I read excerpts on demands, and shared a sneak peek of the first chapter of The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter.
And then we ate.
Usually, there’s no food (except the Yummy Earth lollipops I usually give out) at my appearances, not a beautiful spread of desserts, anyhow. But Youth Services Librarian Kathleen Petersen was a host who, honestly, thought of everything. And here’s the spread that welcomed me and the tween readers: a Scottish dessert feast:
Talk about authors being treated like lairds! (Oh, and the desserts were delicious.)