As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds

In recent years, Jason Reynolds has established himself as a master of his craft, publishing award-winning YA and middle grade books. (I’ve previously written about Reynolds’s YA title The Boy in the Black Suit.)

As Brave as You, one of Reynolds’s middle grade novels, won many 2016 accolades, including the Schneider Family Book Award and the Coretta Scott King honor. Today, I’ve been thinking a lot about middle grade, checking out Newbery predictions and seeing which titles have been getting the most buzz as I plan my end-of-the-year reading and gear up for 2017 awards.

It seems like a great time to revisit a beloved book from last year. Today, I reflect on what kidlit writers can learn from this sweet, almost meditative middle grade title by a writer at the top of his game. 

As Brave As You Cover
AS BRAVE AS YOU––PUBLISHED BY ATHENEUM/CAITLYN DLOUHY BOOKS

Use the tropes––and then subvert them.

As Brave as You covers some well-trod ground in kidlit. City boys visit the country. A summer away at the house of quirky, intimidating relatives. Anxiety about fighting parents. Uncertainty at what the future might hold.

Despite this, As Brave as You feels different. Reynolds takes these tropes and makes them wholly new. Genie and his older brother Ernie are two boys from Brooklyn, spending several weeks with their grandparents while their parents work out some marital issues.

And though there are elements of the typical city-boys-meet-country culture clash, Reynolds adds enough nuance to ensure things are not quite as simple as readers might expect. When a neighbor girl claims to never have heard of Brooklyn, the boys quickly find out she’s fibbing. And though country life does include some things Genie and Ernie might have expected––hard work picking peas, and intense poop-scooping in their grandparents’ yard––it also includes a man who sells teeth at the local market, a hypochondriac mother, and a secret room in the house that neither of them could have imagined.

Genie and Ernie grow and change during their weeks in this foreign, familiar world. By taking a tried-and-true middle grade plot and complicating it, Reynolds tells a story that feels both classic and fresh.

Remember the large and small problems that make up your protagonist’s world.

I’m going to get to this bit of advice, I promise. Just––give me a second to wind my way there. 🙂

As Brave as You has an almost episodic feel. Rather than following a traditional plot arc, it meanders (and I use that verb in the best way possible) through the various struggles Ernie faces during the weeks at his grandparents’ house. This includes breaking a treasured model truck that belonged to his late uncle; trying to find wi-fi connection so he can google all the new questions filling notebook; helping his grandfather face a longtime fear; and dealing with the fallout from an accident on his brother’s birthday.

At times, it does seem like the first half of the book––where the problems are smaller, though Genie’s reactions to them are outsized and urgent––is moving a little slowly. Things begin to pick up when Grandpop decides to teach Ernie how to shoot a gun. Since fourteen-year-old Emmett Till’s lynching in 1955, Grandpop has insisted every boy in the family learn to shoot on his fourteenth birthday. It’s both a family tradition and a means of protection.

Forget family tradition, though. Genie is mostly focused on the awesomeness of his older brother learning to shoot a gun. Ernie, on the other hand, is scared, though he tries to put on a brave face for the others. Reynolds never fully explains why Ernie is so scared, and it’s not clear whether Ernie even really knows himself. But Reynolds does give us some clues. Despite Ernie’s cool demeanor and his penchant for sunglasses, he’s a gentle guy. Ernie plays with the chained-up dog in the yard, he’s attentive to his grandmother, and he’s very sensitive to what others think of him. So it’s easy to imagine that a manhood that involves knowing how to shoot a firearm, or ever needing to, is not what Ernie dreams of when he imagines growing up.

And this is really the core of As Brave as You. What does it mean for Genie and Ernie to be growing into manhood? Genie’s constantly writing down questions in his notebook and researching them later. He’s looking for easy answers to things that make him worry and wonder. Partway through the book, however, Genie starts to realize that there are no succinct, google-able answers to questions like why his dad won’t speak to his grandpop.

Or what it means to be brave.

Or why forgiveness is so difficult and so powerful, all at once.

Which brings me back to the somewhat-slow-moving first half of this book, and why it works.

In taking time to let Genie cope with––and really, freak out about––the small problems in his life, Reynolds stays true to his eleven-year-old protagonist’s perspective. Genie really does feel like something in him is broken when he breaks that model truck. And when he worries he might be responsible for the death of a bird, Genie’s really worrying that the bird’s death defines him in a way he doesn’t want to be defined. It’s a precursor to the more dramatic scene later, where Ernie acts on his complicated feelings about what it might mean that he has to learn to shoot a gun.

In weaving a tapestry of problems both big and little, worries both complex and small, Reynolds creates a nuanced and moving portrayal of one summer in Genie’s life. Here is Genie, beginning to understand what it means to be a man. Here is Genie, learning he just might be a lot braver than he thinks.

Want to share your thought on Jason Reynolds, middle grade, YA, or writing in general? Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.

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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.

 

Seven Books to Get and Gift in a Post-Election World

As we process and prod the results November’s US election, we begin to search for a way forward. What can we do now? How can we work for change? We need a plan of action in an uncertain world.

Trump’s campaign fueled division and fear. He told Americans: immigrants are dangerous. People who pray a different way are a threat. Women are lesser than. Facts don’t matter.

He told us the world is a scary place. He told us we need a strong man on our side.

There’s a lot we can do––must do––to combat this hateful logic. And one of our greatest weapons will be something as simple as it is powerful: knowledge.

So, as we’re looking for gifts and a path to healing this holiday season, here’s a list of books from all sections of the library to help make sense of, and make change in, a post-Trump world.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de le Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson

The United States elected a man whose central boast is that he has a lot of money––much of which he seems to have made on the backs of others, through deceit, unfair

last-stop-on-market-street
LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET––PUBLISHED BY PENGUIN BOOKS

business deals, and tax laws favorable to the rich. Meanwhile, a large part the anger and uncertainty in the country comes from the loss of economic stability, decreased wages, and hard financial times for the working class.

Where does this leave us? And what do we tell the kids?

The Last Stop on Market Street, the 2015 Newbery Award winner, is a good place to start. In this gorgeous picture book, CJ and his nana ride the bus across town. CJ wonders aloud why they don’t have a car, why they have to wait in the rain, and why a man on the bus can’t see. His nana gives him an education in appreciating the little things, in finding the music and poetry in an imperfect world.

Nana tells CJ, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” There’s a lot of work ahead. CJ’s nana has shown us how to begin.

The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

This book is from 2008 and continues to be relevant today. In friendly, flowing prose, Ali-Karamali delves into common misconceptions about Islam and provides a refreshing

the-muslim-next-door
THE MUSLIM NEXT DOOR––PUBLISHED BY WHITE CLOUD PRESS

counterpoint to prevalent myths.

Though no single perspective can represent the entirety of a diverse, global religion, this book offers a great introduction. It includes chapters like “Everyday Islam: How Muslims Practice Their Religion”; “Women in Islam”; “Jihad and Fundamentalism: Not the Same”; and “Who’s Who in Islam: From Ayatollahs to Whirling Dervishes.” In a Trump-led country, we’ll have a lot of misinformation to fight. Read this book, then pass it along to a friend.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

Rape and sexual assault have come to the forefront this election, and much of the discussion has been

exit-pursued-by-a-bear
EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR––PUBLISHED BY DUTTON BYR

painful for survivors. This Shakespeare-inspired YA novel brings us Hermione Winters, a cheerleading captain and outspoken role model who’s drugged and raped at her summer cheer champ.

As Hermione searches for a way to regain control of her body and life, the story explores politics, abortion, friendship, rape culture, identity, and faith. It offers a blueprint for supporting survivors. And it will make you want to hug all the women and girls in your life––and believe them and trust them, always.

George by Alex Gino

George is an award-winning, heartwarming middle grade novel. Its central message is even more important in a Trump-threatened world: BE WHO YOU ARE. (I wrote about what this book can teach writers here.)

George wants to be Charlotte in the fifth-grade play. George also knows she’s a girl––but everyone thinks she’s a boy, and boys can’t be cast as Charlotte. As the story progresses, George gains confidence, learns about what it means to be transgender, and finds an ally

george by alex gino
GEORGE––PUBLISHED BY SCHOLASTIC

who helps her stand up for who she is.

This book brilliantly dramatizes the reality of growing up trans. This simple, sweet story can, and should, be read and enjoyed by kids and adults alike.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate by Naomi Klein

It’s easy to become numb to climate change and environmental disasters. It’s easy to think the problem is either so big, or so slow, that we may as well ignore it––especially now that the US will have a president who’s unlikely to make great strides against this vast global tragedy.

this-changes-everything
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING––PUBLISHED BY SIMON & SCHUSTER

But Naomi Klein knows that we can’t ignore it. And in This Changes Everything, she refuses to look away.

This is a scary book. But it’s also hopeful, and adds some context to current events like the efforts at Standing Rock Indian Reservation to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. Klein offers up a game plan for rallying the left, for allying with indigenous groups and marginalized people worldwide. She shows us the future can be better, if we’re willing to take unified action to save the world and save ourselves.

The Rise by Sarah Lewis

A book about “creativity, the gift of failure, and the search for mastery” may seem like an odd addition to this list. But Lewis’s book is a lovely antidote to the misguided, racist idea that white people are the main source of American greatness. (Someone may want to put it in Steve King‘s stocking.)

In writing about how failures and “near wins” are an essential part of success, Lewis’s anecdotes include Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement, as well as MacArthur Fellowship–winning psychologist Angela

the-rise-cover
THE RISE––PUBLISHED BY SIMON & SCHUSTER

Duckworth. Finally, her premise––that failure is simply another step on the path to success––is heartening as we make our way through a challenging time.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This is a novel about the end of civilization as we know it. That doesn’t sound particularly uplifting. But hear me out.

In a post-collapse world, Kirsten forms part of the Traveling Symphony, bringing Shakespeare and classical music to the tiny villages dotting a violence-ridden landscape. At one point, after the Symphony faces the kidnapping of some of its members, Kirsten finds these words on a folded piece of paper:

A fragment for my friend––

If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you

Silent, my starship suspended in night

station-eleven
STATION ELEVEN––PUBLISHED BY KNOPF

Kirsten is “impossibly moved” by this poetry, reminding us: even in a world where people struggle to find food, to stay warm, to stay alive, poetry matters. Theater matters. Music matters. Amidst struggle, art sows hope. And if we feed it, tend to it, care for it, that hope will continue to grow.

The pain is still raw. The confusion still fresh. But we must always, always remember: knowledge trumps fear. Love trumps hate.

And we will read and learn and fight our way to a better tomorrow.


Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

This book is not new, nor am I the first to talk about how wonderful it is. One Crazy Summer was well-received when it was published in 2010, winning plenty of deserved accolades––look at all those lovely stickers!––including the Coretta Scott King Award.

I finally got to dive into this middle grade novel a couple weeks ago. And there’s no way I can’t blog about it. It’s just that good.

one-crazy-summer-cover
ONE CRAZY SUMMER––PUBLISHED BY AMISTAD

Hearing Rita Williams-Garcia at SCWBI-NY last February was one of the highlights of my year. She spoke frankly about being a writer, being a black woman writer, her early career, and especially her journey to publication. Lucky for us, she persevered until she got there––because her books have so much to teach us as readers, authors, and human beings.

Here are a few things One Crazy Summer can teach kidlit writers, especially those taking on tough, complex topics from a young person’s perspective.

1. Don’t let your readers off easy.

One Crazy Summer is the story of the three Gaither sisters, who fly from New York City to Oakland, California, to visit their mother. Their mother left them and moved across the country when the youngest one was just a newborn.

Cecile, also called Nzila, is one of the most complex mother figures I’ve seen in a children’s book. Often moms in kidlit fall into very clear Good or Bad camps. They’re present and caring; or present and standing in the way of whatever the protagonist wants to achieve; or completely absent (hello, every Disney movie ever), thus enabling the young MC to get up to their shenanigans, no maternal supervision involved.

But Cecile is different.

For a long time, she’s chosen not to be part of her three girls’ lives. And when the girls arrive to California, Cecile makes it very clear she didn’t ask for them to come visit her, and didn’t particularly want it. She prioritizes herself and her poetry, and guards her resources and her time carefully.

Delphine, the oldest sister and the narrator, arrives to California hungry for what, in her mind, qualifies as traditional “mothering”: home-cooked meals, affection, and hugs. But Cecile’s not giving any of it. In fact, she promptly sends the girls off to a nearby day camp run by the Black Panthers, so she can continue writing her poetry in peace.

But Cecile does offer her girls something: a hard-won wisdom, which she imparts especially to Delphine.

Delphine is practical and responsible, tough on herself and those around her. She’s a planner and a cook and caretaker. After many days of watching Delphine care for the younger girls, Cecile tells her, “It wouldn’t kill you to be selfish, Delphine.” And it’s tough to take, even for the reader. Because Delphine is like this in large part because she’s grown up playing stand-in mother to her younger sisters.

Cecile has a point, though. And she expresses it––and embodies it––beautifully:

“We’re trying to break yokes. You’re trying to make one for yourself. If you knew what I know, seen what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t be so quick to pull the plow.”

Cecile also questions her daughters’ obsessions with television and movies and challenges them to critique what they see. She offers them freedom and independence, and models a different way of moving in the world as a woman.

Williams-Garcia never makes it easy for us to love Cecile. Instead, she respects her character and her readers, challenging us to see all the shades and gradients in Cecile, as a mom and as a human being.

2. Great middle grade books are incredibly simple and wonderfully complex, all at once.

On one level, One Crazy Summer is a very simple story. Throughout the book, Delphine’s main goal is to keep her sisters safe, fed, and happy while they’re reconnecting with their mother. She needs to convince her mother to let her cook for her sisters. She worries when her youngest sister is mocked for her doll. She wants to get along with everyone at the Black Panthers day camp, and thinks, maybe, maybe, the cute boy she met there might be interested in being friends…

Yet there’s a whole other level to the story, too. The girls are uncovering new parts of their family history and discovering what it means to be young and black in the US. They’re absorbing disturbing, dissonant realities about power and policing, a government that isn’t protecting all its people equally, and a mother who may not be able to give them the kind of love they expect.

In the tradition of the best middle grade books, One Crazy Summer deftly mixes small, day-to-day conflicts with larger, more nuanced questions and themes. It’s this mixture of the low and high, the simple and complicated, the specific and the universal that makes One Crazy Summer such a powerful work.

Williams-Garcia is a master, and I could go on and on about what this challenging, heartwarming, wonderful novel has to teach us. But my best advice is just…

Read it! Love it! And share it with a friend.

And––perhaps the best news about One Crazy Summer? It’s only the first of three Gaither sisters books! P.S. Be Eleven came out in 2013, and Gone Crazy in Alabama came out just last year.

I know I’ll be reading the rest soon. The only thing holding me back is how sad I’ll be when it’s time to finally tell Delphine and her sisters goodbye.

Want to chat about One Crazy Summer and other great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

George by Alex Gino

Alex Gino’s George won the Stonewall Book Award and has often been cited as a book that’s redefined what middle grade can be. George is earnest and heartwarming and one of the best middle grade books I’ve read this year. And for a groundbreaking novel, it’s also got a lovely, classic, modern-yet-familiar feel.

Note: I’m totally late to the party! Many lucky people got around to reading this book last year. But despite my late-to-the-party-ness and behind-the-times-ness, I can’t help but blog about this wonderful little book.

So, let’s see what Gino’s debut has to teach middle grade writers––and anyone looking to tell a story that so desperately needs to be told.

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

1. Play with convention-embracing and convention-breaking.

George has a very clear message: BE WHO YOU ARE. And the book is as brilliant at embodying this message as it is at conveying it.

George is a classic middle grade novel, perfect to shelve next to Charlotte’s Web, a book its protagonist adores. George’s plot is simple and sweet: George wants to play Charlotte in the fifth-grade play. George also knows she’s a girl––but everyone thinks she’s a boy, and boys aren’t allowed to play Charlotte. In classic middle grade tradition, George’s triumphs are small things that are big in her world: saying Charlotte’s lines with confidence and force. Having a friend call her by her girl name. Getting to wear a skirt.

What’s so brilliant about George is this mixture of classic, feel-good middle grade tropes and an innovative narrative technique that helps the reader share George’s experience of the world. George is a girl, and she knows she’s a girl, so the narration always uses “she” and “her” pronouns when talking about George. But, at least at the beginning of the story, everyone else in George’s life calls her “he” and “him.” The effect is jarring, disconcerting, and frustrating––just as it is for George.

So George, as a creative work, takes its own advice: BE WHO YOU ARE. In this case, that’s traditional and innovative. Uplifting and troubling. Happy and sad.

It’s everything together, and because of that, it’s real.

2. Understand how important your writing is.

In Gino’s brilliant Stonewall acceptance speech, they said, “We don’t control the past.  We barely have a handle on the present. But we can guide the future. And that’s why writing middle grade fiction is so important to me.”

Gino gets it. And this––in addition to the craft and the sweetness and the lovable characters––is what makes George so powerful, so fundamentally true. Gino writes with a tender empathy for their protagonist, and this sweetness and understanding permeates the novel. Every word is full of love for kids out there who are struggling, who are figuring out who they are.

Or kids who know who they are and live in a world that’s trying to keep them from being completely, wholly themselves.

And that passion, that knowledge of how life-changing a book can be, helps make George the brilliant work it is. All writers, especially all middle grade writers––who are speaking to kids at this especially confusing, raw, formative time in their life––would do well to search for the same sense of purpose that Gino writes with in George.

To quote Gino’s speech again: “BOOKS SAVE LIVES. BOOKS SAVE LIVES. BOOKS SAVE LIVES.”

If you write knowing that, you know how important every single word can be.

So, read George. Share George with the kids and adults in your lives. And write with the knowledge that what you do matters, and matters deeply.


Want to discuss George and other great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter: @beckererine.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

wolf hollow cover
WOLF HOLLOW––PUBLISHED BY DUTTON BYR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH––PUBLISHED BY LITTLE, BROWN BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS

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.