Monday, October 31, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Half Brother

Today’s Pick: Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

Published by HarperCollins, 2010

Thirteen-year-old Ben is getting a new baby brother—a chimpanzee. Ben’s parents are both behavioral scientists and they want to prove that animals can learn American Sign Language. They think that raising a chimp in their home, like one of the family, is the best way to do it. If that wasn't hard enough, Ben has to deal with moving to a new city and a new school. Although it takes a while for Ben to warm up to his chimp brother Zan, over time they build a strong bond. At the same time, his father's research project experiences some issues and the conflict grows between Ben and his father. Eventually, Ben has to choose between loyalty to his family or to his brother. This story takes place in the early 1970's in Canada.

My Take:
This well-written novel really makes you think about the relationship between animals and humans. I admired the way research and information about the study of chimps is so skillfully blended into the story. With strong characters, bits of humor and lots of tension, this book was hard to put down. It kept me thinking long after I finished it. This story will appeal to both boys and girls, especially animal-lovers. The story isn’t only about the animal-human relationship, it’s about friendships, family and the love that brings living beings together (or keeps them apart). A note for fans of Kenneth Oppel's other books - this one is quite different, but still a compelling read.

Other Info:

This novel has been optioned for film.

Half Brother has won the Ontario Library Association's 2012 Red Maple Award. This reader's choice award is chosen by tens of thousands of grade 7 and 8 students across Ontario. This is Oppel's third win: Airborn and Skybreaker were previous recipients.
It has received several awards, including the 2011 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Book Award in the Middle Reader/Young Adult category, the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award and the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award, and has been named as 2011 Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association.

Kenneth Oppel shares some of his thoughts about writing this novel on his blog in written form and in this clip as he accepts his awards.

 Other books by this author include:






This Dark Endeavour (a new novel about the apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein)

For more, go to Kenneth Oppel’s website.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween Fun

Halloween has always been one of my favourite celebrations. It's hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the kids. There's planning the costume, decorating of the yard to make it spooky, the traditional pumpkin carving, and of course, sorting and tasting all those yummy treats from the giant bag of loot.

For many kids, I bet Halloween ranks right up there with birthdays and Christmas as one of the year's best events. Strangely, I've never included Halloween in a story. When I think about how important it is to kids, now I want to. What kind of pumpkin face would your character make - scary or silly? How would they decorate - sweet smiling ghosts or a bloody murder scene? What costume would they wear? Would they collect treats or play pranks?

Have you ever included Halloween in a story?

P.S. The photo shows the pumpkins my daughters and I carved two years ago. Which pumpkin do you think I carved?

How is your writing going lately? Over at MiG Writers, we've posted a few of our tips for breaking a writing block.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Else Do You Write?

Some of you might know that in addition to trying to write MG novels, from time to time I work on stories for young kids who are learning English.

Writing for kids learning English requires some different writing skills than working on a longer piece or a novel. I enjoy the challenge of trying to fit in a repeated phrase or language structure that readers can learn, while trying to make a very short but interesting story. I also learn little bits about the culture and life in Korea, even though I've never been there, because it affects what I can include in a story (places or sports kids are familiar with, activities they might do, etc).

Whenever I write one of these beginner reader stories, I always write too much and then have to pare it down to it's simplest form. It's a different way to work then when I write novels, which are often too sparse and seem to need to have more detail layered in. (Of course, then I often end up removing it again during revision round #27.)

What kinds of writing do you do? Does one kind of writing help you with another?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Invisible Inkling

Today’s pick:  Invisible Inkling by Emily Jenkins

Published by Harper/Balzer & Bray, 2011

Back Cover Copy:

The thing about Hank's new friend Inkling is, he's invisible.
No, not imaginary. Inkling is an invisible bandapat, a creature native only to the Peruvian Woods of Mystery. (Or maybe it is the Ukrainian glaciers. Inkling hardly ever gets his stories straight.)

Now Inkling has found his way to Brooklyn and into Hank's laundry basket on his quest for squash—bandapats' favorite food. But Hank has bigger problems than helping Inkling fend off maniac doggies and search for yummy pumpkins: Bruno Gillicut is a lunch-stealing dirtbug caveperson and he's got to be stopped. And who better to help stand up to a bully than an invisible friend?

My Take:

What a fun story! This is an excellent example of a younger middle grade read (the publisher suggests ages 7 to 10), though I caught my 12-year-old sneaking a peak for a quick after school read. This book has a cool setting (the kid lives over an ice cream shop), a main character with a good sense of humour, and a creature with magical powers (an unusual invisible animal). I think it’s a great example of how to weave some issues that kids face (how to cope when a friend moves away, bullying) into an entertaining story.

Other Info:

A sequel, Invisible Inkling 2: Dangerous Pumpkins, is scheduled for publication in Summer 2012.

 Other books by this author include:
Toys Go Out, Being the Adventures of a Knowledgable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic (picture book)

What Happens on Wednesdays (picture book)
The Little Bit Scary People (picture book)

For more, go to Emily Jenkins’ website. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Do You Need Backstory in Middle Grade Novels?

When you’re writing for middle grade readers, you need to keep the story moving. Backstory, or information about the background or history of characters and objects, can create an info dump that stops the action of the story, or at least slows it to a snail-like crawl.

Does that mean backstory is a no-no for middle grade novels?

I think you’d have a hard time finding a novel without any backstory at all. As middle grade writer Laura Pauling points out, we need backstory for helping to create characters with depth.
Knowing some background about a character can help develop a character’s motivation (e.g., Harry Potter’s backstory of surviving Voldemort’s attack as an infant). And knowing what a character has gone through in the past can sometimes help us feel more emotionally connected to characters. So the trick is to somehow include the backstory so that it doesn’t get in the way of the real here and now story of the novel.

Some strategies:

Weave it in gradually. This is the most common tip I see in articles about backstory. Avoid an info dump by giving key details about the character’s past in small pieces, rather than a long explanation.

Make sure it’s necessary. I think it’s so important to only include backstory where and when it’s needed.
Like other elements of your story, it has to be something that the reader really needs to know at that particular point in the story. Maybe it will keep the reader from being confused. Or maybe it shows why the character has made a decision. If it doesn’t have a purpose that helps move the story along, you might not need it. A lot of advice I’ve read (including Donald Maass) says not to include backstory at the beginning, when you’re trying to hook your reader.

Use only a little. Keep your backstory brief and to the point. (Remember, the Harry Potter novels, which at times seem to be built on backstory, are exceptions.)

Make it interesting or make it quick. If you are including some backstory and have found a natural place to bring it into your story, there are different ways to fold it in. You could just directly state it and quickly move on. Or you might bring it in through a brief memory, especially if you’re trying to develop an emotional connection to your reader. Flashbacks could be another way, but I don’t see those often in books for middle grade readers (they can be confusing).
Including backstory through dialogue is one way people try to avoid the “show not tell’ problem, but as author Elana Johnson says, this can be really awkward and unnatural sounding.

How much do you rely on backstory? Do you have any tips to share?

*As always, if you know of any great posts on backstory, please let me know in the comments and I’ll add them here for our reference.

Elana Johnson, author of the YA novel, Possession, has some thoughts on using backstory for world building.
Laura Pauling’s take on backstory.

Becca Puglisi of The Bookshelf Muse gives us some strategies for using backstory in this guest post at Sherry's Fiction Writing Tools.

At Writing While the Rice Boils, Debbie Maxwell Allen has a series of 4 posts by Randy Ingermanson that give us a thorough look at the topic of backstory.
Over at Literary Rambles, Casey McCormick posts a great tip on how much backstory to include from one of her blog readers, Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban.

Rachel Larow of Mommy Authors gives some tips on balancing backstory.

Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner gives advice on strategic ways to use backstory, especially in your novel opening.
Author Jody Hedlund weighs in on how much and when to use backstory.

At the Query Tracker blog, Stina Lindenblatt talks about backstory.

Author Mary Carroll Moore talks about how backstory can help or hinder.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Dear George Clooney

Today’s Pick: Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom by Susin Nielsen

Published by Tundra Books


After Violet's TV-director dad leaves their family for a new job, new house, new blond actress wife and new twin baby daughters, Violet has a little difficult adjusting. Three years later, she’s still feeling angry and definitely has an attitude. She doesn’t hide her feelings about her father deserting his family. She’s protective of her little sister, who still wets the bed after the trauma of the divorce. And she watches out for her mom, who keeps dating men that just don’t measure up.  When her mom starts dating Dudley Wiener (who wears vivid hand-knitted sweaters), Violet and her friend Phoebe decide they have to take matters into their own hands and help Violet’s mom get a decent man: actor George Clooney. Meanwhile, Violet is struggling with her own feelings about a boy named Jean Paul.

My Take:

I loved seeing the world from Violet’s perspective, even though it shocked me sometimes because she did things I didn’t expect (or wouldn’t do myself). This was a great study in character for me. I liked the uniqueness of Violet’s character and how she’s dealing with so many of the issues that face readers of middle grade books, such as starting to like boys, a family break up, dealing with the “mean girl” at school, figuring out how to get along with a step-mom, helping out with a little sister.

Other Info:

This is a stand alone novel. It has been named a Canadian Library Association 2011 Honour Book.

Susin Nielsen is a television writer and editor and has worked on many television series, including Degrassi, Degrassi Junior High, Ready or Not, Heartland, and Robson Arms.

Other books by this author include:

Word Nerd (I also loved this one)

For more info, visit Susin Nielsen’s website.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Birthday Wishes

Here it is, my birthday again. Last year, I posted my list of birthday wishes. Today, my wish list could be exactly the same, except that I'm working on a different novel. Huh. Does that mean I'm not making any progress? Or that my life is kind of boring?

Here's my attempt to try to come up with something new this year. As I blow out my candles, here's what I'll be wishing for:

1. Writing success for all my critique buddies. They've helped me out so much this year, I want something good to happen for them. In fact, let's spread the joy around. I'm wishing all my blogging friends something good, writing-wise. Your support and comments really brighten my day.

2. A magic plot wand that fixes all the plot holes and tangles, miraculously cutting away the stuff that doesn't belong.

3. More sleep! I know this is the same as last year, but I'm really feeling exhausted lately. In fact, I think I may spend part of my birthday indulging in a nap. Or at least reading a good book.

4. An extra hour each day to do the other fun things I don't seem to get to because I'm cooking experiments, sketching, actually working on the scrapbooks that I keep collecting things for, or playing more board games.

And by the way, I could still use one of those revision express passes!

Hope you have a great day!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Are You Writing What's Right for You?

One of the things I think about when I get "not for me" responses is whether I really should be writing the kinds of things I'm writing. Is it the right genre? Am I writing for the right age group? Maybe I should be doing something else altogether. This week, over at MiG Writers, some of us talked about why we're writing YA or MG.

Thinking about the why reminds me of how much I love it. If you haven't read our post, check it out and let us know why you are writing what you write.

One of the things I love about writing MG is a sense of connection to my audience (kind of funny, in light of the "no connection to the work" responses I get about my writing). I love getting a chance to think the way a kid thinks, and letting my characters explore things I never did when I was that age.

For me, writing is like a huge escape into another world, which I suppose is why I often feel so fired up and refreshed after a writing session. But I think if I was struggling to write in a genre that really wasn't for me, writing would leave me really drained and probably grumpy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is Writing in Your Family?

The other day, I was jotting a To-Do list in my writer's notebook (I know, lists of household jobs don't really qualify as writing but just bear with me), when I got thinking about my eccentric great-grandfather, who used to keep tiny notebooks full of lists. His lists were more about what he ate or the costs of things during his day. But now, as I consider my own obsession with writing-to-help-me-think, it makes me wonder whether he wasn't a writer that just didn't have the opportunity to write anything more than his lists.

I know I'm related to a magazine editor and an artist/writer, but maybe there are others. There must be  something about the way we think that makes us more inclined to write. Is it hereditary?

Are there any other writers in your family?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Happy Turkey Monday!

Today is Thanksgiving for us up here in Canada, so I'm taking the day off to rest and eat turkey.

Hope you have a great Monday!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Fun: The Licence Plate Game

One day in the summer, my daughters and I started generating a story inspired by licence plates as a way to fight the boredom on a long drive. Our only rule was that we had to use a new one in each story bit. How's that for story-building!

Some ways you can use licence plates to inspire your writing:

1. Character names, especially for sci-fi or fantasy. Some recent ones I saw:  NINAKS, ANZY, TYTAN, DR SAME. Don't these just make you start thinking about character traits?

2. Psychology of a character. You can also think of these plates a different way, and wonder what the person is like that chose that plate. Why did someone choose 5 EVANS for their plate? What kind of person are they?

3. Names for vehicles, cities, other worlds. I'm thinking about what life would be like on DIGNITY9.

4. Made up swear words. Those random combinations of letters are great for this. BLEB!

Have you ever had any creative inspiration from licence plates?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Critique Group Benefits

Do you have an awesome writing group? If you don't, I hope you get a chance one day to find one.

My writing buddies do so much more than give feedback on my writing. They are great at questioning character motives, finding places where my writing is confusing and ferreting out those sections where what my character is doing just doesn't fit with the story. But they also encourage and support me when I'm feeling down about my writing. (And let's be honest, sometimes writing can drag you down when something is not working, when life events interfere or when you don't get the response you were hoping for.)

I feel so lucky to have not only a family that supports me, but also this circle of writers, who really understand what it is like.

Who supports you in your writing?

And speaking of supporting each other, over at MiG Writers, we're still hoping to reach 60 comments to support the MAGIC (Major Aspects of Growth in Children) Foundation. Please check out our post and consider commenting. You'll have a chance to win a free book (and with so many books up for grabs your odds are pretty good).