The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan

In this slim, brisk novel by Patricia MacLachlan––author of Newbery-winning Sarah, Plain and Tall––the dog Teddy can understand human speech, but only children and poets can understand him.

the poets dog cover

Teddy rescues siblings Nickel and Flora from a snowstorm and brings them to the forest cabin he once shared with his owner, Sylvan. As the mystery of Sylvan’s disappearance slowly unravels, the story meditates on love, poetry, grief, and life.

Here are three things writers can learn from The Poet’s Dog.

1. Consider your perspective.

This book is told from the point of view of the title character: the poet’s dog, an Irish wolfhound named Teddy.

Choosing to tell the story in Teddy’s first-person voice gives MacLachlan ample opportunity to offer up quirky profundities that could only come from a dog’s point of view.

“Being a writer is not easy, you know. It is, now that I think of it, either full of sorrow or full of joy.”

“Like being a dog,” I say.

Of course, it takes an extra leap of creativity to imagine the thoughts, sensations, emotions, and tactile experiences of a canine narrator. But if a writer can pull it off––as MacLachlan does––an animal perspective provides fertile ground for a rich and poignant story.

2. Do a lot with a little.

The language in The Poet’s Dog is sparse and direct. The story moves quickly from one scene to another. MacLachlan makes this work by choosing evocative details that bring her characters and scenes to life.

Sylvan types on his computer, sometimes smiling, sometimes frowning and muttering to himself. I sit up on the red rug and yawn my yawn that ends with a squeak.

This description is adorable and fits the book’s earnest, cozy tone. It sets up a vivid scene full of intimacy, routine, and closeness: the same writerly muttering, the same red rug, the same doggy yawn. With a few precise details, MacLachlan conveys so much about the relationship between Teddy and Sylvan––and added significant weight to Teddy’s sense of loneliness and loss.

3. Search for a timeline that suits your story’s soul.

In most short, simple middle grade fiction, authors opt to write their stories chronologically. Many kids reading 89-page books are just getting their sea legs when it comes to enjoying novels on their own. Needlessly hopping around in time can be a distraction, and often doesn’t add much to the story anyway.

Here, though, MacLachlan departs from the norm by using interwoven narratives to connect the past and the present. The Poet’s Dog is told out of order, with flashbacks to Teddy’s life with his owner Sylvan interspersed with the present-day tale of his interactions with Flora and Nickel as they wait out the storm.

With this non-linear narrative, MacLachlan is able to show the cyclical nature of loss and joy, of rescuing and being rescued. It works well––perhaps because for poets, children, and dogs, time seems to work just a little differently.


Want to chat about The Poet’s Dog and other great YA and middle grade novels? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

 

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Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

I promise I’m not just reviewing Shadowshaper because of how pretty the cover is going to look on my homepage.

…Well, okay, that’s a big plus!

But the cover’s not the only gorgeous thing about this book. There is so much for kidlit writers to learn from Daniel José Older’s YA novel Shadowshaper.

[Note: mild spoilers ahead!]

1. Work hard to make your prose look easy.

Shadowshaper features memorable characters, a fascinating setting, and a plot that clips right along. But I’d like to talk about another of the book’s great strengths: its prose. Crisp and clear, rich with voice and vividness, Older’s prose is distinguished by how easy it reads.

Yet anyone who’s tried their hand at writing a story knows: that easiness only comes after a lot of hard work.

In Shadowshaper, a love of words infuses each paragraph, line, and sentence. Here’s just one example:

The gravelly voice spoke her name like a native Spanish speaker would, a light roll of the Rs leading into the clipped A. It didn’t matter. The beast could be Puerto Rican all day long, it was still a horrible, lurking, festering…

There’s rhythm here, with a staccato sentence amidst two longer, more flowing ones. The words have those sounds you can really feel your mouth: gravelly, lurking. Finally, there’s a mix of ultra-specific, just-right vocab––clipped, festering, beast––and voice-y turns of phrase: “be Puerto Rican all day long.” By making careful choices, attentive to rhythm and sound, Older crafts prose that’s both evocative and very fun to read.

2. Give your setting enough life and it can become a character, too.

shadoshaper-cover
SHADOWSHAPER––PUBLISHED BY ARTHUR A. LEVINE BOOKS

Older establishes a magical, textured setting here that has real agency and power within the story. It’s an evocative rendering of Brooklyn that felt real and otherworldly all at once.

Older uses contemporary issues as a jumping-off point for the book’s fantasy elements. Gentrification, racism, structural inequality, institutional violence, and cultural appropriation all play a part in the conflict that emerges between a cruel white academic and Sierra’s family and friends. In the words of The New York Times: it’s “a Brooklyn that is vital, authentic and under attack.”

There are overpriced coffeeshops and unfinished developments, stares from new white neighbors and a never-flagging threat of police violence. At one point, protagonist Sierra Santiago notes that the white barista at the new café gives her “either the don’t-cause-no-trouble look or the I-want-to-adopt-you look.”

This mixture of the fantastical and real allows Older to send a subtle political message. While the conflict in Shadowshaper is fictional, this Brooklyn exists in our world, too––and surely there’s a girl like Sierra Santiago out fighting this same fight right now.

3. Remember your protagonist has a body, in addition to a mind.

A while back, Christa Desir and Carrie Mesrobian did a really interesting interview for The Booklist Reader about sex in YA. Mesrobian posed a litmus test for realistic portrayal of a teen’s whole existence, not just their inner thoughts:

[…C]an you picture the characters’ entire bodies? Or are they just giant intellects on top of lollipop-stick bodies?

Older excels at this, making sure Sierra’s body is just as much a part of her character as her mind. There’s the afro Sierra loves, the height she takes pride in––it gives her a “glint of pleasure” to be taller than her older brother. She’s not quite sure what to think when her love interest complements her “belly fat,” though, and turns the conversation instead to his “skinny-ass chest.”

Sierra uses this body, too: she dances and fights. She feels pleasure and pain.

As an author, it can be easy to get caught up in character’s cerebral experiences. Older does write some beautiful descriptions of Sierra’s artistic process, her reflections on her family, and her conflicting emotions about a new friend. But he also remembers that our bodies, our physical experiences, are such an important part of the way we move through the world. Especially when we’re young.

Sierra Santiago feels so real that finishing Shadowshaper is like saying goodbye to an old friend. Fortunately, it isn’t goodbye for long: Shadowhouse Fall, the second book in this trilogy, comes out in September 2017! I can’t wait to revisit Sierra’s world––and see what evil forces she and her friends take on next.

___

Want to chat about Shadowshaper or other great YA and middle grade titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

And I Darken by Kiersten White

This book is an enthralling, disturbing, seriously messed up trip. And I loved it.

An alternate history of Vlad the Impaler (recast as a woman, Lada Dragwlya), Mehmed the Great, and Radu the Handsome, this book takes us to the heart of the Ottoman Empire as it sets its sights on Constantinople. Lada and her brother Radu become pawns in their father’s capitulation to the Sultan and befriend young Mehmed before his rise to the throne.

and-i-darken-cover
AND I DARKEN––PUBLISHED BY DELACORTE

Above all, And I Darken, the first book in a trilogy, is Lada’s origin story. It recounts the childhood and adolescence that forms the ruthless ruler she’ll become.

Here a couple things writers can learn from White’s gender-bent history of an intriguing historical trio.

1. Use POV to your advantage.

In alternating third-person close POV chapters, Lada and Radu tell the story of their childhood in Wallachia (modern-day Romania), their captivity in the Ottoman Empire, and their growing friendship––and maybe more––with Mehmed, one of the Sultan’s sons. And this may be the best use of alternating POV chapters I’ve ever read.

Lada is an intense, driven, violent character. She has her reasons for being so––I’ll dig into this in the next section––and White takes care to build empathy for this complex, wounded girl. Even so, spending the entire novel in her head would have been…a bit much. White made a savvy choice to alternate Lada’s first-person perspective with her brother Radu’s. In many ways, the siblings are foils for each other. The novel is all the richer for their interwoven, conflicting, nuance-crafting points of view.

Where Lada is strong and guarded to a fault, Radu is vulnerable, self-doubting, and sensitive. When the siblings are young, all Radu wants is to belong––but Lada rejects him, preferring to spend time with their nurse’s rough-and-tumble son. As Lada and Radu grow, their relationship does, too. It’s fascinating to watch their dual perspectives as they navigate misunderstandings, conflicts, and sibling love.

The alternating perspectives allow White to explore nuances of the novel’s historical and cultural setting, too. Lada and Radu experience their world in such a different way, both at home in Wallachia, with a cruel father who hates Radu’s weakness and reluctantly comes to respect Lada, and under the care of the Sultan in the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Radu embraces Islam, with its rituals and brotherhood and sense of belonging and peace. Meanwhile, Lada finds the religion useless––it cannot give her the thing she craves most: control over her life. While Radu finds the call to prayer calming and stirring to his soul, Lada detests it as a frequent reminder of how far she is from her home.

2. Deeply understand your characters so your readers can, too.

Many Goodreads reviewers called out the same brutal paragraph of Lada’s dialogue:

“On our wedding night,” she said, “I will cut out your tongue and swallow it. Then both tongues that spoke our marriage vows will belong to me, and I will be wed only to myself. You will most likely choke to death on your own blood, which will be unfortunate, but I will be both husband and wife and therefore not a widow to be pitied.”

When I read that, I figured Lada would be a Frank Underwood–style antihero: one I love to hate, but am not exactly rooting for. But Lada’s not a Frank Underwood at all. She’s a complicated hero, but one we can root for without reservations (…so far, at least). White achieves this by understanding her protagonist deeply, so readers can understand her, too.

Lada bites and stabs and plots and kills, but it’s out of necessity: it’s what she has to do to secure her place in the world. To gain power. And above all––in my reading––it’s what she has to do to distinguish herself from her mother.

Early in the book, young Lada watches her mother crawl across the floor at the behest of Lada and Radu’s father. In an instant, Lada learns: women are powerless. Women are weak. And she will do anything she can to keep from being one of those weak, powerless women.

Later, this assessment grows more complicated, as Lada begins to see there’s more than one way to gain power. But the important piece here, the one we can take away as writers, is that Lada’s fear of weakness has an origin. We see this image so clearly on the page––young Lada, horrified as her mom prostrates herself. And just as the image burns into Lada’s mind, it burns into our minds, too.

From then on, we’re unabashedly cheering for this ambitious, complicated, troubled, brilliant girl.


Want to chat about And I Darken or other great YA and middle grade titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

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.

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
ASH & BRAMBLE–PUBLISHED BY HARPERTEEN

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.