Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Breaking All the Rules

What sorts of things work in writing middle grade? What isn't allowed? There are certain rules writers hear about at every phase of the creative process. But there always seem to be exceptions to those rules. Here's one I've seen successfully broken again and again of late:

Too Many Adults:
Middle-grade novels need to be populated with kids. Throw too many adults in, or worse, let too many adults start filing up scenes, and you'll lose your audience.

Apart from a Romanian orphan mentioned only in conversation (and seen in a brief video), Mike is the only kid in this story. His world is populated by Mike's genius but clueless father, his Great Uncle Poppy and Great Aunt Moo, and other adult characters, like Past, a homeless man.

Best friends Naomi and Lizzie meet the strange Finn boy when he falls out of a tree. Much of the story alternates between the three children and two scheming elderly women half a world away. The story lines eventually intersect, but not before Lizzie and Naomi spend much of the story in a world of adults.

SPARROW ROAD - Sheila O'Connor
Twelve-year-old Raine O'Rourke follows her mother to Sparrow Road, an artists' colony where her mother has taken a job for the summer. Raine learns how art can both teach and heal and is essentially the only child character in the story.

Horton, the lowly kitchen boy, is accused of stealing the Lump, the Luggertuck family heirloom. While he has young servant friends, Bump, Blemish, and Blight, much of the story is peopled with adults: the self-centered M'Lady Luggertuck and her dastardly, dim-witted son, Luther (who though not an adult is older than the typical mid-grade character); the wooden-spoon wielding cook, Miss Neversley; Old Crotty, the lady's maid; Portnoy St. Pomfrey, the foul-breathed detective; and a band of land-locked pirates, to name a few. (I listened to this one on CD and enjoyed it so much, I read it again with my fourth grader.)

Can you think of other books that break this Too Many Adults rule? What about other mid-grade writing rules that have been successfully broken?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Some Things Can't Be Measured

With public education required to “prove” student progress through test scores and number data, it has become more and more common to track the reading progress of MG students through Lexile numbers and other measures of text difficulty, such as Fountas and Pinnell and Accelerated Reader. I have seen these numbers cropping up on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for both Gifted and Special Ed students as an official measure of student progress.
The problem is – how do you measure the difficulty of a book? Sometimes, it seems obvious. Take Gary Paulson’s book Masters of Disaster (102 pgs), which is about three boys trying to get into a record book. Compare it to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Which one do you think is harder to read?

Pride and Prejudice has a Lexile rating between 900 and 1070, depending on the edition.
Masters of Disaster has a Lexile rating of 1100.

Yes, you read that right.

According to the Lexile website, ratings are measured by a program that looks at word frequency and sentence length.  Hmmm …

First sentence of Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

First sentence of Masters of Disaster: I’ve called you here today, men, because I have an important announcement.

Nope, I’m not seeing it. But there are always flukes. Let’s look at some more.

The Princess Bride – 870. 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – 980. 
The Hound of the Baskervilles – 1090. 
Vordak the Incomprehensible – 1140.  (Vordak is the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” of Supervillains.)

I’ve spent a lot of time on the Lexile website, because my daughters are frequently required to select independent reading titles based on a Lexile level assigned to them by a MAP test (which is a whole ‘nother story – don’t get me started!). In sixth grade, one of my daughters was required to select books with a Lexile over 1100 for a reading project every single month. I was ready to pull my hair out, trying to find books she wanted to read – that were actually a challenge for her – and also topped 1100 on the Lexile chart. I didn’t want to have to give her Moby Dick!

The bottom line is: None of these measures – Lexile, F&P, AR – take into account theme, genre, and story complexity. They are all based on formulas, word frequency, and sentence structure (although the results still mystify me). 

Based on my experiences teaching MG readers for a quarter of a century, I can say that – regardless of text difficulty – a book is harder to read if the student is unfamiliar with the setting because it is historical fiction or set in a foreign land. Conversely, fantasy and science fiction books often get a more difficult rating than they deserve because of the made-up names for people, places, and things.  The computer programs don’t know how to handle words like Vordak.

A biography of John F. Kennedy is likely to be harder than a biography of Harry Houdini, even if they are written on the same “level” – because one includes a great deal of politics while the other includes a great deal of escape tricks. Books that include sarcasm and irony harder are harder than books that involve mostly bathroom humor. And finally, a boy who desperately wants to read The Hunger Games because all his friends are reading it will probably have less trouble than a boy handed Little House on the Prairie as a class assignment by his teacher.

Some things ought not be measured by a computer program or mandated in the name of accountability – especially when the measures are superficial and look good on paper while being utterly meaningless. 

The quality and difficulty of a book is one of those things.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Page Revisited. Again. And Again.

When I was writing theatre, my mantra was “A play is never written. It’s only rewritten.” And this is true. A play can be performed over and over, published and republished. The written theatrical word is like a map for those who want to take the journey. It is never the definitive word. HOWEVER…

This is not the case for books. We write a book and, as our editors drag it from our bleeding fingers, it goes out into the world. It goes out there as we run after it with additions and changes and edits and new thoughts that come moments before the release date or (even worse) after the book is out.

Now is the time for the deep breath. Now is the time for the zen ‘ommm’ and the calming of the editing instinct. Let it go, says the sane voice within. But I wanted to add the one scene with the…Let it go, says the voice again. But there was a typo on page 315 and now I’ll have to apologize at signings…Let it go, groans the voice coming out of my mouth. I can let it go, I tell myself. But you know? I don’t believe me.

When I walk out of the house in the morning, I really hope my husband or one of the kids will tell me if I am wearing two different coloured shoes, or have my shirt on backwards, or still have a coffee moustache. Doesn’t a book deserve the same care? Admittedly, I did beg and fix a typo when the paperback came out. I can be thankful for that. And I have learned that time away from the manuscript is helpful so you return with clearer vision. I’ve learned to pass it along when I find myself ‘lateral editing’ as my editor calls it. I can stop. It’s just that when I read to a classroom full of kids or someone reads aloud to me…I get that horrible lump in my throat. Why did I say that? It would have been so much better to say…Let it go.

The truth is (and I am breathing deeply as I write this) most of those typos, most of those wish-I-said-it-this-way-instead moments, rarely even register with readers. When the ARC of  The Atomic Weight of Secrets went out to readers, everyone sent back a list of typos. NOT ONE LIST WAS THE SAME! So we got all those…but you know there are more, right? There is one (that one I managed to fix for the paperback) that literally made me gag every time that page was flipped open. I could not read it aloud or go anywhere near it in public. NOT ONE PERSON NOTICED THAT ONE! Amazing, huh?

I guess, bottom line, is believe yourself when the book is done. There will be magical moments when you say ‘wow, did I say that?’ and that’s a pleasure. There will always be something we might have said differently, sometimes better. And, yes, there will sometimes be the shoe that doesn’t match the one on our other foot. But at some point, we have to close the book on that page. Like children who must go out into the world and face the joys and sorrows for themselves, our writing must be let free. We have to love it and own it, but we do, we must, we will…let it go.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Fun of World-Building

I'm just starting out on a new writing project and remembering how delightful it is to dream up an otherworld.  Fantasy authors get the added fun of making everything up.  Food?  Animals?  Setting?  Economy?  All of it must be created and pieced together in a somewhat logical puzzle.  This is tricky, because there's always so much more than will ever make it to the book.  I've spent many writing hours on badly done sketches and maps that will never see the light of day, but I don't think of any of them as wasted.  As any book-loving author knows, the deepest way to enter a story is to write one.

I've been living, writing, and revising in the Land of Story for the past five years, and I love that world, I really do.  But this new world?  Can I just tell you how much I love it, too?  I'm at the stage now where there are an overload of ideas, and I'm struggling with how to sort everything into some semblance of order.  For now, this is my process:

Stage 1: I start with the scribbled spiral notebook pages that testify I grew up in the '80s when even if you had a PC you didn't use it except for your computer "homework".  (Yes, indeed, that was my one and only venture into programming).

Stage 2: These notes translate to scattered post-its categorized by "Plot", "Setting", and "Character".  Mostly, these are vague ideas: dormitories are in a tree, or something like that.

Stage 3: The final stage takes a better shape, where things are color-coded (hooray for an excuse to linger in the office-supply aisles!), each character has specific goals, plot points are solidified, and setting is developed.  This is the closest I ever get to an outline, and typically all these pieces make it into the story, even if they're rearranged quite a bit by the end.

Right now, I'm at Stage 2, where things are taking shape but still are a bit of a mess.  The nice thing is, that this hangs on my bedroom wall, so in those groggy waking-up moments when inspiration hits, I can dash out a sticky note before it's too late.

What about you?  How do you organize your world-building?  Do you have any tips on capturing inspiration?  Or possibly you have a fabulous office supply you just can't live without?  Do share!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What Every Middle Grade Writer Should Know About Middle Graders - Part 2 by Lee Wardlaw

Secrets! Slammed doors! Silent treatments! S-E-X!

The jacket blurb for a 1950’s pulp novel?

Nope. There’s just an older middle grader in the house. And, in between the Four S’s noted above, he/she is probably reading.

Sales of books for adolescents continue to rise even as other genres falter. The reason? Young teens “connect in the text,” says Joanne O’Neil of Tomorrow Museum. “At this age, it’s a revelation [for them] to see an author has the same dreams and insecurities” as they do. Good middle grade novels entertain; they can also inspire, reassure and help guide readers through those early turbulent teen years -- if the author (that’s you!) has a solid knowledge of what this stage entails and why it resembles the Disneyland attraction Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. 

OLDER MIDDLE GRADE (ages 12-15/6th-9th grade)

FAVORITE QUESTION: “How do I fit in?”
Older middle graders are Humanistic Explorers. They’re creating their social selves, trying on different group dynamics (Jock or Goth? Gamer or Gangster? Class Clown or Class President?) to see which ones best fit who they are and who they want to be – in school, society, and in life.
FAVORITE QUOTATION: “Don’t tell me what to do!”
This age teeters between being fiercely independent and painfully self-doubting. So if they sniff even a whiff of criticism in a mild suggestion, they’ll rebel with fury. 

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS:  Growing pains are not a myth. The speed and magnitude of an adolescent’s physical growth is comparable to what an infant experiences in the first three years of life. Only this time, muscles ache.  Bones moan. The immune system crashes, leading to numerous viruses. The sudden onset of gangly knees, knobby elbows, and dizzying heights a la Alice when she nibbled the ‘Eat Me’ cake in Wonderland, cause older middle graders to slip and trip, bump and bash. 

And they’re changing so fast they might not recognize themselves in the morning mirror – if they can get up, that is. Lethargy rules, so adolescents often become one with their beds. They are exhausted.

Oh, and let’s not forget the brain, which is awash – nay, fermenting – in sexual hormones.  This leads to a whole ‘nother litany of physical changes and (ahem) urges that aren't regulated well. The brain’s frontal lobes don’t fully connect until age 26. This is bad news for adolescents – who lack insight, judgment, self-control – but good news for authors – who can use those attributes (or lack thereof) in creating characters and plot twists.

INTELLECTUAL CHARACTERISTICS:  Teens are smart, but their actions suggest a decrease in intellectual capacity. (Studies show that the teen I.Q. literally drops several points.) Once lively, engaged, inquisitive young middle graders now morph into monosyllabic morons. They’re oblivious. Forgetful. They sleepwalk through life. Their favorite quote is interchangeable with “Huh?” or “Duh.” 

Why?  Duh!  Adolescents are simply too absorbed with the physical changes of their bodies (and those of the hotties sitting next to them in History class) to care much about learning, studying or Mom's 200th desperate plea to 'Please take out the garbage!'

PSYCHOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS:  Older middle graders have fragile, volatile, often paradoxical emotions. These ‘kids’ suffer. One minute they’re sweetly opening a door for you – next moment slamming it in your face. If challenged, they’ll rebel – or pull inward. They feel as if they’re constantly being watched, examined, evaluated, so a tiny zit becomes a volcano; an off-hand comment a crushing criticism. Self-doubts create a craving to belong, to fit in, to search for heroes to emulate, ideals and values to call their own. 

Older middle graders also have a strong urge to understand their place in society – and history. And they want to play an important role in that society.  The more the middle grade ‘child’ learns and understands about himself, the more he’ll understand what that role can be.  This means he’ll be seeking to read about and identify with characters – fact or fiction – who are ready, as he is, to search, explore, challenge, and understand life – and make a memorable impact upon it. 


Lee Wardlaw is the author of close to 30 award-winning books 
for children, tweens and teens, including 101 Ways to Bug Your Parents   
(younger middle grade), an IRA/CBC Children's Choice Book, 
and 101 Ways to Bug Your Friends and Enemies (older middle grade), 
which recently won the Forward National Literature Award for Humor. 
Lee has a B.A. in Education and will earn her M.Ed. in Child Development 
from Loyola University Maryland in 2014.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Inspired by...

Recently, I had a colleague of mine ask me how I came up with the concepts for my books. He wanted to know what the inspiration was behind them. The answer didn’t roll off the tongue, but instead, the question made me think long and hard about the answer. How do my ideas come to me?

When I do anything in life I have my eyes and mind open for ways to use it, whether it's in my classroom or in my writing. For example, I remember watching a movie where a group of characters were trying to break into a bank vault and I immediately stopped the movie and jotted down an idea for a classroom activity that I later called Safecracker. While watching that scene, I thought what if my students had a reading passage in which ten sentences were numbered from 0 to 9 and then I had a bunch of combination-locked safes for them to open based on which sentences had errors? I went out and invested in five combination-locking cases and this is how my review activity, Safecracker, came into existence. It's rather simple. First you create passages that have sentences numbered from 0 to 9, and you make sure three of the sentences contain errors related to whatever you're covering (the use of the comma, for example). In groups, students must find the three sentences that have the errors, put them in order from lowest to highest, and then come up and try the combination. If they get the combination right, there's another passage in the next safe, and then another passage in the next safe, and so on...until finally, the prize vault gives them their reward.

If I were to detail the umpteen times I took something from life and applied it to the classroom, this post would be far, far too long. The same type of method occurs with my writing, as I'm sure it does with many writers. The key is to constantly keep your eyes and mind open. Hey, inspiration can strike at any time, so be ready.

A buddy of mine recently had the opportunity to speak at a TEDx event about inspiration, and I think he did a much better job explaining himself than I did. So here is Tracy Edward Wymer’s TEDx talk:

How about you? What's your inspiration? What's your muse?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Friday, February 15, 2013

The 90-Second Newbery

Hey parents, teachers, librarians, and actual middle grade aged readers of this blog (a.k.a kids)--have I got a great project for you!

Ever heard of the Newbery award? I thought so. It's when everybody interested in books for kids blows horns, bangs drums, and jumps on the bed to show their love for the very best kids' books of the year. This year the great big winner was THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, which is gorilly great!

2013 Newbery Award winner, The One and Only Ivan

Well, once the winners and the honor books are announced, there's something sweet and special and awesomely creative you can do. Grab your friends and a video camera and condense your all-time favorite Newbery book (winner or honor) into ninety seconds. Sound like a challenge? You betcha.

Now, I wish I'd been the originator of this great idea, but I wasn't. That honor goes to the zany James Kennedy, the author of THE ORDER OF ODD-FISH, which Cory Doctorow has called "an extraordinary and delightfully weird romp that’s one part China Mieville, one part Lemony Snicket, with trace amounts of Madeline L’Engle and Roald Dahl." (Since pretty much all of those mentioned are my favorite authors, it goes without saying that I am currently speeding my way to Powell's bookstore to snap up a copy.)

But I digress. Here are the rules for the 90-second Newbery, from the pen of Mr. Kennedy himself.

1. Your video should be 90 seconds or less. (Okay, okay: if it’s two minutes long but absolute genius, we’ll bend the rules for you. But let’s try to keep them short.)

2. Your video has to be about a Newbery award-winning (or Newbery honor-winning) book. Here’s a list of all the winners.

3. Just to be clear: we’re not looking for book trailers. We’re looking for full-on dramatizations, with mostly child actors, that manage to tell the entire story of a book in an ridiculously short amount of time.

4. Upload your videos to YouTube or Vimeo or whatever and send me the link at kennedyjames [at] gmail [dot] com. Make the subject line be “90 SECOND NEWBERY” and please tell me your name, age, where you’re from, and whatever other comments you’d like to include, including whether you’d like me to link to your personal site. You can give an alias if you want; I understand privacy concerns.

5. Sending the link to me grants me (James Kennedy) the right to post it on my blog and to other websites where I sometimes post content (like Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and to share at public readings, school visits—and hopefully the “90-Second Newbery” Film Festival screenings!

6. The deadline for the second annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is December 10, 2013 

The winners are shown in Chicago, New York, Portland and Tacoma. The Portland showing is on Sunday February 24th, 2013. If you want to meet me, I'll be there, as my son and his friends entered the festival with their version of THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, which you can view on my Middle Grade Mafioso blog if you're curious and have time on your hands.

And here's a guide on how to plan and film your entry: 

Newbery Film.

I'll leave you with one of the videos featured on James Kennedy's blog, the Aurora Public Library Eola Road Branch, entry for 90 Second Newbery film festival. A silent film adaptation of Crispin: Cross of Lead by Avi.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ice Dogs ARC Giveaway

I feel really fortunate to be able to show off the cover of Ice Dogs, a gripping character driven middle grade adventure/survival story. And, to top it off, I'm giving away an arc of this page-turner!!

I think this cover does a great job of capturing the mystique and allure of travelling though the backcountry in Alaska, which is where the story is set.

A little cover copy: 

Victoria Secord, a fourteen-year-old Alaskan dogsled racer, loses her way on a routine outing with her dogs. With food gone and temperatures dropping, her survival and that of her dogs and the mysterious boy she meets in the woods is entirely up to her.

The author, Terry Lynn Johnson is a musher herself and her crackling writing puts readers at the reins as Victoria and Chris experience setbacks, mistakes, and small triumphs in their wilderness adventure.

Although I've never met Terry in person, we've been trading manuscripts for a few years and man, this one rocks!!! It's due out in November from Houghton Mifflin.

Terry with a couple of her dogs.

For the ARC contest, leave a comment, and an email contact in it, anytime before midnight Saturday February 16th. One winner will be chosen at random. Good luck!!!

And, if you want one more chance to receive an ARC you can try your luck here.

Thanks for stopping by!!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The 1st Draft Of Your 1st Novel

As you embark on the first draft of your novel, please watch out for that hole up ahead, the deep dark hole many aspiring authors have fallen into.  Go ahead.  Peer over the edge.  Do you see them all down there, piled on top of each other in the dark? 

Sadly enough, many writers plunge into this abyss before ever completing a single chapter.  The hole is called ‘PLACING TOO MUCH PRESSURE ON YOURSELF’.  Pressure, pressure.  What if my novel isn’t good enough?  What if my main character is boring?  What if the plot meanders?  What if I can’t find a plot?  What if my husband hates my writing?  What if I spend all that time working on it and it never gets published? 

These questions are the instruments of paralysis. 

When you begin a first draft, it is imperative that you place no pressure on yourself.  Lofty expectations do not belong here, not at this stage in the process.  All you should be concerned about with a first draft is getting black on white, ink on paper.  When you lower your expectations and reduce the pressure, you will soon realize what a beautiful place the world is, and how fun it is to write, how intoxicating it is to play with language.  Freed from all those ridiculous gnawing fears, you will be more open to discovery, which is the true blessing of a first draft.  Maybe your main character should be a woman, not a man.  Maybe your book should take place in Canada, not Argentina.  These are the discoveries, the golden doors that can only be opened by an imagination unencumbered by lofty expectations.

Writing Exercise
Set aside a two week period during which you will not judge your writing whatsoever.  Not one bit.  Not one line of writing gets evaluated.  All you’re concerned about is getting black on white, ink on paper.  Let it rip.  Let it gush out of you.  Write a billion words in fourteen days.  If you find that it’s hard not to judge, then imagine that there’s a portal in your kitchen, in between the microwave and the toaster oven.  When you step through it, you enter a parallel universe where judging of any kind is against the law.  Give this world a name.  Your imaginary passport allows you to stay there for two weeks.  You will find it to be one of the loveliest and most productive places you’ve ever been!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Middle Grade First Lines

This image doesn't necessarily have that much to do with Middle Grade First Lines (it's a photo of a letter Gandhi wrote), but with so many copyright concerns with web images of late, it seems best to use only images that are in the public domain.

Anyway, today I want to share some first lines. As writers, first lines are something I think we all think about a lot. We certainly have to write them (at least one for each book). And whether they come easily to you, or whether you rewrite them hundreds of times, it can be interesting to think what they mean to readers, and whether they have more or less impact than we expect.

So, I went and grabbed 5 Middle Grade novels from my daughter's room. I read plenty of Middle Grade myself, of course, but she has a much nicer bookshelf than I do, so we keep them in there. At any rate, without further ado, I will share the opening lines from these five mystery books, and say a few things about each one:
  • A mango, thought Peter. The perfect weapon.
Okay, okay. Yes, this is technically two sentences, but I would argue that they are so inextricably linked, they ought to be separated by a semi-colon, not a period. Anyway, that's not the point. The point is: isn't this a great line? It give us character, voice, humor, setting, and a taste of conflict, all in six brief but luscious words. Well done, author, well done.
  • Goldie Roth hated the punishment chains.
Maybe I should have done opening paragraphs? Just kidding. Obviously this one line doesn't give us as much as the last pair of sentences, but it still ain't half bad. We've got the feeling of something sinister here, and we can at least infer a bit about setting - a school perhaps, or an orphanage? The key with this one, I think, is specificity. There are all kind of chains, after all, but punishment chains sound like a very specific type of chain, if you ask me.
  • Eva Nine was dying.
I'm not sure how much I like this one. It's succinct, sure, and it's rather shocking, too, but it doesn't feel earned, you know what I mean? It's all a matter of taste, of course, and I actually do happen to love this book and this author, but as first lines go, I guess I'm partial to lines that ground me in a scene, and clue me into multiple story aspects at once.
  • It all started with Aldwyn's whiskers beginning to tingle--the way they always did when he got hungry.
I'll admit, I'm somewhat partial to the old em-dash, and I love it in creative writing. I'm not sure it's used to full effect here, but it doesn't hurt, either. This opening line is all about character, and it pulls it off pretty well. Animal characters always have a little easier time with characterization, I think, because as readers we all already have some assumptions about certain types of animals.
  • Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood.
I suppose this one is probably pretty famous by now. I still haven't read this book, but my kids both love it. Anyway, this isn't the strongest of these five openings, but it isn't bad either. Half-blood is obviously an interesting detail, even if we don't know what it means at first, and in the long run it's probably the most important part of this sentence, but I would argue it's the "look," that really makes this opening line work, for me. It's the touch of irreverence to the voice of this narrator that would make me read on, but then maybe I just like angry kids.

Well that's it. What do you all think? Do you recognize any of these books (don't give it away if you do)? Which of these opening lines is your favorite?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Such Beautiful Writing . . .

The Underneath
by Kathi Appelt

Right off the bat I want to say, if you have not read this book, READ IT. Even if you don't like the storylines (and you will) you should read it to study Kathi Appelt's mastery of craft.

I don't know anyone who has read The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and not marveled at the beauty of the language and the cadence of the sentences. The Underneath is the upper MG equivalent of The Kite Runner. Seriously. Within the first chapter, I was captivated by the originality and beauty of the writing. I fell under the spell of the sentences and the words and the rhythm of this book. I did not want it to end. But wait - there's more...

In addition to the magic of the individual sentences and language choices, Kathi weaves together three seemingly unrelated storylines. She gets and holds our attention while shifting between characters and their stories, and then expertly brings them together for a stunning conclusion.

I can't explain the overall beauty of this book. When I think of it or share it with someone, I'm never sure whether I love it more for the story or for the beautiful way the story is written. It is a masterful example of craft.

What book/s have you read that blew you away because of the beauty or power of the writing?


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

DEADWOOD - New MG modern fantasy from Kell Andrews

Twelve-year-old Army brat Martin Cruz hates his rotten new town. Then he gets a message from a tree telling him it's cursed -- and so is he. It's not just any tree. It's the Spirit Tree, the ancient beech the high school football team carves to commemorate the home opener. And every year they lose. But the curse is no game, and it's about to get a whole lot worse.

Martin teams up with know-it-all soccer star Hannah Vaughan. Together they must heal the tree, or be stuck in Deadwood Park at the mercy of the psycho who cursed it.
I’m delighted to have author Kell Andrews here today to tell us about herself and her recently released middle grade modern fantasy/mystery, DEADWOOD. First of all, I wanted to say how much I love the cover. Perfect atmospheric setting for the story!

Kell, I don’t want to provide a spoiler, but your use of modern technology as part of the plot was terrific. I’m always curious to ask fantasy writers how they choose their settings. Why did you choose a modern world setting rather than a traditional made-up fantasy world?
I was inspired by real places where I’ve lived. I tried to imagine fantastic events happening there, but I never imagined a portal or a second world. I wanted to invent magic that took place in the real world among kids who were simultaneously tackling realistic middle-school stresses.
I thought a lot about the reaction my characters would have to facing magic – would they just accept it? Would they freak out? Would they try to seek a logical explanation for the impossible things they witnessed firsthand? So that’s why I brought in technology and a really loose interpretation of some scientific phenomena.  
What I loved most about the book is what I love about all the best middle grade fantasies set in the modern world. Kids reading it can absolutely believe such a story could happen to them, if they were only in the right place at the right time. When you were growing up, were you one of those kids? Did you wish there was a magical world somewhere close by?
I wrote about magic that seemed like it could really happen in real life because at that age I always wished it would. I believed in magic part of the time, and the rest of the time I pretended to myself that I believed. Life was more fun if anything could happen.
During the middle-grade years, kids have given up on Santa and the Tooth Fairy, but they are at least partially convinced that other kinds of paranormal occurrences could be real – telepathy, precognition, light as a feather, stiff as a board. Not many 10-year-olds can face a mirror at midnight without worrying, at least a little, that Bloody Mary might look out at them. So why not a tree that sends text messages?
Your love of plants comes through very strongly in this book. I’m a fellow plant person myself, so can you tell us more about how you researched the story and what influenced it?
Just about every culture has stories – from fairy tales to religious beliefs -- about tree spirits and beings. When a belief is that universal, I wonder if there’s something to it.
That led me to looking at some of the ways plants defend themselves and interact with their environments. Over the years many people, including serious scientists, have trying to prove that plants have feelings, with mixed results. My reference manual was the 1973 alternative science bestseller, The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, which explores the idea of plant sentience and popularized the 1970s idea that you should talk to your plants to keep them healthy. While most of those studies have been debunked, plants do have remarkable mechanisms for survival. I drew on both the science and pseudoscience for DEADWOOD. 
An added dimension to the story is Martin’s worries about his mom, who is deployed in Afghanistan. Why did you choose that for his character?
From a practical, plotting perspective, I needed to put Martin in a new, strange environment where he had to act independently. There’s a reason that there are so many orphans and boarding schools in middle grade fiction! So I tried to find a realistic reason that Martin would be separated from his mother, and right now many children face the absence of a parent during extended military deployment. Despite the distance, I wanted him have a strong relationship with his mother and I tried to use technology to make her a presence in the story, despite the distance. 
And for the writers among us, you do an extremely good job with character development. All your characters were very distinct from each other and seemed real to me. Any tips on writing good characters?
A lot of the characterization came on revision. On the first draft, I concentrated on getting the story down, and Hannah and Martin were less distinct. But as I revised, I got to know them, and I followed each character’s POV and speech during a separate revising pass. I tried to make sure they were distinct in speech and mannerisms and that that everything they said and did was consistent with their character, not just something that moved the plot forward. 
Because I like to know this about everyone: What was one of your favorite books from childhood?
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald were two of my all-time favorites. I reread them both recently and every word was still just as familiar – I knew them nearly by heart.

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Kell, thanks so much for being here today!~Dee Garretson