For several years, I kept a blog about what kidlit writers can learn from different middle grade and YA titles.
You can check out the archives here to discover some great books––and maybe some useful insights for your own writing!
For several years, I kept a blog about what kidlit writers can learn from different middle grade and YA titles.
You can check out the archives here to discover some great books––and maybe some useful insights for your own writing!
In recent years, Jason Reynolds has established himself as a master of his craft, publishing award-winning YA and middle grade books. (I’ve previously written about Reynolds’s YA title The Boy in the Black Suit.)
As Brave as You, one of Reynolds’s middle grade novels, won many 2016 accolades, including the Schneider Family Book Award and the Coretta Scott King honor. Today, I’ve been thinking a lot about middle grade, checking out Newbery predictions and seeing which titles have been getting the most buzz as I plan my end-of-the-year reading and gear up for 2017 awards.
It seems like a great time to revisit a beloved book from last year. Today, I reflect on what kidlit writers can learn from this sweet, almost meditative middle grade title by a writer at the top of his game.
Use the tropes––and then subvert them.
As Brave as You covers some well-trod ground in kidlit. City boys visit the country. A summer away at the house of quirky, intimidating relatives. Anxiety about fighting parents. Uncertainty at what the future might hold.
Despite this, As Brave as You feels different. Reynolds takes these tropes and makes them wholly new. Genie and his older brother Ernie are two boys from Brooklyn, spending several weeks with their grandparents while their parents work out some marital issues.
And though there are elements of the typical city-boys-meet-country culture clash, Reynolds adds enough nuance to ensure things are not quite as simple as readers might expect. When a neighbor girl claims to never have heard of Brooklyn, the boys quickly find out she’s fibbing. And though country life does include some things Genie and Ernie might have expected––hard work picking peas, and intense poop-scooping in their grandparents’ yard––it also includes a man who sells teeth at the local market, a hypochondriac mother, and a secret room in the house that neither of them could have imagined.
Genie and Ernie grow and change during their weeks in this foreign, familiar world. By taking a tried-and-true middle grade plot and complicating it, Reynolds tells a story that feels both classic and fresh.
Remember the large and small problems that make up your protagonist’s world.
I’m going to get to this bit of advice, I promise. Just––give me a second to wind my way there. 🙂
As Brave as You has an almost episodic feel. Rather than following a traditional plot arc, it meanders (and I use that verb in the best way possible) through the various struggles Ernie faces during the weeks at his grandparents’ house. This includes breaking a treasured model truck that belonged to his late uncle; trying to find wi-fi connection so he can google all the new questions filling notebook; helping his grandfather face a longtime fear; and dealing with the fallout from an accident on his brother’s birthday.
At times, it does seem like the first half of the book––where the problems are smaller, though Genie’s reactions to them are outsized and urgent––is moving a little slowly. Things begin to pick up when Grandpop decides to teach Ernie how to shoot a gun. Since fourteen-year-old Emmett Till’s lynching in 1955, Grandpop has insisted every boy in the family learn to shoot on his fourteenth birthday. It’s both a family tradition and a means of protection.
Forget family tradition, though. Genie is mostly focused on the awesomeness of his older brother learning to shoot a gun. Ernie, on the other hand, is scared, though he tries to put on a brave face for the others. Reynolds never fully explains why Ernie is so scared, and it’s not clear whether Ernie even really knows himself. But Reynolds does give us some clues. Despite Ernie’s cool demeanor and his penchant for sunglasses, he’s a gentle guy. Ernie plays with the chained-up dog in the yard, he’s attentive to his grandmother, and he’s very sensitive to what others think of him. So it’s easy to imagine that a manhood that involves knowing how to shoot a firearm, or ever needing to, is not what Ernie dreams of when he imagines growing up.
And this is really the core of As Brave as You. What does it mean for Genie and Ernie to be growing into manhood? Genie’s constantly writing down questions in his notebook and researching them later. He’s looking for easy answers to things that make him worry and wonder. Partway through the book, however, Genie starts to realize that there are no succinct, google-able answers to questions like why his dad won’t speak to his grandpop.
Or what it means to be brave.
Or why forgiveness is so difficult and so powerful, all at once.
Which brings me back to the somewhat-slow-moving first half of this book, and why it works.
In taking time to let Genie cope with––and really, freak out about––the small problems in his life, Reynolds stays true to his eleven-year-old protagonist’s perspective. Genie really does feel like something in him is broken when he breaks that model truck. And when he worries he might be responsible for the death of a bird, Genie’s really worrying that the bird’s death defines him in a way he doesn’t want to be defined. It’s a precursor to the more dramatic scene later, where Ernie acts on his complicated feelings about what it might mean that he has to learn to shoot a gun.
In weaving a tapestry of problems both big and little, worries both complex and small, Reynolds creates a nuanced and moving portrayal of one summer in Genie’s life. Here is Genie, beginning to understand what it means to be a man. Here is Genie, learning he just might be a lot braver than he thinks.
Want to share your thought on Jason Reynolds, middle grade, YA, or writing in general? Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.
In this slim, brisk novel by Patricia MacLachlan––author of Newbery-winning Sarah, Plain and Tall––the dog Teddy can understand human speech, but only children and poets can understand him.
Teddy rescues siblings Nickel and Flora from a snowstorm and brings them to the forest cabin he once shared with his owner, Sylvan. As the mystery of Sylvan’s disappearance slowly unravels, the story meditates on love, poetry, grief, and life.
Here are three things writers can learn from The Poet’s Dog.
1. Consider your perspective.
This book is told from the point of view of the title character: the poet’s dog, an Irish wolfhound named Teddy.
Choosing to tell the story in Teddy’s first-person voice gives MacLachlan ample opportunity to offer up quirky profundities that could only come from a dog’s point of view.
“Being a writer is not easy, you know. It is, now that I think of it, either full of sorrow or full of joy.”
“Like being a dog,” I say.
Of course, it takes an extra leap of creativity to imagine the thoughts, sensations, emotions, and tactile experiences of a canine narrator. But if a writer can pull it off––as MacLachlan does––an animal perspective provides fertile ground for a rich and poignant story.
2. Do a lot with a little.
The language in The Poet’s Dog is sparse and direct. The story moves quickly from one scene to another. MacLachlan makes this work by choosing evocative details that bring her characters and scenes to life.
Sylvan types on his computer, sometimes smiling, sometimes frowning and muttering to himself. I sit up on the red rug and yawn my yawn that ends with a squeak.
This description is adorable and fits the book’s earnest, cozy tone. It sets up a vivid scene full of intimacy, routine, and closeness: the same writerly muttering, the same red rug, the same doggy yawn. With a few precise details, MacLachlan conveys so much about the relationship between Teddy and Sylvan––and added significant weight to Teddy’s sense of loneliness and loss.
3. Search for a timeline that suits your story’s soul.
In most short, simple middle grade fiction, authors opt to write their stories chronologically. Many kids reading 89-page books are just getting their sea legs when it comes to enjoying novels on their own. Needlessly hopping around in time can be a distraction, and often doesn’t add much to the story anyway.
Here, though, MacLachlan departs from the norm by using interwoven narratives to connect the past and the present. The Poet’s Dog is told out of order, with flashbacks to Teddy’s life with his owner Sylvan interspersed with the present-day tale of his interactions with Flora and Nickel as they wait out the storm.
With this non-linear narrative, MacLachlan is able to show the cyclical nature of loss and joy, of rescuing and being rescued. It works well––perhaps because for poets, children, and dogs, time seems to work just a little differently.
Want to chat about The Poet’s Dog and other great YA and middle grade novels? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.
The comparison titles alone made me thrilled to finally read this book: “For fans of Everything, Everything, Bone Gap, and All-American Boys.”
And American Street lived up to its comps, telling the gorgeous and gut-wrenching story of Fabiola Toussaint, a Haitian immigrant adapting to life in Detroit on the corner of Joy Road and American Street.
When Fabiola and her mom enter the US, Fabiola’s mother is detained, setting off a series of tangled-up events that complicate Fabiola’s new American life. The novel offers a beautiful portrayal of religion, and it doesn’t take any easy outs when it comes to exploring right and wrong and the things we’re called to do for our families.
Here are a few things writers can learn from American Street.
Use the specific to capture the universal.
I’m an immigrant with an experience that couldn’t be more different from Fabiola’s. Yet there’s so much about her story that resonates with me. This speaks to the strength of Zoboi’s craft. There’s a special kind of loneliness, confusion, and wonder in navigating daily life in a culture and language that’s not your own. Zoboi captures this brilliantly, using the specific details of Fabiola’s situation to evoke the search for one’s identity amidst a fluctuating idea of home.
Shortly after arriving to Detroit, Fabiola takes in the view:
“The sun hides behind a concrete sky. I search the landscape for yellows, oranges, pinks, or turquoises like in my beloved Port-au-Prince. But God has painted this place gray and brown. Only a thin white sheet of snow covers the burned-out houses and buildings. The flakes seem to appear from out of nowhere, like an invisible hand sprinkling salt onto zombies.”
The foreignness of the scene permeates everything. The language is so vivid and specific that even readers who are more familiar with snowy cityscapes than they are with the colors of Port-au-Prince will see this bleak new world through Fabiola’s eyes.
Fabiola’s struggles with English also affect her relationship to her new surroundings. Zoboi offers up one of the best portrayals of the language learning process that I’ve read in a novel thus far. (For another, I highly recommend Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.)
Fabiola’s frustrations and achievements with English make even the smallest encounter––bumping into someone on the street, for example––a whole lot more complicated:
“I quickly apologize with my very best English and step away. Any hint of an accent could be an invitation for judgment––that I’m stupid and I don’t belong here.”
This feels so true-to-life. It’s heartening to see a character deal with these mundane, awkward moments. Moments that are very relatable for anyone who’s learned a new language! And because this process is portrayed so well, it’s all the more rewarding to watch Fabiola grow and gain confidence over time, making English her own.
As Fabiola changes, so, too, does her relationship to her new language, her new family, and her new country . This adds an extra element to her character arc that makes the story even richer. It’s a familiar progression for anyone who has slowly begun to call a new place home.
Use style and word choice to craft your story’s emotional atmosphere.
American Street is full of beautiful, re-read-them-just-to-savor-them sentences. But those carefully-chosen words aren’t there for aesthetic purposes alone.
A few examples:
“And maybe it was because this first act of violence at the crossroads of hopes and dreams that death lingered around that house like a baby ghost.”
“But as thirteen-and fifteen-year-old girls, with no mother and father to watch over us, our bodies were like poor countries––there was always a dictator trying to rule over us.”
These are deeply creative, provocative, devastating metaphors. They’re also perfect vehicles for conveying the story’s theme and tone. This haunting language reminds us: we are part of the world. We’re part of a shared history––the history of our families, our homelands. In American Street, the past plays an integral role in the present day; history is inescapable, and the forces that led to violence a hundred years ago continue to propel us toward those same bloody ends. We can’t escape this interconnectedness, nor all the good, bad, sad, and beautiful things it bears.
Here’s another passage:
“I am superstitious about money now. It is like rainwater here. It pours from the skies. But if you try to catch all of it with wide hands and fingers spread part––it will slip through. If you try to catch it with cupped hands, it overflows. Here, I will tilt my head back, let it pour into my mouth, and consume it.
We have to become everything that we want. Consume it. Like our lwas.“
Fabiola frequently sees the world through the lens of religion. That religion, and the power that comes with it, play a crucial role in the world of the story and its plot. Zoboi brings us closer to that world by deftly mixing “high” and “low,” crafting prose that is firmly rooted in the everyday––but with a cadence and poetry that evoke a world of spirituality and wonder. Of something beyond. Thus, she reminds us of the magic and power woven into our daily lives.
American Street is a beautiful story. And Fabiola is one of those protagonists who makes it sad to say goodbye. I recommend this novel to any writer looking to learn a bit more about their craft––and anyone who wants to reflect on the identity we create for ourselves, and the places and families we call our own.
Want to chat about American Street and other great YA and middle grade novels? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.
I promise I’m not just reviewing Shadowshaper because of how pretty the cover is going to look on my homepage.
…Well, okay, that’s a big plus!
But the cover’s not the only gorgeous thing about this book. There is so much for kidlit writers to learn from Daniel José Older’s YA novel Shadowshaper.
[Note: mild spoilers ahead!]
1. Work hard to make your prose look easy.
Shadowshaper features memorable characters, a fascinating setting, and a plot that clips right along. But I’d like to talk about another of the book’s great strengths: its prose. Crisp and clear, rich with voice and vividness, Older’s prose is distinguished by how easy it reads.
Yet anyone who’s tried their hand at writing a story knows: that easiness only comes after a lot of hard work.
In Shadowshaper, a love of words infuses each paragraph, line, and sentence. Here’s just one example:
The gravelly voice spoke her name like a native Spanish speaker would, a light roll of the Rs leading into the clipped A. It didn’t matter. The beast could be Puerto Rican all day long, it was still a horrible, lurking, festering…
There’s rhythm here, with a staccato sentence amidst two longer, more flowing ones. The words have those sounds you can really feel your mouth: gravelly, lurking. Finally, there’s a mix of ultra-specific, just-right vocab––clipped, festering, beast––and voice-y turns of phrase: “be Puerto Rican all day long.” By making careful choices, attentive to rhythm and sound, Older crafts prose that’s both evocative and very fun to read.
2. Give your setting enough life and it can become a character, too.
Older establishes a magical, textured setting here that has real agency and power within the story. It’s an evocative rendering of Brooklyn that felt real and otherworldly all at once.
Older uses contemporary issues as a jumping-off point for the book’s fantasy elements. Gentrification, racism, structural inequality, institutional violence, and cultural appropriation all play a part in the conflict that emerges between a cruel white academic and Sierra’s family and friends. In the words of The New York Times: it’s “a Brooklyn that is vital, authentic and under attack.”
There are overpriced coffeeshops and unfinished developments, stares from new white neighbors and a never-flagging threat of police violence. At one point, protagonist Sierra Santiago notes that the white barista at the new café gives her “either the don’t-cause-no-trouble look or the I-want-to-adopt-you look.”
This mixture of the fantastical and real allows Older to send a subtle political message. While the conflict in Shadowshaper is fictional, this Brooklyn exists in our world, too––and surely there’s a girl like Sierra Santiago out fighting this same fight right now.
3. Remember your protagonist has a body, in addition to a mind.
A while back, Christa Desir and Carrie Mesrobian did a really interesting interview for The Booklist Reader about sex in YA. Mesrobian posed a litmus test for realistic portrayal of a teen’s whole existence, not just their inner thoughts:
[…C]an you picture the characters’ entire bodies? Or are they just giant intellects on top of lollipop-stick bodies?
Older excels at this, making sure Sierra’s body is just as much a part of her character as her mind. There’s the afro Sierra loves, the height she takes pride in––it gives her a “glint of pleasure” to be taller than her older brother. She’s not quite sure what to think when her love interest complements her “belly fat,” though, and turns the conversation instead to his “skinny-ass chest.”
Sierra uses this body, too: she dances and fights. She feels pleasure and pain.
As an author, it can be easy to get caught up in character’s cerebral experiences. Older does write some beautiful descriptions of Sierra’s artistic process, her reflections on her family, and her conflicting emotions about a new friend. But he also remembers that our bodies, our physical experiences, are such an important part of the way we move through the world. Especially when we’re young.
Sierra Santiago feels so real that finishing Shadowshaper is like saying goodbye to an old friend. Fortunately, it isn’t goodbye for long: Shadowhouse Fall, the second book in this trilogy, comes out in September 2017! I can’t wait to revisit Sierra’s world––and see what evil forces she and her friends take on next.
Want to chat about Shadowshaper or other great YA and middle grade titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.
As we process and prod the results November’s US election, we begin to search for a way forward. What can we do now? How can we work for change? We need a plan of action in an uncertain world.
Trump’s campaign fueled division and fear. He told Americans: immigrants are dangerous. People who pray a different way are a threat. Women are lesser than. Facts don’t matter.
He told us the world is a scary place. He told us we need a strong man on our side.
There’s a lot we can do––must do––to combat this hateful logic. And one of our greatest weapons will be something as simple as it is powerful: knowledge.
So, as we’re looking for gifts and a path to healing this holiday season, here’s a list of books from all sections of the library to help make sense of, and make change in, a post-Trump world.
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de le Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson
The United States elected a man whose central boast is that he has a lot of money––much of which he seems to have made on the backs of others, through deceit, unfair
business deals, and tax laws favorable to the rich. Meanwhile, a large part the anger and uncertainty in the country comes from the loss of economic stability, decreased wages, and hard financial times for the working class.
Where does this leave us? And what do we tell the kids?
The Last Stop on Market Street, the 2015 Newbery Award winner, is a good place to start. In this gorgeous picture book, CJ and his nana ride the bus across town. CJ wonders aloud why they don’t have a car, why they have to wait in the rain, and why a man on the bus can’t see. His nana gives him an education in appreciating the little things, in finding the music and poetry in an imperfect world.
Nana tells CJ, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” There’s a lot of work ahead. CJ’s nana has shown us how to begin.
The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing by Sumbul Ali-Karamali
This book is from 2008 and continues to be relevant today. In friendly, flowing prose, Ali-Karamali delves into common misconceptions about Islam and provides a refreshing
counterpoint to prevalent myths.
Though no single perspective can represent the entirety of a diverse, global religion, this book offers a great introduction. It includes chapters like “Everyday Islam: How Muslims Practice Their Religion”; “Women in Islam”; “Jihad and Fundamentalism: Not the Same”; and “Who’s Who in Islam: From Ayatollahs to Whirling Dervishes.” In a Trump-led country, we’ll have a lot of misinformation to fight. Read this book, then pass it along to a friend.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
Rape and sexual assault have come to the forefront this election, and much of the discussion has been
painful for survivors. This Shakespeare-inspired YA novel brings us Hermione Winters, a cheerleading captain and outspoken role model who’s drugged and raped at her summer cheer champ.
As Hermione searches for a way to regain control of her body and life, the story explores politics, abortion, friendship, rape culture, identity, and faith. It offers a blueprint for supporting survivors. And it will make you want to hug all the women and girls in your life––and believe them and trust them, always.
George by Alex Gino
George is an award-winning, heartwarming middle grade novel. Its central message is even more important in a Trump-threatened world: BE WHO YOU ARE. (I wrote about what this book can teach writers here.)
George wants to be Charlotte in the fifth-grade play. George also knows she’s a girl––but everyone thinks she’s a boy, and boys can’t be cast as Charlotte. As the story progresses, George gains confidence, learns about what it means to be transgender, and finds an ally
who helps her stand up for who she is.
This book brilliantly dramatizes the reality of growing up trans. This simple, sweet story can, and should, be read and enjoyed by kids and adults alike.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate by Naomi Klein
It’s easy to become numb to climate change and environmental disasters. It’s easy to think the problem is either so big, or so slow, that we may as well ignore it––especially now that the US will have a president who’s unlikely to make great strides against this vast global tragedy.
But Naomi Klein knows that we can’t ignore it. And in This Changes Everything, she refuses to look away.
This is a scary book. But it’s also hopeful, and adds some context to current events like the efforts at Standing Rock Indian Reservation to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. Klein offers up a game plan for rallying the left, for allying with indigenous groups and marginalized people worldwide. She shows us the future can be better, if we’re willing to take unified action to save the world and save ourselves.
The Rise by Sarah Lewis
A book about “creativity, the gift of failure, and the search for mastery” may seem like an odd addition to this list. But Lewis’s book is a lovely antidote to the misguided, racist idea that white people are the main source of American greatness. (Someone may want to put it in Steve King‘s stocking.)
In writing about how failures and “near wins” are an essential part of success, Lewis’s anecdotes include Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement, as well as MacArthur Fellowship–winning psychologist Angela
Duckworth. Finally, her premise––that failure is simply another step on the path to success––is heartening as we make our way through a challenging time.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This is a novel about the end of civilization as we know it. That doesn’t sound particularly uplifting. But hear me out.
In a post-collapse world, Kirsten forms part of the Traveling Symphony, bringing Shakespeare and classical music to the tiny villages dotting a violence-ridden landscape. At one point, after the Symphony faces the kidnapping of some of its members, Kirsten finds these words on a folded piece of paper:
A fragment for my friend––
If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you
Silent, my starship suspended in night
Kirsten is “impossibly moved” by this poetry, reminding us: even in a world where people struggle to find food, to stay warm, to stay alive, poetry matters. Theater matters. Music matters. Amidst struggle, art sows hope. And if we feed it, tend to it, care for it, that hope will continue to grow.
The pain is still raw. The confusion still fresh. But we must always, always remember: knowledge trumps fear. Love trumps hate.
And we will read and learn and fight our way to a better tomorrow.
Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.
This book is an enthralling, disturbing, seriously messed up trip. And I loved it.
An alternate history of Vlad the Impaler (recast as a woman, Lada Dragwlya), Mehmed the Great, and Radu the Handsome, this book takes us to the heart of the Ottoman Empire as it sets its sights on Constantinople. Lada and her brother Radu become pawns in their father’s capitulation to the Sultan and befriend young Mehmed before his rise to the throne.
Above all, And I Darken, the first book in a trilogy, is Lada’s origin story. It recounts the childhood and adolescence that forms the ruthless ruler she’ll become.
Here a couple things writers can learn from White’s gender-bent history of an intriguing historical trio.
1. Use POV to your advantage.
In alternating third-person close POV chapters, Lada and Radu tell the story of their childhood in Wallachia (modern-day Romania), their captivity in the Ottoman Empire, and their growing friendship––and maybe more––with Mehmed, one of the Sultan’s sons. And this may be the best use of alternating POV chapters I’ve ever read.
Lada is an intense, driven, violent character. She has her reasons for being so––I’ll dig into this in the next section––and White takes care to build empathy for this complex, wounded girl. Even so, spending the entire novel in her head would have been…a bit much. White made a savvy choice to alternate Lada’s first-person perspective with her brother Radu’s. In many ways, the siblings are foils for each other. The novel is all the richer for their interwoven, conflicting, nuance-crafting points of view.
Where Lada is strong and guarded to a fault, Radu is vulnerable, self-doubting, and sensitive. When the siblings are young, all Radu wants is to belong––but Lada rejects him, preferring to spend time with their nurse’s rough-and-tumble son. As Lada and Radu grow, their relationship does, too. It’s fascinating to watch their dual perspectives as they navigate misunderstandings, conflicts, and sibling love.
The alternating perspectives allow White to explore nuances of the novel’s historical and cultural setting, too. Lada and Radu experience their world in such a different way, both at home in Wallachia, with a cruel father who hates Radu’s weakness and reluctantly comes to respect Lada, and under the care of the Sultan in the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Radu embraces Islam, with its rituals and brotherhood and sense of belonging and peace. Meanwhile, Lada finds the religion useless––it cannot give her the thing she craves most: control over her life. While Radu finds the call to prayer calming and stirring to his soul, Lada detests it as a frequent reminder of how far she is from her home.
2. Deeply understand your characters so your readers can, too.
Many Goodreads reviewers called out the same brutal paragraph of Lada’s dialogue:
“On our wedding night,” she said, “I will cut out your tongue and swallow it. Then both tongues that spoke our marriage vows will belong to me, and I will be wed only to myself. You will most likely choke to death on your own blood, which will be unfortunate, but I will be both husband and wife and therefore not a widow to be pitied.”
When I read that, I figured Lada would be a Frank Underwood–style antihero: one I love to hate, but am not exactly rooting for. But Lada’s not a Frank Underwood at all. She’s a complicated hero, but one we can root for without reservations (…so far, at least). White achieves this by understanding her protagonist deeply, so readers can understand her, too.
Lada bites and stabs and plots and kills, but it’s out of necessity: it’s what she has to do to secure her place in the world. To gain power. And above all––in my reading––it’s what she has to do to distinguish herself from her mother.
Early in the book, young Lada watches her mother crawl across the floor at the behest of Lada and Radu’s father. In an instant, Lada learns: women are powerless. Women are weak. And she will do anything she can to keep from being one of those weak, powerless women.
Later, this assessment grows more complicated, as Lada begins to see there’s more than one way to gain power. But the important piece here, the one we can take away as writers, is that Lada’s fear of weakness has an origin. We see this image so clearly on the page––young Lada, horrified as her mom prostrates herself. And just as the image burns into Lada’s mind, it burns into our minds, too.
From then on, we’re unabashedly cheering for this ambitious, complicated, troubled, brilliant girl.
Want to chat about And I Darken or other great YA and middle grade titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.
Reshma Kapoor is your new favorite anti-hero. An almost-straight-A student at an elite Silicon Valley high school, she’s vying for the top rank in her senior class and an early-action spot at Stanford.
The book opens with a literary agent contacting Reshma about an article she published in The Huffington Post. The agent asks if she’d be interested in writing a novel. Despite having no free time and a study regime held together by a heavy dose of ambition and a burgeoning Adderall addiction, Reshma senses an opportunity here––and grabs it.
Reshma decides she’ll write a novel about her transformation from a serious student into a fun-loving American Girl. And thus begins Enter Title Here. The book is written in first-person as though Reshma’s crafting it as she goes along. Reshma, the “author” and the narrator, often intervenes to remind us of this fact:
By the end of the novel, I’ll turn into a whimsical girl who harvests all the possible joy from each moment and lives a carefree existence and lets the future take care of itself and all that other bullshit.
This YA novel is a fun, if at times disturbing, ride. It does so many things well, and it’s hilarious and terrifying and profound and troubling, all at once.
Occasionally, it almost veers into satire, but each time Kanakia could take the easy route, making Reshma too malevolent, or the story too clean, he complicates things instead. The book has a lot to say about self-punishing overachievers and the hyper-competitive culture that’s nurtured them.
Here are three things kidlit writers can learn from this fresh, fascinating debut.
1. Meta can work. If you do it right.
Enter Title Here is frequently, almost constantly, self-referential. Reshma writes about looking for a character arc, getting her word count in, and worrying about a resolution for the story’s major and minor plotlines.
Often this kind of intrusion throws me out of the story, but Kanakia pulls it off. And I think what works here is that the book is self-referential and aware of itself as a book because it has to be, in order for the story to work. When we see Reshma struggling to discover her protagonist’s next move, it’s not really authorial intrusion; it’s the character herself moving towards her goal––and working to discover what that goal really is.
So this act of grappling with form and pace and plotting serves to heighten the stakes and dramatize Reshma’s predicament. In searching for a resolution to the story, Reshma’s also searching for a resolution to her own problems: what does she really want? And how’s she going to get it?
2. Play with expectations.
Reshma’s Indian-American, and she’s very aware of how this affects the way people perceive her. Kanakia plays with these expectations and stereotypes, subverting both the “strict immigrant parents” stereotype and the model minority myth.
There’s an especially satisfying plotline featuring Reshma’s English teacher, Ms. Radcliffe. Ms. Ratcliffe has a tattoo and a QUESTION AUTHORITY poster on her classroom wall. She’s constantly asking Reshma to “go deeper” with her papers. Sounds like a decent English teacher, right?
Except Ms. Ratcliffe is actually kinda racist. With little evidence, she’s jumped to the conclusion that Reshma’s parents must be pushing her too hard. Her assumption culminates in this cringeworthy dialogue:
In my travels, I’ve seen that some cultures don’t place as much value on original creative expression.
It’s so believable, so familiar somehow. And utterly depressing.
Kanakia reveals Ms. Ratcliffe’s true colors at the perfect juncture in the story, when, despite her flaws, we’re really on Reshma’s side. We know full well that it’s Reshma’s relentless drive, and not any pressure from her parents, that’s brought her this far. And we’re just as angry as she is that Ms. Ratcliffe has it wrong.
3. Keep it simple.
Kanakia’s prose is clean and straightforward. There’s not much metaphor and the sentences tend toward the no-nonsense.
Because Kanakia’s writing as Reshma, this really fits. Our protagonist is on a mission: to finish her book and get into Stanford. She’s been playing an academic game her whole life, always writing how teachers want her to write. She’s used complex sentences to get the better mark, imagery that didn’t really resonate with her because she knew her graders would like it. But now that Reshma’s telling her own story, she’s telling it in her voice. A voice that’s succinct, direct, and always driving forward.
Kanakia’s simple prose style also leaves room for particular sentences to stand out. I’m thinking especially about one line that, for me, got to the heart of Reshma’s character and motivation:
All I want is to stand up front at graduation and incinerate them all with my greatness.
All of a sudden, that one strange word––incinerate––turns everything on its head. Reshma’s not an everyday overachiever. And her goal is not your everyday goal. Instead of getting lost in a mountain of prose, this sentence really shines. And we can’t help but wonder what happens next.
Want to chat about Enter Title Here and other great MG and YA books? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.
This book is not new, nor am I the first to talk about how wonderful it is. One Crazy Summer was well-received when it was published in 2010, winning plenty of deserved accolades––look at all those lovely stickers!––including the Coretta Scott King Award.
I finally got to dive into this middle grade novel a couple weeks ago. And there’s no way I can’t blog about it. It’s just that good.
Hearing Rita Williams-Garcia at SCWBI-NY last February was one of the highlights of my year. She spoke frankly about being a writer, being a black woman writer, her early career, and especially her journey to publication. Lucky for us, she persevered until she got there––because her books have so much to teach us as readers, authors, and human beings.
Here are a few things One Crazy Summer can teach kidlit writers, especially those taking on tough, complex topics from a young person’s perspective.
1. Don’t let your readers off easy.
One Crazy Summer is the story of the three Gaither sisters, who fly from New York City to Oakland, California, to visit their mother. Their mother left them and moved across the country when the youngest one was just a newborn.
Cecile, also called Nzila, is one of the most complex mother figures I’ve seen in a children’s book. Often moms in kidlit fall into very clear Good or Bad camps. They’re present and caring; or present and standing in the way of whatever the protagonist wants to achieve; or completely absent (hello, every Disney movie ever), thus enabling the young MC to get up to their shenanigans, no maternal supervision involved.
But Cecile is different.
For a long time, she’s chosen not to be part of her three girls’ lives. And when the girls arrive to California, Cecile makes it very clear she didn’t ask for them to come visit her, and didn’t particularly want it. She prioritizes herself and her poetry, and guards her resources and her time carefully.
Delphine, the oldest sister and the narrator, arrives to California hungry for what, in her mind, qualifies as traditional “mothering”: home-cooked meals, affection, and hugs. But Cecile’s not giving any of it. In fact, she promptly sends the girls off to a nearby day camp run by the Black Panthers, so she can continue writing her poetry in peace.
But Cecile does offer her girls something: a hard-won wisdom, which she imparts especially to Delphine.
Delphine is practical and responsible, tough on herself and those around her. She’s a planner and a cook and caretaker. After many days of watching Delphine care for the younger girls, Cecile tells her, “It wouldn’t kill you to be selfish, Delphine.” And it’s tough to take, even for the reader. Because Delphine is like this in large part because she’s grown up playing stand-in mother to her younger sisters.
Cecile has a point, though. And she expresses it––and embodies it––beautifully:
“We’re trying to break yokes. You’re trying to make one for yourself. If you knew what I know, seen what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t be so quick to pull the plow.”
Cecile also questions her daughters’ obsessions with television and movies and challenges them to critique what they see. She offers them freedom and independence, and models a different way of moving in the world as a woman.
Williams-Garcia never makes it easy for us to love Cecile. Instead, she respects her character and her readers, challenging us to see all the shades and gradients in Cecile, as a mom and as a human being.
2. Great middle grade books are incredibly simple and wonderfully complex, all at once.
On one level, One Crazy Summer is a very simple story. Throughout the book, Delphine’s main goal is to keep her sisters safe, fed, and happy while they’re reconnecting with their mother. She needs to convince her mother to let her cook for her sisters. She worries when her youngest sister is mocked for her doll. She wants to get along with everyone at the Black Panthers day camp, and thinks, maybe, maybe, the cute boy she met there might be interested in being friends…
Yet there’s a whole other level to the story, too. The girls are uncovering new parts of their family history and discovering what it means to be young and black in the US. They’re absorbing disturbing, dissonant realities about power and policing, a government that isn’t protecting all its people equally, and a mother who may not be able to give them the kind of love they expect.
In the tradition of the best middle grade books, One Crazy Summer deftly mixes small, day-to-day conflicts with larger, more nuanced questions and themes. It’s this mixture of the low and high, the simple and complicated, the specific and the universal that makes One Crazy Summer such a powerful work.
Williams-Garcia is a master, and I could go on and on about what this challenging, heartwarming, wonderful novel has to teach us. But my best advice is just…
Read it! Love it! And share it with a friend.
And––perhaps the best news about One Crazy Summer? It’s only the first of three Gaither sisters books! P.S. Be Eleven came out in 2013, and Gone Crazy in Alabama came out just last year.
I know I’ll be reading the rest soon. The only thing holding me back is how sad I’ll be when it’s time to finally tell Delphine and her sisters goodbye.
Want to chat about One Crazy Summer and other great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.
Alex Gino’s George won the Stonewall Book Award and has often been cited as a book that’s redefined what middle grade can be. George is earnest and heartwarming and one of the best middle grade books I’ve read this year. And for a groundbreaking novel, it’s also got a lovely, classic, modern-yet-familiar feel.
Note: I’m totally late to the party! Many lucky people got around to reading this book last year. But despite my late-to-the-party-ness and behind-the-times-ness, I can’t help but blog about this wonderful little book.
So, let’s see what Gino’s debut has to teach middle grade writers––and anyone looking to tell a story that so desperately needs to be told.
1. Play with convention-embracing and convention-breaking.
George has a very clear message: BE WHO YOU ARE. And the book is as brilliant at embodying this message as it is at conveying it.
George is a classic middle grade novel, perfect to shelve next to Charlotte’s Web, a book its protagonist adores. George’s plot is simple and sweet: George wants to play Charlotte in the fifth-grade play. George also knows she’s a girl––but everyone thinks she’s a boy, and boys aren’t allowed to play Charlotte. In classic middle grade tradition, George’s triumphs are small things that are big in her world: saying Charlotte’s lines with confidence and force. Having a friend call her by her girl name. Getting to wear a skirt.
What’s so brilliant about George is this mixture of classic, feel-good middle grade tropes and an innovative narrative technique that helps the reader share George’s experience of the world. George is a girl, and she knows she’s a girl, so the narration always uses “she” and “her” pronouns when talking about George. But, at least at the beginning of the story, everyone else in George’s life calls her “he” and “him.” The effect is jarring, disconcerting, and frustrating––just as it is for George.
So George, as a creative work, takes its own advice: BE WHO YOU ARE. In this case, that’s traditional and innovative. Uplifting and troubling. Happy and sad.
It’s everything together, and because of that, it’s real.
2. Understand how important your writing is.
In Gino’s brilliant Stonewall acceptance speech, they said, “We don’t control the past. We barely have a handle on the present. But we can guide the future. And that’s why writing middle grade fiction is so important to me.”
Gino gets it. And this––in addition to the craft and the sweetness and the lovable characters––is what makes George so powerful, so fundamentally true. Gino writes with a tender empathy for their protagonist, and this sweetness and understanding permeates the novel. Every word is full of love for kids out there who are struggling, who are figuring out who they are.
Or kids who know who they are and live in a world that’s trying to keep them from being completely, wholly themselves.
And that passion, that knowledge of how life-changing a book can be, helps make George the brilliant work it is. All writers, especially all middle grade writers––who are speaking to kids at this especially confusing, raw, formative time in their life––would do well to search for the same sense of purpose that Gino writes with in George.
To quote Gino’s speech again: “BOOKS SAVE LIVES. BOOKS SAVE LIVES. BOOKS SAVE LIVES.”
If you write knowing that, you know how important every single word can be.
So, read George. Share George with the kids and adults in your lives. And write with the knowledge that what you do matters, and matters deeply.
Want to discuss George and other great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.