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.)
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…
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…
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 edited 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 (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 Daughteraloud 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!
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