Monday, May 30, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Luck of the Buttons

The Luck of the Buttons, by Anne Ylvisaker, is on my "books I love" list. Published in 2011, this novel is genuine and soft-at-heart. In it, readers meet twelve-year-old Tugs Button, of the unlucky, plain, don't-strive-for-too-much Button family. Tugs is a character I wish I could meet, and if I could, I would hug her right off because she is the friend everyone needs.

The premise: Funny, tomboy Tugs Button has never had too much luck, until the 1929 Independence Day Race and Raffle in Goodhue, Iowa. Aggie Millhouse enlists Tugs to be her three-legged race partner and Tugs buys a raffle ticket. These two events, along with Harvey Moore's arrival in town and his promise of progress, lead Tugs into a mystery designed just for her.

What keeps readers reading: A character you cheer for and a situation only she can make right. When Tugs wins a Brownie camera in the raffle, she sees everything from a different angle. She notices what others overlook and wonders just what progress Harvey Moore is offering. Though she struggles with wanting to fit in, Tugs is nobody but herself and starts to think that maybe her luck can change.

Curl up with The Luck of the Buttons, sink into the past with Tugs, and look for a guest post, coming soon and coming right here, from The Luck of the Buttons author, Anne Ylvisaker!

Other MMGMers and their reviews:
Please find their links in my right sidebar.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Complicated Characters

My large, lovely dog
Two years ago, a twenty-something gentleman bought the house next door to mine, and our dogs became friends. Sometimes while our large, rumbly-tumbly dogs play, my neighbor and I chat. We discussed our occupations once, and my neighbor's job intrigued me. (Let your imagination work up some possibles).

*Thinking. Imagining. Conjuring.*

The reveal: My neighbor is a professional poker player. Not just a guy who flips out the poker table on Friday nights with his buddies, but a guy who plays poker for a living. It's how he pays his bills and buys dog food.

ESPN poker players. Let's see. Quiet and brooding. Expressionless eyes or perhaps dark sunglasses shading the eyes altogether. Al Capone-like hat or maybe a baseball cap pulled low. Shifty, shady character who haunts the night. Alcoholic beverage always close at hand.

That is not my professional poker playing neighbor. He smiles freely, never wears hats or sunglasses, chats more than most women I know, is responsible and respectful, his 'lights out' time is usually earlier than mine, and he takes in foster dogs as well as loving his own.

So, what's my point? It's nothing new, but it's worth contemplating: People are complicated characters; they never fit into a jello-mold and are never a perfectly shaped bundt cake. And the characters in our stories should be complicated folks too. Are yours? And how do you add character to your characters?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Loving Middle Grade

When I started reading middle grade books aloud with my kids, the genre stitched itself into my being. We sat, hours on end, captivated by middle grade characters and the worlds their authors created.

Today, we still read aloud together, even though my kids have been reading on their own for years. It's a treasured part of each day - to pull our current read from the shelf - and read together.

Our middle grade read alouds launched my current lot in life: writing my first middle grade novel. While the writing process is often arduous and draining, it is also wondrous and rewarding. Sometimes it is all of these simultaneously. But one thing that keeps my fingers plunking the computer keys, day after day no matter how my writing progresses, is imagining a child (or a mom or dad together with that child), my book in hand, captivated by its characters and world. To give that gift is why I write.

What do you love about middle grade reading and writing?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Nowhere to Call Home

Several years ago, my kids and I read through the decades of American history, middle grade historical fiction style. We found many amazing reads, one of which was Nowhere to Call Home by Cynthia DeFelice. First published in 1999, this novel brings today's readers back to the desperate times of the Great Depression and reminds us that those times of hardship are still the plight of many today.

The premise: When her father takes his own life after financial ruin brought on by the Great Depression, Frances is left with nothing. The servants who raised her were her family, and now they're gone too. She cashes in a train ticket to her aunt's house, transforms herself into a boy named Frankie, and rides the rails with others who have "nowhere to call home."

What keeps readers reading: Adventure. And the reality of that adventure. Frances (Frankie) meets another hobo named Stewpot; he becomes her big brother and protector. Stewpot teaches Frankie about surviving life on the move and making the most with what you have. But when Stewpot gets very, very sick, Frances realizes riding the rails isn't the adventure she thought it would be.

Other MMGMers choices and reviews:
Please find links to all the other MMGMers in my right sidebar.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Return To List

Almost every day I read writing blogs and gather new jewels for my writing crown. These blogs strengthen my craft, my draft, and my knowledge of the writing industry. Sometimes when I read a post I think, "I'll need this later." So I have bookmarked many, and my "Return To" list grows. Here are a few:
  • From Adventure in Children's Publishing: Finishing your draft. Find this post by clicking here.
  • From Nathan Bransford, Author: Details on his writing life. Click here for this post.
  • From Strengthening dialogue. This post is right here.
  • From The Blood-Red Pencil: Using adjectives. Here's this post.
  • From Writing your pitch. Find this post here.
Because my first ever work in progress is now in progress, many posts do not apply at the moment I read them (hence, my bookmarking of them), but they will apply in the future. Do you have a "return to" list of blog posts? Would you share one or two of your favorites here?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Summer Special

Summer is amazing where I live. Things come to life. Things grow. Things blossom. Things flutter. Beauty is everywhere in my Minneapolis/St. Paul. These photos were captured last summer, in places very close to my house.

In a pond
Outside my back fence
Off my deck

In a flower garden
But summer isn't the only beautiful thing here. Minneapolis/St. Paul is full of amazingly talented writers, and to celebrate that, my summer Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays will be authors who live in my city. I've chosen several authors (some MG, some YA) and their books already but am interested in your suggestions too. In the comments, leave book titles and author names of your favorite Minnesota-written reads. Help me promote the beauty that lives right in my backyard.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Belle Prater's Boy

Belle Prater's Boy, a Newbery Honor book in 1997, is a timeless story, which, to me, means Ruth White wrote a classic - and one with strong appeal for both boys and girls (and adults).

The premise: Belle Prater mysteriously disappears. Most people believe she was murdered, but her son has other ideas. Belle's boy, Woodrow, moves in with his grandparents when his father starts drinking too much. When he meets and becomes best friends with his girl-cousin Gypsy, they teach one another about family and friendship and getting through hard times.

What keeps readers reading: Ruth White's believable and beautiful portrayal of a cross-gender friendship. Although Belle Prater's Boy is told through Gypsy's eyes, Woodrow is revealed in a marvelous manner, crossing that boundary of boy/girl reading. Woodrow is cross-eyed and wears funny clothes. Gypsy is popular and pretty. But both harbor sadness. Through their adventures together, sticking up for one another, and understanding each other in ways no one ever has before, we are led into 1950's Virginia. But 1950's Virginia disappears and timelessness appears through White's tale of confronting tragedy with a friend at your side.

Other regular MMGMers:
Brooke Favero at Somewhere in the Middle
Shannon Whitney Messenger at Ramblings of a Wanna Be Scribe
Ally Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy
Joanne Fritz at My Brain on Books
Myrna Foster at Night Writer
Shannon O'Donnell at Book Dreaming
Sherrie Petersen at Write About Now
Deb Marshall at Just Deb
Anita Laydon Miller at Middle Grade Blog
Michael Gilmartin at Middle Grade Mafioso

Friday, May 13, 2011

Writing is Hard

There are days, lots of them, when I wish I wasn't a writer. Because on many days, the words don't flow. Or the outline I made yesterday just doesn't work today. Or the plot twist that seemed brilliant truly is not. Or I struggle getting the picture in my head into words at all.

I've heard other writers say how the story simply came to them and, like moving water in a mountain stream, it flowed from their hands when they sat at the computer. For me, writing isn't like that. Writing is hard. I often sit, hands placed over my keyboard, and......

Nothing. Nothing comes. Or when it does come, I erase and backspace because, well, actually the nothing that came first was better than what came. These are the times I wish I wasn't a writer. But I keep sitting, hands placed over the keyboard, because........

Sometimes. Sometimes something comes. And sometimes the words flow and I don't backspace. And when it does, I forget about the times it didn't because the sometimes are worth all the nothing times.

What do you think? Is writing hard?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Growing Writing

Because I need direction and order, when I joined Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays (MMGM - a group of writers/bloggers who review and promote middle grade lit) several weeks ago, I needed a formula for reviews. After thinking awhile I came up with this:
  • title of book; blurb about publishing, awards, and audience
  • the book's premise
  • what keeps readers reading  
Simple, to the point, and direct. Because, let's face it, who wants to read a long book review? If you're interested, you'll actually read the book. As I pondered this, another thought bobbed into my brain. What if I apply this formula to my own work in progress? Is my working title effective? What is my WIP's premise? What keeps readers reading?

Before I type any more words into my WIP, I will jot an MMGM for my WIP. Challenging to do for my own writing but necessary. Pictured here is an itsty-bitsy, baby Ohio Buckeye tree. Given time, it will grow into a large and shading beauty. By MMGMing my WIP, I will grow that WIP. And, I'm interested. How do you grow your WIP?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Steinbeck's Ghost

Lewis Buzbee's Steinbeck's Ghost describes libraries, books, and book's characters exactly as I've imagined them - as if they are alive. Published in 2008, Steinbeck's Ghost appeals to mystery lovers (a mystery unlike any other develops), but because of its many literary references, upper level MG readers and higher will enjoy it most.

The Premise: Thirteen-year-old Travis and his parents move from a small, shabby house in Salinas, California (John Steinbeck's boyhood home), to a roomy, new one in a fancy subdivision. The new house and neighborhood are eerie and strange and too perfect. To reconnect with his old life, Travis bikes to the library. The John Steinbeck Memorial Library. As he approaches the library, he sees a homeless man. But he's not a homeless man. He's a character from one of Steinbeck's books. While at the library, Travis's favorite librarian tells him the library will soon close forever because of city budget cuts. On his way home, Travis bikes past the house where John Steinbeck grew up and sees a boy in the window. But nobody lives there anymore......

What keeps readers reading: Steinbeck's Ghost weaves a mysterious plot with beautiful descriptions and upbeat action. Travis is on an adventure to separate fact from fiction. He also must save the library. Along the way, we see how libraries and the books in them take us out into the world and way beyond ourselves.

Other regular MMGMers:
Brooke Favero @ somewhere in the middle
Shannon Whitney Messenger @   Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe
Ally Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy
Ben Langhinrichs @ My Comfy Chair
Joanne Fritz @ My Brain on Books
Myrna Foster @ Night Writer
Shannon O'Donnell @ Book Dreaming
Solvang Sherrie @ Write About Now
Deb Marshall @ Just Deb
Anita Laydon Miller @ Middle Grade Blog
Natalie Aguirre @ Literary Rambles

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

That First Novel

When it comes to writing, I'm a new egg. A Robin's Egg, I'll name myself. Robins are common, like writers with dreams. But robins' eggs are a blue so uncommon, it now names its own color. So I'm a writer-dreamer hoping for my very own thing.

In college I studied teaching literature, not writing it. Two very different things. I have, ummm, one creative writing class (taken twenty-one years ago) in my how-to-write quiver. The arrows are dull, rusty, and ugly. Thankfully, superb writing helps landed in my quiver lately.

About a month ago, I met Lois Lowry. From all she shared, I gleaned this: Bring readers immediately into contact with characters and their conflict. Alright, my novel started in the wrong place. Characters in conflict first. Describe later.

Last week I read this blog post by Mary Kole telling me: Be careful about giving your novel a historical setting. Eek. That's what I write, middle grade historical fiction. Why? Because I love reading it. So I evaluated my story. Does my story need a historical setting? My answer: yes, mine does. Whew. Off the hook on that one.

Just yesterday I read this about MG main characters, warning me about who should rescue whom in MG novels. I evaluated who would (and should) rescue my character, save the day, and rescue others in my story. My answer: my MC should and will - at least in most parts of the story, everyone needs help sometimes.

Also yesterday, I read this about querying one's first novel. And thought, "Sheesh. I'm writing my first novel right now. Should a first novel be just practice?" I can't answer this yet. I'm hoping the answer is: No. Sometimes it's a good idea, but it doesn't have to be.

I'm hoping I'll be this Robin's Egg: when I hatch, eat enough, and gain strength, I'll catch the breeze and soar on my new, beautiful, strong wings. I'm curious, what kind of writing egg were you?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Ida B

In a few weeks Katherine Hannigan, author of Ida B, visits a local (to me) bookstore. If I talk with her, I'll quote from Ida B's cover because it best says what I think about Ida B, "Quoting Kate DiCamillo, 'I feel a deep gratitude that Ida B exists.'"

Ida B, published in 2004, has a gentle and flowing style. Any child (or adult) who has encountered change (and who hasn't?) will understand Ida B's plight as well as her heart. Specifically geared for ages nine and up, Hannigan's use of voice captures the reader.

The premise: Ida B, a happy fourth grader, is homeschooled and lives with her parents on a family-owned apple orchard. When her mother becomes very ill, Ida B's parents sell part of the orchard and send Ida B to public school. Ida B's parents broke promises and her perfect life falls apart.

What keeps readers reading: The story's point of view. Because the story is told directly through Ida B, readers are allowed entrance to her heart. We know exactly why Ida B feels as she does, and we find ourselves in Ida B. When she makes a mistake, we say, "I've done that." When she learns, so do we. With grace and elegance, Katherine Hannigan, leads readers through a broken-hearted girl's struggles with her parents, her school, and her new life.

Other MMGMers recommend: