Thursday, May 31, 2012

The ABC's of Middle Grade: What I Learned

I set out to march through the alphabet of middle grade writing, and . . . I made it!!!!

But my goal with the weekly alphabet posts was to prepare a manuscript for querying, and sometimes what preparing teaches us isn't what we expected to learn. And sometimes what we learn is shocking and butt-kicking instead of helpful and enriching.

My alphabet post learning turned out to be the shocking and butt-kicking kind . . .

. . . because what I learned is that the manuscript I was preparing didn't feel strong enough, and it also didn't have enough of me inside it. And no matter what I changed, adjusted, and revised in the manuscript, it wasn't becoming what it needed to be. I also learned this manuscript was me trying to create something I thought it should be, and though the manuscript might be good, it's not good enough.

I didn't expect to learn any of that, and it sucks to learn all of that because I spent over a year on this manuscript (and a year before that with another story that morphed into this one), and other people invested time in this manuscript too. And now it sits in my computer files.

The manuscript did deserve a small round of querying, just to say I gave it a shot, even if that shot was a teeny tiny one. I queried a few agents but probably won't query it any further because, for me, this manuscript doesn't feel like the one. But I'm not depressed or sad or ready to throw in the writing towel because I learned that. Well, okay, I feel a little like that--alright, I FEEL A LOT LIKE THAT!--but I'm okay with learning that.

Toward the end of my alphabet march, around Letter R, I started a new story. One I didn't plan on starting. One that bubbled up in me one day and began bubbling out the next. It's a shiny, bright, pretty new thing and, as of two days ago, a completed first draft. This new story feels like me. It feels like a story I was meant to write, not one I thought I should write.

And if that's what this alphabet march taught me, to write what I was meant to write, then the march was more than I expected it to be.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: War & Watermelon

Today is Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor those who have served in the military. And while I thought of taking a blogging break today, my kids and I just finished War & Watermelon by Rich Wallace, which digs into the issues of war, serving one's country, family, and honor--all the things Memorial Day memorializes, so it's a perfect fit for today. 

The premise: It's August 1969. Woodstock, hippies, Vietnam, and war protests rule the day. But what if you're twelve and just about to enter seventh grade like Brody Winslow? His days are ruled by sun, swimming, girls, the Mets, and football practice. But his brother is about to turn eighteen and become eligible for the draft. And that weighs on Brody's entire family.

What keeps readers reading: The blend of the super serious with the humorous. I bring this up about certain books--this special blend of seriousness and funny stuff--because it's the real life way of things. Authors that can meld the two, and do it well like Rich Wallace has in War & Watermelon, provide a unique picture into reading and what it has to do with living.

What I loved: Brody's character. He's funny, warm, loves his family, is trying to figure out growing up, and he does it all with honesty and humor.

War & Watermelon is one one those books that teeters on the edge of upper middle grade and could very well be classified as YA, so it has some swearing, boys noticing things about girls (and vice versa), frank questions, confrontations with parents, and general rule-breaking. This was a tumultuous time, 1969, so these issues are completely fitting for the story and allow for terrific discussion.

For more middle grade recommendations, visit my Middle Grade Monday tab
Happy middle grade reading and take time to remember on this Memorial Day. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The ABC's of Middle Grade: Z is for Zee End

I know, not original, Zee End. But B was for Beginning, M was for Middle, so Z had to be for Zee End. I mean, I can't leave this alphabet series without talking about the end of a book when I've talked about everything in between!

So here we are, the end of a book. It's so final. It's what the reader remembers most clearly. It's so important. It's so big. And as a writer, it can be frightening to write because we don't want the wrong ending, a wimpy ending, or *shudders* a reader saying, "I didn't like that ending." We want punch and verve and even a reader fist pump, saying, "Yes! That was a brilliant ending!"

And then there are those last lines of a book, the VERY end. Those lines can't flop. They can't flip. They can't even move. They must be steadfast. Resolute. And absolutely right.

Whew. There's a little bit of pressure on the end of a book. As a reader, which endings of books have you enjoyed most and why? If you write, do you find endings hard or do they flow from you in a no-nonsense manner because of how the story poured out? I would love your take on those two questions.

With that, I'm over and out on my middle grade alphabet march. The purpose of this march was to prepare one of my manuscripts for querying, and next Thursday I'll let you know how that march marches.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Wonder

The winner of my copy of How to Steal a Dog is:
Woohoo! Email your mailing address to barbarawatson94 (at) gmail (dot) com
and I'll get this great book to you.

Now for today's feature . . .

Some books sit with you long after you've finished reading them, and not just because the book was well-written, had awesome characters, or a super interesting plot but because there was something about the book that planted itself right inside your heart. For me, Wonder by R.J. Palacio is one of those books. Since I read it aloud with my two kids and they said things like, "Don't stop!" or "Keep reading!" each time I reached for my bookmark, I would say they feel the same about Wonder as I do.

The premise: August Pullman isn't like other boys on the outside, but on the inside he's exactly like other boys, and all he wants is to be looked at for what's inside of him rather than be known for the outside of him. But when what's different about Auggie is his face, that is difficult. Maybe impossible. But he tries anyway.

What keeps readers reading: Hope that the good in humankind will win out over the bad. Told in multiple perspectives, we see life through Auggie's eyes as well as through a host of people who know him, and no matter the perspective, the reader cheers for those who can see past August on the outside and befriend and love him because of who he is on the inside. The beginning of the book is Auggie's fifth grade year, and he enters a traditional school setting for the first time, testing the 'what's inside of you?' for everyone.

What I loved: Oh . . . everything. Seriously. The story is entertaining and fun, even laugh out loud humorous, while at the same time poignant, sad, and beautiful. The characters are real and rounded, both the good ones and the bad ones. The story is realistic and dives to places within ourselves that are hard to go. It's all that and written in such a way that the youngest kid to the oldest adult will find the story simply un-put-downable.

For more middle grade recommendations, visit my Middle Grade Monday tab
Happy middle grade reading! 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The ABC's of Middle Grade: Y is for Yummy

Sweet foods make me swoon, and dark chocolate is my favorite sweet food by a million miles, so sooner or later, my middle grade alphabet march had to relate to chocolate. Chocolate is yummy, pure deliciousness as it melts in your mouth, a little bit of heaven encased in brown silk. Oh, I could go on and on . . .

But as I continue chocolate dreaming, I should also get to business. So . . . books should be yummy to kids, maybe not the way their favorite food is yummy to them but yummy in that kids should devour books the way they devour their favorite food. And because I think that, I can't explain how my heart plummets to my toes when I hear a kid say, "I don't like to read."

My usual response when a kid says that is, "Why?" Asked in a kind way, of course. And more often than not, the kids don't really know why; they just know they don't like reading. We're all familiar with the term reluctant reader, I think. Teachers are always on the hunt for books their reluctant readers will enjoy. I met with a group of fourth grade reluctant readers for World Book Night. Parents get frustrated if their kids are reluctant readers. Goodness, my HUSBAND is a reluctant reader!

So, my question today is this: Is there a way to make reading yummy to reluctant readers? Can a reluctant reader become someone who devours books, or once you're a reluctant reader are you always a reluctant reader? I have views but would love to hear yours.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: How to Steal a Dog (and a giveaway!)

To be totally honest, the title of this book, How to Steal a Dog, kept me from reading it for a long, long time. I'd see it on the library shelf or at a bookstore and think, "I don't want to know how to steal a dog." This was silly of me, and I knew it -- basing an opinion on a title when I know there's a whole story behind the title. But here's the thing I couldn't get past -- if someone stole my dog, a piece of my heart would be forever missing because my dog is . . .  a friend, while at the same time so much more than that. Here's my sweet and gentle golden retriever Teddy. Wouldn't you be sad for me if someone stole him from me?

But when I read this post by Joanne Fritz, I realized How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O'Connor was nothing like I thought it would be, and I gave it a chance. As it turns out, the main character in this book is banking on people who adore their dogs like I do.

The premise: After Georgina Hayes' father left, her family was evicted from their apartment. Georgina, her mom, and her brother now live in a car. Even though her mother works two jobs, it isn't enough. When she spots a missing dog poster with a huge reward for finding the dog, Georgina decides to steal a dog, return it, and reap the benefits. But what happens when she steals the dog isn't anything like she planned.

What keeps readers reading: Georgina's voice. Georgina tells her story with such honesty, straightforwardness, humor, and grace, and the story becomes not a story about stealing a dog but a story of homelessness--told through the eyes of a kid.

What I loved: Barbara O'Connor addresses such a serious issue, and makes readers think, and like Georgina, she does it with grace.

Because I don't want anyone to pass by this lovely story, I'm offering a copy of How to Steal a Dog to one of you! Simply comment on this post by Sunday, May 20th, 2012 by 8pm CDT. International entries are welcome. And . . . if you are a blog follower, you get your name in the drawing twice. To become a blog follower, just click 'join this site' in the upper right corner. Winner announced May 21st.

More middle grade recommendations can be found under my
Middle Grade Monday tab or in Shannon Messenger's links.
Happy middle grade reading!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The ABC's of Middle Grade: X is for X Marks the Spot

You have to be creative with the Letter X, so as I thumped my brain thinking of a good word to represent X, it became clear that all great middle grade books have that spot -- that place, that crisis, that point of no return -- where all things are different because of a choice the character(s) makes or one that was made for them. So my Letter X marks that place.

I see the X marks the spot at the beginning of a book, marking the start of the book's journey, the 'thing' that catapults readers into the book's action. To me, this spot is not an end point; therefore, it's completely different than 'X marks the spot' on a treasure map.

Think of the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio, the X marks the spot would be when Auggie goes to school. Or consider Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt, the X marks the spot is when Doug's father declares the family must move. In The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens, the X marks the spot is the three siblings going to Dr. Stanilaus Pym's orphanage.

But how easily can we place an X marks the spot in our own writing? So that's my question for you today--can you mark that spot in your own writing, that point where everything is different because of one thing? Or, if you don't write, can you X marks the spot easily in the books you are reading? Because whether writing or reading, the X marks the spot should be easy to spot.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Glory Be Winner (and an MMGM break)

The winner of the autographed hardcover of Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood is:
Jennifer Rumberger! 
Yay! Email your mailing address to: barbarawatson94 (at) gmail (dot) com
and the book will be passed on to you!

Today I needed a break, some room to rest my mind, and a chance to breathe in this fleeting thing called spring, so I have no Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post. Please return next week for a giveaway of a book that's been on my "I need to share this one!" list for a long, long time.

Oh! And did you know it's Children's Book Week? Established in 1919, this is the longest-running literacy initiative in the U.S. Celebrate by reading a book you love with a child (of any age!) you love.

And here's just a little taste of the spring deliciousness that lives around me.

Baby bunny in my front garden
My favorite fragrance in the entire world
A real-life Bambi I encountered while walking my dog

Take time for the wonders around you today.
And if you're looking for middle grade book recommendations, check my Middle Grade Monday tab or Shannon Messenger's links.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The ABC's of Middle Grade: W is for Wonder

This week should be Letter V's turn, but in case you forgot, V grew stubborn and insisted it came after C. And because I can be stubborn when I know I'm right, I consented to Letter V's misplacement in the alphabet lineup (but only because I knew V was right).

So today is W, and W stands for wonder. One of the reasons I read and write middle grade is because of its wonder factor. Kids have so much to explore, so much to learn, and so much to share; they completely get what it means to be filled with wonder. And they get that books will take them to wonder-filled places.

Sometimes, adults forget that the world is filled with wonder. Sometimes adults become too busy to remember the world is wonder-filled. I don't want to forget that or be too busy to remember that. I want to hang on to the idea that the world is full of possibilities--even when things go horribly wrong or when life hurts. I want to remember that in the midst of struggle and ugliness, there is wonder in the world.

That's why I read and write middle grade. To remember the wonder of wonder. Why do you read or write middle grade?