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Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

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ENTER TITLE HERE––PUBLISHED BY DISNEY-HYPERION

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.

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One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

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.

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ONE CRAZY SUMMER––PUBLISHED BY AMISTAD

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.

George by Alex Gino

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.

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GEORGE––PUBLISHED BY SCHOLASTIC PRESS (…Though this is the Fischer cover from Germany. I just loved the John Green blurb.)

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.

Special Post: What Writers Can Learn from…The Olympics!

I LOVE SPORTS!

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I should preface this blog with a couple things…

One: this is the first post on this blog that’s not about a book.

Two: I had fun writing this and am thinking I might write more non-book-centric writing advice posts in the future.

And three: I’m unapologetically obsessed with the Olympics. And despite the Games’ uber-problematic-ness at many levels, I’m pretty much in love with watching athletes gets emotional after a great performance.

This is first Olympics I’m watching as a full-time writer, and I can’t help but relate everything I watch back to my own journey. There are some core truths about the pursuit of excellence that transcend sports and goals and mediums, from the field to the court to the tiny desk in the corner of your living room. So today I’d like to talk about what writers can learn from these incredible athletes currently inspiring us all.

1. Find your teammates.

simone and aly
From the indomitable Simone Biles’s Instagram.

Just like writing, many sports involve long hours sweating it out alone. But even in individual events like swimming, gymnastics, and the marathon––and even in a solitary pursuit like writing––it’s so important to find your people, and keep them close.

The dynamic between the ultimate #squadgoals besties, gymnastics extraordinaires and 2016 all-around gold and silver medalists Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, is a perfect example of why teammates are so important. Teammates push you, frustrate you sometimes, and always remind you that you do this because you love it, and because you want to be your very best. A little healthy competition and friendly rivalry can be a great motivator, too.

Whether it’s on Twitter, in an MFA program, at local meet-ups, or on an online writing forum, finding writer friends who can share in your ups and downs, your stumbles and your glories, is so, so important. (Online can be a great option for introverts or writers with social anxiety or people who, like me, live super far away from most English-language kidlit communities!) It’s up to you how much to engage, but even a little discussion with likeminded folks can make a world of difference. Writer friends will cheer you up when you’re having a bad writing day. They’ll celebrate when you hit a milestone. And, most importantly, they’ll be the only ones who really understand what this work means to you, and all the good and bad and wonderful things that come with it.

To sum it up––find a community that can support you and challenge you and love you for who you are and what you do, just like Simone and Aly:

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2. Remember: “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

(I’m a little embarrassed to quote a Bud Light commercial, but…it just seemed too appropriate to pass up.)

Rituals! Athletes are all about them. Writers should be, too.

I remember back in high school one of my track teammates insisted we all kiss the relay baton––in the order we were going to run in, of course. Another friend wore lucky underwear. Another had to eat a Power Bar at the same time every race day. And as for me, I had a particular number of lunges I had to do, starting with the same foot, as part of every warm-up before a race.

Rituals are on full display at the Olympics. Swimmers seem especially fond of these pre-event oddities. Before each race, Michael Phelps swings his arms three times and slaps himself on the back. Dana Vollmer writes a word on her foot. Tamás Kenderesi spews water. And Canadian freestyler Santo Condorelli flips off his father. (Yes, there’s a story behind that.)

Delivering a great writing performance, like delivering a great athletic performance, requires getting in the zone. Does Michael Phelps actually believe that if he swings his arms four times, he’ll swim more slowly? No idea, but I’m sure he knows that that three-time swing tells his brain and body: it’s time to swim. Fast.

Establishing a pre-writing ritual can have the same effect.

I first discovered this ritual stuff to cope with the slog of essays in college. With tight deadlines and a lot of words to produce, I knew I needed a way to tell my writing muscles when to get to work. For me, it was a certain nook in the back of the library, a sack of chocolate-covered peanuts, a bottle of water, and hiding all evidence of the time passing: no watch, computer clock, or cell phone allowed. I’d break for a quick walk every 500 words. And soon enough, I’d have an essay drafted.

This has changed over the years––as a real-life adult, I don’t usually have the luxury of losing track of time for hours on end. And with longer, more mentally taxing projects like novels, I’ve needed to search for new ways to motivate myself.

One of my latest tricks: I have four different-colored coffee mugs. In the morning, I pick the one that fits with my writing mood for the day: red for intense drafting sessions; green for focused, precise revision; blue for fleshing out reflective or emotional scenes. Strange? Pretty much. But it does the job.

For writers with caregiving responsibilities or day jobs (or, for many, both!), even the smallest ritual can help bring on that author mindset in the little moments you eke out to write. Maybe there’s a pump-up song to that reminds you of your protagonist; or a certain Moleskine that’s your I’m a writer now! notebook; or maybe you take five deep breaths and swing your arms à la Phelps.

Heck, maybe you just pull a Laurie Hernandez and whisper, “I’ve got this.” Because you do.

The great thing about rituals is they tend to work better and better with time. A year from now, it might seem crazy that you ever wrote without putting on your lucky socks.

Remember: just like Bud Light said, it’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

3. Embrace the vocation.

Sometimes, writing can feel a little all-consuming. When you’re up late stressing about a revision, or you can’t get into a movie because you’re comparing some aspect of the plot to your own WIP, or your characters have staked out more headspace in your brain than some of your immediate family members––well, it can get a little overwhelming. And it’s easy to start feeling bad about this, too.

Though it’s nice to get some space at times, and step away from the manuscript both literally and figuratively, there are other days when writers would do well to take a cue from Olympic athletes and just embrace this single-mindedness. When you’re really digging into a revision, or when you’re this close to finishing an exciting first draft, you’ll likely eat, sleep, and dream your story. And maybe that’s okay.

Often, we’re taught that taking this time to ourselves is self-indulgent, that putting our craft first (or even second or third) is silly or selfish in a world of day jobs and family and a million other responsibilities. If you need some encouragement to really dig in––aside from the teary faces of the medalists on the podiums––read the Acknowledgements section in almost any published book. So many authors share tales of time away from their partner or kids, asking friends for last-minute read-throughs, and struggles they had and sacrifices they made over years and years in pursuit of their goals.

When you feel like you’re barely keeping it all together, when you’re frustrated with the things you’ve had to give up (whether it’s other hobbies, or reading for pleasure, or relaxed Saturday mornings, or a reasonable amount of sleep), it’s comforting to know that many others have been there, too. It’s a reminder that it’s okay to make sacrifices as you chase your dreams.

And the Olympics are another great reminder of this. Because if Olympians can sleep in oxygen chambers, take all their high school classes online, eat an inordinate amount of kale smoothies, and do whatever one has to do to run a 29:17 10k on the track––

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Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia, gold medalist in the 10k. Photo from IAAF.

(daaaang Almaz Ayana!)––you can certainly embrace the all-consuming nature of writing for a few weeks too, whatever that means for you at this juncture in your life. Even if it feels a little selfish.

To sum it up: certainly, publishing a book and competing in the Olympics are two very different pursuits. But as we repost #PhelpsFace memes and cheer on our faves, there’s also a lot we can learn from these athletes as they chase greatness and test the limits of human capability.


Want to chat writing, kidlit, Olympics, or more? Find me on twitter @beckererine.

 

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

I read this book a while ago, but the story really stuck with me. With Naila and her goals and passion and determination still hanging around in my head, persistent and present, I knew I needed to write a blog post about Aisha Saeed’s Written in the Stars.

Here are three things writers can learn from Saeed’s heart-wrenching––but ultimately uplifting––YA debut.

written in the stars book cover
WRITTEN IN THE STARS––PUBLISHED BY NANCY PAULSEN BOOKS

1. Keep raising those stakes.

Naila is a young Pakistani-American girl. Her parents are supportive of her dreams of attending medical school, and she understands and follows their rules, including (mostly) staying away from her more-than-crush Saif. She’s always known her parents will choose a husband for her and she respects her family’s traditions.

At the book’s opening, Naila’s biggest concern is that her parents might catch her sneaking out to a dance with Saif. But when a last-minute trip to Pakistan turns into something far more troubling, suddenly it seems Naila might lose a lot more than her cell phone, her budding relationship with Saif, or even her chance at moving away to college.

Throughout the novel, Saeed does a brilliant job of continually upping the stakes. The book’s fast pace is appropriate for a story where the main character’s life is tumbling quickly out of control. Every time Naila finds a way to escape her situation and make her way home and back to Saif, her plans are foiled––and the situation becomes even more dire. This is an emotional book, at times difficult to read. But Saeed’s skillful pacing and plotting keep us turning pages even when the story has us utterly stressed and scared!

2. Let your characters be their complex selves.

When Naila discovers her family will be staying in Pakistan for longer than expected, she’s not all that upset. (This is before she finds out her parents are trying to find her a husband.) Naila misses home, and the privacy and quiet of her house, and of course her beloved Saif. But there are many things about the Pakistani village that she really likes: the bustle of the market, the lyrical sounds of the call to prayer, the soft, shady ground of the orange groves. Naila is American as can be. Still, there’s something about this village in Pakistan that also feels like home.

When Naila finds out she’s been brought there to marry, Naila’s relationship to her parents’ home country becomes much more fraught. But there are still many things about the place and the people that Naila loves. Saeed does a great job illustrating this complexity, and it’s a great lesson for all writers: in letting our characters develop a nuanced relationship with the world around them, we’re letting them grow into their real, three-dimensional, complicated selves.

3. #OwnVoices are powerful––and some stories best told by them.

This is going to seem strange, but stay with me! One of my favorite parts of this book was the Author’s Note. In it, Saeed talks about her own experience as a Pakistani-American in semi-arranged marriage––  “we were equal partners making a choice to spend our lives together.” She goes on to describe how she’s known girls forced into commitments far different from her own happy bond: marriages they felt they couldn’t say no to, including some that have led to abuse, or parents “threatening to disown them” if they leave.

Saeed makes clear that forced marriages are a “problem that transcends race and religion.” This particular novel, of course, is situated within the Pakistani-American community, and Saeed’s being a part of that community has clearly informed the way she’s written this story. Saeed’s writing is steeped in admiration, knowledge, and respect: from descriptions of chai and sweet-salty lemonade, to the terms of endearment for different family members, to the profound friendship Naila forms with her relative Selma just a few weeks after arriving in Pakistan. There’s so much to take in here: so much texture and detail and love. As a member of this community, Saeed’s well-positioned to critique it in a nuanced, informed way, with a critique that makes room for both problems and beauty, and all the tension and subtlety and variety that only an author with firsthand experience can invoke.

Written in the Stars makes a compelling case for #OwnVoices. Saeed’s debut, and Naila’s sad, hopeful story, both serve as a great reminder of why it’s so crucial that, as writers and readers, we take special care to support our peers, authors, mentors, and mentees who bring a new or overlooked perspective to their work.


Want to chat about Written in the Stars or other great YA and MG titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Mist and Fury Cover
A Court of Mist and Fury, published by Bloomsbury Children’s

This is the first time I’ve used a sequel as one of the Writer Reading Kidlit books. But this one was just too good to pass up.

**Note: Due to the nature of writing about a sequel, and that none of these tips would really make sense without them, this post has some serious spoilers.** So if you haven’t read both Book One––A Court of Thorns and Roses––and Book Two, A Court of Mist and Fury, I highly recommend doing so before you continue!

Go on, read the books…

Okay! Now that we’re all back and recovering from a wild ride in Sarah J. Maas’s sexy, intricate, thrilling magical world, let’s talk about what A Court of Mist and Fury can teach us about writing kidlit. And, specifically, sequels/later books in a series.

While we’re at it, let’s pray to the Cauldron that Book Three’s 2017 release date will come very, very quickly!

1. Up the ante.

Near the end of Book One, it’s hard to see how the stakes could get any higher. Feyre’s beloved Tamlin has been captured by the evil Amarantha; a terrible curse on the lands seems unlikely to be broken; Feyre herself is one wound away from death. But Amarantha, Book One’s central villain, turns out to be little more than an underling of the ultimate bad guy, who has darker, and more extensive, plans that could destroy everything Feyre knows and loves. Where A Court of Thorns and Roses was about saving Tamlin and the rest of the Fae, A Court of Mist and Fury sees the whole mortal and immortal world in peril.

Maas uses several tools to continually raise the stakes. One of the most effective is Feyre’s relationship to the world around her, and the way it shifts and evolves. In Book One, Feyre is an outsider, brought to the Fae world against her will. Feyre’s initial goal is simply to return home to mortal lands, and it’s only when she falls for Tamlin that she has some stake in the fate of his Court. But in Book Two, Feyre’s a hero in her new lands, respected and adored, and she’s developed a bond not only with Tamlin but with several Fae. The Fae world is now her home.

Throughout Book Two, Feyre develops news relationships, learns more about the Fae, and realizes just how much there is to discover and to love. Fighting to defend a foreign Court’s people is one thing. But with a new group of friends and a new home––perhaps the only true, loving home Feyre has ever had––Feyre suddenly has an awful lot more to lose.

2. Defy expectations.

(Warning: this section is *especially* spoiler-y! Highly suggest avoiding until you’ve read the books.)

The central love story of Book One, Feyre and Tamlin, doesn’t get the typical Happily Ever After. After the terrible events Under the Mountain, Feyre’s searching for freedom, for work and meaning, while Tamlin only wants to protect her, and forces her to stay home. Feeling like a captive in Tamlin’s Spring Court, Feyre flees. She ends up at the Night Court, where Tamlin’s longtime nemesis Rhysand rules as High Lord.

Rhysand ends Book One as an intriguing figure: cunning and a bit villainous, he thrills in tormenting Tamlin, yet seems to have a soft spot for Feyre––and mysterious plans of his own. Feyre begins her stay in the Night Court fearing for her life. But what she discovers there defies her expectations: a beautiful, art-filled city, and Rhysand’s closest allies, a group of damaged but lovely beings, doing everything they can to keep their lands peaceful and secure.

After Feyre and Tamlin’s passionate love affair in Book One, it seems impossible that a deeper, sexier romance could emerge––but Maas pulls it off brilliantly. By revealing Rhysand and the Night Court’s backstory bit by bit, Maas has her readers slowly falling for the High Lord and his dream-filled world, just as Feyre begins to realize she might have it in her to love again. The slow-burning romance is sensual and tender, and the revelations also cast the events of Book One in a whole new light. It’s a brilliant pivot, both surprising and meaningful, as Feyre’s two loves illustrate so much about relationships, and independence, and what we need from our partners at different stages in our lives.

3. Don’t be afraid to take your readers to a very dark place.

The opening of Book Two finds Feyre reeling from the trauma inflicted by Amarantha at the end of Book One. Feyre’s been to hell and back, almost literally. A Court of Mist and Fury doesn’t gloss over this trauma. Mass’s portrayal of PTSD and depression is very real; at one point, Feyre is relieved to feel anger, after many months of not feeling anything at all.

“When you spend so long trapped in darkness,” Feyre tells another character, “you find that the darkness begins to stare back.” And Feyre does eventually find solace in the darkness, far from Tamlin’s suffocating Spring Court, in a place where the black night is not the abyss it initially seems. A place where Feyre can be honest with herself about the depths of her trauma, and begin to find hope again.

Feyre’s dark internal journey gives her external journey that much more meaning. When Feyre decides to master her new powers and join the war, it’s not just about showy fight scenes and flashy magic. Instead, it’s the culmination of Feyre’s psychological battle against the darkness inside her––and her own realization that she’s willing to give everything to protect this new life she’s won.

Want to fangirl over this lovely series, or other great YA and MG titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

wolf hollow cover
WOLF HOLLOW––PUBLISHED BY DUTTON BYR

Lauren Wolk’s debut children’s book is a likely Newbery contender and a poignant historical novel set in rural Pennsylvania during World War II.

Told in poetic, satisfying prose, Wolf Hollow is a coming-of-age story that shows narrator Annabelle dealing with the arrival of Betty, a new girl at school. Betty is cruel to animals and younger kids. She was sent to the countryside to live with her grandparents, after her mom deemed her “incorrigible.”

Annabelle doesn’t know what “incorrigible” means, or how far Betty is willing to take her cruelty. But she finds out soon enough, and must grapple with the evil present in the world—and the fact that, sometimes, there are no easy answers for how to make things right.

Here are a couple things writers can learn from Wolk’s sad, lovely story of growing up.

1. Used right, setting details—from the large to the small—add texture to story and character.

Both World Wars loom large in this novel, with reclusive World War I veteran Toby suffering his memories in silence, and the current global conflict, World War II, fostering prejudice against local Germans and a general sense of fear. In Annabelle’s small country town, families plant victory gardens, pray for their sons, and wait for good news from afar.

Annabelle’s family farms. Throughout the story, Wolk keeps her story close to the land, to the tastes and smells of nature, the rhythms and routines of daily household chores. The descriptions add a beauty and a texture to the story, as well as an authentic window into life in this time and place—still innocent and simple, even in the shadow of war:

“They didn’t look like much, those beets. Tough skins clotted with dirt, hairy with fine roots, hard as stones. But inside were sweet rubies, eager to be warmed into softness.”

Wolk also shows Annabelle using the natural order of things to comprehend what’s happening around her. When she can find no explanation for Betty’s cruelness, Annabelle turns to nature to try to understand. This gives readers a new insight into Annabelle’s character—and into Betty’s:

“Even a wolf has reasons for what it does. Even a snake makes sense when it eats a robin’s egg.”

Like Wolk, writers must strive to explore their setting through their characters’ eyes: the things their protagonist notices, the way their narrator perceives the world. In this way, the setting becomes more than a backdrop for the story action. It becomes a way to deepen readers’ understanding of the plot, characters, and theme—and craft a richer story overall.

2. The everyday and the universal meet to create the perfect conflict for a coming-of-age novel.

At the story’s opening, the war and the fear are scary, but distant. Annabelle feels safe in her warm, comfortable home; in her cozy one-room schoolhouse; with her brothers, her parents, and the abiding sense that somehow, everything will be all right.

With the arrival of Betty, that sense of security begins to unravel. The fears start small: will Betty hit Annabelle with a stick? Scare one of her little brothers? Make school less carefree than it was before? But soon, Annabelle is confronted with the reality that not all suffering has a purpose. That the hatred born on faraway shores might have consequences in her hometown. And that Betty might be capable of much more damage than it seems.

As Betty’s transgressions grow crueler and more serious, World War I veteran Toby is embroiled in her schemes. Annabelle learns more about Toby’s experiences in the war as she struggles to set things right. Wolk skillfully weaves together Annabelle’s small, day-to-day conflicts with Betty, and large ones about war and suffering and what is right and wrong. The story progresses, and Annabelle begins to realize the world isn’t always safe. She learns there’s a real, tangible possibility things might not turn out okay. And that she—not her parents or her teacher or any other adult—might have to be the one to set things right.

In this way, Wolk captures that in-between-ness, that strange, exciting, frightening feeling of growing up and knowing things will never be the same again:

“For a while, being included in these conversations had made me feel tall. Now I was ready to be eleven again and back up in bed like my brothers.”

There’s a lesson for all writers here, particularly those who write middle grade. When crafting a coming-of-age story, an author must search for the place where the quotidian conflict meets the deep, universal one, and plant the seeds of the novel there. Many middle graders are learning that the world is a scary, dangerous place. But they’re also learning they might be capable of more than they ever imagined. Writers must work to evoke this tender moment in readers’ lives—so those readers can be as brave as Annabelle when it’s their turn to stand up for what’s right.

Want to chat about Wolf Hollow or other great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.