Friday, February 15, 2013

One For The Murphys

Volume Three in the Books That Matter Series


"Be someone's hero." For twelve year old Carley Connors, this is a pretty tall order. Let's face it, for anyone this could be a huge expectation to have looming overhead. Though if you look at it closer, you might see that the potential to be someone's hero is all around you.

When I heard Lynda Mullaly Hunt talk about her middle grade novel, One For The Murphys, I knew I had to read it. But it was sold out at the conference store. Then, my book headhunter told me that she had read it and that I had to read it too. So I went to a nearby store and bought the book.

Carley Connors is twelve years old and a foster child who has just been placed with the Murphys. Told in first person, readers get a point of view told strictly from Carley, which is an important fact to keep in mind when first meeting the Murphys. In the beginning, Mrs. Murphy appears as a Leave It To Beaver mom for the current day. Mr. Murphy is a firefighter and hence the reason Carley must sleep in a firefighter themed room complete with a fire truck bed and a sign above it that reads: "Be someone's hero." Daniel is the oldest of the three Murphy boys and the only one of his brothers who dislikes having Carley in his life. Adam and Michael Eric are the two younger boys who offer some comic relief.  Then, throw in a musical loving girl named Toni, who goes to school with Carley, and you have the makings of a great cast of characters.

One of the interesting things about Carley is that she thinks of words in a different way than most people. For example, when she fist introduces herself to readers she is looking at a hospital bracelet with her name on it. "Carley Connors. Thirteen letters. How unlucky can one person be?" Later, there are chapters titled "Lettuce Pray" and "Pals Spelled Backwards." This play on words is fun but also offers some great insight into Carley's character.

But the thing that stands out the most about this story, the one that still remains with me now even though it has been ten months since I have read it, is the message to "be someone's hero." It resonated with me to the point where I wanted to use this message with the students in my classroom. So I asked them to name anyone they thought was a hero. Of course, super  heroes and fictional characters were listed right off the bat and all of those went into one column on our list. Then, there were professions in another column. The students listed police officers, firefighters, military, doctors, teachers, utility workers, and so on. The next column was for specific individuals who work in these professions. Someone's parent might have been a firefighter, teacher, or doctor. The list grew from the abstract and fictional to the concrete and real. Normal, everyday people can be heroes. And in return, you might be that person for someone else.

This is my opinion For What It Is Worth. If you are looking for ways to "Be Someone's Hero," consider donating to Big Brother, Big Sisters. Visit bbbs.org  for more information.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Wonder

Volume Two in the Books That Matter Series


Wonder. It's a great word. In the noun form, an online dictionary defines it as "a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable." Nothing can sum up this next book better. And that's why R.J. Palacio's debut middle grade novel is so aptly titled, Wonder.

August Pullman is ten years old. It's the first thing readers learn about him. And even though, Auggie also states that he is "not an ordinary ten-year-old", he goes on to tell readers all the things he likes to do that just about any American kid his age would also like to do. But the reason, he is not ordinary is due to a facial deformity that causes other children to be afraid of him. So when his parents decide to enroll him in school for the first time in his life, Auggie must face a new challenge: the fifth grade.

But Wonder is not Auggie's story. Not entirely anyway. He is the main character and the true inspiration of the book. But Palacio structures her work so that readers can follow this year of Auggie's life through not only his eyes, but those of his older sister, her boyfriend, his sister's former friend, and two other fifth graders at Auggie's new school. This change in point of view offers a look into the way other people view August and how he impacts their lives as well.

My mom first recommended this book to me. Then, a former student was reading it and told me that I should read it too. Finally, a member of my critique group--the same friend who recommended The Fault in Our Stars, who from here on out will be known as my book headhunter--highly recommended it. So after these three glowing reviews, I read the  book and I was amazed  by the unexpected beauty that I found on the pages within the cover. And even though this is a fictional story about make believe characters, there is a truth to its message. It is like Mr. Tushman says in the book, "...someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God." Then, he added, "Or whatever politically correct spiritual representation of universal goodness you happen to believe in." And that, my friends, is the true wonder of this book.


Thanks for reading Volume Two in the Books That Matter Series. This is just my opinion For What It Is Worth. If you are an educator, student, or parent who is reading this and you are looking to do something that could help children who feel a little like Auggie, I strongly recommend starting Unified Sports, a registered program of Special Olympics, at your school. Because as August Pullman states, "Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world."

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars

Volume One in The Books That Matter Series


It's amazing how books have a way of coming into people's lives just when they need them the most. Hazel, the main character of The Fault in Our Stars, would probably laugh at this as it bears striking resemblance to an affirmation hanging in her boyfriend's house: "In the darkest days, the Lord puts the best people into your life." But in my opinion, both are true.

When a friend of mine told me about The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, I knew I had to read it. But when she told me how she almost stopped reading it because the subject matter hit too close to home, I realized that books have a way of finding the right people at the right time. And I am very thankful that this book found its way to her and in turn to me.

Being a teenager is tough, being a teenager with cancer is horrible, but being a teenager with terminal cancer describes Hazel, the sixteen year old main character from The Fault In Our Stars. But as Hazel describes, "You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice--" And that is exactly what John Green has done with his book. He took a depressing, grim subject matter and turned parts of it into a lighter universal story about teenagers, allowing readers at times to forget that these characters had cancer.

Now, I don't want to be one of those people who goes on about fictional characters when real children and teenagers are facing cancer each day. But maybe that's why John Green wrote this story. He had worked with teenagers who had cancer and had wanted to write about it. But as he states in the beginning of the book before the novel begins, "Neither novels  nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species."

So yes, this story is fictional and the characters made up but the subject matter is so strong and true that there is something much deeper at play here. In my writing, I tackle tough problems people face in life, often making my books too heavy. My friend, the same one who recommended this book, gave me some sage advice. She heard somewhere that for every dark moment in a book, there must be something light. It is a balancing act, one that John Green has mastered with his blend of a heavy storyline and a sense of humor that keeps the plot feeling like one about teenagers and not always one about terminal cancer.


If you are looking for a book with a powerful message, I strongly recommend The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It will make you laugh and cry, leaving you thinking long after you read the last word.

And that's my opinion For What It Is Worth. Check in soon for Volume 2 in The Books That Matter Series, which will feature a middle grade novel with another strong message. If you want more information about childhood cancer or are interested in donating to organizations that help children with cancer, please visit one of the following sites:

For St. Jude's Children Research Hospital: stjude.org

For The Tomorrow Fund Clinic:   tomorrowfund.org

For The Jimmy Fund:    jimmyfund.org

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The World of Books


Up until now, most of my blogging has been about writing. However, one of the major rules of becoming a writer is to be an avid reader. Read the genre that you write, write the genre that you love to read. So I am a writer who enjoys reading. This wasn't always the case. I never really enjoyed reading as a child. I had my favorite books and my go to authors, but I was by no means an avid reader. Then, I became a teacher and I started reading all the wonderful books that were out there in the middle grade and young adult market. I talked with students about the books they were reading and recommended ones that I had read.

More recently, I started a reading journal so I could keep track of all the books I read. My original reason for doing this was to keep a log that would help me when submitting my work to agents and publishers. Then just this past weekend, I read a book so wonderful that I actually wrote in the log while reading it. I wanted to document all my reactions and favorite quotes from the book. Days after I finished it, I couldn't get the book out of my head. I am even thinking about reading it again because I read it so fast the first time that maybe this time I will pick up on even more.

So what is the name of this most wonderful book that caused me to stop blogging about writing and start writing about reading?

For that answer, check back tomorrow when I give you the name of this book and my opinion For What It Is Worth.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Two Fine Lines Between Revise and Revive

Revise, revise, revise. And when you think you are done revising, revise again. You hear that word all the time in writing books and at conferences. But when does revising turn to reviving?
It’s a fine line really. Well, actually two fine lines.
First, revision is only revision when you let the pen flow freely over the page. Don’t restrict yourself to the words you have already written. If you do, your revisions are only reviving your story. It may help while you are working on it, but once you stop, your story has flat lined yet again.
Second, listen to the constructive criticism from others. Sure, it hurts but you can only linger on that pain for so long. If you revise without listening, you are only reviving. Hear the word no in your rejection letters. But don’t let it stop you. No can be a hard word to hear but it is even harsher on your book. Read between the lines of the comments in your critiques and make the changes accordingly. Stand true to the story you want to tell but know when to let it rest as well. Pushing it too hard can cause the need to revive.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Vacationing with Your Characters

Everyone needs a vacation from their work. We long for time off to relax and visit new locations. We want to experience the world around us and make memories that will last the rest of our lives. However, my idea of a great break from everyday life can be something as simple as taking a vacation with my characters.
The idea came to me after a writing conference. As soon as I returned from it, my revisions were calling; submission times closing in on me. So I scheduled four days off from work and spent the time focused on my writing.  Like any good vacation, I used this time to gain perspective, not only for me, but for my characters.
What do they want from life? What are their stories lacking? How can I take suggestions from critiques to make their worlds better?
I spent the days pouring over storyboards and writing books.  I made notes on my manuscripts and pushed to continue writing stories that had huge holes that needed to be filled. I took my characters to libraries and they took me up north and to the shores of beaches. That’s when I realized what I’ve been missing all along. I found perspective.
So what did I realize?
I can go anywhere within the pages of my stories. I’ve been stuck in a box. I was too close to them to see it before. I kept forcing my revisions into the stories that already existed on the pages. Instead, I need to let the changes take my characters to new and exciting places. The stories wanted to travel and I grounded their opportunities to fly.
I must say this was a freeing thought. I only wish it didn’t come two months before my submission deadlines. Two months, two novels, hours of research and revisions ahead of me. Looks like tomorrow I’m back to work.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Description Infusion

Ever since I was a child, I hated reading descriptions in books. I would skim right over long sections of paragraphs until I reached the dialogue. This was why I used to enjoy writing plays, television scripts, and screenplays. As I moved into my career as a teacher, my interest shifted to pictures books — because once again, I didn’t need it when a picture would support the text. Then in 2006, I had to get over my feud with description if I was going to attempt a middle grade series.
I still start with mostly dialogue in my early drafts; the descriptions usually come later through a process I like to call Description Infusion. I read through the dialogue and close my eyes trying to picture the scene. I see the fog rolling through darkness or the leaves falling from branches as the impending winter moves in. I hear the waves crash against the shore, feel the spray of the mist against my skin. I see the nick in the table as the character focuses on a tiny detail that takes her attention away from a conversation she would rather not be having. A minor detail can transform the whole mood of a scene — and all it takes is a few words.
In conversations, especially ones that require a deeper reflection, I often fix my attention on something without even realizing it. I might notice a loose thread in a curtain or an ant moving along a crack in the sidewalk. So wouldn’t my characters do the same thing? By attaching a minor detail to a conversation in a scene, you are adding a new dimension to your writing. Perhaps you would like that scene to convey the message that the character feels as though her life is coming undone. Now wouldn’t that loose thread in the curtain help support the feelings your character is conveying through her words?
It is not the pages of details that make a story but the tiny ones that are infused within the scene to set just the right mood for your readers.