Saturday, July 31, 2010

Princess Posey

I won a contest, and I'm tickled pink! My prize just arrived in the mail--an autographed copy of Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade by Stephanie Greene.

If you know any little girls who are about to start first grade, you must get them a copy of this book. It's the story of Posey, a little girl who would wear her pink tutu every day if she could. Posey is nervous about starting first grade, until she meets her teacher, Miss Lee--and gives her a wonderful idea about how to help the children feel comfortable on the first day.

Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade is a beautifully-written early chapter book. From Posey's feelings about her baby brother ... to the neighbor boys who tease her... to her shyness when she runs into her teacher outside of school, the story rings true. The vocabulary and sentence length are perfect for children who are just starting to read longer books on their own. And the charming illustrations by Stephanie Roth Sisson complement the text perfectly. If you like this one, the next Posey book--Princess Posey and the Perfect Present--will be out in March 2011.

The contest was sponsored by the wonderful bloggers at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Here's a link to their interview with Stephanie Greene.

And now for some cool facts:

Cool Fact #1: My maiden name was Posey.

Cool Fact #2: Author Stephanie Greene's mother, Constance Greene, is the author of Leo the Lioness, my  absolute favorite book as a preteen.

Cool Fact #3: I can't wait to share this book with my students who are transitioning to first grade this year!

A big THANK YOU to Stephanie Greene and to the bloggers at From the Mixed-Up Files!

Friday, July 30, 2010

What Worked?--Revisiting Childhood Favorites: Katie John

Katie John by Mary Calhoun is a realistic middle grade novel published in 1960. Mary Calhoun is the author of many other books for children, including picture books Cross-Country Cat and Hot-Air Henry (a Reading Rainbow book), as well as sequels to Katie John (Depend on Katie John, Honestly, Katie John, and Katie John and Heathcliff).

Katie John takes place in my home state, Missouri, but as a child I couldn’t have been less interested in that. I loved this book because of the interaction between tomboy Katie and her prim friend, Sue … because of the awesome setting--an old “haunted” house with speaking tubes and dumbwaiters … and because of Katie’s habit of impulsively rushing into things without thinking, which landed her in some wonderfully sticky situations.

Each chapter of Katie John is a story in itself, and in each, Katie gets involved in a different adventure. However, the book is not entirely episodic; the common thread through the book is that Katie and her parents are growing to love the old house they inherited, and are trying to find a way to keep it instead of having to sell it. In the end, Katie helps to find a solution that will allow her family to remain in Barton's Bluff.

What works:
  • The main character: Katie is feisty and impatient--"headstrong", as their stuffy neighbor, Miss Crackenberry, says--but she is good-hearted and means well.
  • The setting provides the opportunity for wonderful activities:  Imagine riding in a dumbwaiter ... finding a (possibly human!) bone ... getting stuck in a covered bridge ... playing on a raft with the wild kids from the shacks down by the river ... and starting a secret, mysterious club called The Sign of the Black Hand.
  • Humor: Whether she's throwing rotten eggs all over the yard, tricking crabby Miss Crankenberry, accidentally substituting soap flakes for sugar when making lemonade, or nearly setting the house on fire, Katie's misadventures are hilarious.
  • Mood: Although Katie is usually dreaming up mischief, getting into trouble, or apologizing for her misdeeds, there is an honesty and warmth that runs through the book. For example, Katie is a royal pain to Sue's older sister, Janet ... but when Janet panics while getting ready for a dance, Katie is the one who reassures her that she looks beautiful.
Did it stand the test of time? In my opinion, yes. I can imagine reading this aloud to a class of third-graders--and I think they'd enjoy Katie John's hijinks as much as I did.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What Worked?--Revisiting Childhood Favorites: Tatsinda

“Once upon a time, far, far away at the top of the world, where it is always cold, there was a mountain that no one knew about except the people who lived on it.”

Tatsinda is a middle grade fantasy by Elizabeth Enright, published in 1963. I still have my childhood copy with the enchanting illustrations by Irene Haas--pen and ink drawings, rich with texture and crosshatching.  It was reissued in 1991 with new illustrations by Katie Thamer Treherne.

This is not what I expected to say ... but honestly, as I reread Tatsinda, there are some things that just don’t work for me any more:

• It starts out slo-o-o-ow. Lots of description and back story. I probably skipped a lot of it. At eight, I was not a fan of long descriptive passages (confession: I’m still not).

• There’s a distant, grown-up narrative style. Lots of telling. I don’t mind this too much--but I hope we get to some action and dialogue soon.

• For some reason, Enright gave all the characters names that began with TA. This is considered a no-no today, and for good reason. I was forever having to check back--was Tagador the king and Tataspan the queen?--or was it the other way ’round?

• The problem that starts the book isn’t something kids are likely to relate to. Tatsinda’s foster mother is obsessed with the fact that she and her husband are getting older. Nobody’s going to marry Tatsinda with that weird hair; someday she might be lonely. This is not Tatsinda’s problem. She’s only ten.

Okay, right now, I’m not too impressed with my child-self’s taste in literature. Why did I like it? Maybe it was because…

• The lyrical fairy-tale quality of the story is appealing.

• I love Irene Haas’ evocative illustrations.

• It’s got exotic animals! The small racing tidwell that looks like a squirrel and purrs like a kitten. The “shy, wiry timbertock that skipped along the treetops”. The graceful timtik (“…every Tatran child had a timtik to ride to school on. Some of them had two.”). Man, I wanted a timtik to ride to school!

• Tatsinda is an interesting heroine. The Tatrajanni have “glittering white hair like snow crystals” and “cool, greenish-blue eyes”--but not foster child Tatsinda. With her golden hair and brown eyes, she is considered a freak. But she’s really excellent at weaving totles (the luxurious rugs with which Tatrajanni cover their floors). This is classic--a protagonist who is somehow different, set apart from the others, but has a unique talent.

The Story:
Tatsinda wonders why Tanda-nan, the wise woman, lives in a bare cave with no totle--so she weaves her one. Tanda-nan is so touched, she promises her the gift of a little magic some day. This little scene is masterful: by showing Tatsinda performing an act of kindness without thought of personal gain, Enright instantly engages the reader's sympathy. The book doesn't devote much space to characterization, but what is there is spot-on.

There are giants outside the kingdom. There’s also a visiting owl--a cranky one, named Skoodoon. He broke his wing, so he’s got to stay in Tatrajan  until it mends. A whole chapter about giants and Skoodoon. Not a word about Tatsinda!

Yikes--eight years passed while we were reading about giants! Suddenly, Tatsinda’s eighteen. Her parents are dead. She loves Prince Tackatan, but he's betrothed to someone else. Tanda-nan gives her a spell--she’s to make the prince a totle for his 18th birthday, weaving in three hairs from her own head. At the party, along comes a giant. He grabs Tatsinda, wanting to take her to his niece as a “lively dolly”. As he carries her off, Prince Tackatan shouts, ‘I will find a way to save you!”

Tanda-nan gives the prince magic powder… if he sprinkles it around the giant, it will turn him into music. But, oops--the owl gets turned into music instead, and that was the last of the magic. The prince and Tatsinda (who is tethered nearby) decide to weave a net to ensnare the giant.

After the giant is dealt with, Prince Tackatan asks Tatsinda to marry him--he’s always loved her. And then he opens his birthday presents. Cool--he loved her even without the magic! They marry, and three of their kids are white-haired and blue-green-eyed, and three are golden-haired and brown-eyed.

My Kids Weigh In:
My oldest son (23), saw me holding Tatsinda and said, “Oh, that’s a good one.”
I asked him what he remembered and why he liked it. Amazingly, he could retell practically the whole story. He thinks the appeal lies in the unique world-building--they’re up in this mountain kingdom, isolated, and giants are outside the mist. It gives it a feeling of space; a sense of dreamlike unreality. I can see his point, I think--he reads a lot of sci fi and fantasy, and the kingdom of Tatrajan certainly has the feel of an alien culture. Maybe Tatsinda was one of his earlier exposures to that sort of literature.

Son #2 (18) has no memory of reading Tatsinda, but offers an opinion anyway. His theory is that a young reader will accept the protagonist's problem at face value without being too picky about whether it's a valid problem or not. He contends that kids relate to the main character's struggle simply because they are struggling. (I still say Tatsinda wasn't struggling--at least not until she fell in love with the unavailable prince and got snatched by the giant--but he makes an interesting, if debatable, point.)

This book was memorable, but for me it didn't stand the test of time. Yes, the world is very cool. But the protagonist's goal is sort of a muddle. Tatsinda doesn't do much. She assists in her own rescue (by weaving the net) but she doesn't initiate the action. 

What do you think--am I a critical crankypants, or does the story not measure up to today's standards? If you read Tatsinda as a child, did you like it? Would you recommend it to kids? Is there something about it that you’d want to emulate in your own writing?

In a future post, I’ll take a look at one of Enright’s realistic novels, like The Saturdays. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book Giveaway at From the Mixed-Up Files...

From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors is giving away SIX great middle-grade books (five of which are pictured above) to a lucky winner! Hurry over here to enter ... all you have to do is leave a comment on their blog. The winner will be chosen on August 3 (which happens to be my birthday. I wonder if that special birthday magic will make them choose me!)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tales (and Tools) from the Land of Revision

I'm revising my middle grade paranormal yet again, and I am really hoping this is the last go-round! Changes include: (1) swapping the snarky tween voice for a slightly younger, more earnest tone ... (2) flipping from first to third person narration ... (3) simplifying the plot line still more ... (4) rearranging order of events to create a more logical sequence of cause and effect ... and (5) limiting the protagonist's freedom (in keeping with her younger age), so that the action takes place over a narrower range of settings.

Here are a few strategies and resources that helped rethink my story (and get up the enthusiasm to tackle it again):

(1) a great article in the June 2010 issue of Writer Magazine: Artful Revelations by Jordan E. Rosenfeld. This three-page article points out the need for the revelations to force characters into action, leading naturally to the next revelation--in other words, revelations must have consequences. This sounds rather obvious as I write it, but this article helped me see how the events in my plot needed to fit together, and what the revelations are supposed to be accomplishing in each part of my story.

(2) I did a quick read-through of a favorite middle grade fantasy, jotting down the important events and revelations in each chapter (revelations are defined as surprising moments that drive the protagonist toward action or change ... a.k.a. turning points). Then I rewrote the turning points, leaving out information specific to that story, rephrasing it in very general terms that could apply to any novel. I categorized the characters as MC (main character), Antagonists (numbered, as there were more than one), and Helpfuls (numbered also). For example, my notes from chapter 17 say:
  •  Antagonist #2 thwarted.
  • More explained/understood about evil plan
  • Helpful #5 arrives
  • Humor subplot with Helpful #2
  • New humor subplot
This exercise helped me see how the various elements fit together and led to each other--and how they were interspersed to keep readers turning the pages.

(3) Plot Squares- if you process information visually, like me, this is a great way to get a look at the structure of your novel. This technique is explained very well in this thread on Verla Kay's Blueboards and also in this post by Suzette Saxton on the QueryTracker blog.

Edited to add: I FINALLY found where I originally learned of this technique: at the wonderful blog of Cynthia Jaynes Omololu, author of Dirty Little Secrets. Check it out!

(4) After I messed around with Plot Squares quite a bit, here's how I made an outline/flow chart of the whole novel:
  • I turned a piece of notebook paper sideways (landscape orientation) and divided it in thirds vertically.
  • I drew lines to divide it crosswise, about one inch apart.
  • I made three pages like this, and taped them together top to bottom to create a chart three columns wide, but very long.
  • I labeled the first column Act 1, the second Act 2, and the third Act 3.
  • Then I began jotting down the main plot events in pencil in the order I wanted them to happen. Act 2, with all its complications, was about twice as long as Act 1 or Act 3.
I did a lot of erasing--and worked on it for about two days--but eventually I had a sequence of events that seemed to flow pretty well. I have made much prettier and more complex templates on the computer, but my messy, taped-together, scribbled-on notes seemed to work well this time. It was already rumpled and tattered (especially after I set it down on the bed and the cat helpfully slept on it) and I didn't have to worry about messing it up.

Okay, back to revising. I'll let you know how it works out.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What Worked?--Revisiting Childhood Favorites: Carbonel, The King of the Cats

Carbonel, The King of the Cats, is a middle grade fantasy written in 1955 by Barbara Sleigh.

I read the first couple of pages, channeling my eight-year-old self, and asking, “Why do I want to check this book out of the library?”

• On the cover, a black cat sits at the top of a clock tower, gazing up at two children--a girl and a boy--who are soaring over a city on a flying broomstick, by the light of a full moon.

Covers are important--we may not want to choose a book by its cover, but how can we not be influenced? This cover, along with the title, promises magic, adventure--and a cool animal character!

• Reading the opening, I find a name and an emotion word in the very first sentence--“Rosemary’s satchel bounced cheerfully up and down as she hopped on and off the pavement of Tottenham Grove.”

Yes! I like knowing who I’m reading about and how they’re feeling right up front.

• Specific details in the second sentence add interest: “She enjoyed school, except for arithmetic and boiled fish on Fridays.”

Hey, she’s just like me--I liked school, too, except for math. And, eww! Boiled fish sounds even more disgusting than the icky sloppy joes my school used to serve.

• Despite some unfamiliar British terms (breaking-up, Tottenham Grove, pillar box) , I gather that school’s out for the summer, and Rosemary is excited--she’s “fizzing” with a “delightful party feeling”, to be exact. She’s also bouncing up and down on the “kerb”.

Fun words!

• By the second paragraph, other children have come along, and conversation follows.

I love dialogue--it pulls me right into the story. From this exchange I learn that Rosemary’s mother is poor, and they can’t afford to go away for the holidays, and the girls in her class are snotty about it. This creates more interest, and adds a hint of potential conflict.

• There’s an emotional shift. The exchange with the schoolmates took the wind out of Rosemary’s sails. At first she goes on “doggedly hopping”, but “the party feeling was only fizzing at half-cock now”. As she nears home, she stops hopping (“her satchel was beginning to hurt when it bounced”). Her neighborhood has seen better days, and her landlady (whom she bumps into) is critical and unpleasant.

It’s only page two, and I’m feeling sympathetic toward Rosemary--she’s a cheerful sort of girl even though her classmates put her down for being poor, and she’s got a mean landlady to contend with. We haven’t met the promised cat yet, and so far there’s been nothing about flying broomsticks. And who’s the boy on the cover?--he looks much nicer than those bratty girls from Rosemary’s class. So many things to look forward to! I’ll keep reading.

Next, I take a quick look at the rest of the book, asking, “Why do I want to keep reading?"

• By the end of the first chapter, Rosemary has a goal: She wants to surprise her hard-working mom by earning some money. She decides to get a cleaning job, and, though she’s only got a little money, she’s going to the market all by herself to buy a broom.

There hasn’t been a big inciting event to force the character into action--getting a job is really just a whim of Rosemary’s--but her goal is clear, and the character and her mother are so sympathetic, we’re rooting for her. We’re willing to go along with it.

• In chapter two, Rosemary meets the cat. It can talk! She buys it from a witch, along with a rough twig broom (which wasn’t really the sort of broom she wanted). Turns out you can only hear the cat talk if you’re holding the broom. But she’s spent all her money, and has nothing left for bus fare. How to get home? Oh--fly on the broom, of course!

I’m thoroughly hooked.

• Turns out the cat is Carbonel, a Royal Cat, stolen and enslaved by a witch. Now he’s doomed to be Rosemary’s slave--even if she doesn’t want one! To break the spell, they need to find the items used to make it: the broom (which they’ve already got), a hat, a cauldron, and the spellbook.

Ah … now we know the objective of our quest.

• Rosemary becomes friends with John, the young nephew of the lady her mom works for. He helps her as they roam the city, looking for the hat, cauldron, and spellbook. Adventures ensue. Carbonel, the lordly cat, bristles when they misuse magic or treat him like an ordinary pet (though he is not averse to a little petting now and then). There’s also the need to hide what they’re doing from the grownups, who wouldn’t understand.

Good complications and tension--characters influence the plot, and plot events impact the characters.

• The children find the necessary objects, do the spell to free Carbonel, and help him reinstate himself as King of the Cats. They return his enemy, the fiendish ginger cat, to John’s rich aunt--he was her pet before he ran off to usurp Carbonel’s kingdom. She is thrilled to have her “Popsy Dinkums” back.

Oh, good--the kids didn’t become irrelevant once Carbonel returned to his life among the cats. They still had an important role to play.

• Happily, John’s family has invited Rosemary to go with them on a holiday to the seaside. And even more happily, Rosemary and her mom are moving, because her mom’s starting a new job--wardrobe mistress for a theatre company--which she got through someone Rosemary met while searching for the magical objects. The spellbook and broom have both been destroyed (which means they can’t understand Carbonel any more, but maybe that’s for the best).

All loose ends tied up neatly . Rosemary didn’t achieve her initial goal of getting a job, but she indirectly helped improve her family’s financial situation.

• In the last three paragraphs, Sleigh suddenly addresses the reader directly and tells what happened to some of the minor characters, implying that she--the narrator--knows them personally.

Disconcerting, but then this was written in 1955, so maybe we can forgive a bit of uncharacteristic authorial intrusion. Overall I think Carbonel stands the test of time very well.

Back to What Worked?--Revisiting Childhood Favorites

What Worked?--Revisiting Childhood Favorites

Like most writers, I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember. My parents were readers, and they took my brother and me to the library regularly. I remember the joy of carrying my precariously-balanced stack of books into the house ... and that delicious quandary: which one shall I read first?

I didn’t read analytically back then--I was just a sponge, soaking up stories. But not just any stories. I was very clear about which books I liked and which ones I couldn't be bothered with. Lately, I’ve been looking back on the books that made an impression on me as a child. If the memory of a book has stuck with me for decades, there’s probably a good reason. That's why I'm taking a new look at some of my old favorites, asking, “What was it about this book that struck a chord with my eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old self?” and “Which of this author's techniques can inform my own writing?”

Carbonel, King of the Cats