Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Enter Three Witches: A Story of Macbeth

Usually I pick a book by reading the blurb on the back; sometimes I find the title is intriguing. In this case, I knew I have never been disappointed with YA novels written by Caroline Cooney, and found her latest book to be no exception.

Interweaving quotes from Shakespeare's original play, Cooney crafted her own version of the Macbeth story. In the process, she created a new character, Lady Mary, through whose eyes much of the story is seen. By the way, this book is a masterpiece of multiple points-of-view which is not an easy task for a writer. But by writing it in this manner, Cooney allows the reader to see the misunderstandings between the characters as each perceives events based upon their own bias. The resulting miscommunication can provide many teachable moments for family or classroom discussion.

The themes of lust for power, deception, and greed are summarized at the very end when Lady Mary notes, "Macbeth is a great man gone bad." The cunning which she and Fleance use to defeat a castle full of soldiers is amusing and gratifying to the reader and provides a happy ending to an otherwise tragic story. Having just traveled to Scotland last spring, I could more easily picture the castles and countryside; that added another dimension to this attention-grabbing book.

I recommend this book for students who might be reluctant to read Macbeth in the full Shakespearean English, and think it is suitable for middle school students and above. There is plenty of blood and warfare to satisfy boys, and enough romance and court intrigue to keep female readers turning the pages (or, like me, hooked to their CD-player or iPod!) (Scholastic, 2007)

Friday, October 26, 2007

An Evening with Kent Brown

I guess this has got to have been one of those "happened to be in the right place at the right time" moments. This week when I was in Pennsylvania presenting a workshop for the Keystone Reading Association, a smiling gentleman strolled by and I noticed his name tag read, "Kent Brown, Boyds Mill Press." What children's writer hasn't seen Kent's name as he is was editor of Highlights for 22 years and now heads up the Highlights Foundation and is the publisher for Boyds Mill Press? I introduced myself to Kent (of course mentioning my connection to SCBWI and that I had won the June Author Award from Highlights) and he graciously invited me to join him and several other friends for dinner that evening.

The dinner party that Kent put together included a teacher and her boyfriend, two other authors (Suzanne Bloom who one the PA "One Book for Every Young Child" award for her book, "A Splendid Friend Indeed") and Sneed Collard, who has written a TON of nonfiction for kids), and two university professors from East Strousburg University. Interesting man, Kent Brown. Although he has his Masters in English Education he taught 7th grade for only one year and then was basically fired because it was 1969 and he didn't want to use a 1939 grammar book! He went from there to farming and ended up in publishing. He knows so many people in children's publishing but is just about the most unassuming person Santa Claus-without-the-beard type person you'd ever meet. His take on agents: you don't need them. His take on the Chautauqua Writer's Workshop: every writer should go. My take on him: a generous man.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ebby turned one!

For those of you who have faithfully read this blog and knew about our first grandaughter's 3-month early arrival last year...I'm happy to share that she turned one on Saturday, October 20th. As you can see from this picture of her with her Mommy, she is doing very well! We are very thankful. From under 2 lbs to over 20...she's a healthy and happy girl!

Advice from the Archives of Writer's Digest

In the October issue of Writer's Digest, Phil Sexton, offered some nuggets from old Writer's Digest issues which he uncovered and has included in his forthcoming book, Legends of Literature. I thought these were amusing and worth passing along to all of you:

In September 1961, the following authors answered the question: "What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a writing career?"

"Sorry if I had any advice to give I'd take it myself." John Steinbeck

"The new writer should observe, listen, look...and then write. Nothing begets better writing than the simple process of writing." Rod Sterling.

"The beginning writers need talent, application and asprin. If he wants to write just to make money, he is not a writer." James Thurber

"Beware of advice--even this." Carl Sandburg

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Word from Lydia Baldwin

Lydia is my youngest daughter and is currently taking AP Language and Composition in her junior year at Covenant Day School. In response to a recent assignment she wrote:

has always been a source of entertaining escape for me. I was fed books growing up and developed an insatiable addiction. Literature presents the adventures of fascinating worlds full of mysterious characters. I have plotted with slow deliberation as Edmond Dantes, laughed mockingly at the world as Elizabeth Bennet, and have wandered the smoky streets of London as Sherlock Holmes. Books will always hold an eager anticipation and a satisfying fulfillment."

I don't believe I could have said it better myself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You Know You're a Writer When...

....you're asked to write an endorsement for another book. Check out my endorsement of Paul Stankard's new book, No Green Berries or Leaves. http://www.mwpubco.com/PaulStankard.htm
Scroll down and you'll find it... last but not least! And if you're interested in finding out more about this fascinating glass artist, search my blog for other references to him.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dialogue, Voice, and Autobiographies, oh my!

It's been over two weeks since the SCBWI-Carolinas conference, but not to late to share what I learned that weekend.

I was one of the lucky few to have registered early enough to come to the Speaker's Café on Friday night to hear Julie Strauss-Gabel, Joy Neaves, and Caitlyn Dloughy share their thoughts on what makes a good book. In one word, they all agreed it was a character's distinctive VOICE.

I sat there thinking. What is this elusive thing called 'voice'? Everyone talks about it, but how does a writer capture it?

After a thought provoking critique from Eileen Heyes, a few breakout sessions, and a challenge from my daughter Lori who is a Chapel Hill freshman communications major, I think I'm beginning to have some answers.

Eileen read the fifth chapter of my work-in-progress, a historical middle grade novel. After commenting on several sections she turned to me and said, "Have you written an autobiography for each character?" Ashamed, I admitted that I hadn't. Sure I had the birthdates, (some!) physical description of each along with their likes, dislikes, and some particular mannerisms. But I had never bothered to sit down and write in a character's own words about his life. With Eileen's prompting under my belt, I started doing that- in longhand since I had forgotten to bring the power cord for my laptop- and it was interesting to see how each character started to "sound" and talk different. Their words. Their sentences. I had to flip from one to another as their ideas about my story came popping out of their mouths.

In Julie Strauss-Gabel's session "If I wasn't an editor, I'd be a therapist" the next day, she handed out a worksheet entitled "Character Resiliency Interview." This long list of questions like, "Talk about something that has troubled you over time," and "Who should have helped you but didn't?" will be great ones for me to ask my characters and listen to their answers. I have a sneaky suspicion that if I take the time to do this, my characters' whining, despair, or anger will get voiced.

Lin Oliver's session on dialogue underscored all of the above. Oliver said that every character should sound entirely, exclusively like herself and should be distinguishable from the other. She suggested keeping information books for each character in which you record their unique language including key words and phrases. She is an unabashed eavesdropper and highly recommended the practice. Finally, we all wrote a line of dialogue for a character that we brainstormed starting with a physical characteristic, a mood or one word description of the person, and what type of person we were picturing (ie., pms'ing teenager, elderly grandfather).

I left the conference to take my daughter, Lori, (pictured above on moving-in day) out to dinner.
Excited about what I had just learned, I told her about writing my character's autobiographies out long hand. She upped the ante. "That's a great idea, Mom. You should also try changing their handwriting while you do it to really get a feeling for them." Great…more work! Then I upped the ante myself. My main character is dyslexic. What would it be like for me to write her autobiography out in longhand and struggle with spelling as she would have experienced?

Whoever said that writing a children's novel was easy, certainly didn't have a believable VOICE.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Launch Pad

Launch Pad: Where Young Authors and Illustrators Take Off! is a new magazine which will be publishing book reviews, nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and artwork created by 6-12 year olds. The first magazine will be coming out in January/February 2008. If you have used my book, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Middle School, and held a writing contest in your classroom, your winners might seek publication in this online magazine. Elementary students and homeschool students can also go online and view the submission guidelines at http://www.launchpadmag.com/submitbw.pdf.


Whoever said that there aren't any good boy books hasn't been to a library recently. Roland Smith's new novel Peak is another excellent "story within a story" (see my recent blog on "Keturah and Lord Death") but told in a totally different manner. The story about Peak's (the main character) Mt. Everest climb will appeal to readers of both sexes from 6th grade up, and is a great example of plot conflicts. Peak faces internal struggles over his relationship with his father (which is believably resolved at the end); physical struggles as he attempts to climb the mountain; struggles with nature, conflicts with the Chinese government, resentment from other climbers, and discord with a new friend. I doubt that Smith could have "upped the ante" more -- read the book and see how that expression fits this story!

As a writer and story lover, I loved Vincent (Peak's English teacher) and the film crew's comments about stories. At one point Vincent tells Peak to "hold the story inside you until you're ready to burst" and another time he suggest that a "story is built like a stone wall. Not all the words will fit. Some will have to be discarded." One member of the film crew responds to Peak's question, "What's the story?" with the answer, "Chances are we don't know what the story is about until we know how the story ends." Great words!

I recommend this book for reading pleasure, as well as a great book to discuss a character's conflicts and the concepts of climax and denouement. (Harcourt Children's Books, 2007)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Keturah and Lord Death

Can someone love death? This is one of my questions as I listened to this skillfully-written medieval fantasy.

Within a picture frame of the quintessential struggle of a young woman searching for her "true love" and the universal conflict of good vs. evil (or in this case, love vs. death), author Martine Leavitt has created a story that is worthy of Scheherezade. Like Crispin: At the Edge of the World, this book also demonstrates how superstitions governed life in the Middle Ages. But Leavitt has successfully woven humor into this book so the reader laughs when Keturah realizes that after all, she really doesn't need a charmed eye rolling around in her apron pocket to show who she truly loves.

Leavitt's use of personification in the person of Lord Death is outstanding, and I loved her use of the "story within a story" theme. Language arts students can learn a lot by looking at these literary elements as well as characterization, setting, and plot. Although the book starts out with Keturah promising her male listeners a story that is full of death and adventure, I think that adolescent girls will gravitate to this book more than boys.

Can someone love death? Leavitt makes an interesting argument for it. Keturah and Lord Death could lead to some interesting theological debates as well as discussions about love and self-sacrifice. (Front Street Books, 2006)

Monday, October 1, 2007

Crispin at the Edge of the World

I have never been disappointed by a book by Avi, and Crispin: At the Edge of the World is no exception. Appealing to boys and girls from middle school and higher, this book shows the reader a no-holds-barred description of the poverty, warfare, and superstition that governed life in the Middle Ages. If you are looking for a book that shows the themes of forgiveness, sacrifice, and love through the actions of strongly portrayed characters, I would highly recommend this book. Make sure that you pay attention to the stories that Bear, Crispin's adopted father, tells about a trained bear. The symbolism of those stories plays out at the latter end of the book. Troth, the third person in this unlikely trio, inadvertently teaches her friend Crispin what it means to love unconditionally. This is the second book in the Crispin triology; the first, Crispin: The Cross of Lead won the Newberry Award in 2003. Now, I'll have to pester my local librarians to get the first one on CD also! (Hyperion, 2006)


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