Friday, April 29, 2011

Quote of the Week

"Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul."

~ Joyce Carol Oates

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Writer Wednesday: Finding My Way Through Fictional Settings

Some lucky people are born with a GPS implanted in their brains. Others are DC, directionally challenged. Guess which group claims me as a charter member? I'm hopeless when it comes to directions, as are most members of my family. Whenever we go somewhere new, we resemble the Twits in a Monty Python sketch, each person darting off in a completely different direction. (Even more tragically this sometimes happens in places we're familiar with.)

When I wrote the first draft of my middle-grade novel, my dysfunctional affliction kicked in as I went about creating my setting. My story takes place in a fictional New England coastal town, loosely based on several I've visited. I blithely plunked down buildings, parks, and historical landmarks wherever I took a fancy, with no regard to how they stood in relation to one another. Now that I'm revising, I'm finding that this carefree approach isn't working. I'm as lost in my fictional world as I am in the real one--with no GPS to help me.

My solution has been to create a map to help me navigate my fictional landscape. A map forces me to decide where a house or statue or cemetery is actually located. I've also added roads and streets. Now when my character drives or bikes to town, I know where she's going and how long it will take her to get there. Another benefit is that I must name these places.

Since I first learned to read, I've always enjoyed fiction books with hand-drawn maps. Early favorites include Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and My Father's Dragon. Treasure Island, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Hobbit also have amazing maps. But not all maps feature fantastical worlds. For instance, there's William Faulkner's map of Yoknatawpha County and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Mystery novels sometimes include maps or floor plans. I'm thinking specifically of Agatha Christie, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Arthur Upfield, Ellis Peters, and Nevada Barr.

For an absolutely wonderful post on the subject, check out Maps of Fictional Worlds. You'll find oodles of fantastic links to all kinds of maps, from childhood classics to adult contemporary novels. You can get lost there for hours. So bring a GPS!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Octopus Soup

Wordless picture books are a good choice for beginning readers. Children can relax and enjoy the story without the stress of encountering unfamiliar words. At the same time, they are learning important reading strategies, such as examining the illustrations for picture clues and following the story line in sequence.

Octopus Soup by Mercer Mayer features a young octopus who leaves home (pulling a red wagon that holds his stuffed walrus) and gets into all sorts of adventures. After climbing up an anchor line, he lands in a fishing boat. From there he's thrown to shore and makes his way to a restaurant. The chef, imaging a tasty soup, tries to put our hero on the menu. The resourceful octopus manages to escape--with the chef pursuing him through the cobblestone streets. Chaos ensues, and soon an army of irate citizens is chasing the little fellow as he heads for his ocean home. Readers will be at the edge of their seats to see if he makes it safely back into the multi-arms of his parents.

Mercer Mayer, author/illustrator of countless picture books and beginning readers, has come full circle. His first book, A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog, was wordless too. With his latest story, Mayer has gone all out with the action-crammed illustrations. I especially liked the way the  individual spreads were broken down into story panels. This allows for a more complex story, one that has a comic-book feel to it. The only words that appear are part of the illustrations--signs, advertisements, and a newspaper.

And after finishing this zany tale, readers might be interested in sampling a mock version of octopus soup. This fun--and easy--recipe involves little more than slicing a hot dog to resemble an octopus and heating it in chicken broth with chopped chives for seaweed. Bon appetit!

Octopus Soup
by Mercer Mayer
Marshall Cavendish Children, 32 pages
Published: 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011

Quote of the Week

"As a child I felt that books were holy objects, to be caressed, rapturously sniffed, and devotedly provided for. I gave my life to them--I still do. I continue to do what I did as a child: dream of books, make books, and collect books."

~ Maurice Sendak

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Writer Wednesday: Pro Prologue?

I recently completed the first draft of a middle-grade novel, a ghost story, and I'm now in the process of revising it. So far I'm stuck. On the prologue. I've been endlessly changing it, writing draft after draft. But does the book even need a prologue?

I've always kind of liked prologues. They're the literary equivalent of a glass of wine or warm bath before lovemaking, there to help set the mood. On the net, though, prologues don't have such a good rep. Many people admit to skipping them and diving into Chapter One. Not me. I like to start at the beginning to make sure I'm not missing anything. That said, if the prologue lags, I might put down the book and pick up another.

 I turned to the internet to get the scoop on these literary teasers. Here are some tips I gleaned from my search:

* Think about the purpose of your prologue:

Is it to provide atmosphere and set the scene? If so, be aware that many editors, agents, and writers suggest ditching your prologue if that's all it does. According to these folks, a successful prologue should add something new.

To add backstory that you don't want clogging up the first chapter? Be careful, though, not to overload the prologue. A successful prologue should be dramatic, not an information dump.

To add a character's viewpoint that won't be appearing in the novel itself? This to me seems the most compelling reason and it's the reason why I'm including one in my novel.  

*If you do choose a prologue, keep it short. No one wants to plow through pages and pages before Chapter One even begins.

* Don't overwrite, and keep to the same overall style as the rest of your novel. Yes, it may be more atmospheric, but it should still be similar in style and tone of voice. A prologue written in flowery prose followed by a folksy "aw shucks" voice won't cut it.

For more advice on writing prologues, check out the following sites:

The Prologue: When to Use One, How to Write One
Story Elements: Using a Prologue
Writing Prologues: Do They Work?
Pub Rants: Why Prologues Often Don't Work

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Top Ten Childhood Favorites

This week's Top Ten topic over at The Broke and the Bookish is a little bit different. It's a rewind where you go back to the archives and choose a topic from previous ones. Since I came to Top Ten Tuesday late in the game, I selected the very first topic: Childhood Favorites. Here are ten books that helped make me the reader I am today.

The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak Perfect for little hands, the Nutshell library is made up of four tiny books: an alphabet book, Alligators All Around; a counting book, One Was Johnny, a book of months, Chicken Soup with Rice; and my favorite, Pierre, a Cautionary Tale, in which a little boy learns the importance of caring after he's gobbled up by a lion. Each book is marvelous in itself; together they make an extraordinary collection and are a must for every child's bookshelf.

The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack Poor Ping! The little duck finds himself all alone on the Yangyze River. How did he wind up in this predictiment? The last duck up the plank of the wise-eyed boat is always spanked and Ping doesn't want that happening to him. So the little duck hides and spends the night alone. The next day he's captured and almost ends up as a first course on a dinner menu. Luckily, a little boy frees him and Ping swims back to his family. Once again, he's tardy, but this time he marches up the plank and receives his spank. For whatever reason, being lost has always terrified me, so books about protagonists separated from their family who find the way back home resonate with me. This picture book was the first to do so.

The Tall Book of Make-Believe This collection of fantastical poems and stories won my heart as a child. I especially remember being enamored by "Bad Mousie" by Martha Ward Dudley. Rereading it today, I see how really strange it was. A misbehaving mouse lives with a little girl named Donnica and her mother. The mother is fed up with Mousie's bad ways and attempts to get rid of him. She sweeps him outside and she locks him out of the house. He comes back. She ties him in a box and tries to drown him. He escapes. She ties him to a fence post so that an owl will eat him. (I'm not making any of this up!!!) He gets away. But he still continues to misbehave. So finally the mother ties him to an old umbrella and the wind whisks him away. At last, lonely and afraid, Mousie vows to behave. All Mousie has done is the usual things that kids do, scribble on walls, track muddy prints through the house, etc. How does that compare to attempted murder? Anyhow, Donnica helps the little mouse learn to be good and the mother relents and allows him to stay. Now, really! What is the moral? Learn to behave or else mommy will kill you? Still I loved this story, especially the illustration of Mousie tied with a pretty bow to the fence, waiting for an owl to descend and tear out his guts.

Georgie by Robert Bright How this book delighted me as a child. It didn't have much of a story, but the illustrations were so wonderful. Georgie, a little ghost, has his world turned upside down when Mr. Whittaker nails down a loose board and oils the hinges of a squeaky door. Georgie, no longer able to make his ghostly presence felt, leaves his happy home. He tries to haunt other places to no avail. He ends up in a barn with a cow that doesn't pay the slightest bit of attention to him. Luckily, time solves the problem. The Whittaker's board loosens again and the hinges rust. Georgie returns home, a happy ghost indeed. Today no self-respecting picture book author would end a story with the protagonist not solving the central problem. What can I say? It worked for me.

The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright An unusual picture book, The Lonely Doll is illustrated with black and white photographs. Edith, the lonely doll, has no friends until she meets Mr. Bear and Little Bear. The trio have adventures galore, and all goes well until Mr. Bear leaves Edith and Little Bear alone. The two discover a closet filled with glamorous clothes and play dress-up and make a big mess. After the pair are punished (Mr. Bear spanks them), Edith is afraid he'll leave and she'll be lonely again. Mr. Bear assures her he never would and the trio are once again pals. A simple story, but it's the eerie, soulful photos, especially of Edith, that so appealed to me as a child. And to my daughter as well, who likewise fell under the book's charms and counts it among her favorites.  

Charlotte's Web by E. B. White Really, what can I say about this novel that hasn't already been said? From the very first line, one of the best in all of children's literature ("Where's Papa going with that axe?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.), the book grips you and doesn't let you go. Charlotte's death left me sobbing. If you have children, please read them the book before letting them watch the video (which is very good, but not the same). It's a classic no child should miss.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle What an impression this novel made on me. To this day I can close my eyes and still see Mrs. Whatsit entering the Murry's kitchen or the children on the planet Camazotz bouncing their rubber balls and skipping rope in unison. And the plot of two children battling the forces of evil to rescue a beloved parent is such a strong one. Kids today have Coraline. I had A Wrinkle in Time.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis My mother first read this classic children's novel to me when I was a little bit of a thing, and she claims that we both cried at the end, when Aslan dies. I don't remember that, but I've read the book for myself many times since then, and I still cry, so it must be true. The idea of stepping into a wardrobe and being transported into another world thrilled me as a child and thrills me now. A timeless novel for all ages!

Gone-away Lake by Elizabeth Enright A Newbery honor book, this novel isn't as well known as it should be. The premise is one that still intrigues me. Three children discover a colony of abandoned summer houses bordering a lake. They claim one of the houses as their own and set about restoring it, keeping the lake and its location a secret from the grown-ups. Then, to their surprise, the children come across an elderly couple who still reside in the colony, and an unusual friendship develops. Wonderfully written, with rich and believable characters, this book is one to seek out.

The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh I make no secret of my abiding love for Harriet the Spy, probably the most influential book I read as a child. However, since I've written about it before, I'm including another book by Louise Fitzhugh. The Long Secret again features Harriet Welsch, but in this novel she takes second place to Beth Ellen, Harriet's shy friend. The setting is Long Island's Water Mill, a location not far from where my grandparent's had their summer house, so I was familiar with the area, making the story especially appealing. The novel focuses around a mystery--Who is leaving odd notes, mostly quotations from the Bible, around town? Harriet is obsessed with discovering the author's identity and drags Beth Ellen along with her as they spy on the town's inhabitants. Beth Ellen, who lives with her grandmother, has bigger concerns. She's unhappy to hear that her flighty mother and her wealthy boyfriend will be coming to stay for the summer. How Beth Ellen learns to stand up for herself is the crux of the novel. Who is writing the mystery notes? Well, a sharp-eyed reader can easily figure that one out.

Hope you liked my list. What about yours? I'd love to read about some favorite books from your childhood.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Who Scoops Elephant Poo?

Never did, never wanted to, although I did shovel mounds of horse manure when I worked at a stable as a teenager. (It's hard work, let me tell you. And smelly!)

With its catchy title, this book  from Raintree's Wild Work series about unusual jobs is bound to attract a beginning reader's attention. And, happily, it delivers. Young animal lovers are sure to want to learn about all the different people who work in zoos. Zookeeper and veterinarian are the jobs that first spring to mind, but there are many others, such as curator, animal handler, zoo educator, entomologist, and aquarist.

The text is aimed at students in first and second grade, but reluctant readers in grades three and four will be drawn to the subject material as well. The photos include many great animal shots, such as a close-up of a porcupine being fed, a pelican getting an injection, and my favorite, a lioness about to undergo an MRI scan.

Additional titles in the series include Who Cleans Dinosaur Bones?: Working in a Museum, Who Walks the Tightrope?: Working in a Circus, and Who Rolls Through Fire?: Working on a Movie Set.

Who Scoops Animal Poo?: Working at a Zoo
by Margie Markarian
Raintree, 32 pages
Published: 2011

This week's Nonfiction Monday is at The Cat and the Fiddle.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Writer Wednesday: Capturing that Elusive Voice

Browsing the new book section of my local library the other day, I spotted a collection of essays and stories featuring writers in my area, the majority of whom had attended the same workshop. Curious about local talent, I checked it out. It was an interesting read, but not because of the quality of the work. None were horrible, just numbingly boring and surprisingly similar given that they were men and women of different ages and experiences.

I skimmed through the beginning of each one, and when nothing caught my interest, skipped to the next. There were more than a dozen stories in all, and I only read one through to the end. It wasn't perfect by any means. A personal essay relating the author's experiences with cooking to her three marriages, it rambled at times, wasn't structured particularly well, and its point was far from original. So why did I read it through? The writer had a distinct and original voice, one that drew me in and made me want to know more about her. It wasn't a sophisticated voice, but it was authentic. The writer was telling me about her world as she experienced it.

The other stories, while more polished, were not as compelling. Why not? My guess is that those writers were striving to be literary. Their first concern was to impress their readers, to razzel-dazzle them with fancy words and obscure allusions. The writer of the story I finished wasn't concerned with that. (Interestingly, she was one of the few writers in the collection without a MFA degree.) She just wanted to tell her story, and so she got on with it. She wrote simply, but honestly. When I came to the last page I felt as if I had gotten to know someone new.

So what is the moral? Is there one? What I learned from reading that collection was to listen to my inner voice and not be so self-conscious about making mistakes. Too often I try to be smart-alecky and a show-off. It's safer than saying what you really feel, especially if your thoughts might not meet with approval. I didn't learn to swim until I was in my twenties, and long after  I was able to paddle my awkward way across the length of the pool, I clung close to the sides. There comes a day, though, when you have to head out of the shallows and into deep waters. Sure, you'll falter, but ultimately, you'll become a much better swimmer. Unless, of course, you drown.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Like to See Made into Movies

It's Tuesday and you know what that means. Another Top Ten list! This week's topic from The Broke and the Bookish is top ten movie you'd like seen made into movies. Here we go.

1. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I know, I know. It was already made into a movie. It doesn't count. Rosie O'Donnell as Ole Golly!!!! Give me a break. The movie I'm envisioning would be animated, drawn in the style of Fitzhugh's original illustrations.

2. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. Wow! This powerful memoir blew me away. Wall's story of her childhood growing up with the most immature, irresponsible, nomadic parents in all of literature would definitely translate to the big screen. A coming of age story like no other.

3. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I recently read this modern ghost story and was not at all impressed. Way too many character POVs floating about on every page. However, that doesn't mean it wouldn't make a good movie. And London's Highgate Cemetery would make a wonderfully spooky setting.

4. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This award-winning short story collection/novel would be a challenge for a filmmaker since it jumps all over the place in regard to character, time, and setting. But in the hands of the right director--someone similar to Robert Altman, say--it could be awesome. And with its strong music scene background I could even envision it as a musical. Maybe.

5. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. Ford's classic novel about betrayal is perfect for the screen. I see it as one of those tasteful British dramas, the kind made by Merchant and Ivory.

6. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Another British-style drama, but this one is set in present-day England. Major Pettigrew is a retired soldier from the old school. His beliefs and way of life are challenged when he falls for a Pakistani widow who runs the local grocery store. Although the novel grapples with serious issues, it does so with humor.

7. The Brief Wondorous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. An indie film for sure. Diaz's story of grossly overweight Oscar who seeks both fame and love is heartbreaking and an amazing character study. The film would depend on getting the right actor to play Oscar. But look at Push by Sapphire. It can be done.

8. The Wrong Mother by Sophie Hannah. Another novel I had issues with. Hannah has way too many unlikely coincidences in her novel about a young wife and mother who finds herself caught up in a dangerous murder investigation following an unwise affair a year earlier. Although I had problems with the character's motivations and the overwrought prose, the plot was clever and suspenseful. I think it would make a much better movie than book.

9. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. The first in a series of mysteries featuring Jackson Brodie, Case Histories is a delicious read. The novel ties together three separate cases that Brodie, a sensitive private detective with his own heartbreaks, investigates in a thrilling and suspenseful read. I would love to see the movie.

10. Room by Emma Donoghue. This is the only book on my list that I haven't yet read, although I plan to as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. Just reading the stellar reviews is enough to know that this novel about a young woman and the child she gives birth to in captivity could sizzle on the screen.  

Now how many of these movies from my wish list will actually be made? Time will tell. While we're waiting, why don't you list your ideas for bookish movies of the future?

Monday, April 11, 2011

From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books

Holy ham hocks, is this a useful guide for anyone who reviews kid's books! From Cover to Cover, by Kathleen T. Horning, first came out in 1997, but a revised edition was published last year. The book now includes sections on graphic novels, fractured fairy tales, and verse novels. Many of the books cited as examples have been updated as well.

Chapter One starts off with a clearly presented account of how children's books are published and then goes on to list and define the parts of a book. Subsequent chapters give readers a tour of the major categories of children's literature, including nonfiction books, traditional literature (folktales and fairy tales), poetry, picture books, easy readers and transitional books, and fiction. (Unfortunately, YA books aren't represented as a separate category.)

For each genre, Horning explains what reviewers should take into account when evaluating a book. When judging an easy reader, for example, a reviewer should consider vocabulary, sentence length, plot, illustrations, and the book's design (the size of the typeface, the space between words, the space between lines, the number of lines per page, and so forth).

The final chapter deals with writing a review. Horning sets out the process in distinct steps. After first preparing and selecting a book, a conscientious reviewer reads and takes notes, asking herself questions while doing so. Sometimes it is necessary to consult outside sources and to fact check. Finally it's time to write the review and decide what to include and what to leave out.

As someone who blogs regularly about children's books, I found this book immensely helpful. I strongly recommend it to anyone who writes or cares about children's books.

From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books (revised edition)
by Kathleen T. Horning
HarperCollins, 240 pages
Published 2010

This week Nonfiction Monday is at Apples with Many Seeds.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Quote of the Week

"Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him."

~ Maya Angelou

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What to Expect When You're Expecting Larvae

A few years back I wrote a kid's book called The Most Extreme Bugs. One of the chapters featured bug parents, so I know a fair amount about insects and their reproductive issues. Even so, What to Expect When You're Expecting Larvae surprised me with a few facts. For instance:

 * An oil beetle lays 1,000 or so eggs on the stems of flowers. When the eggs hatch, they climb aboard the legs of passing bees. Back in the hive they chomp on the food meant for bee larvae as well as the larvae themselves.

* Beetle larvae were once called bookworms because they resided inside old books, feasting on glue made from animal products. Today's books use plastic glue so bookworms aren't a problem.

What to Expect When You're Expecting Larvae presents information on bug parenthood in a clear and accessible way. What's more, it's fun to read, so kids will actually want to pick up a copy. The book is set up in a traditional question-and-answer format, except it's the bug mother-to-be doing the asking. Questions include: "Where should I lay my eggs?" "How many babies will I have?" "Will anything eat my larvae?" and the all important "How will I keep my babies safe?"

The pithy answers are conversational and kid-friendly. For instance, when talking about how quickly larvae develop, the author compares a hornworm caterpillar, which can multiply its weight by ten thousand in sixteen days, to a human baby. For a baby to grow as fast "it would soon weigh eighty thousand pounds--as much as seven elephants!" The accompanying illustration shows a giant baby on an old-fashioned scale. BTW--The cartoon-style illustrations are as much fun as the text.

I highly recommend this book to budding entomologists, as well as to any insects contemplating parenthood. Just please don't hatch your offspring in my house!

Also reviewed at Patchwork of Books 
Interview with Briget Heos at Just Kidding 

What to Expect When You're Expecting Larvae:
A Guide for Insect Parents (and Curious Kids)
by Bridget Heos
illustrations by Stephane Jorisch
Millbrook Press, 32 pages
Published: April 2011
Reviewed from ARC

Monday, April 4, 2011

Waxing Nostalgic, Part II

In last week's post I wrote about some of my daughter's favorite books when she was a toddler. (Today she is studying to be an interior designer in a NYC graduate program.) As I mentioned, Rosemary Wells's Max and Ruby books were high on her must-be-read-to list, as was The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit by Beatrice Potter. These books were staples on our bookshelves, but for her other, very favorite book we had to visit the library. First published in 1931, more than 50 years before my daughter was born, Angus and the Cat wasn't in print at the time we were reading it. (It was reprinted in1997.)

Written and illustrated by Marjorie Flack, the picture book features Angus, a feisty Scottish terrier. The little dog's nose is put out of joint when a cat is added to the household. Again and again, Angus is frustrated by the cat as she boxes his ears, steals his food, and claims Angus's "special square of sunshine" as her own.

Each time Angus tries to nab her, the cat jumps out of reach. After a few days spent chasing after the cat, Angus can't find her--anywhere. In my daughter's favorite spread, Angus can be seen looking out the top floor window searching for the cat. An astute reader can spot the cat on the roof out of the dog's range. When the cat returns, Angus realizes he missed her and the two settle into a friendship. The last picture shows them drinking from the same bowl.

Since my daughter is an only child, why this book that obviously is a stand-in for siblings learning to share made such an impression mystifies me. Maybe she saw the trouble a sibling can bring and was glad she didn't have a little sister or brother sitting in her favorite patch of sun? She did love this book, though, and we checked it out of the library every opportunity we could.

Flack wrote two other books about Angus, Angus and the Ducks and Angus Lost. My daughter liked these as well, but not as much as Angus and the Cat. She also penned, but did not draw, one of my favorite picture books, The Story of Ping. But that's another post!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Quote of the Week

"Sure, it's simple, writing for kids. Just as simple as bringing them up."

~Ursula K. Le Guin