The Book Club for Kids talks satisfying reads and Gary D. Schmidt’s ORBITING JUPITER

Book cover showing boy walking on snowy road with arms out like an airplane.
Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter is the story of a “troublish” boy with a two-month-old baby named Jupiter.

A recent The Book Club for Kids episode is about Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter

I haven’t read this YA book yet but I’m very interested. The readers’ lively reactions make me want to be “there in the barn with them” and find out what happens to this “troublish” boy with a two-month-old baby named Jupiter.

Gary D. Schmidt gives some fascinating and touching backstory about Orbiting Jupiter, how he writes, and how he became a writer of fiction.

Bonus for writers: Middle grade readers reveal what writers can include to create satisfying books. (At 21:00)

  • catch our feelings
  • make us wonder what happens next
  • a lot of drama
  • surprise at the beginning
  • keep us interested

An interview with Gary D. Schmidt about the setting of Orbiting Jupiter.

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Peace on Earth, Good Will to You All!

Soft dolls in a nativity scene. Mary, Joseph with dreadlocks, angel, felt palm tree, and smiling camel with red saddle. © Laurel Decher, 2016.
I think this camel is pleased about the new saddle. Mary, Joseph, the Angel, and a smiling camel, waiting for the baby Jesus. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

A year ago, I wrote about our “rastafarian” Joseph and the challenges of writing about other people’s cultures: Skin-colored Felt: Doing other people’s cultures wrong. It feels like we’ve gone backwards in trying to understand each other this year.

Our rastafarian Joseph still leans to one side. (He still needs that navy bean transfusion.) Our angel has wings, our camel sports a new saddle and Mary looks much fresher without the excess glue. They look hopelessly naive in the face of so much pain. But the camel makes me smile every time I walk by.

Joan Bauer’s HOPE WAS HERE is a middle grade story about how much bigger hope is than we think. She wrote it in an apartment overlooking the smoking remains of the Twin Towers in New York City. When she started it, she had a tiny pillow that said “Hope”, but when she finished, she said that little pillow of hope was as big as a couch.

We can grow more hope.

See you in January!

Peace on Earth, Good will to all!

If you’re looking for gift ideas for young readers, try this list of recommended books on The Winged Pen. These are the middle grade books I’ve read and enjoyed most this year.

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6 ways THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET shows its warm and funny heroine

1 Image of handout available as pdf. Link is below image.

Click here to download Six Ways to Reveal Character handout as a pdf with links to Karl Iglesias’ website and to WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT.

I’ve been studying Karl Iglesias’ insightful and practical WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT while reading Nancy J. Cavanaugh‘s funny, charming, and warm THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET for Middle Grade readers.

When I went back over my notes, I realized that THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET uses all six of Karl Iglesias’ ways to reveal character on the page. The strong characterization kept me reading, even though the story has a potentially challenging structure: Ratchet’s handwritten language arts assignments. The story is so well constructed, I stopped noticing the writing assignments.

Note: the handwriting font worked perfectly on my Kobo e-reader and was very easy to read.

  1. NAME AND DESCRIPTION. The main character goes by the nickname of Ratchet. Cavanaugh ties the unusual name to the universal emotion of a father’s love for his daughter. Ratchet got her nickname because of “the way [her] help makes all [her father’s] jobs easier.” She describes her father “like a young Albert Einstein wearing a greasy T-shirt and ripped jeans.”
  2. CONTRAST. Ratchet’s internal conflicts come out in her writing assignments: “And wish/ I didn’t wish for so much/ Because I know Dad/ Tries real hard.” She and her environmental activist father are a classic “odd couple.” She’s longing for shiny new school supplies and clothes and feels like a “fish out of water” in the rec center’s GET CHARMED class.
  3. OTHER CHARACTERS. The boys yell insults based on the current gossip about her father whenever they walk by Ratchet’s house. Her father’s activism affects Ratchet directly. Other characters are affected by Ratchet’s behavior and her willingness to share her mechanical knowledge.
  4. DIALOGUE. Because the book is in journal-format, the whole story is told in Ratchet’s voice. She quotes her father and his attitudes, background, and worldview shine through: “Those idiots would spend their time rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. They don’t even have the sense to use the brains the Good Lord gave them.'”
  5. ACTIONS, REACTIONS, DECISIONS. Much to Ratchet’s embarrassment, her father wears T-shirts with slogans like: “Is it me or is this place a festival of idiots?” to the city council meetings. As the story progresses, the slogans change. Both Ratchet and her father keep secrets from each other, but I won’t spoil the story by saying what they are. There’s a great incident where Ratchet helps someone the reader really doesn’t think she will help. Both Ratchet and her father are put under pressure in ways that really make their true character visible.
  6. MANNERISMS, SYMBOLS, PROPS. The story is told in Ratchet’s “Homeschool Language Arts Journal” so the book itself is her prop. Then there are the mechanic’s tools and engines that play such an important role in making the story go. And a very important box.

These 6 Ways to Reveal Character are from one tiny section of Karl Inglesias’ WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT. It’s worth reading the whole book, even if you’re a chicken like me and have to skip the SILENCE OF THE LAMBS’ examples. There are also a few FINDING NEMO examples. Maybe someday he’ll write a new edition including Middle Grade books.

You can probably tell how much I enjoyed reading THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET and how inspired I am by Nancy Cavanaugh‘s craftsmanship. Have you read it? What did you think? I’d love to know.

 

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What’s it like to visit historical sites for a story world you’ve only imagined?

Men in red and gold and blue medieval woolen tunics accompanied by shield and spear bearing knights
The Middle Ages come to life in Arezzo, Italy. ©Jan Decher, 2002.

After I moved to Germany, I planned a trip of a lifetime to visit the physical places in my children’s adventure story set in the early Middle Ages. I wrote the story with spreadsheets, maps, Google, and libraries. It was a work of imagination based on research.

The itinerary included the most important and accessible places in the story:

  • Bologna (nearest airport and unexpectedly beautiful)
  • Casa Cares near Tuscany (a family visit to this retreat center brought me to Arezzo and the story)
  • Camaldolì monastery (an 11th century monastery and hermitage)
  • Arezzo (Birthplace of Guido d’Arezzo and my main character’s home. Site of an annual medieval festival that clothes the whole city in the Middle Ages.)
  • Pratovecchio (a beautiful medieval town with arcades)
  • Poppi (site of an ancient castle, and on the route my characters traveled over the mountains)
  • Classe (known for its byzantine mosaics and churches. Site of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire with the mosaic mural of a shepherd with sheep that Bella admires on her way to Venice.)
  • Ravenna (the modern city near Classe and the sea. Organic market under the arcades with medlars, sausages, ricotta cheese and Napoleon squash.)
  • Pomposa Abbey (a powerful medieval Abbey, today much further from the sea)
  • Venice (colors, light, flavors, a museum of boats and the beginning of the sea journey)

I hoped to collect images, recordings, and maybe video to use on a new website. My husband and child #2 are photographers and agreed to be pressed into service.

My goals for the trip were to experience my story world with all five senses and to resist the temptation to go overboard and drive my family crazy.
What actually happened surprised me. Here are some quotes from my trip journal:

Imagination: How does it work? What is it good for?

“I’m constantly adjusting to two sets of ‘memories’: the set from a visit here in 2002 with my parents and the set from Bella’s [my main character’s] imaginary journey.”

“My husband said, ‘Your imagination is important’ meaning, it needed to be recorded and cared for in the midst of confusing landscapes and facts.”

Validation: I got some things right.

“I felt hopeful for the first time in a while when I saw Guido d’Arezzo’s house is close to the church and the park with the Medici fortress. It is downhill to the piazza grande from there.”

“The friendly man in the tourist office agreed that the Cathedral School might have been up where the Medici ruins are now.”

It was so much fun to talk to someone who knew and cared about the real Guido d’Arezzo. I had no idea how much it would help me with the story to get that boost.

Fortune from a Baci chocolate: ‘Metti il cuore in tutto ciò che fai.’ Or ‘Put your heart in everything you do.’

Disappointment: Some things have changed since the 11th century. In many cases, the particular medieval landscape I wanted to photograph didn’t exist any more. The places that felt most like my story were sometimes in the next village over.

“We didn’t get to Camaldolì because we would have been too late getting home.”

Note: we drove a car and my characters walked, went by donkey or in a litter. So much for the spreadsheet distance and travel time calculation!

“The winding roads slow the pace of modernity. Not that much faster than Bella.”

Generosity: the balance between getting it perfect and letting it go

“My husband is very generous to take me places when he would like to sit in the sun and talk to people.”

The experience: What it feels like to travel in unknown places:

“Luke Skywalker could drive a rental car through tunnels surrounded by trucks traveling at top speed. The Death Star is nothing to this.”

“My daughter’s order of ‘latte freddo bianco’ [cold white milk] came with a teacup and saucer and a spoon.”

“A list of things that could bother Bella: mosquitoes (+ malaria), fog and poor visibility, the smells of pig farms and old fish, injuries, cut fingers, blisters, wasp stings, the feeling of being cheated, the need to re-group, trying to recall what she’d seen, angry drivers. . .what is the medieval equivalent of a road with a slow bicycle, a Vespa between lanes, a heavy truck in front and another passing from behind?”

I never expected to walk around in my imaginary world with my family. It was hard to talk about things I hadn’t put into words before and to make a claim that my imaginary people existed in a real landscape. It was magical for me and I think it helped my family understand better too.

This trip reminded me that a story is a kind of hospitality. We invite people in and try to make them comfortable before they embark on adventure.

What makes you comfortable when you set out on adventure? What sparks your imagination?

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

A Novel Way for Young Readers to Relate to Faith?

Interior view of castle with people standing in the open gate and sunlight behind them.
What difference does faith make? Marburg’s Landgrave Castle (Landgrafenschloss). Influential religious leaders Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon and Oeclampadius met here in 1529 to discuss their differences.

Last week, my husband and I visited Marburg, the town where we first met. In 2017, Marburg will join many cities in Germany in a celebration of Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Belief, politics, power all mixed together to shape Europe’s history.

Events are planned all over Germany. The Playmobil company even released a tiny Martin Luther figure. (I’d like to see one for Katharina von Bora, the intrepid nun who later married Martin Luther.) Whatever your views on the Reformation or Martin Luther, it’s interesting that a toy company thought there was a market for Martin Luther Playmobil figures. Toy Noah’s Arks abound in the United States, but I’ve never seen a Mattel Pope action figure or a MatchBox Popemobile.

Living in Germany makes me wonder: if religious faith has such a strong influence in the world, isn’t it a priority to learn more? How will we (and the next generations) be able to talk about such sensitive topics without having the language, frameworks, or empathy to understand one another?

For readers and writers, a novel is an ideal way to develop empathy and practice that mantra of peace-making amidst diversity: “What might [fill in the blank] be true of?”

Natalie Lloyd’s middle grade book,  A SNICKER OF MAGIC, touches naturally and lightly on faith, as does Gary D. Schmidt’s THE WEDNESDAY WARS.

What other recent novels would you recommend for readers who want the inside experience of a particular faith?

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What’s in a reversal? Exploring Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING.

Gasses bubbling the water at the lakeshore. Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany.
What bubbles to the surface? Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

Just finished reading Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING, the 3rd book of her Grisha trilogy. If you haven’t read it, go read. (Note: This is a YA, not a middle grade title.)

SPOILER ALERT.

Last night, I stopped reading at the end of Chapter 8. Earlier in the chapter, things are looking up for Alina. She takes definite steps to be less isolated from her friends. The reader thinks things are looking up. But after this scene of light and laughter, the friends leave, and there’s one little paragraph:

Later, I could never be sure if I’d done it deliberately, or if it was an accident, my bruised heart plucking at that invisible tether. Maybe I was just too tired to resist his pull. I found myself in a blurry room, staring at the Darkling.”

For whatever reason, Alina has decided to reach out to the antagonist, the Darkling, through the tie that binds them to each other.

This moment in the story felt so real because we all know what it’s like to do something stupid when we just should have gone to sleep. After reading this story moment, I couldn’t sleep either because I knew this decision would ruin her. My reader brain was busy trying to rescue her from this choice.

I almost didn’t pick up the book again the next day. But I was on a train to Cologne and it was on my e-reader. So I did. When the scene didn’t turn out the way I expected, I was so relieved.

So, how did Leigh Bardugo do that?

How did she make the reader SURE that something dreadful was going to happen, without a doubt, and then REVERSE, without losing credibility?

This morning, I finished RUIN AND RISING before I finished traveling, so I had time to ponder.

Megan Whalen Turner’s ATTOLIA series and Dorothy Dunnett’s LYMOND CHRONICLES also have this trick of pivoting the whole story world on a character’s decision or a line of dialogue or an unexpected action.

Middle grade authors, Sage Blackwood and Angie Sage, also pull off this trick.

I really, really want the recipe.

Reversal ingredient list:

  • Reader expectations about the main character’s choices. Which ones look good from a reader perspective?
  • Consequences bubble up naturally early in the story. The reader experiences dread at the moment of choice rather than information overload.
  • Tension: The chapter that follows this passage has a feeling of I-should-not-be-here-but-I’m-too-tired that creates forboding.

Mix in reader expectations to form a smooth batter. Let consequences ferment. Set story aside to rise. Fold in a challenging choice and bake in a hot oven until done.

And then there’s Author Brutality, a.k.a. making things worse.

In his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL workshops, superagent Donald Maass asks:

“What’s the worst thing that could happen to your main character?”

“It just happened.”

Collective groans and sounds of grief from writers killing off their main characters.

“Now–what happens next?”

Because whatever happens next HAS to be a reversal. The main character has gone as far as possible in the original direction.

Any thoughts about more essential ingredients? Do you like stories with reversals? If you feel like sharing in the comments, I’d love to know your favorite examples.

 

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Exploring the world of Angie Sage’s MAGYK and FLYTE

Alley leading to an archway with light shining behind it. In Sage Blackwood’s JINX books, Jinx wanders around inside the magical spells of others to see how they are constructed. As a reader and writer, I’m doing a similar experiment with Angie Sage’s middle grade novels.

If you haven’t read MAGYK and FLYTE, there may be spoilers. Go ahead and read them first. This’ll be here when you get back.

These are classic battles of good and evil, like the one I enjoyed in Lloyd Alexander’s THE BLACK CAULDRON when I was a young reader. Some of the story gets too dark for my taste, but my wimpiness is legendary.

What did I especially like about MAGYK and FLYTE?

The relationship between the Heap siblings was real and positive and conflicted. Reading Angie Sage’s novels is like belonging to a family with a lot of older siblings–you can see their choices and the results of those choices, but no one points them out. It’s all right in front of us, but we can choose whether we want to pay attention to it or to apply any of it to our own lives. There’s no lecturing about what the right choice is. It’s much more like real life where there are little clues to notice or not.

A variety of strong and unlikely friendships came up in the story. Friendships exist between boy #412 and boy #409, girl and boy, student and past teacher (now a ghost), an experienced boatbuilder and the Heap boy who loves boats, and an aunt who is a terrible cook and the child who loves her cooking. There’s also a the tentative friendship (or frenemy relationship?) between two fathers over a rare magical board game.

Characters have different ways of knowing and the official “smartest” people don’t always come out on top. The most important magical person in the story world oversteps in front of many people and has to face the consequences.

People who are afraid to speak gradually find their voices. This was subtly done and I hate to mention it in case it spoils someone’s reading experience. It’s quite brilliant.

I do like these books, don’t I.

They made me realize I want secondary characters who are more conflicted or at least with different backgrounds and philosophies from each other than I might have already.

Maybe some of my own characters need more differentiation. A trader, a courtier, a warrior, a shipmaster all have world views. Here are a few questions for writers:

  • Have I brought my characters’ worldviews to bear on the story?
  • How does the next generation subscribe to or deny their parents’ values?
  • Have I shown them making mistakes, apologizing (or not), and influencing each other?
  • What kinds of friendships are in the story? Could more be added?

Sage Blackwood’s Jinx is right. It’s definitely worth while to climb around inside someone else’s magic spells.

Looking for an adventure for a young reader?

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