Monday, February 29, 2016

Where Are They Now? Joyce Hostetter's Cover Reveal + Giveaway

I am pleased to announce a new series of posts following up on my You Heard it Here First series. In these Where Are They Now? posts I'll share follow-up publication news from authors and illustrators I have featured on my blog. 

My first success story comes from North Carolina author Joyce Hostetter, who happens to be my extremely talented writing buddy and co-publisher of Talking Story. I'm honored that she's chosen my blog as her cover reveal for her next book, AIM, scheduled to be published by Boyds Mills Press fall, 2016. Since tomorrow, March 1, marks the 10th anniversary of BLUE's publication, this is a very special occasion for Joyce.

I know some of you won't be able to stand the suspense and will scroll down to see AIM's beautiful cover (caught ya!). Just make sure to come back and read the amazing backstory of how this book was conceived and written in under a year.

Take it away, Joyce! 

CAROL: I know Boyds Mills Press (or was it Carolyn Yoder?) approached you about writing a prequel to Blue and Comfort. Can you tell us a little about that process? What did they ask for?

JOYCE: My editor, Carolyn Yoder, suggested the prequel but the idea was generated in committee—a prequel to begin with the letter A - so we’d have an ABC set. I thought that was the oddest idea ever!! (to start with a letter of the alphabet for a title before I had a story concept) I joked with my hubby that I’d call it Annoyed! Or Aggravated!

Carolyn explained. It was a marketing thing and would look good on bookshelves! Oh. Okay. Who was I to argue with people who know marketing? Or to pass up a chance at a book contract?

I was just getting into the story when Carolyn gave me a specific date to submit the proposal. So, I stopped writing chapters and spent two weeks on an outline.  Thanks to you, Carol for being part of my brainstorming process. Did you actually suggest that Junior Bledsoe could steal a car? I guess it was an okay idea. The committee liked my proposal and offered a contract.  

CAROL: How hard was it to come up with an idea for the prequel? How about the title? Did that come to you early on in the process?

JOYCE: I’d had an idea to write about a protagonist whose father was dead and at his funeral everyone made him out to be a saint. (I’ve been to such funerals!) But my story would reveal the father’s true character.

So I took a seed from Blue in which Ann Fay says that Junior Bledsoe’s father’s heart gave out a few years ago. I decided to explore Junior’s relationship with his dysfunctional father.  As it turned out, his father wasn’t actually a scoundrel.  Few people ever are.  Mostly, they/we are just broken. In AIM, I explored that brokenness and Junior’s response. 

For the title, I started collecting A words. Alligator was out. Allspice was too. I made a list of words that had potential for preceding Blue and Comfort—one that suited Junior Bledsoe. I considered Aspire but it sounded more like a word his school teacher would use. AIM became the obvious choice.

CAROL: What were the challenges of writing a prequel? 

Being consistent from one book to the next—in characters, speech, and small details. If I’d known there would be a prequel I’d have set it up in Blue and Comfort. Ann Fay was fairly self-absorbed in those books. But she did have opinions about Junior Bledsoe.  He knew everything and everybody and when it came to helping people he didn’t know how to say no.  It was a fun challenge for me to portray him at fourteen as opposed to how she saw him at seventeen.

CAROL: What was the most thrilling/exciting/fun part about writing this book?

JOYCE: The publisher asked me for a book.  What’s not to love about that?  For them to offer a contract based on my proposal was a tremendous emotional boost when I especially needed it. Having just spent seven years researching and writing on two “failed” speculative projects, I was grateful for the focus that AIM gave me.

CAROL: I know you had a stiff deadline for AIM. How was this different than Blue or Comfort?

JOYCE: I wrote Blue and Comfort on spec.  My editor put me through multiple revisions before offering contracts. I had lots of time for research.

With AIM, I wrote the first draft in six weeks, revised it (multiple times with beta reader feedback) in another six. I submitted and AIM went into intensive care with my editor probing for depth, clarity and history. I used my beach vacation and every spare minute to revise. The book, from idea to Advanced Reader Copy evolved in ten months. 

I don’t recommend writing a book that quickly. I like more time to research, live with ideas and think about many possibilities. Time enriches a story. But my chapter-by-chapter outline enabled me to write fast.  Somehow, with help from Heaven and my insightful and patient editor, I pulled it off and we now have a great story waiting to make friends with readers.

CAROL: Any thought about a “D” book? 

JOYCE: I’m always Dreaming…  And I do have an idea.  I’m working on a WWI story right now, however. So the potential “D book” is on hold for the moment.

CAROL: And last, but not at all least, can you give my readers a brief summary of the book? 

JOYCE: Junior Bledsoe’s father dies, leaving him and Momma to piece together some respect for the family name. Overwhelmed with extra responsibilities and questions about his family’s dysfunction, Junior makes some unfortunate choices. His mistakes get him into trouble but also enable him to discover new aims for his life.

Here is the wonderful cover!

Since I read one of the early drafts, I can authoritatively say that you will love this book!


Welcome to all my new readers who came here via Always in the Middle. I'm glad you found me and hope you'll return- I give away lots of books! 

Astra Publishing has agreed to give away a copy of AIM to one fortunate reader. Please leave your name and email address (or send me an email) and I'll put your name into the giveaway. Share this on social media and tell me what you do, and I'll enter your name twice. Librarians and educators--tell me where you work and your name will go in another time! Giveaway ends Feb 2, 2022 at 6 PM. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Juba! A Novel- A Review and ARC Giveaway

Congratulations to Linda Andersen and Monica M., a new Twitter follower, who each won a copy of OF BETTER BLOOD on last week's blog.


Writing historical fiction is hard. You read shelves full of books, study documents, interview experts, ponder maps, photographs, and data. You work really hard to insert authentic details (what color dress would she have worn to the dance? What did he eat for lunch? What bus would she have taken to work?) and then plunge forward to create as authentic a character as possible.

But when you're writing a story about a young man who lived over a hundred and fifty years ago to whom you want to pay tribute, but yet there is little "real" data, your task becomes even more difficult. You have a few bones to build your story around-- perhaps a death certificate and a few photographs. If you're lucky, maybe you'll find a few newspaper articles you can dig up to authenticate your story.

Such was Walter Dean Myers challenge when he wrote Juba! (Harper Collins, 2015)

This book for middle grade or young adult readers, is based on the true story of a talented young black dancer considered to be the inventor of tap dancing. While performing in New York City, he was noticed by Charles Dickens who wrote about him in American Notes:

"Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man's fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs - all sorts of legs and no legs - what is this to him?" 
"And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink, with the chuckle of a million of counterfeit Jim Crows, in one inimitable sound!"
Engraving from American Notes by Charles Dickens (1842) showing 
Master Juba being observed by Dickens and an associate.

Walter Dean Myers, in his last book before his death, told the story of William Henry Lane (Juba's real name) using just a few resources: Dickens' writings, a smattering of newspaper articles and images, and Juba's death certificate. Here are a few of my favorite quotes.

Initially Juba seeks dance instruction from an Irish teacher named Margaret. (This particular passage reminded me of a comment my current dance partner--my husband's 85-year-old uncle--made. "When you see old people dancing, they're imagining themselves as teenagers.")
"If you weren't so thickheaded, you'd know they [the audience] were watching you because they want to enjoy themselves, not marvel at you. You ever go to an Irish dance and see the young people swinging themselves around and kicking up their heels and the old people watching them? The old people are thinking back on a time when they were young and they could do the same thing the young people are doing. But you have to give them something they can do, if only on the floor between their ears, if you get my drift." (p. 44)
The reader hears Juba's despondency and realism in the following line. He has just auditioned as a dancer and thinks he won't get the job. 
"My dancing didn't mean a thing. The only thing they see in a black man is a clown or a slave. "(p. 55)

Juba finally gets a few gigs as a dancer but when Mr. Charles Dickens comes to New York and watches him, he dances as he never has before. This quote begins with Mr. Dickens speaking.

"...There's a freedom about the way you move that makes me wish I could dance. Have you ever had a difficult time in your life?" 

"At times, everything seems hard," I said. "I'm not sure what tomorrow is going to be like. I'm just hoping it's something good." 

"I imagined--and I know I'm talking too much--that you must have had some difficult times along the way. I think that's the mystery of greatness and of people who achieve wonderful things," Mr. Dickens said. "That somewhere in their lives they have felt the cold winds of despair, but have kept their hearts warm themselves." (p. 104)

In order to make a small living Juba is forced to make compromises.

Jack [his "fair minded" white landlord] knew how black people were treated in New York. We were second-class people every day and third-class performers when we tried to exercise our talents outside of the black community. What he did was to needle me so I wouldn't give up all together, and in a way, I appreciated it. In a way, I didn't, though, because sometimes he made me feel that when I accepted a job with a minstrel band or put on blackface I was betraying my people. To me, putting on blackface was the strangest thing in the world. I was born black, and yet the promoters wanted me to dress up like some kind of strange image of a black person that really wasn't a true Negro. It was as if a lot of white people had a place in their heads for black people and you had to fit in that place in a certain manner or they didn't want you. They wanted black performers to talk bad, say stupid things, and be like pets. Jack said a lot of white people were afraid of real black people. (pp. 123-4)
Even after Juba was well received by Londoners who had read accounts of him by Charles Dickens, he still encounters this same prejudice from fellow performers.  
Huff [another performer] walked across the room and put his nose an inch from Gil's. "What I see with my own two eyes is that I'm not going to make no kind of steady living working for a nigger. And that's what I'm doing over here, working behind Boz's Juba or whatever it is he's calling himself. In America you make a living working with white men, and for white men. And I aim to go back to America, back to Mableton, Georgia and make a living. And if I want any coloreds around me, I'll buy a few!" (p. 157)

Possibly depicting Juba performing in England

 Walter Dean Myers did an excellent job of bringing this forgotten, yet important, performer to life. Juba's life was full of sorrow, yet it also held love and accomplishment. I hope whoever wins my gently read ARC, will pass it along to a young person who can be encouraged by an inspirational story of a man who, despite many obstacles, followed his dreams.

To enter this giveaway, please leave me a comment by noon on Thursday, February 25. If you are new to my blog, please leave your contact information also. For extra chances to win this ARC, post on Facebook or Twitter and let me know what you have done.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Of Better Blood: A Review and TWO Giveaways

Last April I reviewed Susan Moger's book, Teaching the Diary of Anne Frank. When she contacted me and asked if I would read and review her debut novel, OF BETTER BLOOD (Albert Whitman and Co. 2016), I agreed. After reading it I can tell you one thing for sure: Susan used all of her research about Hitler and the events leading up to World War II in order to write this young adult historical novel.

Teenage polio survivor Rowan Collier is caught in the crossfire of a secret war against “the unfit.” It’s 1922, and eugenics—the movement dedicated to racial purity and good breeding—has taken hold in America. State laws allow institutions to sterilize minorities, the “feeble-minded,” and the poor, while local eugenics councils set up exhibits at county fairs with “fitter family” contests and propaganda. - Albert Whitman and Co.

Four times a day I drop the baby.
It's not a real baby, but for a stunned heartbeat the audience believes it is. That's enough to get some of them on their feet, screaming, Stupid, clumsy, gimp. The words slide into my skin and stay there.
When I ask Mr. Ogilvie, the director, if just once I can catch the baby before it hits the stage, he frowns and puts his hands on my shoulders. I squirm away, but he holds on. "I love your sensitivity, Ruthie," he says, showing corn-yellow teeth. "But sadly a cripple like you can't be a hero."  (p. 1)
Thus the reader is thrust into the life of Rowan Collier, an unwilling actress in a "fitter family" drama reenacted four times a day at the Springfield, Massachusetts county fair. In the beginning of the novel Moger uses alternating chapters to show Rowan's life before this humiliating summer. In these flashbacks the reader meets her father, an engineering consultant for the Navy, and an advocate for the Betterment fight. He and Rowan's older sister, Julia, are dedicated to the proposition that society is best advanced having the fittest people marry and produce large families. The unfit, those who are physically, emotionally, or intellectually substandard, should be eliminated from society. 

In one of these flashbacks Rowan recalls how one of her doctors wanted her to be sterilized.  Rowan refuses but is shaken afterwards:
Father believed, as Dr. Pynchon did, that a weakness inherited from Mother caused me to get polio. But would he want me to be sterilized? (p. 51)
Rowan's world--already dramatically changed due to polio--continues to fall apart when she is forced to do "educational work" for the New England Betterment Council at the Expo. There she develops a friendship with a fellow worker, orphaned Dorchy, whose parents worked county fairs. In these simple explanation to Rowan, Dorchy shares one of the underlying themes of the book:
Rubes are ignoramuses; carnies know everything. Rubes come to the fair with their eyes starry and their pockets full; carnies take them for what they're worth.....
Your Unfit Family Show does the same thing. You trick rubes into paying money under false pretenses. (p. 33)
 As Rowan hears the stories of her fellow "actors" and how they were tricked into being sterilized, Rowan starts questioning what she had believed to be true about her father. Dorchy is a major catalyst in Rowan's increasing self-awareness.
When I left Bellevue and went to the Home, all thoughts of Dr. Friedlander and nursing school were driven out of my head by the effort of surviving. But here at the Expo, the memories are starting to come back. Dorchy is bringing me back to life. (p.64)

Following a dramatic escape from the Expo, Dorchy forces Rowan to question her assumption that her mother's bloodline was weaker since she died giving birth to Rowan:
Dorchy jumps up. "Listen to yourself," she shouts, angrier than I have ever seen her. "How can you sit there and say that about your own mother? After weeks with the awful Ogilvies and the Council cows you still don't question that 'better blood' garbage? she punches her fist against her palm. "You still think people are fit or unfit because of their family bloodlines? You know as well as I do that Gar and Jimmy and Minne are as fit as you and your precious father. (p. 117) 
Despite Dorchy's misgivings, she considers working at the Camp for Unfortunates in Maine with Rowan.  
"I'll bet you anything the camp is a con," she says stubbornly. "Miss Latigue is the carney; you and me the unfortunates are the rubes. You'll see." (p. 136)
Sadly, Dorchy's predictions prove to be true. I don't want to spoil the rest of the book, but the girls' lives become painfully difficult when they realize the camp is a facade for weeding out the "unfit."

Although the ending is triumphant as Rowan begins her journey towards nursing school, it is not without great personal loss. But she has matured from a dependent "cripple" to a young woman who has purpose, resolve, and determination.  
This is not an easy book to read. But as Susan Moger relates in her Notes, "Eugenics was a popular pseudo-science in the United States from the early 1900's to the late 1930s. The double aim of eugenics was (1) to keep Americans with a "strong" heredity (family backgound) having children and (2) to prevent those with a "weak heredity" from having children....The popular method of preventing reproduction among the unfit was to sterilize men and women." Necessary Lies, which I previously reviewed has a similar theme. 

As you may know, American eugenics principles were adopted in other countries, most notably Germany before and during WWII. Adolf Hitler praised American eugenics in his book, Mein Kampf and thus laid groundwork for a master race. 

Although the Unfit Family show and the New England Betterment Council are fiction, "Fitter Families" exhibits and contests were a popular feature at state fairs starting in 1920. This book would be an excellent supplement in high school classrooms studying WWII. 
If you are interested in winning my ARC, please leave me a comment by 6 PM on February 18. If you are new to my blog, please leave me your contact information. If you join my blog or share this on social media, please let me know what you do and I'll add your name twice. Susan also offered to giveaway an autographed copy of the hardback edition, so this time around I'll have TWO winners to announce next week! PLUS-- Susan is willing to send a book overseas, making this my first giveaway open outside the U.S.!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Julius Lester on Multiple POV, Backstories, and Finding the Right Publisher

After reading Guardian, which I blogged about last week, I was curious about some of the choices Mr. Lester made while writing this thought-provoking book. I contacted him through Facebook and he graciously allowed me to post his answers here.

Carol: How did you decide to write this in the omniscient point-of-view? Or maybe it’s the narrator’s POV—I’m not sure. All I know is that it works incredibly well. As I struggle to write a book from two POV I wonder about the process you went through in writing this story. How did you determine that you would write it in such a way that you showed the thoughts, motivations, and fears of all the characters? You must have created intricate backstories for each, yet you convey them all in such simple sentences.

Julius Lester
Point of view. That's always the question, isn't it? But you're right. In this instance it is the narrator's point of view. If I'd told it from the point of view of just one character, what the reader would have thought about the other characters would have been from the point of view of the one character. I wanted to be fair to all the characters. I wanted the reader to experience each character as she or he saw themselves. I didn't want to take sides against any of my characters. And that was how I conceived the book from the outset. While the characters were presented from their points-of-view, their actions lead the reader to decide if they're good or evil. But I, as narrator/author, do not present them as good or evil.

Interesting that you mention doing back stories for the characters. I didn't. I worked out a chronology of how old they were and when, since the novel moves back and forth in time, and I may have made some notes about their physical appearances, but I tend to carry the back stories in my head, which is not something I recommend. It would be to my benefit to write down the back stories, but that takes time I'd rather spend working directly on the novel.

I'm pleased that you like the novel. Many years ago I wrote a piece for the Sunday Times Book Review in which I mentioned that I wished a white writer would write about a lynching from the point of view of the lynchers. None ever did, so I did. I may have mentioned this in the Afterword. Of course, the lynching in the novel is tame compared to many actual lynchings that took place. I could have made the novel unreadable if I had stayed just with the facts. It's ironic that people would find it revolting to read what black people actually suffered. Seems to me that the least we could do is read about it. But the book would not have been published. 

For your information, I gave Guardian to a black editor first. She wouldn't even present it to the publishing editorial board because she knew they'd turn it down. What disappointed me was that she wouldn't even fight for it. But, interestingly, the next editor who read it and accepted it was of Asian descent.  

For more information about Mr. Lester, see this interview. My review of Incognegro portrays another view of lynching. The art exhibit Without Sanctuary is a chilling exhibition of postcards about lynching in the United States. 

Guardian's "Author's Note" includes statistics on lynching (plus an interesting note about the etymology of the word); how that threat lived in Mr. Lester's consciousness as a young boy; how he was impacted by Emmett Till's brutal murder; and the history of how he came to write and publish Guardian (Harper Collins, 2008).  

Here is a line from a letter Mr. Lester wrote to George Woods, the children's book editor in the New York Times Book Review in 1970: "White writers are so dishonest. Seldom have they written what they could have and should have, which is the white side of racism. I'd like to see a children's novel about a little white boy who goes with his father to a lynching." (p. 125)

Lester goes on to say, "While the subject matter is a lynching, on a deeper level, this is a novel about identity. Whom and what we identify ourselves with determines our characters, determines who we are, and what we do. Whose opinion matters to you the most? When you know that, when you know whom it is you most care about pleasing, you know who are. We make choices every day that shape the content of our characters." (p. 127)
Mr. Lester's most recent
Facebook profile picture.
Besides being a prolific writer, Mr. Lester
is also a photographer and musician.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Guardian: A Book Review and a Writing Exercise

Congratulations to Sheri Levy who won Dorothy Price's picture book, "Nana's Favorite Things."

In November I reviewed Mississippi Trial, 1955  and analyzed a scene using questions that Rebecca Petruck posed to me. In this post I'm sharing an excerpt from another award winning book about the Jim Crow period, Guardian by Julius Lester. This time I'm analyzing it using questions from James Scott Bell's book, Plot and Structure.

A short but immensely powerful book, Guardian portrays a lynching as seen from the viewpoint of several characters most intimately effected by the man's murder. Here are seven of these characters:

Ansel Anderson- a 14-year-old white boy living in a small town in the south in 1946.

Bert Anderson- Ansel's father who operates Anderson General Store and helped Big Willie get his job.

Maureen Anderson- Ansel's mother.

Little Willie Benton- Ansel's black fishing buddy who works with Ansel at the General Store. 

Big Willie Benton- WWII vet suffering from (undiagnosed PTSD), Little Willie's father. He does odd jobs at Mary Susan's father's church. 

Mary Susan Dennis- the girl Ansel likes.

Zach Davis- Ansel's antagonist and town bully. Great-Grandson of the man who founded the town of Davis, son of the man who owns the largest plantation in the town as well as the store where Ansel's father works and the church where Mary Susan's father is the preacher. 

Through these multitude of lenses, yet told from the narrator's present tense viewpoint, Mr. Lester has interwoven a story full of deep prejudice and misunderstanding. It is an unconventional style which works well for this topic. The reader intimately sees each character's motivations, fears, and beliefs and feels his or her emotions.

James Scott Bell writes: "A novel usually revolves around a few big scenes. These act like guideposts as the novelist moves from one to the other up through the climax." (p.127) The scene you are about to read happens three-quarters of the way into the book and is one of the big scenes in Guardian. Bert and Ansel have just left their store. 

As father and son cross the street to the car, they see Big Willie hurrying out the front door of the church. He looks quickly to his right and left, and seeing Bert and Ansel, he runs to them. 

"Mistah Bert, suh! I'm glad it's you. Yes, suh!" Willie is a tall and rather ungainly young man. His face looks as if it absorbed every death he witnessed, those he was agent of and those he was not. He is wearing a khaki military shirt with a private's stripe on the sleeve. But the shirt is dirty and torn, as if he has not taken it off since his discharge. 

"Wasn't me, Mistah Bert. No, suh! I didn't have nothing to do with it, but I know I'm gon' get blamed for it. Something like this happen, nigger gets blamed every time. Yes, suh. Sho' do. But I ain't done it." 

"What are you talking about, Willie?" 

Willie points toward the church. "I seen him. I seen him just as sho' as I'm seeing you and Mistah Ansel. Yes, such. The young Mistah Zeph." 

Bert hurries to the church and goes inside. In the dim light at the front, he sees and does not want to believe what he sees. 

"Ansel! Go outside!" 

Instead of doing what his father tells him, Ansel says, "Papa? What's he doing?" 

Zeph Davis the Third turns at the sounds of the voices. In his right hand is a knife. It is slick with blood. On the floor in front of the alter lies a body, the skirt raised to reveal her nakedness. 

Ansel does not wait for an answer from his father, who is still trying to understand what he is seeing. Ansel screams, "Mary Susan! Mary Susan!" and runs to the front of the church. He stops and stares at her nakedness. Then, realizing what he is doing, he pulls down the skirt to cover her. 

In doing so, he sees a ripped blouse and severed bra. The exposed breasts are red and slick with blood.  

He wants to stare, but feels that he shouldn't, that Mary Susan would not want him to. 

He takes the blood-soaked blouse and pulls both sides over her bared breasts, careful not to touch them. 

Zeph looks rapidly from Ansel to Bert, back and forth, back and forth, breathing heavily, not knowing what to do, what to say. 

Then he sees Big Willie in the shadows at the back of the church.

"He did it!" Zeph hours, pointing at Big Willie. "He did it!" 

"Mistah Bert? Suh, look at me. Ain't no blood nowhere on me. Look at him. He covered with blood, her blood." 

"You know niggers, Bert!" Zeph breaks in. "They do all kinds of stuff with roots. That nigger probably got a mojo that can take blood off his hands." 

"I seen him, Mistah Bert. I seen him. I was up in the balcony. I likes to sit up there when no one's around. It's real peaceful. 

"That's where I was when the preacher's girl, Miz Mary, come in. I wanted to leave right then 'cause I knowed it wouldn't look good if I was alone in the same place with a white woman. But wasn't no way I could get out without her hearing. Seeing' me, she might get the wrong idea and start screaming. So I just stayed still. 

"She went to the altar and knelt down to pray. I wondered what could be weighing so heaving on the heart of someone as young as she was. If she'd been a nigger gal, I could understand. Us niggers need all the prayer we can get. Yes, suh. 

"Miz Mary hadn't been there long when I heard the door of the church open and he come in. I thought maybe the two of them had decided to meet up together at the church, but when she turned around to see who it was had come in and seen it was him she say, 'What do you want? You get on outta here and leave me alone. I'm praying.' 

"He don't pay no mind to what she say. He go up to her and grab her try to kiss her. She push him away. She say, 'Get away from me or I'll kick you so hard you won't be able to move for a month.' 

"That's when he whipped out his knife and before she could do anything, he was on her, stabbing her over and over. Then I seen him raise up her skirt, and I didn't want to see no more. Mistah Zeph was so caught up in what he was doing that he didn't see me, and I hurried out and that's when I seen you and your boy. That's the God's truth, Mistah Bert. You believe me, don't you? You'll tell the white folks it wasn't me. Won't you Mistah Berth?" 

"Who you going to belive, Bert? A nigger or a white man?" 

Zeph notices that Bert is hesitating, that Bert is thinking about what the right thing to do is, and Zeph drops the knife on the floor next to Mary Susan's body, runs up the aisle and out of the church. 

"Rape! Rape! Pastor's daughter been raped by a nigger!" Zeph is running and yelling at the same time. Over and over he shouts and the only words that are clear are "rape" and "nigger." pp. 71-75.


Mr. Bell asks:

Was this an action scene? No question. This scene demonstrates high intensity with "tremendous conflict, important emotions, sharp dialogue, and inner turmoil." (Bell, p.128)

Identify the places where you learn about the character's objective in the scene and the conflict:

  • Big Willie's speech when he meets Ansel and Bert show how he wants his name cleared. That is repeated  at the close of the scene bookending his desperation. Conflict roars to life through Zeph's false accusation. 
  • Entering the church, Ansel wants to see what has disturbed his father. His internal conflict in seeing Mary Susan is demonstrated in his actions.
  • Zeph's anger at being rebuffed again (this is not the first time Mary Susan rejects him) leads to his objective: revenge. His conflict is visible in his brief hesitation after his sociopathic behavior. 
  • Bert wants not to see what is plain before his eyes. Afterwards, he also hesitates, showing his internal conflict. 
How does the scene end?

Zeph leaves the church and "Over and over he shouts and the only words that are clear are 'rape' and 'nigger.' The reader knows that this certainly means disaster for Big Willie and sets up the scenes which, like soldiers falling in battle, will surely follow. 

Do you want to read on? 

I'm going to leave this question up to you. Even though you have a strong sense of what's going to happen next, are you pulled into the next scene? Why or why not?

Jim Bell writes, " need to end scenes with a prompt, something to make readers turn the page...Don't ever let your scenes fizzle out, ending on a boring note." (p. 124).

It seems to me, that Julius Lester has done just that. 
On next week's blog, Mr. Lester shares some personal insights into writing Guardian.

For more information on making your scenes intense, download these handouts from Lorin Oberweger, founder of Free Expressions

Scene Response Sheet

High Temperature Plotting Sheet

GIRL ON FIRE: A Graphic Novel Review by Guest Blogger, Elliott Kurta

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