Friday, November 21, 2014

Friend Friday

It is an honor to host Conrad Wesselhoeft on my blog today. In addition to being a fabulous writer of books for young adults, Conrad is a very kind and thoughtful person. So kind and thoughtful I know he will forgive me for the glitch that caused the delay in the posting of his essay today.  Take it away, Conrad!
Conrad Wesselhoeft

In Praise of Place:
Why fiction writers should light 
out for personal territory

By Conrad Wesselhoeft

In my mid-twenties, I fell in love with northeast New Mexico—the high plains, broken mesas, and rich, drifting light. I lived for two years in the town of Raton, working as a journalist for a local newspaper.

The vistas enthralled me. Much of the time, they looked flat and dull, but at certain times of day, under certain light, they exploded with beauty.

Several years ago, when I started writing my young-adult novel Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly, I wanted to re-capture that special landscape. I visualized a setting and jotted these notes:

“The country around is a hundred muted shades, washed, streaked, and bled. The nearby mesas are scarred with dirt-bike tracks, an insult to Mother Nature, but a playground for Arlo Santiago and his friends.”

Arlo is the novel’s 17-year-old adrenaline-junkie narrator. He loves to blast across the mesas on his Yamaha 250 dirt bike, hitting the bumps and flying high.

My goal was to have Arlo fit organically into this landscape. I wanted him to respond to the monotonous-one-minute, staggering-the-next horizons, just as I had.

Whether I pulled it off is not for me to say. What I did learn, however, is how important setting can be to a story—so important, in fact, that it can become a galvanizing character in its own right.

Too often, writers overlook setting in favor other characterization tools. The result is that New York City appears no different in the mind’s eye than Portland, Oregon, and the Grand Canyon exudes all the gravitas of a touched-up postcard.

It’s as if the writer had stuck a pin on a map and said, “I think I’ll set my story here.”

But when setting works—when a writer dips into his or her own life and bares emotions connected with a place—the results can be glorious.

Scott O’Dell’s love for California’s coastal islands shimmers on every page of Island of the Blue Dolphins. You more than hear the gulls cry, waves crash, and wind blow. The island on which the narrator Karana lives seems alive.

Lois Lowry drew on ambivalent memories of growing up on military bases to create the stark, regimented world of her 1993 dystopian novel The Giver.

C.S. Lewis based his sweeping Narnia vistas on the Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland. About them, he wrote: "I have seen landscapes . . . which, under a particular light, make me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge.”

In every case the writer traversed a personal geography to inform a fictional one. His or her emotional connection to a real place grounded the reader in an imagined place.

When a writer soaks up the spirit of a town, city, island, mesa—or just about anywhere else—that place can inspire a profound fictional setting.

A great story puts you there, so that you see and feel the landscape around you. Writers get there by digging into their personal geography and listening for the heartbeat.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wednesday Wisdom

No song or poem will bear my mother's name, 
yet so many of the stories that I write, 
that we all write, 
are my mother's stories.

Alice Walker

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Teacher Tuesday

Good sport Eve Eaton is a first grade teacher at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC where she enjoys learning and laughing with her students and co-teacher every day.  

Eve, please fill in the blank: 
You should never read and (blank) at the same time.

You should never read and walk at the same time.  It can lead to accidents!

If you were invited to be on Oprah, what book would you bring for her to read?

I think I would bring The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  In the words of some young people in my life - It's such an emotional book.  Ivan has a tough life, yet he is still able to find joy and hope.  Kids can relate to many topics in the book and connect easily with Ivan.  It's the kind of book you can read again and again.

What is the funniest book you’ve read?

When I think of funny books for older kids, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster immediately comes to mind.  The word play is so much fun, and this book makes a great class play!   Of course, the funniest book series for younger kids is the Mercy Watson series (no surprise there!).  Mercy seems to get into troublesome situations without meaning to, and then somehow everything works out well in the end.

What is the saddest?

This was a tough question.  I have always thought that Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig is such a sad book.  Even as a kid, I would get frustrated when Sylvester's family was nearby and he couldn't talk to them!  The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein was also so sad to me when I was a child because the little boy doesn't appreciate the gift of friendship for such a long time.  For older readers,  I think Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson is one of the saddest books.  I feel that it was the first book I read as a kid where there wasn't a happy ending.  It made me keep thinking about the story and reading it several times.

Favorite reading snack/beverage?

I love to read, eat popcorn and drink orange juice.  Not too messy and very satisfying.

What’s next on your TBR list?

I am really looking forward to reading Fiona's Lace by Patricia Polacco and Leroy Ninker Saddles Up by Kate DiCamillo.

Teachers, librarians, reading coaches, principals, custodians, lunch ladies, anyone with school connections: Please play along! Email me here and I'll get you the questions so you, too, can be featured on Teacher Tuesday. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friend Friday

Love me some Lorie Ann Grover and so glad to be able to host this dear, long-time friend here today. Her newest book, Hit, is getting all kinds of well-deserved buzz. Read it!

Lori Ann Grover

Thank you for hosting me, Kirby! My, what a journey Hit has taken, first being inspired by a horrid accident in 2004. It was then my daughter’s best friend, Sarah, was hit in the crosswalk in the predawn, walking to her bus stop. Urgent brain surgery followed. At the hospital, we sat with the family as they waited through the long surgery and even longer recovery. Following all the difficulty, it took a few years for a novel to spring from the facts, but it eventually did and was in strong form by 2007.

Originally though, the text was written in verse and was told through six viewpoints. Criticism included the belief young adults wouldn’t tolerate adult perspectives. I still have faith the readers would have been fine, but I went ahead and in following drafts reduced the voices to four. Years were passing during these rewrites, of course. I had significant help from Emma Dryden at Dryden Books and recommend her highly.

A giant, late change came with the suggestion to convert the verse format into prose. Sadly, prose is easier to place, and easier to sell, here and abroad. So I clunked along, converting line by line. I filled the gaps, fleshed out the settings, and shared what my agent calls the movie scenes in my head.

The final major rewrite was to reduce the narrators down to two points of view, Sarah and grad student Haddings. The challenge was to find a way to tell the story when Sarah was unconscious in surgery for a chunk of the plot. I didn’t want to introduce supernatural solutions. My aim was to stay grounded in reality, not allow her to roam the hospital in a spirit form to discover all that was happening with her family. 

It took time to find the practical solutions, but they eventually bubbled up. I believe they are credible.
It is with satisfaction from long, hard work, generous help from many in the industry, and great blessings that this title is in print. Most marvelous, it is pubbing ten years after Sarah’s accident, now, right after her wedding. Some stories have happy endings after all!

Lorie Ann Grover is an awarded YA novelist and board book author whose work includes Kirkus Prize Nominee Firstborn. As a literacy advocate, she co-founded readergirlz and readertotz. Living in the foothills of Mt. Rainier, Lorie Ann’s currently working on her next novel for Blink YA Books. Find her on Facebook or over at her blog.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wednesday Wisdom

Every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second when it can be recalled and perhaps remedied.

Pearl S. Buck

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Teacher Tuesday

Today's good sport is Amanda Furman, who teaches elementary English as a Second Language in rural Virginia. She blogs (when she remembers to!) here and her class blog can be found here.

Amanda, please fill in the blank:
You should never read and (blank) at the same time.

You should never read and walk the dog at the same time.

If you were invited to be on Oprah, what book would you bring for her to read?

Wonder by RJ Palacio

What is the funniest book you’ve read?
The Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennison.  Laugh out loud, make sure you aren't in public funny!

What is the saddest?

A tie between Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Favorite reading snack/beverage?
I usually don't eat/drink and read at the same time, but if I did, it would be a Pepsi and probably pretzels.  Something that wouldn't get my pages all smudgy, like Doritos.

What’s next on your TBR list?

I don't even want to look!  My personal pile is growing by the day!  However, next up with my 4th graders is Captain Underpants.  I'm not sure about the other grades!  

Teachers, librarians, reading coaches, principals, custodians, lunch ladies, anyone with school connections: Please play along! Email me here and I'll get you the questions so you, too, can be featured on Teacher Tuesday. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Friend Friday

Michelle Houts is one amazing person and one amazing writer. We shared an editor many moons ago and got to meet face-to-face when I visited Ohio a few years back; it felt like we'd known each other forever. I've been so tickled to see her career flourish; though the post below is about her book Winterfrost, please don't miss her other new release, Kammie on First: Baseball's Dottie Kamenshek.

Michelle Houts

What do you believe in? Are you one of those “seeing is believing” people? Or is it easy for you to believe in that which you cannot see?

Faries.  Ghosts.  Miracles. Angels. Nisse?

When I lived in Denmark a long time ago, I heard wonderful tales of tiny gnomes, called nisse. While the nisse inhabit the Danish farms and forests year-round, they are quite celebrated during the holidays. On Christmas Eve, they are always remembered with a steaming bowl of rice pudding left for their enjoyment. And, for this simple kindness, the nisse will remain loyal all year, quietly looking after the animals of the farm or the forest.

When a writer hears such a story, she almost always asks, “What if?”

What if a family forgets the rice pudding? What if the neglected nisse became unhappy?

In Winterfrost, my newest middle-grade novel, Bettina must contemplate what she believes when her family’s Christmas Eve dinner is interrupted and important traditions are forgotten. Within hours, nothing is as it should be. Her parents are gone, everything in the barn is in chaos, and Bettina’s baby sister is missing. Bettina had once believed in nisse. When she was younger. But most of the adults in her life had long denied their existence. Except Farfar, Bettina’s beloved grandfather. But Farfar was no longer around to help Bettina sort out the mess she’d created.

As Bettina finds herself in the middle of an amazing winter adventure, she’s asked to believe in things she’d never thought possible. She learns that often faith and trust walk hand-in-hand with believing. And she chooses to believe in hopes of finding her baby sister and bringing her safely home.

So, what do you believe in?

Faries.  Ghosts.  Miracles.  Angels.  Nisse?

In the end, believing isn’t always seeing, hearing, or touching. Sometimes it’s not even knowing. In the end, it’s choosing. Like Bettina, sometimes we must choose to believe in that which we cannot see, hear, or touch.

And, very often, those choices lead us to the most wonderful places.

Michelle Houts fell in love with the nisse folk more than twenty years ago while living in Denmark, where she became fascinated with their tales of mischief and fun. Her Danish friends continue to share nisse stories and an occasional sighting. Michelle Houts lives on a farm in Ohio. She is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. Visit Michelle here.