Tension, and Conflict, and Antagonists–Oh My!

I am starting to revise my novel-in-progress after getting some insightful feedback from two smart and generous first readers.  I’m working on increasing the tension and conflict in the second half of the novel (among other things), so I’m thinking a lot about antagonists.

Now if you know me, you probably know that I don’t really care for conflict in my day-to-day life.  I have a low conflict threshold, I think.  When I’m writing fiction, I’m often squirming around in my seat thinking, “Ooh, this is tense.  Look how uncomfortable I’m making these characters!  Look at all these subtle psychological dynamics at play!”  And then other people read what I have written and say things like, “Who’s the antagonist here?  Everyone is so nice to each other.  Can you ramp up the tension?”

In my current novel, the beginning is plenty tense.  There’s a very clear antagonist—a boy who humiliates my main character and breaks her heart, propelling her to leave home and spend the summer with her estranged father.  Nobody who reads the beginning of the novel tells me to add more conflict.  This is good.

But then the boy doesn’t appear again for a long time, and the estranged dad tries really hard to make the main character feel welcome.  To me, her interactions with her dad are full of tension and discomfort because, while her dad means well, he inadvertently undermines her and makes her feel like she isn’t good enough.  I find their father-daughter relationship compelling because I think it’s heartbreaking when people care about each other and have good intentions but hurt each other anyway. But I’ve realized that I need to make the dad a lot more antagonistic, even though he isn’t antagonistic on purpose.

I’ve always kind of backed away from conceiving of clear-cut antagonists, hiding behind the knowledge that a book’s main antagonist doesn’t need to be a person—it could be a character flaw, or a societal problem, or a force of nature.  But as I’m forcing myself to consider how the dad in my novel can function as a stronger antagonist, I’ve suddenly begun to think of other secondary characters in the novel who can stand in the main character’s way more dramatically, too.  By standing in her way and therefore adding to the story’s tension, these secondary antagonists will ultimately make her growth and her triumphs all the more satisfying.  (Or I hope they will, anyway.)

Meanwhile, I’ve also been looking at the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) Young Writer’s Project’s Middle School Workbook, because I’m attempting to lead a NaNoWriMo club at school, and the workbook includes some pretty helpful information about antagonists.  Here’s the definition of an antagonist from the workbook: “The antagonist is the character in a novel that is standing in the way of the protagonist achieving his or her goal. That does not mean that all antagonists are evil, scheming monsters. Some antagonists stand in the way simply through jealousy, or misunderstanding, or by having a set of goals that differs from the protagonist’s.”  (The workbook also provides a few questions you can ask yourself about your antagonist: 1. Why is he or she facing off against the protagonist? 2. Any likeable traits? 3. Sure-fire ways to defeat your antagonist?)

What I’m realizing, though, is that there doesn’t have to be only one antagonist in a book.  Maybe there is one capital-A Antagonist, but then there can be little-a antagonists, too, who hold the protagonist back in smaller, but related, ways. Right now, my seventh grade students are reading Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now, and I’ve been noticing all of the different antagonists that the main character Doug faces when he first moves to “Stupid Marysville.”  The various antagonists don’t dilute or confuse Doug’s struggles, because they treat him in similar ways and activate the same kinds of defensive responses from him.  But they really do help ramp up the tension and encourage readers to empathize with Doug.

How about you?  How do you craft antagonistic characters, and/or who are some of your favorite (big-A or little-a) fictional antagonists?

 

Reading Levels Don’t Tell You Everything: A Great Book Is a Great Book

This year, the theme for fifth and sixth grade English and social studies at my school is China.  Last winter and spring, I read several China-related novels as I tried to figure out my book list for sixth grade English.  I wanted a range of books that would engage sixth graders, expose them to aspects of Chinese culture, and address relatable themes.  I chose Laurence Yep’s The Tiger’s Apprentice for their summer reading book because I thought they’d like the fantasy-style adventure and because it’s the first in a series, so they could pick up the next two if they got hooked.  I chose Bound by Donna Jo Napoli for its strong female protagonist and powerful treatment of foot-binding, and I chose American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang for the humor, fitting-in themes, and riffs on Chinese folklore.

But I almost DIDN’T choose Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

I am so happy I came to my senses!

I was lucky enough to hear Grace Lin speak (and even eat lunch across the table from her) when she was a visiting writer at Vermont College of Fine Arts a couple of years ago.  She was inspiring and amazingly personable, and lots of people whose opinions I trust told me how much they adored Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (plus, there was that shiny Newbery honor sticker on the cover…).  So at first, I thought the novel was a shoo-in for my sixth grade book list.  And when I started reading it last March, I was captivated.  I loved the characters and the descriptions.  I was charmed by the blend of magic and everyday life, past and present.

But there was this little voice in the back of my head that kept on saying, “It’s too young.  Sixth graders will think the print is too big.  They might think the illustrations (which are lovely, incidentally) are babyish.”  It didn’t help that a colleague of mine told me how much his third grade son had liked the book, or that Scholastic says the book will appeal to grades 3-5 and the reading level is 5.4.   It also didn’t help that I felt like I had to make sure the sixth grade curriculum seemed more advanced than the fifth grade one, even though both age groups were focusing on China.

When book lists were due, I left Where the Mountain Meets the Moon off mine.  It’s a beautiful book, I thought to myself.  Perfect if I were teaching fifth grade, probably.  I figured I’d just find some Chinese folktales that felt a little more…sophisticated or something, and start the year with those.

But as I read other Chinese folktales last spring, I kept thinking about how much more compelling I found the folktale-inspired stories that are integrated throughout the main character Minli’s journey in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.  I reminded myself that a book’s reading level doesn’t determine how rich or complex its story is, and good books have layers of meaning.  Sure, younger readers would enjoy Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, but sixth graders would be able to appreciate nuances and make connections that they might have missed at a younger age.

I managed to add the book to the sixth grade curriculum a little late, and my students LOVED it.  They made great predictions about how the different storylines would come together and thoughtful observations about the varied characters.  The book introduced folktales and aspects of Chinese culture in such an engaging way, and there were plenty of opportunities for me to challenge my students as we read (and actually, it wasn’t at all difficult to pull forty unfamiliar vocabulary words from the book for our first vocabulary list).

Bottom line: quality of writing trumps “reading level,” and I recommend Where the Mountain Meets the Moon to readers of any age.

Celebrating Banned Books Week

It’s Banned Books Week, a time to celebrate the freedom to read!  For the past few years, I’ve talked with my students about book banning at some point in the year, but this is the first time I’ve remembered the official week and commemorated it on time.

ImageYesterday, I introduced Banned Books Week to my eighth grade students by telling them that Lord of the Flies, the book we are currently reading as a class, is on the American Library Association’s list of frequently banned classics.  I asked them which aspects of the book they thought people might find objectionable, and they said the violence between the boys, the way the boys pick on each other, and what the book suggests about human nature.  When I asked them why those elements of the novel might worry some people, they said people might be concerned that students who read the book would see the characters in the book as role models and act in some of the ways that the characters do.

I then showed them John Green’s video “I am Not a Pornographer,” his funny and insightful response to some adults’ attempts to remove his novel Looking for Alaska from an eleventh grade English curriculum in the Depew School District.  I asked my students to figure out what John Green’s main points Imagewere, and they realized that a.) John Green was saying people shouldn’t assume that teenagers will read uncritically and go out and try everything they read about, and b.) Green was objecting to the fact that adults who didn’t even have children in eleventh grade in the Depew school district were trying to prevent all of the eleventh graders in the district from reading the book, whether the students and their parents were okay with the book or not.

The first point fit right into our discussion of why people might object to Lord of the Flies (in case adolescents might go out and act like the boys on the island), and the second point illuminated an important distinction, especially in a middle school class.  The thing is, there are some books that middle school students might not be ready to handle or that their parents might not be comfortable with, and that’s okay; the “freedom to read” we celebrate during Banned Books Week doesn’t mean that every reader is developmentally ready for every book.  But it does mean that young people (with the help of their parents and teachers, sometimes) should have the freedom to figure out which books they are and are not ready to read.

After we watched the video, I showed students the full list of frequently challenged classics as well as the most frequently challenged books from 2000-2009 and from 2011 so that they could take note of any books they had read and think about why people might object to those books.  (They were surprised and rather tickled to see that two more of the books we’ll read in eighth grade English, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and To Kill a Mockingbird, made the top ten for 2011.)  I will also quickly booktalk one frequently challenged book that I think students might enjoy at the beginning of each class this week.  After recommending Looking for Alaska and John Green’s other novels on Monday, I told students about Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson today.  I will booktalk The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky tomorrow (good timing with the movie out) and then The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler on Thursday.

What, if anything, are you doing to celebrate the freedom to read during Banned Books Week?   What are your thoughts on how young people (and their parents and teachers) should figure out which books they are ready to read?

My Book of Life by Angel: A Review


Not so long ago, Angel was an ordinary girl.  But after her mother’s death shattered her family, Angel began shoplifting, and a manipulative, sweet-talking man named Call gave her “candy” (a.k.a. crack) for the first time and took her in when her dad kicked her out.   Now, Call is Angel’s pimp, and Angel has to turn tricks on a Vancouver street corner to keep him happy.

But when Angel’s friend Serena disappears, Angel becomes determined to get clean and to write down her story and the story of others like her, as Serena had urged her to do.

Martine Leavitt has written a beautiful, haunting, terrifying, and delightful verse novel. Each word thrums with meaning, and the poems present a remarkable blend of lovely imagery and believable, matter-of-fact commentary from an extraordinarily loving and lovable first-person narrator.  I adore Angel’s observations, which surprised me, made me chuckle, and made me think.  “God thinks he is so funny sometimes,” she says at one point.  And while looking at posters of missing children, she muses:

I wonder how those kids felt,
stars of the missing children’s
poster club,
but not being anywhere, just missing.
I wondered if they ever said,
I would never wear my hair like that.

As Angel writes her story, she recognizes the power of words and names to shape people’s identities.  Once she has had this realization, she recalls:

I was smiling with the knowledge
of it—
that if you say the word whore
you can make a girl into
something,
but she can make words do things,
too.
I smiled to know
that you can’t see a thing
unless you put on words like
glasses.
Everything is just a wobbly vision
without a word,
something at the side of your eyes.

I love that simile there, of words functioning like glasses.  In a book, there are few things I enjoy more than a simile or metaphor that makes me think, “Yes!  That’s exactly right, but I’d never thought of it from that angle before, and now I see something new!”  I had many of those moments while reading this novel.  This isn’t the first book I’ve read that explores the motif of the power of words, but boy does it explore that motif powerfully.

Throughout the novel, phrases from John Milton’s Paradise Lost appear as markers between groups of poems, and Angel’s story echoes and builds upon book nine of Paradise Lost, which she has to read out loud to one of her “dates” as he “does his business.”  The Paradise Lost references enrich the novel’s themes and encourage readers to make connections.

This is an important story inspired by the women who disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside between 1983 and 2002, but it doesn’t feel message-driven or heavy-handed at all.  It feels like a brave and loving peek into the life of one very memorable heroine.   I’ve seen the book recommended for readers 14 and up, and I think it would be a wonderful book to read in class or as a book club choice to discuss in high school.  I plan to suggest it to some of my mature eighth grade readers later this year.

CHAINS and FORGE: Historical Novels that Pass the Student-Interest Test

The English and social studies curricula at my school are integrated, so I end up teaching a lot of historical fiction.  It isn’t always easy to find a book that’s firmly grounded in a historical time and place and well-written and engaging for middle school readers.  But Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains and Forge are all three of those things.

My students filled out reading and writing surveys at the end of last week, and I was struck by how many seventh and eighth graders chose Chains or Forge as the best book they’d read for school in the past year and listed Laurie Halse Anderson among their favorite authors.  So I got to thinking about what makes these books so good.

In Chains, Isabel, an eleven-year-old slave, is sold with her younger sister Ruth to a Loyalist family in New York City at the beginning of the American Revolution. Anderson uses restraint at the beginning of the novel, trusting young readers to make inferences as they come to understand Isabel’s circumstances.  And the novel balances Revolutionary War history with Isabel’s personal struggles to win her freedom and protect Ruth.  Each chapter starts with a quote from a relevant historical document, and Isabel is a feisty, likable heroine in a compelling, often terrifying situation. Chapters end on cliff-hangers, and Isabel’s first-person voice is full of personality.  Her narration is packed with similes and metaphors that convey her intense emotions (she writes of bees buzzing in her head and ashes inside her) and distinctive, old-fashioned word choice, such as “confuddled” and “remembery.”

Forge, the sequel to Chains, follows Isabel’s friend Curzon, an escaped slave who has been promised freedom, as he links up with the Patriot army before the difficult winter at Valley Forge. As she does in Chains, Anderson opens each chapter with a quote from a letter or another historical document, and she weaves in old-fashioned language, especially through colorful insults that feel true to the time period (and are a lot of fun to read).  Curzon is an interesting protagonist because he is hotheaded, self-protective, and conflicted in his feelings towards Isabel.  He develops satisfying friendships with some of his white fellow soldiers, and he comes across as vulnerable and endearing through his relationships with other characters.

These two novels are well researched, and the historical details are woven in beautifully.  But I think it’s Curzon and Isabel—their intense desires, their vulnerability, their affection for other people, their morality, and the unbelievable unfairness of the situations they face—that make these two historical novels so outstanding.  Readers can’t help but care and worry for these protagonists, and Laurie Halse Anderson manages to give Curzon and Isabel agency and let them take action without minimizing the oppression and horrors that slaves faced.

I recommend both novels to young readers as well as adults and would love to know other examples of captivating historical novels!

CAPTURE THE FLAG: Another Great Read Aloud

I don’t know how Kate Messner does it.  She just keeps coming out with new books of so many different kinds: realistic middle grade, dystopian middle grade, picture books, chapter books, books for teachers, and now the first mystery in a three-book series.

I really enjoyed Messner’s new adventure-mystery Capture the Flag.  She sets up a clever premise for the series: her three protagonists, Anna, José, and Henry, are descended from influential artists and craftspeople, and their families are part of the Silver Jaguar Society, whose members protect the world’s most valuable artifacts.  When the flag that inspired “The Star Spangled Banner” is stolen, Anna, José, and Henry find themselves snowed in at an airport…along with the perpetrator and the flag.  They embark on an exciting adventure to find the thief and recapture the flag.

Yesterday, I began reading this book aloud to my seventh grade students—I think it would be great for fifth and sixth grade students, too, but the seventh grade English/history curriculum at my school focuses on American history so this mystery is an especially good fit.  Last week in my review of Liar and Spy, I proposed four elements of an effective read aloud: compelling protagonist and distinctive narrative voice, relatable themes, opportunities for reflection, and opportunities for making inferences.  Capture the Flag fulfills all of these criteria for sure.

I have to tweak my first element a little because Capture the Flag really has three protagonists and it isn’t written in first person.  But the three main characters, Anna, José, and Henry, are all engaging and distinct.  Messner does a nice job of giving them each a defining passion that helps them contribute to solving the mystery: Anna is a determined journalist, Henry is a video game expert, and José is an avid reader who memorizes inspiring quotes.  And I like the way Messner sets up the third-person narration.  She creates dramatic irony by showing readers the flag theft (which Anna, José, and Henry don’t see) before focusing in on the kids’ perspectives, and she sets up a funny, over-the-top tone when she introduces the Tootsie-Roll-toting Senator Snickerbottom and other larger-than-life characters.  This tone prepares readers to dive right into the book’s adventures and suspend their disbelief.

Messner addresses relatable themes—the three main characters have interesting relationships with their family members. (Henry, especially, is grieving for his mom’s death and has to deal with his dad’s remarriage and an upcoming move.  Anna, meanwhile, struggles to get her busy, politician father’s attention.)  Messner encourages readers to think about big issues such as immigration, racism, and corruption, and she lets readers piece together clues to figure out the mystery.

This is a creative, fun, and fast-paced story that I think my students will really enjoy—I certainly did.  I look forward to the next installment in the series!

DRAMARAMA: A Review

I’ve decided to write a review of E. Lockhart’s Dramarama for a couple of reasons.  One, because I love it.  I read it last spring, and the story is still churning about in my brain. And two, because I’ve seen a lot of tired, sweaty high school students roaming the halls after preseason practices the past couple of weeks as I’ve been at school getting ready for middle schooImagel students to return tomorrow.  And that’s made me think back to my own high school preseason soccer practices.

When I was in middle school, I was really into soccer, and I thought I was pretty darn good.  But when I went to my first high school preseason session, I was completely intimidated.  Other girls were faster and stronger than I was, with better ball handling skills and better endurance.  Plus, all the best players bonded immediately and gave each other nicknames, but nobody gave me one.  People yelled at other people when they messed up.  Suddenly, I second-guessed myself before I did anything on the field and started hoping the ball wouldn’t come my way.  I didn’t have much fun playing anymore, and I didn’t improve.

E. Lockhart’s Dramarama isn’t about soccer.   But it is about a girl who loves something and thinks she can do it well…until she finds herself in a highly competitive situation that makes her doubt her talents.

Sarah Paulson doesn’t fit in her “vanilla” Ohio town, and she’s sure that she has some “lurking bigness” inside her.  She and her best friend, whose real name is Douglas but who christens himself Demi and renames her Sadye, set off to claim their inner “bigness” and become stars at an intensive summer theater program called Wildwood.

It can be fun and comforting to read a story in which the seemingly ordinary main character turns out to have amazing natural talent and becomes a superstar, but that’s not what happens in Dramarama. As a writer, I always have to remind myself not to protect my protagonist too much because it’s compelling to watch characters struggle, and Lockhart definitely doesn’t protect Sadye.  She is willing to let Sadye fail—to give her a summer that is not what she hoped for, on or off the stage, and to set up dynamics that push Sadye’s buttons and exploit her insecurities.  She lets readers feel Sadye’s disappointments and see how she handles them—sometimes admirably, sometimes not—and she crafts a beautifully bittersweet ending, which left me with the hope that Sadye might find a new passion within the world of theater, and that new passion might be a better fit for her strengths.

Like Lockhart’s other novels, Dramarama is a very funny book, and there is a lot of authentic, book-specific slang that sounds like how teens really talk.  For instance, Sadye calls herself “mint chocolate chip” in opposition to the other “vanilla” girls from her hometown, and she describes small, perky girls as “Kristinish” after Kristin Chenoweth.  The book includes complex friendships with nuanced secondary characters (especially Demi) and a very interesting romance element—Sadye’s relationship with a boy she likes at Wildwood ends up being unsatisfying, but it leaves her with confidence that someone will like her for the brash, unusual girl she is.

I found it captivating to look at a character who might not quite have what it takes to succeed at the highest level, despite her passions, and who has to deal with that letdown.  Because many high school extracurriculars get extremely competitive, a lot of teens will be able to relate to Sadye’s experiences, and readers who enjoy Glee will appreciate the performance focus.  This is a fun, thought-provoking read, and I highly recommend it.

On Setting and Sharks: My Research Trip to Nantucket

A little over a year ago, I put aside the novel I’d been working on during the first year of my MFA program to start something new.  After reading an inspiring blog post by E. Lockhart on Cynsations about where fiction comes from, I had the seed of a new idea.  I had a clear emotion in mind, and I wanted to explore that emotion through my story.

But I also needed to avoid the problems I’d had with my last attempt at a novel (mainly that there wasn’t a clear inciting incident or, well, plot, and my character wanted too many disparate things instead of having one driving desire).  I decided to set the novel within a summer instead of during a whole year to keep things simpler.  And drawing upon Robert McKee’s definition of an inciting incident in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, I came up with a true, world-shaking event to start my character’s story, and then I set her off on a journey to try to set her world right again.

That journey took her to Nantucket, a place I had loved when I was a child and we spent two weeks there every August.  I hadn’t been there in twenty years, so I knew my memories couldn’t be entirely accurate and the place had probably changed a lot.  But I figured if that was where my novel wanted to be set, I would do as much online research as I could to try to keep the setting authentic, and then later on, I could decide if I wanted to fictionalize the place.

Last weekend, on pretty much the best “working vacation” imaginable, I went back to Nantucket.  Except for the beach, which seems much narrower than it used to, the part of the island where we used to stay doesn’t feel that different from how I pictured it, but the town definitely does.  I just finished a full draft of the novel on Friday (yippee!), and I will have to take a careful look at whether or not it makes sense to fictionalize the setting as I start to revise.  I think it probably does, so that I can have more creative leeway to establish the feeling I want the town to have, but either way, my “research” trip will enrich my story.

Image

Madaket Marina, near where we used to stay, where I biked on our second to last morning.

I had forgotten the violet puffs of cloud at sunset that look like chimney smoke, the way the marine smell hangs thicker at the dock than at the beach, the rocks and shell bits that jab your bare feet at the town beaches, and the way you have to slow down and veer to the edge of the bike path when people are coming around a curve from the other direction. As Sarah Sullivan said in a post on Through the Tollbooth about the effective use of setting in the adult book Olive Kitteridge, authors can choose “details in a setting to hold emotion, to transfer the reader’s eye off the point-of-view character onto something in the setting, thereby allowing readers to experience the particular emotion the main character experiences, along with that character […].”  We can have a character notice something in a setting that resonates with the character’s emotional state—one shiny, whole shell amidst a bunch of broken shell bits; nests of dark seaweed littering the smooth white sand; or a beach that has eroded to half the width it used to be—and leave the reader to feel the character’s emotions and make inferences about the connection between the character’s emotions and the detail she notices in the setting.  Whether or not I call the island in my novel “Nantucket,” I hope to be able to use the details I absorbed during my time there to enrich the setting of my story and increase the emotional resonance in some of my scenes.

Oh, and there’s something else from my trip that might make its way into my novel.  On the second full day of the trip, we headed two hours out into the ocean and saw five different blue sharks that came right up to our little boat.  If we wanted, we could climb down into a cage on the side of the boat to see the sharks up close underwater.  I was nervous, especially since there was an opening in the front of the cage and the plexiglass came loose from one side (but don’t worry—our guide rigged it back up), but realized that if I didn’t try it, I was going to be disappointed.  After I confirmed that someone could pull me right back out of the cage if I freaked out, I did it.  What a rush!  The sharks are this beautiful blue on top and white underneath, and it was so cool to see one shark’s white underside and its round black eyes as it chomped on the bait our guide had set up for it.  I don’t plan to randomly include a shark scene in my novel, but that feeling of doing something a little scary but exciting because I wanted to for myself, not because I was worried about what other people might think of me if I didn’t?  That could fit into my character’s journey for sure.

Image

One of the blue sharks swimming toward our boat. (Photo taken by Mike Fabius)

LIAR AND SPY: An Excellent Read-Aloud Novel

I love to include read alouds in my middle school English classroom.  That usually means choosing an effective read-aloud novel, reading somewhere between five and fifteen minutes per class, and giving students some time to discuss their reactions and predictions as we go.  I find that read alouds increase students’ enthusiasm about books and lead to some very animated conversations.  Plus, students (and I) really enjoy them.

Last year, I started a new teaching job and was getting used to a new school schedule and a new curriculum.  As a result, I wasn’t able to incorporate much reading aloud.  But this year, I am ready to integrate more read alouds again, and I’m excited to use Rebecca Stead’s new novel Liar and Spy, probably with my sixth (and maybe seventh) grade students.

Stead’s When You Reach Me is one of my all-time favorite read alouds.  Sarah on “The Reading Zone” recommended Liar and Spy as a terrific read aloud (and shared some excellent activity suggestions which I plan to use), and as soon as I started the book, I knew she was right.  But what characteristics make a book an effective read aloud?  Why do Rebecca Stead’s novels lend themselves so well to this format?

When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy are pretty different: When You Reach Me features time travel and takes place on the Upper West Side in the late 1970s, while Liar and Spy is a contemporary realistic novel set in Brooklyn.  But both novels feature a likable main character with a distinctive voice; deal with relatable family, friend, and school issues; invite readers to think about big, philosophical ideas; and encourage readers to piece together clues.  For me, these characteristics (a compelling protagonist/distinctive narrative voice, relatable themes, opportunities for abstract thinking, and opportunities for making inferences) lead to a very successful read aloud.

Liar and Spy tells the story of Georges, a seventh-grade loner who is teased about the silent “S” at the end of his name and who has to move from his beloved house to an apartment after his dad loses his job.  Georges is funny and smart.  He makes spot-on observations about his classmates, his teachers, and his dad, but he holds himself apart from other people until he gets to know a dog-walking, scrambled-egg-cooking, spy-enthusiast new neighbor named Safer.

Stead deals with bullying in this novel, but she does it with humor and without melodrama.  Georges knows that he is dealing with what his mom would call “classic bully crap” and is hurt by the way some of his classmates treat him, but he doesn’t feel sorry for himself.  He maintains his sense of humor, and with the help of his classmate “Bob English Who Draws,” he is ultimately able to create his own group of allies who refuse to follow some of the “rules” of middle school.  Rules are an ongoing motif in this story—especially rules that don’t work logically or consistently, like the rules of spelling, taste, or where people sit at lunch.

While Stead gets readers thinking philosophically with her veil metaphor in When You Reach Me—the idea that most people walk around behind an invisible veil that keeps them from seeing all of the beauty and pain around them—she encourages us to think about the benefits of focusing on the big picture versus the “dots” in Liar and Spy.  Georges is named after the French painter Georges Seurat, and his parents have a print of a Seurat painting that is made up of thousands of dots.  Georges can only make out the shapes if he stands back and looks at the whole thing.  “Like Mom says,” he muses at one point, “life is a million dots making one gigantic picture.  And maybe the big picture is nice, maybe it’s amazing, but if you’re standing with your face pressed up against a bunch of black dots, it’s really hard to tell.”  He tries to keep himself from fixating on the “dots” of day-to-day life, but in a poignant father-son scene he comes to realize that, “Life is really just a bunch of nows, one after the other,” so both the dots and the big picture matter.  Throughout the course of the novel, Stead also raises fruitful questions about what makes something a game and what it means to lie.

Liar and Spy encourages and rewards close, thoughtful reading, because Stead lets readers make inferences about Georges and Safer—what they aren’t quite honest about and what they don’t want to acknowledge.  Therefore, teachers can guide students through the process of inference-making and let students share their predictions, their evidence for those predictions, and their reasoning.  Reading this book aloud will let students practice analytical reading with some teacher support.

As an added bonus, Liar and Spy is fairly short, so it won’t take too long to get through as a class. What do you think makes a book an effective read aloud?  Any characteristics you’d add to my list?  Any other favorite read-aloud books to share (or for non-teachers, any books you’d choose to read aloud to a group of kids if you ever got the opportunity)?

On Learning New Things

During my third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my wonderful advisor Mary Quattlebaum gave me prompts to spark short writing exercises she called wordplays.  At one point, she asked me to write a wordplay about a time from my childhood or adolescence when I was learning something that didn’t come easily to me, and at another point, she asked me to write a scene in which the main character in my novel was learning something from another character.

I found both of those exercises extremely useful.  For the first, I wrote about learning to drive, when I couldn’t get the hang of how hard to turn the key in the ignition and it seemed like I’d never remember all of the things you were supposed to do before pulling out of the driveway.  As I wrote, I felt that anxiety and frustration rush back—that worry that I might not be able to do something everyone else in the world seemed totally capable of.  I saw myself squeezing the steering wheel too tight, hunching forward in the driver’s seat, and whipping around to tell my brothers to shut up.  And when I wrote the scene in which my main character was learning something from a boy she’d recently met (how to hit a baseball at the batting cages), I drew upon my sensory memories of learning to drive when they were appropriate, and I found out all sorts of interesting things about my character: what she does when she feels vulnerable, how she uses humor to stay in control, and how determined she can be to get something right.

While it was very helpful for me to remember what it was like to learn to drive, I hadn’t been a true beginner at anything for a long time…until I enrolled in a scuba diving class this summer.  The class was a lot of fun and I’m excited for future scuba adventures, but there was a moment during our second pool session when I got completely frazzled in a first-few-times-behind-the-wheel kind of way.

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Scuba divers who are not frazzled beginners. (Photo taken by the talented Mike Fabius, who also gets credit for encouraging me to try diving.)

I was behind because I had accidentally put my wetsuit on inside out and then couldn’t get my snorkel attached to my mask.  Because I was flustered, I didn’t absorb what the instructor was demonstrating.  We were supposed to do a “tired diver’s tow,” and when it was my turn, I knew where to hold on to my buddy, but I had no idea what to do with my feet.  If I’d kept my cool, I could have figured out that the only logical possibility was to kick my fins underneath her body as I leaned back, but I froze and the instructor had to come over and demonstrate for me again.  Everyone else knew what to do, it seemed, but I just hadn’t gotten it.

I’ve been thinking about that experience at scuba class and about how much I realized about my character and remembered about myself when I wrote those wordplay scenes in which she or I was learning something new.  I think one of the best ways you can get to know a character is to place her in an unfamiliar situation to see what she does.  This idea is especially true for those of us who write for children and young adults, because young people have to learn new things all the time.  (In fact, I associate that flustered, why-can’t-I-get-this-right feeling from scuba diving class with being a teenager.)  And remembering what it was like for you to learn something new–or, better yet, leaving your comfort zone to become a beginner at something–can help you get inside your character’s skin when he or she is dealing with an unfamiliar situation.

As an added bonus, learning something brand new is also great for teachers. With the school year about to begin, it’s helpful for me to remember how uncomfortable it is to attempt something difficult, especially in front of a group.  Reading and writing didn’t give me anxiety when I was young, but certain spatial tasks (like parking a car or solving a geometry proof or figuring out what to do with my feet while dragging someone else in the water) still cause me stress.  I can be more compassionate with my students if I can stay in touch with that vulnerable feeling that arises when you do something you’re not an expert at.

How about you?  What have you gained from experiences that are new and maybe a little unsettling?  What types of tasks give you anxiety?  What do you remember about learning something that was hard for you, and what might you find out about your characters if you write scenes in which they learn something new?

Writing by Hand

I set an ambitious writing goal this summer.  Spurred on by my enthusiastic MFA classmates, I decided that I would try to complete a draft of my young adult novel Rebound by August 31.  I think I’m going to make my deadline, but if I’d counted on sitting in front of my computer and banging out words, I wouldn’t even be close.

Earlier this summer, I spent a lot of time typing out sentences that were stiff and dead and altogether wrong and then worrying that I wouldn’t be able to write anything else with any life in it now that I don’t have an advisor to steer me in the right direction anymore.  But then I changed my writing routine and began to make some progress.  I’ve been able to push through several chapters of my novel this month because of a high-tech, super-secret technique, and now I’m going to share it with you!

Except, well, it isn’t high-tech or super-secret at all.  What I’ve been doing is: I write out a scene or two longhand in a notebook, and then the next day I type out what I wrote the day before, editing it a bit as I go, and then I open up my little notebook and start in on the next scene.  That’s it. That’s the system.

I didn’t feel the need to question why this process was working—I was just relieved when my daily writing output began to increase. On some level, I figured it had to do with taking the pressure off.  I know I’m going to take another look at everything I write in my notebook before it ends up in my draft, so I can relax a little and leave a sentence I’m not crazy about in its flawed form rather than agonizing over it.

But when I recently read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, the assigned book for middle school teachers at my school, I began to think there might be more to this system than I realized.  One of the points that Nicholas Carr makes throughout this book is that technology impacts how we think.  The map changed the way people perceive geography, the clock changed the way we experience time, and word-processing devices change the kinds of thoughts we commit to the page.

Carr includes quotes from Frederick Nietzsche and T.S. Eliot, who both switched from writing by hand to using a typewriter and then noticed major differences in their work.  When a friend remarked that Nietzsche’s writing had become more concise and more “forceful,” Nietzsche agreed.  “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts,” he wrote.  T. S. Eliot, meanwhile, shared this observation in a letter: “Composing on the typewriter, I find that I am sloughing off all my long sentences which I used to dote upon.  Short, staccato, like modern French prose.  The typewriter makes for lucidity, but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety.”

So maybe there’s a good reason why my sentences don’t sound so stiff when I write them out in my notebook before I transfer them to the computer.  Maybe typing does shape my prose in a way that’s good for structured essays but not always so great for fiction.  It’s not that the sentences I write by hand are longer, like the ones Eliot used to dote upon, but they’re more consistent with my main character’s voice, and I often surprise myself with a word or a gesture that comes to me as my hand moves across the page.

When I’m teaching, I usually feel guilty if my students are working on a writing project and I’m not able to reserve computers for them.  But maybe they’re not really wasting time if they have to write something by hand before typing it up later; maybe they can actually write subtler, more vibrant sentences that way.

How about you?  What tricks get you going when you are blocked, and do you notice any difference between what you write out and what you type?

Commonplace Books: A Tool for Writers and Teachers

As I’m gearing up for the school year to begin, I’ve been doing my summer reading assignments.  First, I read Moying Li’s Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China During the Cultural Revolution, which is required reading for rising seventh and eighth graders, and then I slowly made my way through the required reading for middle school teachers: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

On the surface, these two books don’t have much in common.  The first is a memoir written primarily for young readers; the second is an academic tome that touches on the history of technology, the evolution of reading and memory, and the science of the human brain.  But I found a surprising point of connection between the two: the idea of commonplace books.

In Snow Falling in Spring, Moying Li’s education has been disrupted by political chaos.  She’s seen her teachers and relatives tortured, and she’s had to give up her dream of pursuing higher education to perform the job she’s been assigned.  Amidst all this chaos, she finds comfort by waking up at dawn each day to walk around a park while reading out loud from a makeshift textbook.  Because she no longer has regular access to books, she has to be creative if she wants to continue her learning.  She explains, “I made up my own textbook with loose-leaf papers—filled with passages copied from my favorite authors.”

In The Shallows, in a chapter about memory, Nicholas Carr describes commonplace books, which sound a lot like Moying Li’s makeshift textbook.  The Dutch humanist Erasmus proposed the idea of commonplace books in 1512.  He encouraged students to keep a notebook, divided by subject, and copy out striking passages from their reading.  He thought of these passages as “kinds of flowers,” picked from books and then cultivated in an individual’s memory.  (How lovely is that?)  These “commonplace” notebooks allowed students to individualize their education, because each person’s notebook was unique, and they helped students to synthesize what they’d learned.

I sometimes copy out quotes from books I read, but rarely in the same place, and I often incorporate my own commentary, too.  But I like the idea of a physical notebook, divided into sections, in which I could pull together ideas, beautiful language, and maybe even photographs or photocopied images from different sources (or sketches, if I were at all artistic).  I might have a section for craft books, a section for teaching ideas, and a section for fiction, but other people could have very different sections in their commonplace books.  I’m not sure I trust myself to walk while reading, as Moying Li did, and I’d be a little embarrassed to have people hear me reading aloud to myself while strolling even if I could stay on my feet.  But I might like to read through my commonplace book before taking a meditative walk, and I like the idea of encouraging students today to make their own commonplace notebooks, just as their Renaissance counterparts once did.

What do you think?  How could you see using commonplace books with students, or how might you set up your own? (Also, thanks to my friend and colleague Dan for telling me about commonplace books in the first place, so that I paid extra attention to them while doing my summer reading homework.)

Literary Meat or Poison?

A little over a year ago, I read Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, which was published in 1934 but still feels timely. There are many things I appreciate about this book (and if you’d like you can access the full text of it here), but I especially love the frank and funny life advice Brande offers.

In one of my favorite parts, Brande insists that if you are serious about writing, you must structure your recreation time in a way that feeds your writing.  That means that you can’t spend too much time with people who leave you feeling discouraged or creatively dried up, and you have to read things that stimulate your writing.  She explains that she’s known people who are inspired to write after reading dry medical reports, scientific magazines they can’t understand, or novels they dislike, but who are paralyzed by reading the works of authors they admire.  “Watch for a while,” she instructs, “and see which authors are your meat and which are your poison.”  I suppose that advice doesn’t work so well for vegetarians, but you get the idea.

I’ve been thinking about my literary “meat” and “poison.”  Recently, two novels spurred on my writing in a way that others haven’t, and they happened to be written by the same author.  I was completely charged up to get back to work after reading Morgan Matson’s Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour and Second Chance Summer.  In both books, I saw Matson doing things I was trying to do, such as exposing a flaw that the main character has to overcome and showing how two people come to know and care about each other in a short time.  Seeing how Matson accomplished these things gave me these zinging realizations about how I could accomplish them in my book.  Plot-wise, I’ve found myself psyched up to write after reading Kate Messner’s middle grade novels The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. and Sugar and Ice because I get this sense that Messner doesn’t get in her own way—she sets up a dynamic situation and lets it unfold, and that makes the process of structuring a novel feel manageable to me.

(The only problem is, if I let myself think about how Messner has been able to teach middle school English, be a parent, keep a blog going, and crank out book after book, I start to feel completely overwhelmed and inadequate, and she becomes my poison instead of my meat.  So I am excited to read her new book Capture the Flag, but I will be sure to read it when I am feeling especially secure.)

How about you?  Which authors are your meat and which are your poison?

Top Fives

As you’ve probably seen, NPR recently compiled a list of the top 100 best-ever teen novels.  NPR came up with this list after inviting people to nominate YA novels and then select their top ten from the nominations.  The list has generated plenty of controversy—for instance, some people have objected to the imprecise criteria NPR used to decide what does and does not count as a YA novel, and others were disappointed that their favorite authors didn’t make the cut. (ETA: Laurie Halse Anderson raised another legitimate concern with the list in this blog entry: the lack of diversity.)

Personally, I appreciated the blend of classics and recent novels on the final list, and I think it will be fun to share with my students.  I’m glad it exists as a jumping-off point for reflection and conversation, but I understand people’s concerns and have one of my own.

My big question is, how do you define a “top” book?  Does that mean a personal favorite, or does it imply some level of literary merit?

I did vote on my top 10 for NPR, but I found it difficult to choose because I kept blurring the criteria.  I’d think, “Oh, this book was formative for me, so it should be there.  But is it actually any good?”  Or, “I really admire this novel…but it took me two weeks to slog through.  Is it honest to give it a spot in my top 10 over a book I love, even though I can find fault with aspects of the writing?”

In my last packet of work for my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, my advisor asked me to do something similar to what NPR asked.  She asked me to decide on my top-five books I’d read in the program in addition to the top-five books for young readers I thought everyone should read.

I liked the distinction she made between those two categories; I could feel okay about deferring to my personal preference in the first category since I was going to attempt to be more objective in the second.  Plus, the context of her question helped me.  I was thinking of my top-five books I’d read as I was studying the craft of writing, so I should give some consideration to how much a given book inspired my own or other authors’ writing.  In the second category, top five books for everyone, I chose books based not only on their literary merits but also based on the reflection and discussions I think they encourage.  (The Alexie book, for instance, made my list after my students read it because it generated such interesting discussion.  I included Khan’s book because it challenged my own ideas of what a picture book should be, and because it facilitates discussions of identity, family, and culture for all different ages.)

So here are my two top-five lists. They are certainly subjective, but I feel more comfortable with my choices here than when I picked my top-10 YA books for NPR because I was clearer about my own criteria.

My personal top five:
Lockhart, E. The Boyfriend List Series.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver.
Marchetta, Melina. Saving Francesca.
Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables.
Moriarty, Jaclyn. The Year of Secret Assignments.

Top five books for young readers that every human should read:
Alexie, Sherman.The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Khan, Ruksana. The Big Red Lollipop. Illus. Sophia Blackall.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver.
Lynch, Chris. Inexcusable.
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia.