Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt

Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt

Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt is a quirky, tender book that follows the life of Tuk, a bighorn sheep. Humans are encroaching on his herd’s territory, and Tuk is the only bighorn who can see the faraway Blue Mountain, a place where his herd might be able to live in peace.

Blue Mountain is a quiet and rather short middle grade book. It’s a simple story, with a straightforward plot and kid-friendly vocabulary. Yet it’s also a profound look at a serious and timely subject––human impact on the natural world––and a sobering meditation on what other species must do to adapt.

Leavitt’s story is a great reminder that being an animal is tough. Humans aside, there are predators and challenges around every corner for Tuk and his herd. But Tuk is resilient and resourceful. Despite its subject matter, the book is ultimately uplifting.

Here are three things I learned from reading Blue Mountain.

1. Let the story set the structure and tone.

Blue Mountain reads like a myth or a fable, which makes the tone differ starkly from most contemporary middle grade fiction. It works, because this is Tuk’s origin story: how he came to be the bighorn sheep that he is, different from the others, yet respected by his herd. The structure borrows some tropes from oral storytelling, and the result feels like something you might hear over a campfire. It’s a tale that could have been passed down from one generation to another, details added over the years.

The book is reflective and thoughtful, which fits the subject matter: Tuk’s journey to discover Blue Mountain––and himself. Yet Leavitt doesn’t let that reflective nature slow the book down. Despite its “quiet” feeling, there’s a lot happening. Nearly every chapter has the sheep in mortal danger of one sort or another. The combination is effective, and quite readable.

2. Get in your characters’ heads. Even if––especially if––they are bighorn sheep.

To write a novel, you really have to get in your characters’ minds. And I wouldn’t know how to even begin exploring the interiority of a bighorn sheep! Yet Leavitt pulls this off to great effect, especially when describing the sheep’s discomfort as they’re forced out of their typical territory and into a dense forest. In the forest, they don’t have the same lines of sight they’re accustomed to on the big mountain. It’s difficult and emotional for them. They feel trapped. Reading these scenes, I was claustrophobic and scared right along with them.

It’s impressive to watch Leavitt foster our connection with the sheep throughout the book through her descriptions of their emotions and physical sensations, and some humorous dialogue. (On another note, it also made me think about this nonsense regarding “relatable characters.” With some skill on the writer’s part and some empathy on the reader’s part, anything can be relatable, friends!)

3. Character self-doubt builds reader empathy.

Tuk constantly questions himself––do I fit in with the other bighorns?  Does the Blue Mountain really exist? Is this the quest I should be taking? This encourages readers to cheer him on, and gives us some space in which to do so. Having a protagonist who’s already asking himself the difficult questions makes us want to slide right in there and tell him it’s all going to be okay.

And I wish I could. Despite the book’s sweet ending, I was left feeling pretty down about human impact on the bighorn’s territory. But perhaps that’s part of what Leavitt wants to do here––inspire her readers to think about how human actions change the lives of our animal kin.

I hope all the Tuks out there can find their Blue Mountain.

Want to chat about Blue Mountain or kidlit in general? Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata

Cynthia Kadohata’s storied career includes a Newbery Medal (Kira-Kira), a National Book Award (The Thing About Luck), and a whole host of starred reviews for her books for children and adults. What can we learn from Kadohata about writing kidlit? I read The Thing About Luck to find out.

1. Custom harvesting can be interesting.

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata

I live in Iowa, but as a “city slicker” I never thought I would read a book about harvesting.

Summer, the protagonist, comes from a family of custom harvesters, workers who spend the season traveling to different states to harvest wheat. And Kadohata’s relatively lengthy explanations of how custom harvesters work only add to the story––we need to understand them to understand Summer’s world. They build to a satisfying climax where knowing a little bit about farm machinery definitely helps.

Because Kadohata writes in a way that ensures we care about these characters, she makes custom harvesting fascinating––even to city slickers.

2. There’s beauty in the bleak.

In The Thing About Luck, the flat, raw landscape of the wheat fields has a poetry to it, and that poetry gives a rhythm to the character’s lives. Summer’s life is harsh, like the landscape, but it’s also beautiful. For all her bad luck, Summer’s life is filled with joy. She relishes small moments, like beginning to understand a book, playing with her dog, or saying something smart in front of a boy.

The wheat is ready for harvest, but Summer’s life is just budding. As “the dust of her personality begins to settle,” the book evokes that wistful realization: I’m growing up. Kadohata strikes just the right tone here, and her setting helps her do it.

3. Voice is everything.

So, on some level we all know this. But when you come across a book that does voice this well, it becomes clear why voice is so, so crucial to making a story work. Summer narrates with a voice that’s somehow both no-nonsense and dreamy, sensitive but also resilient. She wins us over with her deep love for her brother and her grandparents, and Kadohata lingers in those sweet internal moments when Summer expresses these feelings.

Light touches in Summer’s narration––like when she directly addresses the reader: “Stick with me; I’m almost done explaining what happens in the field!”––add to her spark, and have the appealing effect of making it seem like this wonderful young woman is extending her care toward us, too.

Want to share your thoughts about Kadohata’s book? Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman is a sweet, scrumptious romp through Middle Grade Land with a classic feel and a lovable, no-nonsense protagonist. Delicious descriptions of food abound––don’t read while hungry!

This book also has a sprinkling of extra wish-fulfillment for writers: the protagonist gets a freelance gig reviewing restaurants for a fictional version of the New York Times (she’s hired based on her samples, and the editor doesn’t realize she’s only a sixth-grader). Read on to find out what Dairman’s lovely debut has to teach us about the kidlit craft.

1. There’s a reason those old-fashioned recipes work.

From the loner protagonist, to the spoiled queen bee, to the parents who just don’t get it, to the quirky kid next door, All Four Stars features your favorite middle grades tropes and more.

The plot is straightforward: through a series of strange coincidences, sixth-grade foodie Gladys Gatsby lands herself a job writing food reviews––but how will she sneak into the city unnoticed to complete her assignment? The book is refreshingly simple and Dairman does a great job endearing us to her protagonist and to the world she’s created. I’d shelve it alongside the Penderwicks series––the feel of the book is different, but it has a similar flavor: light, old-fashioned middle grade fun.

2. A gourmet vocabulary never hurt anyone.

Gladys Gatsby has cooked many a recipe in her young life, and she has the food vocabulary to match. Even the well-versed eleven-year-old foodie might come across a few new words in All Four Stars. But the advanced terminology fits Gladys’s world, where the proper tools will get a pastry to flake just so, and a pinch of cardamom can make all the difference in a curry. Kids will love that Dairman doesn’t condescend––and adults who could use a little motivation in the kitchen just might find themselves inspired.

3. Find your niche.

Is a book about cooking for every kid? No, but novels don’t need universal appeal. I would bet that the originality of Dairman’s concept (a young girl whose parents try to keep her away from the kitchen?) helped her pitch stand out. There’s something interesting about a sixth-grade protagonist whose main passion has nothing to do with her life at school––and cooking is also a timely topic as foodie culture goes mainstream.

Great news for those who loved Dairman’s first book: there’s a second one on the way! In The Stars of Summer, out May 5, 2015, Gladys must sneak away from a dismal stay at summer camp to complete her next reviewing assignment: finding the best hot dog in New York City.

Want to chat more about All Four Stars? Fine me on Twitter: @beckererine.

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher

Confession: I. Loved. This. Book. While reading, I longed for the youngest Fletcher brother, Frog, to come to life so I could adopt him. (I used to fantasize about kidlit characters [mainly Harry Potter] coming to life so I could date them. I guess this means I’m getting old…) The point is, I wasn’t reading this book as “critically” as I typically do––mostly, I was having fun. But I’ll still share a few things I took away from this sweet tale of a school-year-in-the-life-of four young boys and their two dads.

1. Be hilarious.

Family Fletcher was laugh-out-loud funny on several occasions, and there are grin-worthy moments on nearly every page. Frog’s imaginary (and not-so-imaginary) friends are a big source of this humor, as are his attempts to be like his older brothers––or at least, to be listened to by them. The humor is endearing. We’re captivated by laughter, and just a few pages in, Levy has us eating out of her hand. We’re ready to follow this family anywhere.

2. But don’t shy away from the heavy stuff.

Levy weaves in race and multiculturalism, generational misunderstandings, and a homosexual couple raising four adopted boys without making Family Fletcher a book that can be defined by any of those things. This isn’t a “race book” or a “gay book” or a “develop compassion for the crotchety old veteran living next door” book. The Family Fletcher is only partially defined by its racial makeup and the sexual orientation of the parents––just like we’re all only partially defined by those things.

Mostly, the Fletcher boys worry about trying out for the play while still getting to soccer practice on time; why a friend is more into talking to girls all of a sudden; and whether a new school for “gifted” kids is really all it’s cracked up to be. Through the day-to-day, we explore all those other issues––and it’s those quotidian, true-to-life concerns that make that exploration all the more powerful.

3. Break the rules––but do it well.

Family Fletcher begins on the first day of school. This comes shortly after “waking up from a dream” and “looking at myself in the mirror” on the List of Places You’re Not Supposed to Start Your Book. But for Family Fletcher, it works. The novel’s entire structure is built around the school year, with the rhythm of the weather and the daylight and the academic calendar and the sports seasons informing everything the boys do. And that’s how life is when you’re that age. It’s part of what makes the book feel authentic, and it wouldn’t have made sense to start anywhere else.

Part of writing well is knowing when to follow the “rules” and when to break them. Levy does that to great effect here, and it’s something we can all learn from.

To sum it up: I can’t wait until the second Family Fletcher book comes out in spring 2016.

Want to chat more about Levy’s lovely debut novel? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld
Afterworlds––Published by Simon & Schuster

Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds is two books in one, weighing in at nearly 600 pages. In alternating chapters, he tells the story of Darcy––a recent high school graduate with a book deal and a new life on the YA lit scene in New York City––and Lizzie, Darcy’s protagonist, who feigns death so well during a terrorist attack that she travels to the underworld. Writers will find both the subject matter and the structure compelling. Westerfeld clearly modeled the YA writers Darcy meets in Manhattan after his own literary friends. And for those who want to know what it’s like to get copyedited, go on a school visit, attend BEA, and sign ARCs––it’s all here. The alternating chapters also provide an opportunity to see Darcy at work as she revises her manuscript. In one chapter, she’ll discuss how she needs to move sections of her book around or strengthen her protagonist’s relationship with her friend. By the time we get to that part of the Lizzie chapters, those revisions have already happened. We get to appreciate Darcy’s final product––and enjoy the extra knowledge of the editing that went into it. By now you can tell that Afterworlds is a great book for aspiring writers. Here are a few more things I took away from it.

1. Attempting a complex POV? Consider limiting subplots.

One of the reasons the alternating-stories structure works is that both stories are quite straightforward. They’re sparse, with relatively few characters and no subplots. We’re laser-focused on both protagonists, and we’re able to keep track of both of their stories due to this simplicity.

2. Build suspense into your structure.

Afterworlds is a hefty book, but I finished it in a few days. I couldn’t put it down! Every time I came to the end of a Darcy chapter, I was dying to know what would happen next. Then I’d be treated to a Lizzie chapter––and finish that one feeling the same way. This back-and-forth momentum kept me turning the pages. It’s one of those books you read so quickly, you almost wish you’d slowed down to savor it a bit more (especially the quirky details about the YA world).

3. Dual stories can be risky.

Though the two-intertwined-books structure has its definite advantages––like the suspense-building effect––it’s also risky. There’s always the chance that readers will find one protagonist more compelling than the other. (Anyone else get impatient in sections of LOTR, craving a Sam and Frodo chapter?) In this case, despite Lizzie’s nascent superpowers and her strange trips to the underworld, Darcy’s story is more vivid, and just plain more fun. At the book’s end, we’re left wanting to know more about Darcy (and wondering if Untitled Patel could mean a shot at a sequel), but Lizzie is easier to forget, somehow––perhaps because we’re twice removed from this character in a story in a story.

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

Audrey (cow) by Dan Bar-el

Audrey (Cow) by Dan Bar-el
Audrey (Cow)––Published by Tundra Books

In this read-alike for Charlotte’s Web––perfect for vegetarians, animal lovers, and kids with a penchant for soft-hearted stories––Audrey the Charolais decides to escape her fate as a meat cow, enlisting the help of a host of farm and forest animals along the way.

Writers will be intrigued by the non-traditional narrative style. Audrey (cow) is told through transcripts of interviews with the animals and humans Audrey encounters throughout her journey. The novel has the feel of a documentary and the sweetness of a picture book.

Let’s dive in to Audrey (cow). Here are three things the book can teach us about writing kidlit.

1. Small journeys can be epic, too.

Audrey’s escape takes place in a physically small world. For much of the book, we’re on a farm, or in a small section of forest. But as in Charlotte’s Web, the stakes are high: Audrey knows that a trip to “Abbott’s War”––the animals’ humorous misinterpretation of “abattoir”––will mean the end of her life. When she pulls off the first part of her escape, suddenly a little clearing in the forest feels like the big, wild world. We’re experiencing reality as Audrey does. Just finding a small meadow to graze in is an absolute victory, and a joy.

2. Narrative novelty reaps rewards––and risks.

The eccentric voices telling this story––from a lonely but noble skunk, to an egocentric rooster, to a naive, enthusiastic young deer––add so much to Audrey’s tale. The narrative style brings us closer to a variety of characters, offers a big dose of humor, and creates a patchwork of dramatic irony that Bar-el couldn’t offer us with a more traditional point of view.

Yet this offbeat POV also has its drawbacks. It’s clear that Bar-el is a master at crafting different voices for each of his animal and human characters, and it’s fun to watch him at work. Still, this voice overload can prove distracting. It was much more difficult for me to get into the rhythm of the story while navigating the switches in perspective and tone, sometimes even multiple times on one page. It wasn’t until halfway through the book that I got into the “swing” I normally feel within a few chapters.

Even so, by the end, I was sold. Bar-el and his chatty cast of characters won me over––though I was left wondering if we needed so many different voices to achieve this effect.

Important note: A teacher, parent, or librarian with serious read-aloud talent would have a field day with Audrey (cow). If you’ve got a gift for funny voices and a kid to read to, go out and buy this book NOW.

3. Kids get the deep stuff.

There’s a lot going on in Audrey’s story: death, grief, fear, loneliness, friendship, moral quandaries. Bar-el doesn’t shy away from lush descriptive language and a poetic, often philosophical timbre. Audrey is a dreamer, and he tells the story accordingly. He also adds a layer of humor that may appeal more to adults than children: the rooster refers to himself as a deus ex machina, and sheep who have come to Audrey’s aid stop abruptly because they haven’t reached consensus on some details of their plan. By jumping into the deep end with some pretty advanced themes, Bar-el shows his respect for his kid readers, and wins their confidence in return.

Tatjana Mai-Wyss’s gorgeous illustrations add visual interest and some important cues for emerging readers. And Bar-el’s high-powered, philosophical prose provides something we can all ponder as we relish Audrey’s sweet tale.

Want to chat about Audrey (cow)? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

The Path of Names by Ari Goelman

The Path of Names by Ari Goelman
The Path of Names––published by Arthur A. Levine Books

The Path of Names by Ari Goelman caught my eye because of its mixture of a real-life setting familiar to many American kids (summer camp), and a take on magic and mysticism not often found in kidlit or, for that matter, literature in general. I took it home and devoured it in a few nights.

Here’s what I learned from Goelman’s debut novel.

1. Originality

I’m sure that one of the reasons The Path of Names found a home at Arthur A. Levine was its strange and fruitful combination of history, mysticism, pop-culture references and Jewish folklore. It’s got ancient cults and throwback NYC, summer camp romances and text-messaging kids, Kabbalah and numerology, magic tricks and golems. Goelman’s novel is very much rooted in a present day that kids around the US will find comfortably familiar, whether their summer camp was of the Jewish variety or not. It takes that comfort, however, and turns it on its head, in a kooky ghost-story-cum-religious-history-lesson. One page we’re rooted firmly in a world with mosquitos, arts and crafts, overcrowded swimming pools and questionable food; on another, we’re in a surreal battle between good and evil, all spurred by an accidental discovery of the 72nd name of God. The book’s ingenuity made it a satisfying read.

2. Suspense

Despite its complexity––or perhaps because of it––The Path of Names was a real page-turner. There were so many eccentric details to uncover, and so many questions that Goelman skillfully let linger as he wove together the historical and present-day story lines. Characters surprised us; some of the good guys turn out to be not-so-good, and some of the bad guys help out the heroine in the end. We’re emotionally invested in this summer camp and its several mysteries. Each carefully-plotted chapter ending provokes that classic reaction: “Well, perhaps I could read just one more…”

3. An offbeat heroine

Dahlia, the book’s protagonist, isn’t keen on summer camp from the beginning, and her melancholy attitude rings true for her age. She’s a math nerd and a magician, curious by nature, and when she becomes obsessed with two little ghost girls she sees on the first day of camp, it doesn’t do much to help her social status. Despite her quirks and her complaining, Dahlia is a lovable heroine, and a social misfit who is hurt when the other campers make fun of her––but, true to her independent nature, not that hurt. She likes who she is, and she’s confident and direct. When Dahlia has to save the camp, her main problem is convincing the others to help her out. I found myself wanting to hear more about Dahlia’s adventures.

A friendly reminder: As a writer, it’s important to learn something from every book you read. Make sure to approach your books not only as a reader, but also as a craftsperson. Take reading seriously––and don’t forget to enjoy the journey!

Adapted from my writing advice blog Better Writing Now.

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
The School for Good and Evil––published by HarperCollins

HarperCollins released book two of The School for Good and Evil series––A World Without Princes––in April 2014. Let’s revisit Chainani’s debut and how it can inform our writing craft.

1. Lightning speed––why not?

Many novice writers struggle to make sure that each chapter, scene, and sentence moves their plot forward. Chainani’s prose offers a great model. Every sentence hurtles the book forward. For an adult reader, this pace can be uncomfortable. Having cut my fantasy teeth on the lush world-building of Tolkien, at times I wanted more description, more quiet lulls. But for the middle-grade audience, the rapid pace was spot on. Kids have the imagination overdrive to fill in the rest for themselves––so chug ahead with the action, please!

2. So what if it’s been done?

I grew up on Harry Potter––grew up with him, really. His wizardly presence looms so large in my imagination and in my reading life that I would never have the guts to write any story that combines magic + school. (Well, never say never. But it’s highly unlikely!) Chainani says––why not? I’ll go for it. There are many nuances that distinguish the respective schools for the Evers (good) and the Nevers (evil) from Hogwarts, but the classes, rankings, and academic tasks inevitably echo Rowling’s massive, omnipresent world. Chainani doesn’t seem perturbed about dwelling in what for many would Derivative Risk Zone. He knows his take on fairy tales is fresh, so he goes for it. His publisher even begs the comparison with a jacket quote:

“Chainani takes the racing energy of Roald Dahl’s language and combines it with the existential intensity of J.K. Rowling’s plots to create his own universe, inhabited by characters we grow to love.”

– Maria Tatar, Author of “The Classic Fairy Tales”

3. Middle grade can be existential, too

Speaking of “existential intensity!” The ending (which I won’t give away), and the epic themes of good and evil that comprise the book’s core, have even left many adults a little confused. He didn’t tie up all the loose ends! Wait, are we supposed to like (somewhat evil) Sophie or not? What is this trying to say about who’s good and who’s evil? What does it all mean?! Shedding the black-and-white nature of most middle grade fiction, The School for Good and Evil doesn’t give readers any easy outs when it comes to engaging in some serious moral and philosophical thinking of their own. It’s far more ambiguous––and thus far more puzzling, and fascinating––than most books for readers of this age. Bottom line: in this book, Chainani takes several risks. And that’s something every writer should strive to do.

Adapted from my writing advice blog Better Writing Now.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell publishes a book. Kleenex sales skyrocket. Correlation or causation?

Okay––once I pulled myself together emotionally after finishing this gem of a book, I got to reflecting on what it teaches us about craft. Here goes:

Eleanor and Park
Eleanor and Park, published by St. Martin’s Press

1. Go for gritty

Eleanor has a hard life. Though the writing is sparse, the details are memorable and tangible. The terrain of 1980s Omaha, Eleanor’s abusive home. It’s not pretty, and Rowell isn’t scared of that. The stressful minutiae of Eleanor’s life includes dilapidated clothes, a  small bedroom shared with all her siblings, and a sad holiday meal that ends with her stepfather storming out over the wrong dessert. It’s all bare on the page, and we feel like we’re right there with her, rooting for her the whole way.

2. Adolescents … they’re intense

Nerve endings “exploding.” That feeling you’re going to die if you don’t see that one special person. The excruciating awkwardness when you can’t decide whether to talk…or not to talk…or what to say if you do talk…and, of course, what everybody else will think about every tiny decision, every minute move you make.

It’s excruciating. It’s powerful. It’s earnest. For Eleanor and Park, it’s also just everyday life.

Adolescents are intense. So is adolescent love. Rowell remembers what it’s like to be in high school. When you read this book, you will too.

3. Accept the sadness

Rowell fits an epic, tome-worthy draught of emotion into the small world of a boy, a girl, and a romance that mostly takes place on the way to school.

In my own writing, I often catch myself shying away from this vulnerability, this openness to all that’s sad and unfair. Rowell reminded me that we need be comfortable lingering in a place that hurts if we want to make our work real.

Want to chat about what Rowell’s book taught you? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

Adapted from my writing advice blog Better Writing Now.