An Absolute Wonder of a Book

Have you ever felt like a bunch of independent things were coming together to take you in a single direction?  I have. Weird, isn’t it?  

Sometime this last fall, Amazon and the New York Times started mentioning “Wonder” as one of the middle-grade books of the moment.  “Something special,” they said. Its blue-and-white cover was prominently displayed on the shelves of my local bookstore. Now, these entities know a fair amount about books but I don’t like being told what to read and bookstores always say they have something special when they want to grab more of my money. Then my sister (the teacher) insisted I had to read Wonder because of its narrative style   By the time literary agents Jaida Temperly and Danielle Barthel cited Wonder as one of the stories middle-grade writers and readers should know, I was ready to surrender.  I can resist a fair amount of hype but this felt more like directives from a superior force, pushing me toward the future. 
And they were right.  Wonder is not just a book kids love reading right now, it’s one they will love to read for years. It’s a book many parents will love.  It’s an absolute wonder of a book.
The heart of Wonder is Auggie Pullman, a boy who redefines what “ordinary” “different” and “extraordinary” mean through his story.  On the one hand, he’s just one more kid who lives in upper Manhattan.  He’s got parents, a sibling, a dog, and a serious addiction to Star Wars.  Auggie is smarter than some but not a prodigy.  Nevertheless, he stands out in every crowd because a genetic disorder has altered his face. That disorder distracts strangers so they don’t see the terrific kid behind the face. And he is a terrific kid.  Even his older sister says as much.
Although the central story in Wonder is Auggie’s, another great thing about the book is how he impacts the lives of kids closest to him, especially his sister, Olivia.  We see how she loves and cares for her brother and accepts his needs often come first; we also see (in the reverse of most sibling relationships) how this elder sister longs for her own place in the sun, where she’s not identified and defined by her relationship to Auggie. We see her guilt over these reasonable feelings and how she faces the truth of her own genetic inheritance.  We see how Auggie’s not the only brave kid on the page.
Wonder is that most magnificent thing, a fictional story that realistically captures the human spirit.  While Auggie is the central character, most of the rest of Wonder’s cast can’t be dismissed as mere heroes and villains. The other characters are people who can make mistakes and are just doing the best they can.  And the kids in the book tell their stories in the way that kids talk, with pop culture references and without extra words.  No wonder literary agents are holding this book up as a model.  It’s a terrific example of “show, don’t tell.”  
So yes, this book is a Wonder, and incredibly well-named.  It’s won a bunch of prizes, is now the first of a series and the basis for a movie that’s coming soon.  And it’s as good as everyone says. When a story worth telling is told so well so it opens hearts, the buzz you hear about it isn’t hype.  It’s the trumpet of destiny.

Are you good at solving Puzzles?

Reynard “Rennie” Muldoon is. He’s one of those kids who does the crossword in ink, solves algebra problems in his head and tends to have few friends his own age.  Well, the other kids think he’s strange. And he’s an orphan, to boot.  So it’s good that he has a talent for Puzzles.  A talent that could change his life.
Rennie Muldoon is the central character in The Mysterious Benedict Society, one of those stories, like Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate events or James and the Giant Peach, that belong in the “Plucky Orphan” genre.  Once again, kind and decent children are thrown onto the dubious mercies of the world with tasks that would defeat most adults.  Once again there’s a picturesque, almost Dickensian quality to the narrative.   The plus in this book (besides its marvellous story) is what makes Rennie Muldoon important.   The tale is chock-full of puzzles.

Rennie answers an ad for “Gifted Children looking for Special Opportunities” and is subjected to a series of tests that range from the usual time and speed math problems I never figured out to staged exams of his character and resourcefulness.  By including the problems, the reader gets the fun of solving the puzzles as well as getting pulled into the story.  
By the end of the day, he’s learned few children don’t meet the qualifications and that there’s more than one way to solve problems. While Rennie applies logic and reasoning to questions, Sticky Washington has an eidetic memory and can recall the answers he’s read.  Kate Weatherall is braver than either boy and creates “outside the box” solutions to problems that would stump both of the boys.  To this trio is added a fourth, Constance Contraire, a child as stubborn as she is smart. Instead of responding directly to a query, Constance challenges the authority of every examiner with rhyming, impertinent poems.  It’s not as easy to like grumpy, impatient Constance but the trio respects her mind.  And so does the mysterious Mr Benedict.
The Author, not Mr Benedict.
Orphans need a mentor to appreciate them and give them room to grow.  Mr Benedict takes his place in a pantheon of loving, flawed mentors with Glenda the Good and the great Dumbledore.  Like these, he can advise and worry about the children he sends into danger but he cannot rescue them from their ultimate moments of peril.  Here, the children must rely on their own abilities or the friendships they’ve developed between each other.  And here is where the talent for solving puzzles comes in very handy.
If you have a middle-grader handy (aged between 9-12) over the next few days, and you want a story to love and share, try The Mysterious Benedict Society for some read-aloud fun.  Or you could read the book yourself if you really like solving puzzles.

Mr. K and the A, B, Cs of reading

My Friend, Mandy
My friend Mandy reads lots of books.  Well, most of my friends like to read but Mandy reads more than most.  And she worries about accidentally embarrassing someone who reads less than she does when she admits how much she reads. She has a good heart that way. But having audited more than my share of competitions about “who reads the most”, I’ve learned to shy away from those conversations. Like Mandy, I think a person’s literacy level can’t be determined by the number of books they’ve read, but I also think that level is based on more than pages and the reading difficulty are involved.  For that, I still turn to Mr K’s A-B-Cs of reading.
Mr K was one of my high-school English teachers and one of the more popular instructors in school. Funny, intelligent and a bit daring, he escorted herds of reluctant adolescents through the thickets of 20th Century American Literature and he gave very reasonable tests.  As a matter of fact, the students in his classes got to choose which of his tests they’d take.
It was a pretty simple concept.  For every assigned book, Mr K had three essay options, designated “A”, “B” and “C” and each student wrote a response based on one of those options. The grade might meet but never exceed the letter assigned to the response and the options went something like this:

A – Describe the literary significance of this book, based on its techniques, the lessons it teaches and its continuing impact on contemporary, everyday life.

B – Describe, by listing the symbols and themes in the work, the points the author was trying to make.

C – Tell the story of the book. 

Mr K said his questions were designed to show how much we took away from each book.  A “C” answer would show that we’d read the story but a “B” answer revealed we’d thought about what we read.  An “A” grade was only possible if we’d read the story, thought about it and then applied the story’s lessons to our own lives. Earning an”A” under that standard does a book justice but it can’t happen by simply auditing the words.
That’s one reason I re-read certain books.  In the seventh grade, I read “Jane Eyre” thoroughly enough to repeat the plot but I couldn’t identify its themes, motifs and symbols.  It took time and several more re-reads (plus a passel of literature classes) before I realised the nature of Jane’s quest for acceptance and a balance between her earthly and spiritual values.  It took me even longer to figure out the way she resolved some questions helped me face similar issues myself. (I’m just grateful Providence spared me from having a mad woman in my own attic. Too much is too much.)  
The thing is, I don’t think many people read books according to Mr K’s formula although I believe, they should. An author who takes the time and trouble to create thoughtful literature deserves thoughtful readers. The Close, Deep reading Mr K recommended creates a far richer experience, one I know my friend Mandy enjoys.  But those who measure their sense of self-worth by the number of books they’ve perused are more interested in finishing a book than understanding what they’ve read. It’s kind of sad in a way; they speed through the mechanics of reading and miss the best parts of the story.
So, if you have books to read over this holiday season, I hope you enjoy every page. Take your time and savour them, like a well-prepared meal or a work of art.  See which of the A-B-C standards you meet and if re-reading the book will raise your grade.  Reading is a journey to be enjoyed, not a race to be run.  That’s the gospel according to me and Mr K.  

Winter Country

Like all our other seasons, Winter came a bit early this year.
Just between you and me, the South doesn’t handle Winter all that well. This is the sun-belt, where central air and sunglasses are more than accessories. Our winters often hold off until January and some years they don’t show up at all. Instead of a frozen wasteland, we get a dormant rainy outdoors explored only by aficionados of the hunt.  The rest of us curl up with a book and a drink until it’s time to replant the garden.
But not this year.  This year we’re going to get winter and it’s going to be downright cold.

A sure sign of winter – smoke
coming from the fireplace
The South becomes a different place in winter; more like the spot they wrote about decades ago. Although most Southerners are not tied to the land like they were in previous centuries, weather becomes an important factor to us during these three months of the year.  Our houses are not heated the way New England homes are and bitter cold can sometimes seep indoors.  Bereft of their gardens, our houses seem to pull in on themselves these days, like a freezing man huddles inside his parka. The surrounding verdant landscape reverts to a more somber palette.
Still, I love the look of winter in the South with its subdued shades of brown, grey and green.   I cannot look at our winter landscape without thinking of Kenneth Grahame‘s Wind in the Willows.

“The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, till they could riot in rich masquerade as before, and trick and entice him with the old deceptions. It was pitiful in a way, and yet cheering– even exhilarating. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.” 

Stripped of the usual covering of kudzu and leaves, here is our essential country: strong, simple and not totally without colour.   Every December, our neighbour’s unpruned shrub decks itself in scarlet berries as if sprouted just for the holiday.  The pine trees grow like weeds from the rusty clay earth.  Even the layers of sedimentary rock expose their striated beauty. This is our home, without artifice.  The earth we cling to is strong.
Yes, Spring will return in just a few months with its riot of flowers and birdsong.  I’ll be there to welcome it.  But in the meantime, let me cherish winter, with its long, dark nights and silent, peace-filled earth.  This season has its beauty as well.

Something Nasty in the Nursery: Gothic Children’s Fiction

The books we loved and cherished as kids say a lot about us as adults.  Any grown woman who remembers Ramona Quimby or Katie John fondly probably has an independent streak.  The boys who grew up reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Science Fiction for kids grew up to be men with an interest in science.  But what do you say to the kids who fell for The Graveyard Book, Lemony Snicket’s series and The Mysterious Benedict Society?  Welcome to the World of Gothic Literature, kiddies; your crypt is right this way?

I hope not because Gothic doesn’t always equate to horror or an obsession with death.  What it promises is a spooky atmosphere where anything could happen.  The decrepit old cottage may turn out to be as wholesome as milk, the confining hills may be nothing but hills, but at first glance, every setting borders on the extreme.  The castle isn’t a castle, but a ruin, the land isn’t boggy and cold, it’s a moor where you might get stuck and sink to your doom.  Doom is a big concept in Gothic Lit. as is the idea of all things extreme.  The heroes are usually resourceful and brave, their adventures are perilous and great and the villains….oh, the villains are the best in the world.  They’re smart and evil and deliciously mean…Voldemort and Hannibal Lecter level mean.
Okay, so why do kids and former kids enjoy these quirky stories so much?  First, because they seem (to us) so old fashioned.  The genre is about 250 years old, not as decrepit as other categories of literature, but to us, it seems downright quaint. A gothic story can kick up shades of the past without a bustle or hairpin in sight.  And because these are old-fashioned stories, we half-way know what to expect.

These are the stories from our old nursery rhymes where girls with curls can be very, very good or they might be completely horrid. Gone is the modern preoccupation with ennui and moral ambiguity. Whether characters in Gothic tales are “good” or “bad”, they are who they are with a vengeance.  And we appreciate that, especially when we are young.

So we love the extremes, we love the fantastic atmosphere and we love the clarity in the characters.  Does that make it a good choice for bedtime reading?  I’d say that depends on the kid.  Like every other literary genre, this one has its fans and its foes.  Give it to the child with too little interest and you’ll end up with a bored, angry kid.  If you give it to the one with too much imagination, be prepared for a few nightmares.  But don’t be surprised if even the nightmare sufferer clamours for more of these thrilling, atmospheric books.  Whatever else you can say about “Goth”, the stories are fun to read.

The Deep End of the POV

Ever wonder what makes a book a bonafide page-turner?  God knows I have.  I pick up a book for a bit of pleasure reading and all of the sudden I’m in the story, oblivious to deadlines, ringing phones, and my overloaded washer’s current attempt to escape.  Nothing else matters beyond What Happens Next and I’m useless until I finish the story. How did this happen? How was my attention captured so completely? Instead of  reading the book, it felt more like I was living the story. Did the writer cast a spell over me? No, but it’s likely the writer used a technique called “Deep P.O.V.”

P. O. V.  is the story’s point of view, the perspective of the narrator.  That can be the unseen, omniscient third person narrator (like God is telling the story); first person narration (e.g. “Call me Ishmael”) or, if the author is very good and ambitious, second person narrator (second person is very in-your-face and tricky to sustain unless the writer is incredibly skilled like Margaret Atwood, Jay McInerney, or Robert Penn Warren).  The voice of the narrator telling the story acts as a buffer between the reader and characters so the less you can hear of the narrator’s voice, the closer you get to the characters, and the more likely you’ll get emotionally involved with them.
For an example of immediate Deep P.O.V, look at the first lines of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the matteress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.” 

Immediately, we are in the narrator’s head, sensing the cold and the canvas she feels.  And, without being “told”, we know so much more. From the temperature and the mattress cover, we can infer this is a hand-to-mouth household. Families who can afford sheets and heating bills don’t have their kids sharing a canvas mattress in order to stay warm. We also know Prim is the narrator’s sister and Prim sometimes suffers from bad dreams. Finally, we know “the reaping” can bring on nightmares.
Now compare this with one of the most famous opening paragraphs in English Literature.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

No sense of physical stimuli here; we get opinion and perspective instead. We’re told of a place completely preoccupied with money and marriage.  We also get the impression the narrator thinks this is a ridiculous idea.  A well-modulated voice narrates the story of Pride and Prejudice with dry wit and good humor, letting you know his or her opinion without explicitly stating it.  P&P doesn’t pull the reader under, as The Hunger Games does, but the extra layer of distanced narrative gives it a richer, more nuanced perspective.  

Which is better?  That depends on the story, or even what point the story is at.  A story can  decrease the narrative distance during crisis points, which increases the tension and urgency, then re-establish the distance again, once the crisis has passed.  The point is, the success (or failure) of a story often depends on how it’s told.  Next time you find yourself getting involved in a story, mentally backup (if you can) and check the language.  Is it written in present tense, with the minimum of emotional signposts (verbs like thought, decided, believed, said) and lots of sensory cues, you’ll know why you are getting pulled under.  You’re in the Deep End of the POV.

Praising the Books that Chronicle Life.

My mom used to divide her library into sections. Lots of space was dedicated to fiction and the sturdiest shelves held her coffee-table sized books on the movies.  But one special part of the library was devoted to chronicles of everyday life, virtually all of them written by women.  Some also wrote Kid Lit. or humor like Jean Kerr and Judith Viorst while others wrote novels or plays but every book on that shelf was what I called a “Domestic Chronicle”; an account of  everyday life.  If those books sounded boring, they weren’t.  All of them were clear-eyed observations on a  fascinating, multi-faceted worlds. usually recorded with dry wit.  These books had a remarkable effect on the reader. Novels might be read for excitement or entertainment and non-fiction for excitement or knowledge but domestic chronicles could appease the soul.  So my question is, where are the books of this genre today?

According to my mom, the best writer in this genre was Gladys Taber, author of the Stillmeadow series.  In book after book, Ms. Taber recorded life at her New England farmhouse, Stillmeadow.  She was not a farmer or a New England Yankee from birth so her stories deal with learning to live in a place like Stillmeadow, a 300-year-old farmhouse with neighbors whose families had been there almost as long. Some of her “Country Living” experiences were good, some were bad and a few were downright painful but all of her stories made you feel at home like you were as much a part of the Stillmeadow life as the tea kettle or a shelf of preserves. Mom loved to read almost anything but she always seemed more serene after reading those Stillmeadow books.  I couldn’t wait to grow up and find the domestic chroniclers that would speak to me on such a basic level.

It took awhile but when a friend introduced me to John Chancellor Makes Me Cry, it was like meeting a BFF or getting the keys to the kingdom.  This was an introduction to everyday life in the “New South”, where the women who were raised to join Junior League, ran businesses and corporate departments instead but still cherished their domestic life.  Everything was here, from those who still lived on the land to the god-awful traffic on Peachtree; from blizzards and tornados and the fear of a lost job through coastal vacations, Christmas, and the rococo radiance of Spring in North Atlanta.  For years, JCMMC, has been the book I run to when I felt like a stranger to my life and I needed serenity in my soul.  But books like these are few and far between

Which brings me to something I thought I’d never see again, a new(er) book about everyday life.  My Southern Journey is a collection of Rick Bragg’s essays about life in the American South.  His is not the same South in JCMMC; life’s been harder on Mr. Bragg’s family.  But there is still that bone-deep sweetness that comes with knowing a place and its people so completely, of a life measured in years and seasons instead of moments.  And, in writing about what he knows best, Rick Bragg touches the bits of life we all love.  Damn few of us will be whisked away to a haunted English estate but who doesn’t know about the post-dinner catnap that feels like the best sleep in the world?

There are books on cooking and beautifying the home and books about people overcoming dreadful obstacles.  There is also, of course, a universe of novels but there are too few volumes that deal with everyday life, the fact (not the art) of living.  These are the stories we can identify with, the ones that really speak to the human heart.  They’re the Chronicles of Life.

If there are books on everyday life that you love or would like to suggest, please tell me in the comments below!

The Art of Improving a Story.

It’s no secret that I love to tell stories.  The fact is when I’m out with friends I sometimes have to shut myself up; if I don’t, I’ll dominate the conversation with stories and they won’t be my friends anymore.  But, as much as  I love reeling off  anecdotes, I’m not that sure I can tell one well. For that, I need the crew at Arc Stories.
Arc Stories is a group of top-notch raconteurs who help amateurs (like me) tell the stories of their lives. I’ve been envious of every person they ever put behind a microphone and for years I’ve been working up the nerve to pitch a story to them. I finally sent in an idea this fall and got a call back from one of the coaches.   Send me the full story, he said.
Writing isn’t that easy for me, especially when the material is personal. I wrote, rewrote and rewrote my tale, choking up when some memories came back. Once I dried my eyes, I sent it off, wondering what the coach would think of my draft.  He thought it needed work.
My mentor was extremely kind and polite but he pointed out a big flaw in my narrative.  It had one of the underlying themes we hear all through December. Not a bad message but definitely not original. Closer to a cliche.
Now, even kind, honest criticism can be hard to take (like medicine) but both are meant to make the subject better and the subject here was the story, not my ego. Talking with him showed me a fresher angle of approach so I rehammered out the story.  Same difficult memories, same catch in the throat, the same deliberation over every sentence.  When this draft was finished, I knew it was better and was happy to send it in.  Then the producer called.
Yes, the story isn’t bad (she said) but this time I’d left out the stakes. Why was what happened so important to me at the time?  What unknown outcome might keep people interested?  Please rewrite it again.
Of course, the producer was right but I wasn’t sure I had another rewrite in me or if I could face the material again.  And I knew that even with this rewrite, they might still turn me down.  On the other hand, if I quit at this point, they would definitely reject the story.  I grabbed the tissues and sat down for one more try.
All of this is to tell you what I’ve learned and add a small announcement.  First off, when it comes to revision, nothing is more important than improving what’s already there. Not an overly sensitive ego, or the previous work, or the angst that went into each sentence. Revision gives stories necessary structure and if that means rebuilding the whole thing from scratch, then that’s what you do.  My finished story is a lot better than the first draft I sent.  And on Friday, you can judge for yourself.

Unless something unforeseen and terrible happens this is where I’ll be on Friday evening, probably overwhelmed by stage-fright.  If you’re interested but you can’t be there, they issue podcasts of their broadcasts.  (So if I’m really bad, you can hear me mess up over and over and over!) No matter what happens, I’ll always be grateful for what I’ve already learned from those wonderful people at Arc Stories.  They’ve taught me something of what it takes to improve a story.

The Best and Worst of Times

Have you ever seen an abused or neglected pet?  A creature that nobody loved?  They huddle at the corners of our towns and houses, too frightened to approach us for help.  Have you watched them with their matted coats and terrified eyes, keeping their distance on unsteady feet?  If you have, you’ve seen Ada Smith, the narrator of The War That Saved My Life.

Of course Ada isn’t a dog or a horse; she’s a girl, somewhere around ten. Ada doesn’t know what age she is because she doesn’t know her birthday.  Ada doesn’t know how to read, or write, or even walk very well. She has a club foot and is never allowed to leave her Mam’s one-room London flat. Ada’s only real connection to the world outside is her little brother, Jaime. When Mam says Jaime’s being sent to the country because Hitler is going to bomb London, Ada decides to follow her brother.  In the process, she becomes one of the few English children who could thank Germany for starting a war.
Over 800,000 children were evacuated from England’s city centers during “Operation Pied Piper“. Some of them were relocated overseas but the majority were resettled in rural England; all were separated from places and people they knew. It was an emotionally devastating policy that put much of Britain’s future in the hands of unqualified, under-prepared strangers and some evacuees found the poor treatment Ada expects.  What she and Jaime encounter is, for them, more challenging: a reluctant host who treats them well.
What follows is a remarkable exercise in unreliable narration on Ada’s part.  From birth she’s been raised on two articles of faith: that mothers love children and she is a monster. When Susan, the woman who shelters them, describes herself “as not a nice person” Ada accepts that as well.  The problems come from reconciling her beliefs with the facts.

“She was not a nice person, but she cleaned up the floor. She was not a nice person, but she bandaged my foot… and gave us two of her own clean shirts to wear…Miss Smith was not a nice person, but the bed she put us in was soft and clean, with smooth thin blankets and warm thicker ones.”

This is Ada’s first experience with sheets (the smooth thin blankets), good food, and regular baths as well as grown ups that think well of her.  Like an abused or feral animal she shies away from kindness and anticipates abuse as her due. She can barely begun to respond to this kinder, rural world of peace when the War comes roaring back in.
The greatest blessing of historical fiction is how it connects us to remote events and animates them through the eyes of the story.  Some sixth graders may have heard of World War II and a few of those may have heard of Dunkirk but this book helps them understand it by seeing it through the eyes of Ada.  Here we see not the tired-but-cheerful soldiers that animated the newsreels but the barely controlled panic of a sea-side village deluged with the wounded and dying.  The war becomes as real a threat as Ada’s abusive parent and the lessons she learns in fighting one aid her battle with the other.
I love historical fiction and kid lit but seldom have I seen one book shine in both genres. The War that Saved My Life is a brilliant exception.  It deserves every award it got.  Read it, share it, talk about it with kids and when you see a victim of abuse, remember you’re looking at Ada.

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