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


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––

almaz ayana
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

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

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.

Ash & Bramble by Sarah Prineas

Sarah Prineas’s first foray into YA fiction is a retelling of the Cinderella story where the Fairy Godmother is evil and nothing is quite as it seems.

Ash & Bramble is a dark, superbly feminist take on the concept of story, narrative arc, and what the idea of a standardized Happily Ever After might really imply.

ash and bramble cover

Here are three things kidlit writers can learn from Prineas’s latest book.

(Mild spoilers below!)

1. Capture the power of a retelling.

Prineas’s retelling of the Cinderella tale is compelling. Glass slippers make an appearance, yes, but so do musings on identity and fate and what it means to play a role in someone else’s narrative. Ash & Bramble doesn’t just turn the Cinderella story on its head, it also speaks to the nature of stories themselves.

How do stories get their power? What does it really mean that so many of the Western canon’s fairy tales end in a similar way: with a marriage to a prince, and a bland, predictable Happily Ever After?

Prineas plays with the tropes and the characters found in so many classic Western tales, all the while spinning a fascinating, subversive story of her own. Without being too self-aware, the book works on many different levels—making the resolution all the more satisfying when it comes.

2. Embrace the dark side.

Ash & Bramble is also effective because it’s so utterly creepy. Taking the dark side of many well-known fairy tales and running with it, Prineas conjures a world in which the Fairy Godmother heads up a sweatshop and memories can be erased with the touch of a thimble.

It’s obvious Prineas spent a lot of time pondering elements of the Cinderella story that are often considered nice, even lovely—a new gown, fantastic! She’s transformed, how wonderful!—and then uncovering the fundamental strangeness within them. When the Godmother dresses Penelope (the book’s Cinderella figure), Prineas effectively portrays the vulnerability and fear Penelope feels as she stands there, naked, awaiting her new “look.”

In a way, Prineas tells a completely new story, one that begins in the Godmother’s sweatshop, and includes elements not present in the seminal Cinderella tale. Yet, in searching out the strangeness in the tropes as old as time, Prineas manages to both create her own narrative and inform our reading of the classic Cinderella tale.

3. A well-crafted message will never feel preachy.

This book is unabashedly feminist. There’s a whole cast of complex female characters, and time and time again, women both save the day and get the credit for once, too.

Ash & Bramble critiques commonly-held ideas of what a girl’s Happily Ever After should look like, and consistently makes the case that every woman deserves to choose how she wants to live out her life, and with whom.

But the real key is that the book manages this without being too overt or moralistic. Ash & Bramble is a fascinating story, full of quirky details and multifaceted characters. And rather than layering the message on top of all this, Prineas has woven it in, made it an integral part of a well-crafted story.

It’s a book with a message, not a message-driven book, and it’s stitched as deftly and tightly as the work of Godmother’s captives and their fairy tale thread.

Want to discuss Ash & Bramble or other great YA and MG titles? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.


More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

more happy than not cover

More Happy Than Not is a book that sticks with you. Though I read it a few months ago, I keep coming back to the nuggets of writing wisdom in this lovely YA debut.

Here are three things kidlit writers can take away from Adam Silvera’s first novel (apart from an abiding hope that there are many, many more to come!).

1. “Too Many Things” is not a thing.

Aaron Soto is a poor Latino teen dealing with depression, his father’s death, and coming out as gay.

Woah, hold it right there!

Too many things, right?

And…(hushed voice)…will it be “relatable?”

Anyway, what kind of debut author thinks he can get away with all that?

Adam Silvera, apparently. And he pulls it off beautifully in More Happy Than Not. The novel is a tribute to the power of writing the book you want to write, and telling the story of a character whose story begs to be told.

Of course, this leads to the question: who decided the number of “things” a book’s allowed to deal with, anyway?

As Whitman would say, “We are large; our novels can and should contain multitudes.”

There are so many kids out there dealing with real, complex lives. Lives that don’t fit in a box of just one “thing” or the other. These are lives that deserve stories and representation, mirrors and models, examples of how to grow and thrive—and some days, how to just get by. More Happy Than Not is a testament to the truth: books that deal with life in all its complex, gritty realness are important and powerful. And they can be successful, too.

2. Thread that twist in early and often.

More Happy Than Not is a YA contemporary realistic novel with a slight futuristic twist. If Silvera had waited until the end to say, “Oh and memories can be erased in this world, B-T-Dubs,” it would have strained the novel’s credibility. Instead, he begins weaving in this slight deviation from current reality from the book’s opening. This makes it much more believable when the memory-erasure procedure becomes a central part of the plot.

From realistic novels to fantasy and everything in between, any major plot devices that stretch the limits of imagination must be introduced early. (Another way of saying this: worldbuilding isn’t just for science fiction/fantasy!) This may seem like a small detail, but it’s also an important one. It’s how authors maintain their readers’ trust.

3. The end of a YA book is really just the beginning.

Silvera has vehemently—and rightly—defended his ending, which true to the novel’s title skews toward the “more-happy-than-not” and away from the “happily-ever-after.” The ending fits the protagonist and the story. And it fits the YA category, too.

Few people tie up all their loose ends at the age of 16, 17, or 18—and who would want to? In YA, the protagonist’s central question morphs from the middle grade “What’s my place in this world?” to the hyper-existential “Wait, who am I, anyway?!” That question takes a lifetime to sort out. YA characters are just getting started.

So it’s okay to have an ending that’s “more happy than not.” It’s okay, preferable even, to have an ending that poses more questions than it answers. Of course readers want to see the characters they fall in love with ride off into the sunset. (And Aaron Soto is very easy to fall in love with.) But the YA audience will recognize and relate to a bittersweet ending—and they’ll understand that the character must continue his journey toward discovering a self that is real, and honest, and true.


Want to chat writing, kidlit, and more great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

This middle grade debut is getting a lot of attention for its science-based themes, its nuanced portrayal of a young girl coming of age, and its status as a National Book Award finalist.

I’d like to dig a bit deeper here and analyze how Ali Benjamin pulls off her protagonist Suzy’s lurch toward young adulthood––and what aspiring authors can learn from The Thing About Jellyfish.

1. Real is more important than likeable.

I’ve touched on this topic before, especially in my post on Erin Entrada Kelly’s Blackbird Fly, but The Thing About Jellyfish was such a good example that it bears repeating.

As Suzy grieves the death of her friend––and the disintegration of their relationship before that––she’s not always easy to like. She’s cruel to her parents at times and generally uncooperative as many people try to help her cope with the loss. She even pushes away a few kids at school who try to strike up a friendship.

All of this makes the book hard to read at certain points––but that’s because Suzy feels so real. I felt like I knew Suzy, and growing up I did know many kids like her: kids who don’t quite fit in with the others. Kids who are coping with stuff they just don’t have the tools for, yet.

Benjamin made a brave choice in making Suzy, at times, “unlikeable.” Suzy’s awkwardness, her obsessiveness, her dwelling and her deep loneliness, are a huge part of what makes Suzy a nuanced character, and the only one who could play this role, in this book.

Did Suzy frustrate me at times? Yes. But I also wanted to reach out and hug her on every page.

2. Your structure must serve your story.

The structure was my favorite aspect of this book. Suzy develops a hypothesis about her former friend’s death-by-drowning: that it was actually caused by a jellyfish sting. The book follows the scientific method as Suzy tries to prove her hypothesis.

In varying scenes that include events in the present day, flashbacks to before her friend’s death, and short chapters bulging with jellyfish-and-ocean-related facts, Suzy begins to learn about herself, and her grief, too. Eventually she finds that clear-cut answers may not come as easily as she hopes.

This framing device works really well. Instead of feeling gimmicky or forced, it enhances the narrative, as Suzy’s discoveries about jellyfish and about herself and her grief weave together beautifully. In one especially poignant moment, Suzy observes that it’s often the most fragile animals that are poisonous. The juxtaposition with her own lashing out is brilliant.

Jellyfish is a good reminder to search for novel ways to structure your story––and to always make sure a given structure is serving the story, and not the other way around.

3. Don’t be afraid to stretch an age range.

Jellyfish is solidly upper middle grade, with a voice that’s quite mature and reflective when compared to to many MG books. I’m sure it’s being shelved as YA in libraries and schools as we speak, but like the work of Rebecca Stead, Cynthia Kadohata, and Thanhha Lai, this is very much a “middle school” book.

I have no idea whether Benjamin felt tempted to age her protagonist up or down, or force the book into the typical MG or YA sweet spot––as a debut kidlit author, she may have––but I’m really glad that she stuck to her instincts and kept the book as it is, with all its middle school weirdness and puberty moments and coming-of-age fear and wonder and angst. Middle school readers will find an emotional rawness here that reflects their own lives. In reading Jellyfish, they’ll feel less alone.

And a bonus quote…

Finally, I called this out in my Goodreads review and I can’t help but repeat this beautiful excerpt here.

If I wasn’t already sold on Benjamin’s lovely, quirky debut, this line clinched it:

“Humans may be newcomers to this planet. We may be plenty fragile. But we’re also the only ones who can decide to change.”

It’s 2016, kidlit writers! Take that as your inspiration, and go forth and write lovely things.

Want to chat writing, kidlit, and more great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

Renée Ahdieh’s stunning debut, The Wrath and the Dawn, is a loose retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, and follows one of my favorite protagonists of 2015, Shahrzad, as she plots to take down the Caliph of Khorasan, Khalid Ibn al-Rashid, who’s responsible for the murder of her best friend and many other unlucky young women chosen to be his brides.

The Wrath and the Dawn

I needed something epic to lift me out of my post-Carry On slump (at least I have the Internet to tell me I’m not the only one who came down with a Simon-and-Baz-induced book hangover)––and The Wrath and the Dawn delivered. Shahrzad and Khalid’s “should I kiss you or kill you” courtship satisfied my craving for a dramatic, tension-fueled love story, and then some. Even better news: there’s a sequel coming out in May 2016!

As we close out a year filled with top-notch YA debuts, let’s look back on a few things The Wrath and the Dawn has to teach writers.

(Note: there are some mild spoilers below––wait until you’ve read this book yourself if you prefer to experience it in all its glorious mystery.)

1. Style counts, so craft that prose.

Every sentence in this book is excellent. Ahdieh chooses a style that fits her subject matter perfectly––it’s serious and refined, smart and crystal-clear. There’s a confidence to her prose that mirrors the confidence of her protagonist Shahrzad, and a lushness to it that invokes her setting: a world of palaces and jewels, silks and spices.

Ahdieh’s writing reminds us that every sentence is an opportunity: to enchant our readers with a beautiful image; to reinvigorate our story with an interesting turn of phrase; to deepen our characterization with a precise observation or a surprising stylistic twist.

As writers, we may have a whole world in our minds, but we only have words to to convey it. No sentence can be a throwaway. As in The Wrath and the Dawn, make sure each one is beautiful, interesting, and true.

2. Female characters can shine, even in a male-dominated world.

A deep, abiding bond between two female friends––Shahrzad and Shiva, one of the many brides dead by Khalid’s hand––drives the story forward. Shahrzad must decide between her loyalty to her longtime best friend and the husband she’s falling more in love with every day. This friendship bond was enough to motivate Shahrzad to volunteer to be Khalid’s wife, leaving her home and her beloved Tariq. Shiva meant more to her than almost anyone in the world. Yet, despite the female friendship at its core, without Shahrzad’s clever handmaiden, Despina, this book would have likely failed the Bechdel test.

It was a savvy decision on Ahdieh’s part to pump up Despina’s character. As a servant, Despina could have been little more than a prop, there to help Shahrzad get dressed, perhaps make a joke or two about the Caliph. Instead, Despina proves to be a force in her own right, smart, strong, and beautiful, with a backstory that could make for a fascinating book, too. She offers an interesting perspective on life in the palace, and her “spy-or-friend?” status with Shahrzad provides a nice parallel to Shahrzad’s budding relationship with Khalid––not to mention a crucial touch of female companionship in a story otherwise dominated by men.

Despina’s role here reminds us to search for ways to incorporate female characters, even in male-centric settings. Shahrzad could, of course, be a prototype for a Strong Female Character. But this book is much better for its inclusion of another woman, who’s very different from Shahrzad, but strong and fascinating in her own way.

Another minor female character, Yasmine, also proves intriguing, and her banter with Shahrzad is one of the highlights of the book. Like Khalid, Yasmine seems to be a match to Shahrzad in both beauty and wit. She only appears briefly, and it’s clear there are many depths to Yasmine’s character Ahdieh has yet to plumb. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of her in Book 2…

3. Let the mystery linger.

Ahdieh is a master of withholding, not unlike Shahrzad, who uses a cliffhanger in a story to lure Khalid into letting her live another day.  One hundred pages into The Wrath and the Dawn, we still don’t know much about Shahrzad’s revenge plot (or whether she even has one), why Khalid has been murdering a new bride each morning, why Shahrzad’s father believes he has the key to saving his daughter, or who, exactly, the good guys and the bad guys are.

When drafting a story, it’s tempting to give too much away, too early. We worry about confusing readers; we want these characters to be as alive to them as they are to us. But Ahdieh shows that when it comes to conveying character motivations, you can do a lot with very little. By giving Shahrzad such a weighty task––avenging her best friend’s death, even if it means sacrificing her own life––Ahdieh has made sure we’re rooting for her protagonist, even before the details of the plan are revealed.

And this mystery is exactly the thing that keeps us reading. In a series of suspensions both tiny and large, Ahdieh invites us to ask questions, then lets the answers slowly unfold. This suspense makes us feel like we, too, are right there with Shahrzad, wondering whether she’ll live to see another morning light.

Want to chat more about The Wrath and the Dawn or other great YA and middle grade titles?  Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.

Happy writing, all.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I read I’ll Give You the Sun a while ago but can’t stop thinking about it––and recommending it to everyone who crosses my path.

There’s a lot to unpack in this incredible novel, 2015’s Printz winner and a Stonewall honor book. With a fresh awards season just around the corner, it’s a great time to look back at a story that knocked our socks off last year. Let’s see what we can learn from it now.

1. Challenge your reader with complex characters.

I’ll Give You the Sun is the story of twins Jude and Noah, and how three years turned their family upside down. Noah narrates the time when the twins are thirteen, and Jude narrates the time when they’re sixteen. Each has only half the story, so we––and they––must string together the intervening years before the family unravels completely.

Forget everything you’ve ever heard about “likable” and “unlikeable” characters. Nelson instead crafts characters that fascinate, that draw us in, in all their frustrating, captivating realness. The family members forge alliances and carry out betrayals. Their relationships are imperfect and emotional, their personalities nuanced and raw.

I won’t say too much, because one joy of this book is plunging the depths of each character’s complexity. But I can say: I’ll Give You the Sun is a master class for any writer looking to make their characters real.

2. Find a structure that lets your skills shine.

Nelson’s structure––alternating POV between 13-year-old Noah and 16-year-old Jude––doesn’t just make for great suspense as we piece together everything that’s happened in the intervening years. It also gives Nelson an opportunity to show off some serious expertise in creating two distinct, yet equally compelling, voices.

Noah’s voice is like overfilled water balloon, bursting and soaking everything nearby. Nelson was smart to begin the book from his perspective––Noah grips you. He oozes creativity, and an artistic energy (a “revolutionary fire,” as he puts it) that can barely contain itself. Noah draws us in with this boundless vivacity, and we’re rooting for him from page one.

Sixteen-year-old Jude is more complex. She’s superstitious, wounded, guarded. Noah thinks she’s wearing “flame retardant,” but it’s not that simple. She’s still figuring herself out, and we’re unraveling that mystery with her. She’s equal parts painfully self-aware and completely unreliable, darkly humorous and wracked with doubt. We get to know Jude slowly, piece by piece. As she falls for another character and lets him into her life, her voice opens up, and she lets us in, too.

3. Mine your subject matter for fantastic, lush writing.

This book is about a lot of things. Family. Love. Death. Growing up. But one core theme stands out, a subject Nelson uses to great advantage in her prose: art.

Both Jude and Noah are artists, as is their mother, and this affects their relationship, and the novel’s plot, in profound ways.

But it’s not just about the plot––it’s about the writing! Not one to scatter a few descriptions of artistic creation throughout and call it a day, Nelson instead infuses this book with art. There’s Guillermo Garcia’s violent, emotional sculpting process; Noah’s imaginary painting, where he freezes scenes from life, abstracting them in his mind; Jude’s deep fascination with a portrait her brother created, which returns to haunt her later; and jaw-droppingly profound descriptions of art and meaning and passion for creating things, all throughout the novel. More than a plot device, art becomes a character in this book.

Nelson reminds us that a well-chosen subject can make all the difference––and we should not be afraid to be over-the-top, to squeeze everything from our subject matter that we can.

Want to chat more about I’ll Give You the Sun or other great kidlit titles?  Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.

Happy writing, all.

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Ever finish a book and feel your heart break a little bit when you remember the characters aren’t real?

By the end of Rebecca Stead’s latest middle grade novel, Goodbye Stranger, I wanted to be BFF with Bridge, Tab, and Em. I definitely wanted to join their “set” (Bridge is allergic to clubs) and to live by their one rule: no fighting.

Stead, a Newbery medalist, has drawn up a savvy, textured portrayal of middle school life in 2015, complete with intruder drills, post-selfie victim blaming, and a deep exploration of what it means to be a friend and a feminist while growing up today.

Here’s what kidlit writers can learn from Goodbye Stranger[Note: Spoilers ahead––read Stead’s gorgeous novel first, then return!]

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

1. Master the ins and outs of kids’ lives now.

Bridge, Tab, and Em’s “no fighting” rule becomes harder to follow when an older boy pressures Em to take a provocative selfie. The girls are growing up, and they’re beginning to grow apart.

“A book about a selfie?” some people have asked when I describe this premise. “How profound can it be?”

The first answer is, very. The second is, selfies––and the pressure to take sexual ones, especially when it’s an older, cooler boy doing the asking––are very much a part of girls’ lives today. So why shouldn’t they appear in literature made for them, too?

Selfies are just one aspect of Stead’s deft creation of a 2015 middle school setting. She goes all-in with details specific to life today. This includes excruciatingly believable text messages, social media profiles, and a sometimes funny, sometimes sad subplot involving a steps contest (10,000 each day, exactly) with a Fitbit-like device.

Middle school readers will feel at home here. They’ll know they’re in good hands.

2. Put feminism front and center.

Many girls begin to grapple with sexism around this age. (There’s a depressing trend in anti-street harassment blogs, where women describe realizing they weren’t little kids anymore when a man first whistled at them on the street, often as young as age 11.) It follows that issues of feminism, and what it means to be a sexual––and sexualized––being, should be front-and-center in books set in middle schools.

Yet, usually, they’re not. In the middle grade world, precocious protagonists often obsess over books, or animals, or their next big project at the science fair. Feminism? Not so much. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to see Bridge’s two closest friends approaching their coming-of-age from different but equally feminist perspectives.

Tab is a disciple of Ms. Berman, a teacher who encourages her students to look for sexism in language and asks them to call her “Ms. Berperson.” Tab is quick to point out the problematic nature of the older boy’s selfie request and steers Em and Bridge away from sexualized Halloween costumes.

Yet Em––who criticizes Tab for being “judgey” and, initially, seems to bend to the selfie pressure far too easily––turns out to be a feminist figure in her own right. When her provocative selfie is passed around, Em is less ashamed about her exposed body than she is frustrated with the attitude of her peers.

“But the bad part was that it felt like they were making fun of my feeling good about the picture,” she says. “Of my liking myself. Does that make sense?”

It does. Em is developing her own nascent feminism, fraught as it may be, and we grow to appreciate this as the book progresses.

3. Sometimes the “happily ever after” isn’t romantic.

Throughout the novel, protagonist Bridge develops a close bond with classic nice guy Sherm. They find each other easy to talk to; they make each other laugh; they look for each other at school, on the street, everywhere. It’s a classic first-love setup––except, it’s not. Bridge and Sherm are falling for each other as friends. They both know what they want, and if there’s any tension between them, it’s because they’re worried the other might want something more.

This plotline was wonderful and refreshing. Stead doesn’t explain her characters’ lack of romantic chemistry: perhaps it’s because they’re not ready, or there’s no attraction, or they’re not into the opposite sex that way. Whatever the reason, Bridge and Sherm are unapologetic about following a different path. When Sherm says, “I’m not going to kiss you or anything,” Bridge says, “Good.”

In another great moment, despite her newfound friendship-love for good guy Sherm, Bridge isn’t ashamed to prioritize her longtime BFFs.

“You’re my best friend, too,” Bridge tells Sherm near the end of the book.

Tellingly, she adds: “Tab, Emily, and you.”

Want to discuss Goodbye Stranger, feminism, selfies, or––how could I have missed them?!––Bridge’s cat ears? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.