Monday, January 16, 2017

Soldier Boys: A Review and a Giveaway

Congratulations to Caroline McAlister  for winning TANGLED LINES on last week's blog.


Two soldiers, two boys. One American, one German. Prolific author Dean Hughes brings their lives, hopes, and dreams together in Soldier Boys (Simon and Schuster, 2001. Audio CD, 2016)

Spencer Morgan has just turned 15 in 1941. He longs to show that he is a man. He believes he'll accomplish that by joining the war effort and becoming a paratrooper--the toughest soldiers who receive the most respect. He daydreams about returning from action and impressing his crush, Lu Ann, with how brave and mature he has become. Although his father sees through his motivation, he reluctantly allows his son to drop out of high school and join. 

Spencer's superficial motivation is apparent. He wants to be a paratrooper in order to wear pants that blouse up, feel taller, do something hard, and be part of the best fighting group. He's also driven by his fear that the war would be over before he has a chance to accomplish his goals. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, Dieter Hedrick, has a similar ambition to be seen as a man. His story begins in 1939 while training with the Nazi Youth. He is ashamed of his parents who don't support Hitler; perhaps his father was a coward in the Great War. Dieter is small, delicate, and timid and like Spencer, is afraid he'll never have a chance to be a solider. Many of his decisions within the Hitler Youth are based on wanting to be known for his bravery and to be different than his father. 

The story flips back and forth between the boys as they prepare for combat. Not unexpectedly, Spencer finds that his training is much more difficult than imagined. Dieter digs anti-tank trenches with the Hitler youth to do his part in killing the "stinking Americans." He witnesses a friend deserting and being shot, but his devotion to his Fuhrer outweighs any sadness over his friend's death. 

As the story progresses towards the soldiers' inevitable meeting, the point of view switches quicker which increases the tension. The boys' beliefs in what they are doing push them forward and help them stay alive during freezing, snowy conditions. The reader views the Siege of Bastogne (part of the Battle of the Bulge) from both perspectives and sees how homesick both boys are at Christmas, how they kept warm in the trenches the same way, and how they both hear the order to fall back and retreat.
American soldiers of the 117th Infantry RegimentTennessee National Guard, part of the 30th Infantry Division, move past a destroyed American M5A1 "Stuart" tank on their march to recapture the town of St. Vithduring the Battle of the Bulge, January 1945. (Wikipedia

There are significant secondary characters in the story. Dieter's commanding officer, Schaffer, takes a father-like interest in Dieter and advises him not to get himself killed. Not until the end does Dieter realize that Schaffer was right and not the traitor he had supposed Schaffer to be. Spencer's friend Ted realizes that, "Out here you need to hate in order to kill them." Although he was similarly motivated as Spencer, he comes to believe, "We should not have wars."

The battle scene at the end is written in great detail. The ending is sad--how can a story about war not end without sadness? But Hughes redeems the ending by showing Dieter's changes: he quits the war and says he will think about it the rest of his life. 

Soldier Boys is obviously well-researched, but I didn't connect to the story emotionally. To be honest, that may have been because the narrator sounded dispassionate to me. I wasn't sure if that was on purpose--like a reporter narrating a news reel--or that was the narrator (Stephen Plunkett)'s way he interpreted the story. I was disappointed that so much time was spent in the book showing Spencer's paratrooper training, and yet a parachute never opened when they arrived in Europe. Perhaps that was what happened in "real life."

I recommend this book as one that boys will enjoy and as a classroom resource when studying World War II. It would provoke great
discussion about character motivation and why some young men enlist.

GIVEAWAY: Leave me a comment for a chance to win this audio CD along with your email address if you are new to my blog. I'm giving it away in conjunction with TALKING STORY's winter issue on Tough Topics. Leave a comment there and you'll be entered twice. Giveaway ends January 23. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Bonnie Doerr: On Book Series, School Visits, and Story Lines

As promised last week, here is the follow-up interview with Bonnie Doerr, author of three eco-novels for middle grade students. 

CAROL: When you wrote Island Sting, did you have any idea that there would be two more books?

BONNIE: Island Sting is a rework of Kenzie’s Key. The publisher of Kenzie's Key went out of business, but the original editor had envisioned an entire series. When the miracle of a new publisher picking up KK and tweaking occurred, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I hoped at least two more books would be born. The only thing I had going for me was the right of first refusal. There’s much more to this publishing tale. It involves the publisher that picked up KK going away, an editor sticking with Island Sting, and then Stakeout through a new company, then that publishing company being sold and... Oh enough already, this just gets boring, doesn’t it? But, yes, I always had an idea of at least three books, though the featured animals and wildlife organizations were not always so obvious to me. So, imagine the joy when I held the third, Tangled Lines, in my hand!

CAROL: What's next? A fourth Kenzie and Angelo book? 

BONNIE: As for another book, it will not be an additional Kenzie and Angelo story. Their story arc is complete. The story keeping me awake these days features a new locale with new characters who battle a different kind of environmental injustice.

CAROL: I can relate to a story keeping you up at night! Do you hear from teachers who are using your books in their classrooms? 

BONNIE: Teachers are using my books, but few know about them because they are not published by one of the big five houses. Word is spreading, however. I was invited to participate in an environmental program at a NC coastal science center after a PTA purchased copies of Stakeout for an entire sixth grade class, and a high school librarian near Tampa, Florida, received funding to purchase classroom sets of all three books for her ninth graders and to host my visit next February. Bookmarks literary organization has been incredibly supportive of my work sponsoring many school visits through their Authors in Schools program. Each visit resulted in wider classroom usage of the books.
Bonnie at Poplar Springs Elementary
Poplar Springs, NC

Most often a book is used to introduce the topic of endangered animals or, surprisingly, in sixth grades they’ve been discussed as a way to introduce research in writing units; a unique way to show how fiction requires research as well as nonfiction. More teachers are also finding them useful to support nature and conservation activities. Recently, at the YALSA Symposium in Pittsburgh, librarians were initially drawn to my books because they were described as contemporary, realistic literature that empowered teens. But upon learning more about the books, some also saw them as filling the niche of “hard to find” nature fiction for younger YA readers.

During school visits, teachers always seem interested in resources I’ve created for them on my website, but I honestly haven’t heard directly from anyone who’s used them. There’s little time for teachers to search out new ideas and less time to think of responding to an author about a particular lesson. It’s been interesting, though, to occasionally see one of my lessons on specific skill Internet resource pages, so educators must pick up one or two activities from time to time. Tangled Lines' project guide only recently available on my website is too new for any kind of response, so I have yet to get feedback on that.

CAROL: I'm glad to hear that some teachers are finding your books. But now is the $64,000 question...How many story lines ARE in Tangled?

BONNIE: I stopped counting at ten.

CAROL: Which shows you chose a perfect title. 

GIVEAWAY: Leave me a comment by Thursday, January 12 to enter the giveaway for an autographed copy of TANGLED. If you commented last week, you can add another entry to the hat! PLEASE leave your email address if I don't have it. 

Bonnie reading a portion from Stakeout.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Tangled Lines: A Review and an Autographed Giveaway!

With the publication of TANGLED LINES (Seek, 2016), Bonnie Doerr completes her eco-mystery series that began with ISLAND STING (2010) and STAKEOUT (2012). All three middle grade books star "detectives" Kenzie Ryan and Angelo Sanchez figuring out an ecological crime that threatens their beloved Florida Keys. 

Since many of you tell me you appreciate it when I interweave book reviews with comments on craft, this review will focus on three basic elements: The Beginning, Middle, and End using materials Barbara O' Connor provided at the fall SCBWI-Carolinas regional conference.


O' Connor says that the story's setup should include:
  • Whose story it is
  • Where the story takes place
  • What the story is about
  • A sense of the style or tone of the story
In the first two pages of TANGLED the reader finds Kenzie gathering Florida Keys' newspapers and shoving them in the recycling bin under her stilt house. As she performs this chore, she sees a picture of a Brown Pelican.
In the photo, the pelican's pouch was raggedly sliced from its beak, hanging loose like a war-torn flag. The caption screamed Pelicans Brutally Slashed. (p. 2)
She runs inside, shoves the paper in front of her mother and says, 
"This is sick." Kenzie's stomach churned. "It's inhuman. It's despicable!" .... A cinematic swirl of jagged knives, dripping blood, and murderous human eyes hijacked her brain. (p. 3) 
Within a few pages Doerr has shown that Kenzie's story is set in the Florida Keys. Even without the cover and book illustrations, readers will guess that environmentally-sensitive Kenzie's new mission is to save injured pelicans. Kenzie's quick call to action sets the tone for the book.  

O' Connor said that the setup should contain the catalyst (the event or action that starts the story) as well as a central question (what the problem is.) Do you see those elements in these brief snippets from TANGLED LINES? O' Connor mentioned that the setup should include relevant backstory. Doerr expertly intertwines the right amount of details from the previous two books without bogging down TANGLED. 


As Kenzie tries to find out who is hurting the pelicans, she turns to her Cuban-American friend Angelo Sanchez, who helped her solve previous eco-mysteries. But they've entered high school and things have changed between them. Angelo is spending time with a different girl (Estefania) and there's another guy who Kenzie thinks about. Complications ensue! 

Enter the middle of the book, which most writers agree, comprises about 50% of the story. O' Connor called this development and said it should include scenes that:

  • advance the story
  • reveal more about the character
  • and contain action that revolves around the central question or problem. 

Kenzie talks to her friend Ana about Angelo's lack of figuring out who is harming the pelicans. Ana reminds Kenzie that Angelo's father's business depends on selling fish caught by local fisherman. Kenzie determined that the birds were often injured by fishermen because the birds stole their bait and snatched their catch. 
"Ana, look. I get what you mean about Angelo and fisherman, but he said he wasn't interested because he had no time. I think Estefania Betancourt is the reason. Yeah, he has to work after school and weekends, but Christmas vacation starts in a week. He could make time then." (p. 75)

Angelo snoops around one of his father's fisherman's boats and finds a few suspicious items that worry him. Kenzie does a happy dance when he decides to join her on the pelican project. The story advances as the two follow clues and red herrings in their quest to figure out who is injuring the pelicans. Both Angelo and Kenzie discover parts of Angelo's past, adding more tangled lines to the story. They also begin to suspect illegal activity on one of the islands. In a flurry of excitement Kenzie reports to Angelo,
"Oh my gosh. I almost forgot to tell you. Donna at the Wildlife Center started keeping a chart of mile marker sections were injured pelicans are found. You'll never guess where they've found the most."
He was almost afraid to ask. "Where?"
"Mile markers 21-31. We're smack in the middle. There has to be a connection between abusing pelicans in Key West and abusing them around our islands. Something's going on. We have to figure it out and stop it." (p. 201) 


O' Connor said that the climax of the story should:

  • Answers the central question or solves the problem raised in the setup and happen just before the resolution.
The resolution:

  • Should show that everything was foreshadowed was resolved
  • The central question answered or the problem is solved
  • Show that the character has grown or changed
I can't tell you how Doerr weaves together all the story lines, because I don't want to spoil this book for you. Let's just say there is high adventure on open water (including a kidnapping and an almost-concussion), Kenzie and Angelo capture the bad guy, the pelicans AND island are saved, and a sweet romance create the perfect ending.

But since this is the last book in the series, I'll share this snippet. Angelo fixes Kenzie's broken necklace and with trembling hands clasps it around her neck. 
Angelo lifted the key pendant. "I'm sure glad your mom got this for you. Wish I could have bought it, though." His voice cracked. He hesitated, cleared his throat and continued. "Remember why I wanted you to have it?"
He made it sound like the right answer would be the key to solving a mystery, but a wrong answer would further complicate it. Like he was navigating uncharted waters. 
Kenzie had no clue. They were in such a comfortable place with each other now. What would happen when she admitted it? She tensed and gulped, "No."
Angelo carefully released the pendant and lowered his head. "It's one of a kind." Raking his hair back with his fingers, he breathed deep and long. "Yep. One of a kind. Just like you."  (p. 375-6) 
I challenge you to read TANGLED and figure out how many story lines are tangled and then untangled by the end of the book. I counted at least four. How many will you find?

For more information about Bonnie's books including curriculum resource material (she admits that the teacher in her doesn't know when to quit) and the inspiration behind each book, please visit her website.

For more information about Barbara O' Connor's books, please visit her website

For more information on this aspect of the writing craft see Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress.

GIVEAWAY: You can enter this giveaway twice! Leave a comment today and I'll add your name to the list. Leave a comment on next week's blog when I interview Bonnie, and your name will go "in the hat" a second time. will pick a winner for this terrific classroom resource on January 12.  

Monday, December 26, 2016

Marking a Milestone

Last week I pressed send.
Not to an agent or an editor. 

But to 10 beta readers. 

I finally have a draft of Half-Truths, which is ready to be critiqued!

Eight years ago Joyce Hostetter challenged me to join her in NaNoWriMo. I'd been thinking about writing a novel and had a rough idea what it was going to be about, but unlike my student Sydney Kirsch, I was unprepared. 

Undaunted, I plunged in. Eventually what I wrote in November, 2008 turned into Draft #1 of Half-Truths. It was from Kate's POV and I thought it was terrific.

I wrote slowly back then. Labored over word choices.  Experimented with tenses and had A LOT of false starts as I couldn't figure out where to begin the story. I edited as I went. Did I say slowly? I finished that draft on New Year's Eve 2010. I spent the next eight months honing and perfecting and thought it was "done." (How naive could I have been?)

I attended the 2011 SCBWI-Carolinas conference and was blown away. My work was critiqued by Mary Cate Castellani who suggested I write the novel from two points of view. Re-vision began and Draft #2 was born.
My first attempt at outlining chapters
from alternating POV. Index cards circle
my dining room table.
During that time I read books about the experience of being bi-racial, books about Charlotte, and interviewed experts. For more on these books and my interviews click on the Half-Truths tab. 
One of my favorite experts. Price Davis, constantly reminded me to make my story authentic.
He's standing in front of his childhood home in Cherry, NC where my character, Lillie lives.
Price passed away in December, 2016. 
The second draft turned out to be my kitchen sink draft. I wanted to put in everything that I found. How African American funeral homes used hearses for ambulances because the white ambulances wouldn't transport blacks. The poor care blacks received at Good Samaritan Hospital. Police brutality. The one drop rule

I sent Rebecca Petruck that draft in July, 2013. (The scene I shared in that blog post is still in my story, but stronger.) 

After receiving Rebecca's editorial input, Draft #3 was conceived in August, 2013. I worked on character arcs, rearranged plot points, and eliminated some of the extraneous events. 

Draft #4 deepened the characters. But I strayed from my pitch which, I had written in 2012: 

"In Charlotte in 1950, two teenage girls--one black and one white-- break racial restrictions, uncover family secrets, and discover they are second cousins."
I made a BIG mistake. I added boys. Oey Vey!

When I turned Draft #4 over to Rebecca in the fall of 2015, she wrote a great--but difficult editorial letter. You can read her feedback here

I dug in. Re-outlined. Took out the boys and several historically correct settings that I LOVED but which, took away from the story. Sent it to Rebecca. Got her approval! 

Draft #5 was born January, 2015.  

Besides saying goodbye to each girl's love interest, I gave the girls more opportunities to connect with each other and I stayed faithful to my current pitch:

"In 1950, two teenagers discover family ties that intertwine like deep roots under their city's sidewalk. One girl is black. The other is white."

For the last four months (in between moving out of an apartment, more road trips than I care to count, and teaching a writing class) I've been in a different type of revision mode. I had a draft that I liked, but following Kathy Erskine's advice at Highlights Summer Camp, I needed to cut to the chase in each chapter and needed to show, not tell in each scene. 
With Kathy Erskine at Highlights Camp

I worked hard and then printed out 320 pages. Only to discover the manuscript was 94,600 words--14,600 over my target of 80,000 words (which is the high end for a young adult novel). 

I began to hunt and destroy. 

Working at home, in hotels, and libraries,
I had  my laptop, my pages, and pink post-its.
If I found a story thread I wasn't sure I'd completed,
I stuck a note inside the lid of my travel companion:
an Adidas shoebox.
Having a deadline helped. Several of my beta readers wanted to read it during winter break. Holing up in a NC condo without a 9-hole golf course nearby also helped.

Chocolate, caffeine, and watching the "deleted words" add up helped too. 

After combing through the manuscript and following Janice Hardy's advice about revision and editing, I killed:
141- "Just"
106- "about"
36- "I think"
34- "I wonder"
34- "start"
15- "almost"
11- "nod"
 8-  "I shrug"
I discovered that my writing was stronger without qualifiers. 

All together, I expunged 11,146 words. That means I still have 3,454 words to delete. I'm counting on my beta readers to help me continue this tightening process. I haven't searched for "but," "and," or "that." There's probably a few hundred more useless words which may kick the dust!

While I'm waiting to receive feedback from my beta readers, I'm tackling the Author's Notes, Bibliography, and creating a spreadsheet on agents. 

I'm hopeful and excited. 

Stay tuned!

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Lover of Words: Sydney Kirsch, NaNoWriMo Teen--Part II

Some of you will remember my interview with one of my writing students, Sydney Kirsch, which I posted at the beginning of November. Please welcome her back for Part II.

Carol: How did you fit NaNoWriMo into your homeschool curriculum?

Sydney: Being in high school, I do have a lot of work to do on a regular basis. Fitting in NaNo isn’t always the easiest thing, but I’ve developed a sort of method.  Generally, I start my school year in June or July, so that gives me plenty of time to work ahead in most subjects. That way I’m able to really focus on NaNo when November comes around. Other than writing, my parents only require me to keep up with math during November.  Being able to work at my own pace really is an incredible advantage, and I’m so thankful that I’m in a position where I can.

Carol: Any crazy habits that you developed or kept you going during NaNo?

Sydney: My favorite habit, or tradition, is preparing for Nano with crazy amounts of “Nano Food,”  which includes basically all of my favorite snacks and teas.

Carol: What was the best part of NaNo? The worst?

Sydney: For me, the best part is something every writer can relate to at some point or other. Those moments when the words just seem to be flowing from my brain. That’s my favorite. When I love my characters, when I think my plot makes sense, when chasing ideas with a net of words doesn’t seem so impossible after all. Those are the moments that make NaNo so worth it. 

The worst part? Probably two things. Middles and back pain. 
I feel like whenever I’m writing the middle of a story it’s really just a chain of muddled gibberish that just wanders around without pulling the story in the direction it needs to go. Of course, It’s my own fault that those moments happen, but they’re still discouraging. 

Also, sitting for an entire month isn’t exactly ideal for spinal health. Pretty painful.

Carol: What helped you to get to the finish line?

Sydney: I’m extremely competitive. During the first days of NaNo, a friend of mine challenged me to beat him to 50K. All I’m going to say about it is that you can’t declare war on me and expect no reaction. I accepted the challenge. So, with some spurring on by friends, I wrote and wrote and wrote until I thought my brain was reduced to a sizzling pile of cells inside my skull. That’s what pushed me to the finish line so soon, really.

Carol: What did you learn? 

Sydney: I learned (or relearned) a lot of things. I learned that world building is hard. Endings are hard. Words are hard. Being a writer is one-quarter sleep deprivation, one-quarter edited outlines, four-ninths will power, and just a smidge of having your head in the clouds.

Carol: Tell us about your process. Did you end up gushing? Revise as you went? Did you have any readers as you went along?

Sydney Well, it turns out something unexpected happened. I completed a first draft in around 52,000 words. I didn’t revise as I went and I didn’t word spew. I just wrote. The key was, first, not having a ridiculously detailed outline, but also trying to give my writing direction. Using every word to pull the story along. 

It didn’t always work. Sometimes I found that I had backed myself into a corner and realize I’d wasted 1500 words on a scene I didn’t need. But for the most part, it just hashed itself out. (Though I will have to flesh it out later, of course.)

As for readers, I guard my first drafts with my life. Though I did enjoy randomly sending some of my friends lines from my story. And I kind of dropped giving them any kind of context. It never failed to make me laugh.

Carol: Did your story go off in different directions than you had expected?

Sydney: Oh, yes. Plot points I thought were going to just be small snitches turned out to be the foundation of my story. Characters I thought were going to play big roles just sort of tagged along and will probably not survive the second draft. 

Carol: Can you tell us any more about your story?

Sydney: Turns out this story is a little bit like Narnia gone entirely wrong. Ancient royalty (supposedly) returns, political jealousies being dug up with them. Plus there’s a unicorn involved.

Also, I finally named it. Until We’re Broken. 

Carol: Final word count? Plans for revision? Hopes for publication?

Sydney: Final word count is 52,156. After I got to the end of my outline, I had planned to go back and “add scenes” I thought were needed throughout the story. But then I realized I just wasn’t admitting to myself I wanted to start rewriting and editing. Calling it something else doesn’t change the fact that editing is editing. So I made myself stop and wait a while before slashing away at my manuscript.

I have another idea or two brewing for stories, so my plan (as of right now) is to let Until We’re Broken rest while I slave away at my other projects. Or… mull them over for a while. Then I plan to come back to my NaNo story and hack away at a second draft.

As for publication, I don’t know. I think we all have that little (or big) corner of our hearts where we stick our novels and with them a few scraps of unrealistic hopes. Yes, I’d love to be published. Can I? And a novel? Probably not. But maybe someday I’ll try.

Carol: What’s next?

Sydney: Well, first, Geometry. I’m trying to finish it before the end of the year (a friend challenged me in this, actually :)) so I’ll probably spend a lot of time working at that. But I also have a couple of story ideas I’ll be thinking over. If I like them enough, I’ll probably write them. This year’s NaNo has reminded me how much I adore writing stories. How I love the precision of it. The imagination of it. And how much I love words. So, I’m going to keep working at it. I’ll never get better if I don’t try.

Sydney's organized writing space. Mine should look so clean!
Carol: My guess is that you're going to keep getting better and better. I look forward to buying your book one day!

Sydney: 😊

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Meet Liz Rice: Highlights Foundation Groupie Extraordinaire!

Today please welcome Liz Rice who shares some of her experiences at Highlights Foundation workshops and links to their scholarship applications. Hurry! The deadline is December 15!

Carol asked me to write about the Highlights Foundation Workshops. She says I’m like their groupie. Which in many ways I am! I have attended six of their workshops and gone to their campus for my own self-created Unworkshops, many times. This year I attended their Summer Camp where I met Carol, and two Artists-in-Residency programs.

The first workshop I attended was, "It’s All About Character" in November of 2009. Since then I’ve attended at least one per year. What makes these workshops and Unworkshops so special, besides the delicious food, the wonderful pre-dinner wine and appetizers, the cabins [which are wonderful cozy rooms with refrigerators and coffee makers], and being in the Poconos. . .  It’s that compared to a writing conference, the Highlights Foundation has set up these opportunities to give you an immersion in your specific work in progress and an immersion in the writing process. Plus, you’re with a generous and very helpful faculty.
Liz and Jerry Spinelli
I attended the Eileen and Jerry Spinelli Artists-in-Residency in September. I learned so much from listening to Eileen and Jerry Spinelli. Eileen helped me stay focused on one project, while still carving out a little time to explore new picture book ideas as they pop up. She suggested I devote an hour in the morning to playing with the new idea, so I don’t lose its flicker. And then  I should return to my work in progress to keep moving ahead to completion. I’ve been doing that ever since. From participating in discussions during lunch, I learned from Jerry to give yourself permission to stop working on a manuscript if you feel it isn’t working and instead, put your focus on an idea you’ve been pondering.

I enjoyed that Residency so much that as soon as I arrived home, I registered for the Suzanne Bloom Artist-in-Residency, and attended it two weeks later. A groupie would do that, right? There were two author-illustrators, a few illustrators, and me--the only writer. Great opportunity to learn about picture books from the illustrator’s perspective, how they tell their part of the story and also enhance what the author has written.
Liz and Suzanne Bloom

The Artist-in-Residency is an Unworkshop with perks! For the same price as an Unworkshop, you have the opportunity to gain insights and get feedback on you works in progress. The authors and artists will work on their upcoming books or illustrations in between mealtimes. Then during meals, artists and attendees share their processes, frustrations, experiences and answering questions. 
The Artists-in-Residents of 2016 have been honored with scholarships in their name. They will be helping to identify, review and award the recipients of those scholarships. 
The application deadline is December 15th for the Eileen Spinelli, Jerry Spinelli, Suzanne Bloom and Meg Medina 2017 scholarships. Recipients are selected on two criteria: seriousness of purpose and financial need.
This link gives you more information about those scholarships. Scroll down for links to the Spinellis’ and Meg Medina scholarships.
Speaking of the Artist in Residency program, check out the 2017 list of honorees.

Get a cup of your favorite beverage and enjoy exploring everything on the Highlights Foundation website. Make sure you sign up to get emails on upcoming workshops.

The Experience link is a bit of a tour with testimonials:
I hope to see you at one of the Workshops or Unworkshops in 2017!

Liz Rice is the author of  Aranya Tries Again (Ladybug Magazine) and BILL RICHARDSON (Mason Crest Publishers). Before devoting time primarily to writing, she taught preschool to 4th grade for 22 years. 
Find her on:

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Lions of Little Rock: A Review

Congratulations to Joyce Hostetter who won LONGBOW GIRL from last week's blog. I had promised you would hear the results of Sydney Kirsch's NaNoWriMo experience. But in typical "I-want-it-to-be-better" mode, Sydney wasn't quite satisfied with her guest post and is continuing to tweak it. Stay tuned, you'll read it soon!
As many of you know, when you're pitching your manuscript to an agent or editor, you're supposed to find comp titles you can compare your work to. Although I read a lot of young adult and middle grade historical fiction, I hadn't found a comp title for Half-Truths.

Until I read The Lions of Little Rock (Penguin, 2012) by Kristin Levine and found these similarities:
  • A friendship between a white girl and a black girl in a time and place when it was unacceptable.  
  • A story that takes place on the eve of civil rights. 
  • A story in which the black girl is light-skinned and passes. 
  • A story of courage and change. 
Of course there are significant differences. The Lions of Little Rock takes place eight years after Half-Truths is set in 1950. Those were eight years when a lot happened in the battle for civil rights. In the historic Brown case in 1954, the Court unanimously ruled that "separate but equal" public schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. Practices didn't change immediately.  But in 1957, amidst physical and verbal abuse, nine black students integrated schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The year afterwards, both black and white schools were closed as Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus attempted to prevent integration. The Lions of Little Rock is a fictionalized account of that year. 

Here are some scenes I particularly appreciated. 

Marlee, a quiet girl who loves math and has a hard time speaking to anyone besides her family, becomes friends with Liz. Her new friend is light-skinned and Marlee doesn't realize she's a Negro until Liz doesn't come to school one day and the other students reveal her race. 

After school, Marlee asks Betty Jean, their cook:
"Have you ever heard of a light-skinned Negro pretending to be white?" 
Betty Jean stopped what she was doing, her hands full of chicken guts, and gave me a funny look. "Why are you asking that, Marlee?"
The kids at schools said...this girl I know... I was just wondering...I couldn't get any words to come.  Finally, I just stood there, helpless, praying Betty Jean would understand.
I guess she did, because she finally pushed the basting pan aside and went to the sink to wash her hands. She cut two pieces of blueberry pie, then sat down at the table. I sat down too, and she pushed the pie across the table to me.
"It's called passing," she said. "Some Negroes who are really light-skinned and have straight hair try it." 
"Why?" I asked.
"Better schooling. More opportunities." She shrugged. "Maybe they're just tired of being seen as second best."
I didn't say anything. It suddenly seemed like there was more gray around her temples than had been there just a moment before.
"It's a hard life," Betty Jean went on. "You have to give up seeing family and friends. Stop going the places you used to go. And you have to lie--every day--to everyone you meet."
Like Liz had done to me.
"Lying like that, well, it's exhausting. I hope you never have a secret like that Marlee. A secret so big, your whole life depends on it." (p. 68)
For the first time, Marlee begins to see the hatred and prejudice in her city. Marlee's sister, who has been out of school for a month because her school can't open, gets sent away to live with their Grandmother. At a time when she's just beginning to speak what's on her mind, Marlee feels abandoned by her sister and Liz. When her father is angered that the town votes against integration he says, "We are not just a town of racists, but those of us who believe in integration..." He shook his head. "We can't seem to find our voice." (p. 75)

Despite their parents' warnings for them not to see each other, the girls find secret meeting places. Marlee initiates these meetings because of her genuine affection for Liz and the reader senses that in the process, Marlee is learning, growing, and gaining her voice. 

When Liz can't meet her one day because she has to take her little brother to the movies, Marlee has to make a choice.
I knew the Gem was over on West Ninth Street. If I could go to a Negro church, why not a Negro movie theater? I turned the idea over and over in my mind, like a lemon drop on my tongue. I imagined being the only white girl in a room full of Negroes and shivered. It was a little scary. But Liz had been the only colored girl in a whole school full of white kids. Negroes might not be welcome at the white theater, but I didn't think there was a rule against whites going to the Negro theater. If she could do it, so could I. (p. 106)
As Marlee grows in empathy for Liz, she also realizes she's changing. "For so long I'd been the quiet girl. If I wasn't her anymore, who was I?" (p. 113)  Marlee also begins to see that what has worked for her (doing math problems in her head when she's upset) isn't going to work for Liz who loves words more than numbers. A part of Marlee's growth is helping Liz figure out a way to control her temper by writing things down. Seeing how her friend is different than her, takes Marlee beyond their racial differences.

When of my favorite parts is close to the end of the book. The school board members which blocked integration were voted off the board, paving the way for new members and school integration. But Marlee is still upset at school the next day. This is a scene with her Algebra teacher, Mr. Harding. (Who by the way, is an important secondary character.)
"I'm happy we won," I said. "So how come I don't feel better?" 
He looked thoughtful and said nothing for a long moment, then he pulled out a pencil and started to write on the blank piece of paper I had before me. "I think what's happened, Marlee, is that you've realized the world isn't an addition problem." 
He wrote 3 + 4 = 7 down on the paper. "We tell kids that sometimes. We pretend the world is straightforward, simple, easy. You do this, you get that. You're a good person and try your best, and nothing bad will happen." 
"But the truth is, the world is much more like an algebraic equation. With variables and changes, complicated and messy. Sometimes there's more than one answer, and sometimes there is none. Sometimes we don't even know how to solve the problem." (p.270)
I wish I could say that the book ends with a beautiful tying-up-all-the-pieces between Marlee and Liz. But because of circumstances beyond their control, it doesn't. Like Mr. Harding's lesson, books don't always come out the way we want them to. But it is a realistic, hopeful ending that shows how much Marlee has grown. And there is hope for the future--which is vital when writing a book for young people.

Although the two main characters are girls, boys play significant roles in the book. I hope that teachers in upper elementary and middle school use The Lions of Little Rock when they teach civil rights; it will make this time period come alive.