The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

At SCBWI-LA over the summer, I had the pleasure of hearing Kwame Alexander speak in a keynote and a very inspiring session on poetry. Hearing Alexander in person reminded me how great The Crossover is––and how this novel in verse has a lot to teaching aspiring kidlit writers about their craft.

Here are three things writers can take away from Alexander’s breakout book, winner of last year’s Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award.

1. Rhythm is everything.

Alexander comes to kidlit by way of poetry. Here, he borrows the quick, agile rhythm of a basketball game to drive this fast-paced, playful novel about two basketball prodigy brothers growing up and growing apart. Josh Bell and his brother Jordan live for basketball, and live their lives like a basketball game: with rivalries, competitions, and strict rules, all cultivated on the court. Josh’s quick-witted narration keeps the story moving like a fast break to the basket, and his flashy wordplay matches the fancy footwork of a star guard, showing off his moves.

In The Crossover, the novel-in-verse form fits the story perfectly, and the breakneck rhythm of a basketball game drives the plot forward from beginning to end. It’s a great example of “form follows function” in action––and it’s just fun! Like watching a basketball game between evenly matched rivals, reading The Crossover keeps you on the edge of your seat until the final buzzer, holding your breath, waiting for the final shot.

2. Sibling relationships are tough.

Alexander digs deep into the profound ups and downs of sibling––and in the case, twin––relationships. He has a keen eye for the overwhelming love and, at times, intense hatred that emerge from the super-close relationship with that one person who knows you better than anyone else.

His exploration of twins coming of age and growing apart echoes that of Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl––except here, we have two middle school boys instead of two college-age young women. The central issue is much the same, though: Josh feels deserted when Jordan gets a girlfriend. Here, Josh lashes out in the only way he knows how: on the court.

It’s refreshing to see a sibling rivalry portrayed with the same depth of emotion usually reserved for a romantic one. Using Alexander’s example, we should push ourselves to treat family relationships––and platonic ones––with the same intensity as first crushes and young love. Because sibling love and friend love is love, after all. For many kids, it’s an even more important kind than that romantic stuff, which isn’t always relevant to their day-to-day life.

3. Sports books can be so much more than just that.

Writers can fall into the same trap as readers when it comes to sports. There are sports books, and there’s everything else––and you’re either a reader (or writer) of one or the other…right?

Not quite. The Crossover proves that a book with a basketball on the cover can transcend that category. Even non-sports-loving readers can find a lot to love about this book, with its complex portrayal of family life and Alexander’s passion for language, which oozes off the page.

Yet the basketball element here is neither a ploy to “attract boy readers” nor a quick way to throw in some more action. It’s an integral element of Josh and Jordan’s lives and their relationship with their father, each other, and the world around them. It’s also a dead-on portrayal of so many American families that live for sports––families that take the lessons they learn on the court and apply them to life.

Kwame Alexander has a lot to teach us about writing. And if you ever get the chance to hear him speak, I highly suggest you do!

Want to chat more about The Crossover, or writing in general? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.

Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

Erin Entrada Kelly’s debut middle grade novel follows Filipina-American music lover Analyn––aka Apple––as she deals with the ins and outs of middle school social life. Her year gets off to a bad start: she’s on the Dog Log, the list of the ugliest girls in school, and one of her closest friends has begun to treat her like a social liability.

Blackbird Fly does a great job of portraying that middle school agony of feeling different, when all you want is to fit in.

Here are three things we can learn from Kelly’s lovely debut.

1. It’s rough out there!

The Dog Log sounded really brutal to my adult brain. For just a flicker of a split second, I wondered if these kids were a little too mean to be realistic.

But then I remembered 5th, 6th, 7th grade. And…yep. Kelly has it spot-on.

This novel brought me straight back to middle school, where friends are the most important thing in your life––and can also cause you the most pain, right when you’re still discovering who you are.

Kids’ lives are tough. And life’s even tougher for a kid who feels like an outsider, who feels like she doesn’t quite fit in at school or at home. Watching Apple navigate the harshly hierarchical world of her middle school is a little heartbreaking at times. But it’s also spot-on, and those difficulties make it that much sweeter when Apple finally begins to figure out who she is.

2. Don’t be afraid to let your protagonist be unlikeable.

Apple’s not always nice. She plays along with the mean girls for a while, and she’s especially harsh on her mom. We see how Apple sees her Philippines-apron-wearing, accented-English-speaking mom––and it’s not exactly pretty. It’s easy to get frustrated with Apple, at times: why can’t she just embrace the things that make her and her mom different?

In the best of circumstances, kids this age get a jolt when they realize their parents aren’t perfect. In Apple’s case, the effect is exaggerated. Her mom represents everything that makes her different from her peers––everything, she believes, that got her on the Dog Log, everything that’s keeping her out of that top tier of popular kids.

Apple isn’t perfect, but she feels real. And because of this, Kelly gets us rooting for Apple: we can see ourselves in her, the good and the bad. We’re really hoping she’ll find her way in the end.

3. What makes your character special?

Apple loves the Beatles. Cool! (I wish I’d been this cool at that age.)

Apple’s obsession with the Beatles isn’t your average MG heroine feature. But it’s not just thrown in there for the quirk factor. Music––especially the Beatles’ tunes––becomes a huge part of Apple’s identity as she searches out who she is, and how she’s different, both from her family and from her peers.

Music also connects Apple to her family, and this connection shifts and evolves as the story moves along. It’s a key part of Apple’s character, and adds another layer to Blackbird Fly that makes it an even more rewarding story. It also inspired me to rock out to some Beatles tunes when I finished reading––an added bonus of a very satisfying book!

Want to chat more about Blackbird Fly? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda––published by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Becky Albertalli’s lovely debut Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda has been described as “You’ve Got Mail starring gay teenage boys with good grammar.” The YA novel deals with heavy themes: Simon’s blackmailed by a boy in his class who discovers his secret email correspondence with the mysterious Blue, and later, bullying, love triangles, and the oft-underestimated complexity of platonic relationships also complicate Simon’s junior year. Yet Albertalli keeps Simon fun, and as sweet as the Oreos that junk-food-loving Simon is always craving.

Here are three things kidlit writers can learn from Albertalli’s debut.

1. Internet: it’s not just for distracting writers!

The plot in Simon hinges on Simon and Blue’s anonymous email correspondence. They know they go to the same school––they met on the high school Tumblr––and they know they’re quickly falling for each other. But that’s about it. Since neither is out as gay, the anonymity is appealing. Even as they grown to know and care for each other deeply, they’re scared that if they meet in real life, everything might change.

Here, the tech-centric nature of the story doesn’t detract from the poignancy. It makes the book feel more real, and more in tune with students’ lives today. The mystery behind Blue’s identity also becomes a driving force in the plot, and enables an Internet-fueled suspense that would be absent otherwise.

2. Make your characters real––if you can do that, you can write outside your diversity.

I approached this book with a bit of hesitation. Shouldn’t I read a story about a gay teenage boy written by someone who’s been a gay teenage boy?

Well, the answer to that is yes. But it doesn’t mean I can’t also read and enjoy this book! And here’s the key to why Simon works: Simon Spier feels like a real, three-dimensional person. He’s a good friend sometimes, and a bad friend sometimes. He eats way too many cookies (more on that later). He’s self-conscious about wearing band T-shirts if he hasn’t been to a concert. And his voice––it sounds exactly like a teenage boy who, despite being incredibly perceptive, is still figuring out who he is.

To bring a character to life, you need to deeply respect them. You need to notice the little details that make the character unique and human, just the way you could pick out your best friend’s laugh in a crowded airport. That’s the depth of commitment it takes to write outside your diversity. Albertalli’s got it, and it makes this book a joy to read.

3. There’s nothing wrong with a sweet tooth.

More about that joy! At its core, this book is really a celebration of that overwhelming, exhausting, all-consuming, nerve-ending-surging young love. It’s as sweet as any happily-ever-after teen movie (are you listening, Hollywood producers?), and not just because Simon is always going on about Oreos and Reese’s.

This is the kind of book you read when you want to remember there are a few things right with the world. And because it doesn’t shy away from those tough topics like bullying––or coming out when your dad has made a gay joke or two––it’s all the more meaningful when young love and flawed but loyal friendship prevail.

Want to chat more about Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

Monstrous by MarcyKate Connolly

Monstrous by MarcyKate Connolly

MarcyKate Connolly’s debut novel, the middle grade fantasy Monstrous, chronicles the adventures of Kymera, a girl brought back from the dead and made into a human-cat-raven-snake hybrid by her scientist father. (Though as the plot unravels, her origins prove more complex.) Pitched as “Brothers Grimm-meets-Frankenstein,” the novel delivers, and its mixture of classic fantasy and strange, gory elements makes for a satisfying read.

Here are a few things writers can learn from Connolly’s debut.

1. Give your protagonist a unique perspective.

Kymera is an intriguing protagonist, in large part because she’s so different from everyone around her. She yearns for the company of humans, yet knows she’s completely different from them. Animal instincts and human instincts compete within her––sometimes aligned, often at odds. In certain ways, she understands the humans in the nearby city; in other ways, their actions confound her.

All of this makes Kymera a fascinating main character. She’s an outsider, giving her a unique window into the world. While others see her––and sometimes her deeds––as monstrous, to herself she’s normal, with beautiful wings, a useful tail, and an important mission. This disparity adds a compelling tension to the book, and a profound reminder that things are not always what they seem.

2. Specific goals can change throughout the story––but underlying motivation should stay the same.

When Kymera comes to life, she’s given an important task: to rescue the girls of the city Bryre from a hospital, before an evil wizard gets to them. For the first section of the book, this task propels her, and she’s driven entirely by her goal to save the girls of Bryre.

A mid-novel plot twist complicates Kymera’s mission, and she realizes her task wasn’t as clear-cut as she thought. Yet, though her specific goals change, her central motivation stays the same. Throughout the entire novel, Kymera wants to help Bryre. Whatever her task, she’s always driven by the same deep desire: to be a protector, and to save the city she loves.

3. Push your protagonist to the edge. And maybe off of it.

It’s a common piece of writing advice: send your protagonist to the darkest place you can think of. Take away everything they hold dear. Push them to the edge. But rarely have I seen this done in a way that’s so…visceral.

The world Kymera lives in is a dark one, with an evil king and an evil wizard, an enchanted, malignant briar patch, humans who think she’s a monster, and a shorter and shorter list of people she can trust. As she begins to unravel the story of her own origins, this darkness touches her very being––quite literally, the pieces she’s made of––and she begins to wonder if all the humans who call her a monster are right.

Connolly’s debut is a good reminder to challenge our protagonists. To make them question everything, right down to their very bones. In this way, we spur their growth––and we keep our readers turning pages, wondering how the heck the protagonist will get out of this one…

Want to chat more about Monstrous? You can find me on Twitter @beckererine.

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín and E.M. O’Connor (translator)

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín

Marjorie Agosín’s I Lived on Butterfly Hill is a middle grade novel set in the early 1970’s. E.M. O’Connor translated it from the Spanish. Butterfly Hill follows the journeys of Celeste Marconi as she deals with life under the military dictatorship. When Celeste’s parents are labeled “subversives” for their medical work with the poor and their support for Presidente Alarcón (a fictional parallel to the historical Salvador Allende), they must go into hiding, leaving Celeste with her nana and abuela in their house in Valparaíso. Soon, as the country becomes more oppressive and even some of her classmates turn against her, Celeste must flee to live with her aunt in Maine.

My spouse is Chilean and I lived in Chile for two years, so I read Agosín’s account of this dark period in Chilean history with interest. Her descriptions of Valparaíso, especially, stuck with me: the houses that ramble up the hillsides, the colors, the smells (Rain! Sopaipillas! Cilantro! Empanadas!), and the way the ocean forms the backdrop of it all. As kidlit writers, we have a lot to learn from Agosín’s sad, hopeful, lovely book. Here are three things we can take away from I Lived on Butterfly Hill.

1. You have your creative license. Use it.

The first night I was reading this novel, I had a lot of questions for my spouse.

“Alarcón? Who’s Alarcón? I was sure this was about Allende…”

After spending some time on Wikipedia, we confirmed there was no Alarcón. And as the book progresses, Agosín continues to veer from history: the dictatorship lasts three years instead of 17; the General (clearly based on Pinochet, but never named) dies of a cold, rather than leaving office after a referendum. A female president, Mónica Espinoza, is elected shortly after––perhaps a Michelle Bachelet figure, though Bachelet didn’t become president of Chile until 2006.

Tellingly, the only real historical figures here are poets: Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral.

The book becomes a strange, vivid mixture of authentic history and artistic license, of fictional characters and painfully real tragedies. At first, I felt a bit cheated. I wanted to see Chilean history, in all its messiness, and perhaps learn something new along the way. But Agosín’s decision to leave the names out of it––names that carry so many connotations, so much weight––allows her to simply tell the story.

Many readers have mentioned wanting a historical endnote, explaining who the figures really are, which things are true and which are fictional. For a Chilean audience, however, Celeste’s story becomes a powerful opportunity to reconsider a tense, tragic point in national history, without getting caught up in the politics of it all. We can’t be distracted by our preconceived notions of Allende or Pinochet, or which side of history we’ve been taught to stand on. This isn’t a book about Communists or Chicago Boys. Simply, it’s a book about Celeste, and her life during a scary, confusing time.

2. It’s not how long your book is––it’s how long it feels.

At 455 pages, this book is long, especially for a middle grade audience. But it flies by with the speed of a book half its size. Agosín’s sparse, poetic chapters, with an extra lift from gorgeous illustrations by Lee White, move along quickly as seasons change and political powers shift. The novel covers a lot of ground––emotional, historical, and geographical––in a short time. All the while, a few terrible, suspenseful questions keep the tension high: Where are Celeste’s parents? Will Celeste adjust to her new life in Maine? Will Chile ever be peaceful again?

Agosín’s novel reminds us that it’s not about word count––it’s about pacing. The felt experience of a book can’t be measured by its pages, and length guidelines aren’t law. Here, Agosín tells the story that needs to be told, and it reads beautifully, with just the right number of words.

3. Food is the universal language.

Returning to those sopaipillas and that cilantro! Of course I have a special place for Chilean treats in my heart, but anyone can appreciate the comfort food you eat on a rainy day, those delicacies you buy from the streetcart, that favorite dish your grandma used to make to help you feel like everything was going to be okay.

When Celeste is far away from her home and living in Maine, she stays with an aunt who doesn’t know how to cook, and feeds her crunchy cereal in the morning. This adds to Celeste’s isolation––but as she grows accustomed to it, we see her adaptability, and her resilience.

By including so many details about food––its smell and texture, its relationship to happiness and sadness and family and celebration––Agosín makes her book rich with cultural and sensory detail, and helps the characters and the setting come alive.

(Now I really, really want to go to Valparaíso…)

Want to chat more about I Lived on Butterfly Hill? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

The Imaginary by A. F. Harrold and Emily Gravett

The Imaginary by A. F. Harrold and Emily Gravett

A nifty little book, The Imaginary follows the adventures of a young girl’s imaginary friend––and thrusts us into a world where “imaginaries” search for new children to believe in them, cats can have one blue eye and one red eye, and villains wear Hawaiian shirts. It’s quirky, dark, creative, and deep. Here’s what we can learn from author A. F. Harrold and illustrator Emily Gravett’s strange, magical novel.

1. Freaky = fun.

How many freaky things can you pack into one book? There’s a scary car accident. A mysterious trash-filled alley. A creepy little girl who just feels “off.” And a sly old man who feeds on imaginaries.

A book with a bit of a Tim Burton vibe, The Imaginary is scary and weird. It feels like a story you’d tell around the campfire, with a flashlight casting strange shadows on your face.

Harrold and Gravett do a great job evoking that creepy-crawly feeling of being a kid, when you’re just sure there’s something terrifying under your bed. There’s a thrill to getting a good scare, and that “something’s-about-to-go-bump-in-the-night” feeling keeps us turning pages.

2. Let the mystery unfold slowly.

Harrold’s an expert at giving readers just the information they need to keep the story interesting. He allows the mystery of how the real world and the imaginary world interact unfold slowly, and we’re never confused, just intrigued, as he roots us in this world with strong sensory details and just the right amount of wordbuilding.

By using a good balance of detail, explanation, and description, Harrold shows that he trusts his readers. We don’t need every little thing explained to us. We can fill in the gaps, and it’s fun to have curiosity spurring us forward. For a book about imagination, it’s a pretty good technique.

3. Parents can be cool, too.

At first, Amanda’s mom seems like she’s going to be another typical kidlit parent: the scolding, uncreative mom, who’s too involved in her work to see that there’s an imaginary boy right under her nose. But there’s much more to Mrs. Shuffleup’s character––and her own history with imaginary friends becomes an important part of the story.

It’s refreshing to see a parent who has her flaws and her workaholic side, but is still a good mom. She’s very willing to fight for her daughter, and her daughter’s imagination, when she’s pushed to do so. Amanda’s mom is a realistic, three-dimensional character. And she adds a poignancy to the story that a cookie-cutter kidlit parent just wouldn’t have.

Mrs. Shuffleup offers us a great reminder to flesh out adult characters, just like we flesh out our kid characters. They can play a real part in adding depth to our books, since, let’s face it––adults are a huge part of kids’ lives.

Want to chat more about The Imaginary? Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Listen Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Can you call an author who’s just published her second book a master? In the case of Thanhha Lai, I think so.

Lai’s first novel, Inside Out and Back Again, won a Newbery Honor and a National Book Award. In her sophomore effort, Lai returns to exploring the Vietnamese-American experience, this time through the eyes of Mai––AKA Mia––who’s not too happy to be dragged along on her grandmother’s trip to Vietnam.

Listen, Slowly is fertile ground for kidlit writers honing their craft, and really just a darn good read: gorgeous, emotional, funny, and real. Here’s what I took away from this lovely book.

1. Forget likable––go for authentic.

The novel opens with Mai complaining about her dad, “Dr. Do Gooder,” and how he’s obsessed with helping Vietnamese kids suffering hand burns and cleft palates. “Guilt, very big in this family,” she says––but makes it clear she’d rather be paddle-boarding or enjoying a mango smoothie back home at Laguna Beach.

Mai is mad that she has to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam on a mission to find out what happened to her grandfather, who’s been MIA since the war. She’s mad that her dad’s more focused on his patients than her. She’s obsessed with a guy she’s barely spoken to, and would rather be back at the beach getting to know him than getting to know her extended family in Vietnam.

Basically? Mai’s a very typical twelve-year-old. She may not always be likable, but she’s real. Lai doesn’t shy away from Mai’s imperfections. By showing her rougher, more selfish side, Lai gives Mai plenty of space to grow––and also makes her an authentic, believable character, flaws and all.

2. Use all the senses for a full, textured picture of your setting and characters.

Lai has a knack for description. She does a lot with a little, and doesn’t stop at sight and sound. Reminding us that it takes all the senses to really make a place come alive, Lai’s descriptions include tastes delicious and disgusting; textures, like the hard floor Mai sleeps on in Vietnam and the slippery, bulging mass of her new friend’s pet frog; and scents, like the “mellow smoothness” of a steaming sweet potato at breakfast, or the “grassy and flowery and peppery” smell of crushed leaves.

Lai also uses some unexpected sensory description to deepen her characters. Mai’s dad smells like “harsh soap and sour sweat and mediciny medicine.” And Mai’s grandmother always offers her quartered lemon drops: “just the right amount of sweet and sour.” It’s beautiful language, and these observations tell us so much about Mai, and about the people in her world.

3. The contradictions within a “voice” can make it more real.

SAT vocabulary + tween melodrama + profound yearning + wonder at the world = Mai’s layered, complex, and very believable voice. She’s inconsistent and contradictory, stating she’ll never say another SAT word again (her mom makes her learn a new one each day), and then using “ostensible” in the very next sentence.

The mixture of “high” and “low” in Mai’s narration dramatizes the stop-start nature of tween maturity––from one minute to the next, from one sentence to the next, she can be a little kid or almost a grown-up. It’s complex, and incredibly engaging. We end up rooting for Mai, excited to see how she’ll learn and change. Despite Mai’s imperfections, Lai’s deft handling of her protagonist’s voice ensures we’re always on her side––and sad to see her go, when the novel ends.

Want to chat more about Listen, Slowly? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

The Boy in the Black Suit, a 2015 young adult novel from author Jason Reynolds, follows Matt Miller as he grieves the death of his mother, starts a new job at a funeral home, and falls for a charming, self-reliant young woman who works at a local fast food joint.

Here are a few things kidlit writers can learn from Jason Reynolds’s second novel.

1. Sad and funny can––and should––go hand in hand.

There’s no way around it––Matt’s life is tough right now. Matt’s mom has just passed away, and his dad is struggling. Matt’s not really into his classes, although he’s doing fine academically. Basically, he’s ready to get out of high school and on with his life. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that, with that setup, it just doesn’t seem like this book is going to be all that humorous…

But turns out, it is. And Reynolds pulls the humor off beautifully. Matt is wry and self-deprecating, witty and warm. As his emotions begin to thaw, Matt reveals himself to be an immensely appealing, funny, and varied character. He begins to joke again. To live.

Reynolds also gives us a healthy dose of humor around the funeral home, with goofy situations that crop up even in the saddest of circumstances, and characters who thrive despite interacting with grief every day.  Juxtaposed with the humor, we can understand the depth of Matt’s grief––and the sadness makes the light parts all the more airy.

2. Secondary characters teach us about main characters.

When Matt takes the job at the funeral home after his mom’s death, he begins spending a lot of time with Mr. Ray, the owner of the funeral home. Mr. Ray becomes a mentor and a father figure for Matt as he navigates his grief––but a bit of a foil for him, too. Mr. Ray is always talking about how he was irresponsible when he was a kid, and how Matt’s so different from him: on the right track, good in school. We learn a lot about Matt through Mr. Ray’s impression of him––these are aspects of Matt’s character he wouldn’t have revealed to us himself.

We also learn something about Matt through his willingness to build a relationship with Mr. Ray, who’s known as a bit of an eccentric around the neighborhood. As their friendship grows, Matt finds out there’s a lot more to Mr. Ray than meets the eye. Seeing Matt’s willingness to delve deeper makes Matt all the more likable, and helps us trust Matt as we follow him on his journey through grief, too.

3. A vivid setting can function like a character.

Matt’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood plays a huge role in the story. Reynolds crafts a setting that’s rich, vibrant, and gritty. There’s the Cluck Bucket, a local fast food place where Matt tries to get a job. There’s the bodega near Matt’s house, where they’ll cut you a deal if you’re short on cash. Then there’s Chris’s apartment, where rules include leaving takeout boxes in the fridge overnight so the mice don’t get at them.

Matt rarely walks down the street without bumping into someone he knows––it’s a tight-knight community, adding a texture to Reynolds’s book that makes it all the more interesting to read.

Whether your book takes place in the city or the suburbs or the faraway corners of the Chilean Patagonia, remember to work that setting to your advantage, and use it to highlight aspects of character and plot that you wouldn’t be able to bring out otherwise. The Boy in the Black Suit does this very well, and it’s a great reminder of how setting can really make a book shine.

Want to share your thought on Jason Reynolds’s newest book? Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.

The Truth About Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh

The Truth About Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh

The Truth About Twinkie Pie is Kat Yeh’s debut novel and, given its delectable cover, well…who wouldn’t want to read it?! This sweet, quirky book follows brainy twelve-year-old GiGi as she adjusts to life at a new school and unravels a mystery about her family’s past.

What can Yeh’s voice-driven middle grade book teach us about the kidlit craft? Here are three things I took away from The Truth About Twinkie Pie.

1. Play with readers’ expectations.

At first glance, this book features a lot of “types.” The popular girl defending her territory and bullying the new kid. The rich, cute boy with the country-club family. The martyr-esque older sister, caring for her younger sibling no matter the cost. The fish-out-of-water protagonist––a Southern girl trying to make her way in a ritzy New Jersey prep school.

We’ve seen it before, until we haven’t. Yeh does a fantastic job of creating expectations, then surprising the reader when her characters defy them. The result is a fast-paced sprint through the last third of the book, as GiGi uncovers secrets, finds an unlikely ally, and discovers that nothing in her life is quite what it seems.

2. Sweet can still be deep.

GiGi has a down-home narrative style not unlike the protagonists of Three Times Lucky and A Snicker of Magic (pretty good company to be in––way to go, Kat Yeh!). Between GiGi’s sweet Southern voice, and a cover so sugary you literally want to eat it, I wasn’t imagining Twinkie Pie would be quite so…emotional.

Twinkie Pie is about many things at once: the definition of success, loss and grief, class issues, poverty, what it means to be a mother, coming out as gay, and food as family therapy. There’s some heavy stuff here, reminding us that kidlit need not be light and airy. Yeh manages to maintain that sweet and at times sentimental tone, without shying away from the tough stuff.

3. One unconventional element can make a big difference.

We learn about GiGi’s mother primarily through her recipe book––the only possession, GiGi’s big sister tells her, that survived a long-ago fatal fire. Tucked between chapters and playing off the book’s emotional turning points, the recipes each come with a story and a purpose.

A few examples: Turn Over a New Leaf Turnovers. Madder’n Heck Smashed Potatoes. Love at First Salad.

These recipes add an extra dimension to the novel––and this makes a huge difference. In the tradition of Like Water for Chocolate and Garden Spells, in Twinkie Pie, food is more than just food. But there’s no magical realism here, just the practical connection between a mother, a daughter, the family recipes, and the simple act of taking the ingredients life hands you and making them your own.

Want to chat about Twinkie Pie? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral

Chopsticks is not as new as most of the books I review here (it was published early 2012), but I can’t stop thinking about it––so I knew it had to make it into the blog.

Chopsticks tells the story of Glory and Frank’s young, troubled romance through sequential images: photos, music books, drawings, and notes. And for a novel with so few words, Chopsticks has quite a bit to teach us about writing.

Here are a few lessons I took away from Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral’s Chopsticks.

Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corrall

1. Aesthetics are important.

This book is visually gorgeous. It’s got that nostalgic, Instagram-filtery feel that must have been so spot-on in 2012 and still feels good today. The novel is both gritty and alluring, and a great reminder that beauty matters. Make your book beautiful. Make it captivating. If you can do that––whether through words or images––it will be much more poignant for its readers.

2. Keep the backstory reveal nice and slow.

Do you find yourself loading your openings with big chunks of backstory? We all know we shouldn’t––but restraining that impulse can prove difficult.

Chopsticks is a great example of how you can say a lot with an image, a hint. You don’t need to give it all away at once. The reader can pick up on clues, and you can reveal bits of the character’s history as you go along. Glory’s life as a piano prodigy, and the sad story of her mother’s death, come through to us with a snapshot of a playbill here, a photo of an old wine label there. The slow reveal makes it that much more satisfying.

3. Trust your reader.

I’ll admit that on the first round, I read Chopsticks in one big gulp. It was just so visually arresting. And I had to know: what’s going to happen to these two sweet, sweet characters who can’t seem to catch a break?!

But once I slowed down and started breathing a bit, I realized that there’s a lot more going on under this story’s surface. Without spoiling the end, I’ll say that the night I read this book was a definite “stay up way past your bedtime re-reading and obsessing over a plot twist” kind of night.

The takeaway here is really in the execution. Anthony and Corral leave us asking questions. They allow us to unravel Glory’s history, and her present, for ourselves. They trust their readers, and they’re comfortable with a little uncertainty––respecting readers enough to let us to decide what to believe.

Want to share your thoughts about Chopsticks? Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.