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Writing & Math: The Magic is in the Discovery

Writing & Math: The Magic is in the Discovery

This is my last week of tutoring before I go on maternity leave for the rest of the school year. As much as I’m ready for a break (and as much as I want time to prepare for the baby), I know I’ll miss my students.

The other day in both of my tutoring sessions I got to do one of my favorite things as an educator: make my students discover the answers on their own. When I was a full-time math teacher I tried to do this as much as possible, but with classes of students at varying levels and a long list of standards to “get through” before the end of the year, it wasn’t always realistic. In one-on-one tutoring, however, the “discovery” method is often the way to go.

I’m always telling my students that this is what real mathematicians do: they solve simpler problems and see if they can apply those ideas to more complex situations; they look for patterns and make theories; they test their theories and try different methods.

What I try to impress upon my Internet-age students is this: It’s okay if you don’t know the answer right away. It’s okay to try things that don’t work. That’s how you end up discovering what does work.

It’s similar to what I have to remind myself as a writer: it’s okay if my writing isn’t perfect on the first go-round. It’s okay if I write a whole chapter only to end up cutting it. (Or a whole book only to end up hiding it in a drawer.) It’s okay to take my time in order to discover what works.

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Here I am at my baby shower two weeks ago.

 

The other day I came home and my physicist husband was bemoaning the fact that no one does math anymore – they’ve forsaken it for computer simulations that, he says, don’t always have as much meaning as old-fashioned pen-and-paper proofs.

“I don’t know if this will make you feel any better, but…” Then I told him about how I made both of my students discover the answers to their homework questions on their own.

“And when he figured it out,” I said, talking about my ninth grade student, “he got excited and was like ‘oh I see it! I see the pattern! That’s cool!’ He had a little light bulb moment, and those are the moments that make kids love math.”

“I guess that makes me feel a little better,” he said.

My husband loves math. Not only is it what he does for a living, but he actually reads math textbooks for fun. Sometimes I feel bad that I can’t talk to him more about his interests. I minored in math in college, so there was a time when I knew Multivariable Calculus and Analysis. But most of that has fallen out of my brain by now, and besides, Paul has a Masters in Applied Mathematics and a PhD in Physics. His knowledge of math is way deeper than mine ever was, even at the height of my mathiness.

Luckily, he likes hearing stories about my students and how I teach them math. One day I was telling him about a student of mine who is smart but always making careless errors. As I was describing him, Paul said, “I know exactly what his problem is – I used to do the same thing as a kid.”

Paul said when he’s working on a problem (both when he was in high school and now), he often intuits the answer long before he understands the nitty gritty of why it works. “I’ll be thinking about the problem, and then I suddenly see the answer, and my intuition says it’s right, but I have to figure out how to actually prove it.  And that’s where I end up struggling and making mistakes.”

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I do a lot of fractions with my students..  Not exactly the same sort of math that my husband does on a daily basis.

 

It occurs to me that the way people do math is not so different from the way people write. A few years ago I wrote a middle-grade novel. I knew how it would begin, and I had a very clear sense of how it would end, but I didn’t quite know how to get from point A to point B. Like Paul, the middle — figuring out the nitty-gritty details —  was where I struggled.

Other times, I start out with a character or situation or inciting incident and have no idea where the story is going to end up. Like a mathematician, I try different things, writing scenes and doing character studies. I think about what might be possible for the story, I write and write and write to figure out what I’m trying to say, and then one day I have a flashbulb moment where I put the pieces together – I finally see the climax or conclusion I was searching for.  Those moments are what can make writing so exciting.

In the end, the most important thing to remember in both math and writing is that it’s okay to make mistakes.  Instead of being discouraged if you don’t get it right at first, learn from your failure and keep trying.  The delight is often in the discovery at the end of the tunnel.

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Paul, me, and our soon-to-be-born baby!  (Painting by Heather Renaux.)

 

 

The Voyage to the Magical North by Claire Fayers (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Voyage to the Magical North by Claire Fayers (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE VOYAGE TO THE MAGICAL NORTH by Claire Fayers

Published by Henry Holt & Co., July 2016

Suggested age range: 8 – 12 years

SUMMARY:

Twelve-year-old Brine Seaborne is a girl with a past–if only she could remember what it is. Found alone in a rowboat as a child, clutching a shard of the rare starshell needed for spell-casting, she’s spent the past years keeping house for an irritable magician and his obnoxious apprentice, Peter.

When Brine and Peter get themselves into a load of trouble and flee, they blunder into the path of the legendary pirate ship the Onion. Before you can say “pieces of eight,” they’re up to their necks in the pirates’ quest to find Magical North, a place so shrouded in secrets and myth that most people don’t even think it exists. If Brine is lucky, she’ll find her place in the world. And if she’s unlucky, everyone on the ship will be eaten by sea monsters. It could really go either way.

-courtesy of Amazon

 

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Themes include history (What counts as history?  Who writes it?) and stories.  Also there are pirates and magic.

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Eva & Meagan. Read more of our opinions about middle-grade books here!

So what did we think?  

Eva:  There was so much to enjoy in this imaginative book.  I love the way magic is described in Brine and Peter’s world:  

“The magician takes a quantity of magic, forms it into the correct spellshape, and releases it.  The process appears mysterious because most people cannot see magic.  All they see is the magician’s hand moving and the flash of light as the spell is released.”  

I was tickled by the notion of a “magical north,” which is like the magnetic north pole except with magic.  I also liked that the famous and heroic pirate, Cassie O’Pia, is a woman, and that there is an island library where no men are allowed.

 

Meagan:  Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting detail in the imaginary world the author created.  The role of fish and birds as magical minions was funny.  I also liked that the librarians and the pirates both functioned as essentially “good guys” but neither were perfect.  They all did some wrong things.  

 

Eva:  Fayers earns an A+ for imagination and world-building.  I’m not so sure about the point of view she chose to use, however.  I suppose we can call it omniscient narration, but it wasn’t really.  It was more like close third — hopping from one character’s POV to another’s, chapter by chapter, as it served the story.  In some ways this is good — readers can choose to identify with Brine or Peter or even the pirates.  But because of the POV-switching, I had some trouble getting fully invested in any of the characters, and I didn’t always understand their motivations.   

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Meagan:  I had a hard time with character motivation as well, especially with the changeable relationship between Brine and Peter.  They were friends one minute and rivals the next.  That could be okay, but it often didn’t feel properly motivated.  In a given moment, I couldn’t predict whether they were going to work together or against each other until the author told me.  It’s like their motivations didn’t really grow out of the story, but rather were there to facilitate what needed to happen next in the story.

 

Eva:  I agree.  Character motivation can be really hard to show in writing.  One way to do it is through interiority — the character’s internal thoughts.  We definitely got some interiority in this book, from Peter especially, but maybe getting more interiority from him about his feelings towards Brine would have helped us understand their relationship.  

 

Meagan:  My favorite parts of the story were the scenes between Peter and the evil magician Marfak West.  Without giving too much away, it felt totally believable that Peter would be drawn to learning from Marfak West even though he knew he shouldn’t trust him.  This made for great tension because I never quite knew what Marfak West’s plan was, and I didn’t know how far Peter would go in aligning himself with Marfak West.

 

Eva:  Those scenes were interesting, and definitely a large source of tension in the book. My favorite parts were the little book snippets at the beginning of each chapter that gave us insight into Brine and Peter’s world.

I also really liked the beginning two chapters — they totally sucked me in.  But, they were also problematic in light of the rest of the story.  I remember hearing an agent talk about the “promise of the first page.”  Essentially, if you introduce a mystery or question on page one, it should be answered by the end of the book.  

On page one of The Voyage to the Magical North, we get this:  

“[Brine] had one clear memory of waking up in a rowing boat three years ago, surrounded by people, and that was all.  They’d asked her her name, and she couldn’t remember — she couldn’t remember anything.  So they named her Brine because she was crusted head to foot in sea salt.”   

Immediately, I was intrigued, and I assumed that the book was going to be about figuring out the mystery of who Brine is and where she came from.  But instead, Brine and Peter take up with some pirates and journey to the magical north.  It’s a grand adventure, but I was confused because it wasn’t the journey I was promised.

Towards the end there are some hints that Marfak West knows who Brine really is, and it seems like perhaps the sequel is going to be about Brine’s journey to find out about her past, but in some ways I felt tricked — I got invested in a mystery that was barely addressed.   

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Will we learn about Brine’s mysterious origins in the sequel?

 

Meagan:  You make a great point about the “promise” of the story.  It reminds me of the concept of Chekhov’s gun.  If you place a noticeable detail (such as a gun) in a scene, the detail must be essential to the story (someone has to fire the gun later), otherwise leave it out.  I think the same goes for statements like “she couldn’t remember her name.”  The reader is going to implicitly trust you that you intend to either reveal her name, or at least reveal why she can’t remember it.  All they must do is keep reading.  In fact, hooking readers with interesting mysteries is one of the major ways to get them to keep reading, BUT you gotta keep your promises in order for your reader not to feel cheated.

 

Eva:  That being said, I’m sure there are a lot of kids out there who will enjoy this book and not care a hoot about “the promise of the premise.”  As I’ve mentioned on Middle Grade Bookshelf before, sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile my adult sensibilities with what I liked as a kid.  This is a very imaginative story with lots of adventure — sea monsters, pirates, magic.  Fun stuff that kids tend to like.  
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:  I haven’t read the Pippi Longstocking books since I was a kid, but are those kind of similar, aren’t they?  Light, humorous, episodic adventure.

Eva:  I haven’t read them since I was a kid either, but I can definitely see that as a parallel.  They include some sea-faring adventures as far as I remember.  And I LOVED the Pippi Longstocking books as a kid.  I’m beginning to think that kids are much more accepting of episodic stories than adults are.  Maybe adults want a plot that culminates whereas kids want a story that just keeps on going?  Something to ponder…

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Imaginative world-building
  • Inverting tropes (i.e. female pirate, a boy who has to disguise himself as a girl)
  • Building tension

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  For me The Voyage to the Magical North didn’t fulfill the promise of the first page, and ultimately I was not as invested in the characters as I would have liked.  On the other hand, the world-building was incredibly fun and imaginative.  Kids who love adventure will certainly love this book.  

Meagan:  There can be a lot of successful anchors for story.  A story can be primarily character-centered, plot-centered, theme-centered, setting-centered, etc.  A story needs all of those things, but not every story is going to be equally strong in every area.  It seemed to me that this story was anchored in its setting.  The unique world and its fun details seemed like the freshest and most inspiring aspects of the novel.  They were enough to keep me reading, but not enough to push this book onto my personal favorites list.  

 

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Transitioning: In Writing and in Life

Transitioning: In Writing and in Life

It’s the beginning of a new year. A time for reflecting on what’s past and preparing for what’s to come. A time of transition.

My husband and I are in a very clear state of transition right now. We are going from being a childless couple to brand-new parents. Our baby girl is due February 4th. Among many other preparations (taking an infant CPR class, gathering supplies, creating a birth playlist), we are currently transitioning my office into the nursery.

Although, as it turns out, we don’t have enough space in the living room for my desk and filing cabinet and book shelf, so the room will have to be office on one side and nursery on the other. We’ll see how that goes. I don’t picture myself doing a lot of work at my desk for the first few months anyway.

As a person who loves order, it’s a little maddening to live in this state of transition. On the nursery side of the room, there are baby things in boxes and storage crates that need to be sorted and washed. We need to figure out where to put everything and how to decorate. I’m still doing work at my desk, but I’m hyper aware of the baby clothes and children’s books on the other side of the room.

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Office on the left, nursery on the right

 

A few years ago my friends Rob and Edith, who I hadn’t talked to in a long time, called me and said, “we did something interesting the other day… We had a baby.” I hadn’t even known that Edith was pregnant, and I sat there sputtering on the phone for a few seconds trying to decide whether or not they were joking (they weren’t). To me this is proof that there’s a good reason to post a few pregnant photos of yourself on facebook– so that people don’t go into shock when you one day show up with a baby in your arms.

Rob and Edith recently had another baby, but this time they told me about the pregnancy several months beforehand, and then I actually saw Edith when she was eight and a half months pregnant. When their birth announcement came in the mail, it was a lot easier to comprehend.  I didn’t need week-by-week belly pictures or anything, but knowing Edith was pregnant was helpful.

In other words, we need time to transition so that we can understand that things are changing, that we are moving on to something new and different.  This is helpful, both in our lives, and in our writing.  You don’t want to jump forward in time or skip to a new topic in your writing without giving the reader any warning.  It’s as jarring as being presented with a baby when you didn’t even know the mother was pregnant.

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Okay, okay, I’ll give you a belly picture.  This was taken on Christmas Eve, when I was 34 weeks pregnant.

 

I recently read the book Losing It by Emma Rathbone and was particularly impressed by a simple transition in Chapter One.

The main character, Julia, decides to quit her job in D.C. and take some time off. Her father suggests she go to North Carolina and stay with her eccentric Aunt Vivienne for the summer. Julia thinks this is absurd. “No. Nope. I’m not going there,” she says to her mother on the phone. “There’s no way I’m doing that.”

Then there’s a space break, and the very next line is, “One month later I drove down a thin driveway, gravel popping beneath the tires, towards a house with white columns in the distance…. I looked at the piece of paper on which I’d written Vivienne’s address: 2705 Three Notched Lane.”

I LOVE this transition because it’s very clear what’s happened, and yet we don’t know exactly how it happened. In that one month, Julia has obviously changed her mind about Aunt Vivienne’s, but we don’t really need to know the nitty gritty of her decision-making process.  I love that Rathbone cuts out everything else and hops us right to the catalyst moment. She bridges the gap from Julia quitting her job to Julia arriving in North Carolina with nothing more than a space break and the words “one month later.” Transitions are important, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be short and sweet.

This also shows us that a transition can be used to skip over trivial information. We don’t need to know what Julia did in that one month because it’s not part of the story Rathbone is telling, which is the story of Julia’s summer with her Aunt Vivienne. Good storytelling means skipping over all the boring and non-important parts, and good transitioning is what makes that possible.

In real life, we can’t skip over all the boring/messy/difficult in-between stuff. We’ve got to handle the decision-making and the organizing and the to-do lists before we can get across the bridge from one thing to the next. The story of how I sorted and washed baby clothes might not be a compelling one, but I don’t mind doing it. It’s helping me with my own emotional transition. Handling these little baby things, finding a place for them in my home – maybe that will make it easier to comprehend that there’s a freaking baby in my belly and that in one month she’s going to be in my arms.

If I were writing a book, here’s how it would go:  At the end of December, my husband and I started turning my office into an office/nursery. One month later, the drawers were filled with clean clothes and diapers, the books were lined up neatly on the shelf, and the walls were decorated with circus-themed art.  We were ready to meet our new baby.

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Paul and I commissioned a painting from artist Heather Renaux to commemorate the birth of our baby.  It’s not on the wall yet, but here it is.  Adorbs, right?

My Year in Books: What I Read in 2016

My Year in Books:  What I Read in 2016

Last year I decided to list all the books I’d read in 2015, broken down by category. I don’t know if this was interesting for anyone except me, but I did point out which books I recommended and which I definitely did not.

I decided to do the same thing this year. This year, you’ll notice, I read A LOT of Young Adult and Middle Grade novels. I’m trying to become a YA/MG author, so this is called doing my homework. You’ll notice that within the self-appointed homework assignment, I stopped for a while in the Judy Blume cannon. I realized I’d never read the classic Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, so I read that and then went back and reread a couple other Judy Blume books.

You’ll also notice there isn’t much in this list that I highly recommend. I don’t know if I’m becoming pickier or if books are becoming crappier, but these days I rarely come away from a book with rave reviews. (See my post about that.) At Thanksgiving I was so dejected by my inability to find amazing books that I reread two of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels just to comfort myself.

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I’m not sure what to do to remedy this problem. I started using #AskALibrarian on Twitter, but I’ve been disappointed by several of the books they’ve recommended to me. I recently read The Year of the Gadfly and Searching for the Rose Notes, both suggested to me by librarians on Twitter.  Although they both started out promising, the plots and character motivations became more and more muddled and ridiculous as I continued, and by the end of both books I found myself saying “Really? I read all the way to the end for this?”

I really want to find some amazing books to read in 2017, especially since I’ll be on maternity leave, and I’ve heard that breastfeeding is a great time to settle in with a novel. I guess I’ll keep asking friends and librarians and the Internet for suggestions, and I’ll  remember that if I’m really not enjoying a book, I don’t have to read to the end. There are plenty of other books to choose from, and I know there must be books out there for me to fall in love with.

What do you guys recommend?  What have you read this year that you loved?

Here is my list of books. (The * means I didn’t finish the book.)  Happy reading in the new year, everyone!

 

YA/MG: 35

The Voyage to the Magical North by Claire Fayers

Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin

George by Alex Gino

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro*

Trash by Andy Mulligan

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids by Shelley Tougas

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (I wrote a blog post about this one)

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The Hired Girl Laura Amy Schlitz

Stolen: A Letter to My Captor by Lucy Christopher*

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead – RECOMMEND A really well-done contemporary Middle Grade novel.  I wrote a post about it here.

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Ash by Malinda Lo – (Cinderella as a lesbian of sorts.  Beautiful writing; terrible plot.)

Fairest by Gail Carson Lavine

The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (I wrote a blog post about this one)

Looking for Alaska by John Green

The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas (I wrote a blog post about this one)

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell — HIGHLY RECOMMEND – A quiet YA romance between two misfit kids. Rowell creates so much tension and emotion within simple school and home scenes. I loved the characters, the dialogue, the interior monologues, everything. Beautifully-written and a great example of a story told from two points of view.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy — RECOMMEND – A YA comedy-romance about a fat Texas girl who decides to enter a beauty pageant. If you want a tutorial on how to plot a contemporary fiction novel, this is it. Murphy puts all the emotional highs and lows in just the right places and takes the reader on a charming roller coaster ride. She’s also created a fantastic character in Willowdean.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

A Path Begins (The Thickety #1) by J.A. White

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Blubber by Judy Blume (reread) — HIGHLY RECOMMEND Loved this book when I was a kid, and, to me, it is still the perfect contemporary middle grade novel. There are a lot of books for this age group about bullying, but in so many of them the bullying is predictable or generic or stereotypical.  In Blubber the characters, situations, and the bullying itself are all highly specific, and that’s what makes this book so real.

Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson by Judy Blume

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (reread)

The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (reread) — HIGHLY RECOMMEND Loved this book as a kid and still love it now. Raskin breaks all the rules (adult characters in a middle grade book, “head-hopping” in the narration, etc.), but she won the Newberry Medal for The Westing Game in 1978, which just goes to show that you can do anything you want in a book, as long as you do it well.

A Gift of Magic by Lois Duncan

I Am Drums by Mike Grosso

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This is what the cover of Blubber looked like when I read it in the late 80’s.

 

ADULT FICTION: 17

In Search of the Rose Notes by Emily Arsenault

Each Vagabond by Name by Margo Orlando Littell

The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee — If you’re in the mood for something super light this is for you; it’s like Gossip Girl in book form.  And it’s set in futuristic Manhattan.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The Girls by Emma Cline

Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian

The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman (reread) —  HIGHLY RECOMMEND — Extremely imaginative and well-written fantasy.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman — RECOMMEND — Beautiful and haunting and strange.  A sophisticated fairy tale of sorts that’s like Coraline for grown-ups.

Elligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Predjudice by Curtis Sittenfeld — HIGHLY RECOMMEND — I LOVED this book, and I’m not even a Jane Austen fan. I thought it was such a clever farce. Sittenfeld takes the P & P characters and story but modernizes and enhances them in such creative ways. Loads of fun.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia *

Cemetery Girl by David J. Bell

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

The Bees by Laline Paull*  — Very cool premise, and I loved it at first, but then I got bored about halfway through.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters — I mostly enjoyed it, but I’ve enjoyed other Sarah Waters books a lot more.

The Melting Season by Ira Sukrungruang

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

Losing It by Emma Rathbone — I’m only to page 65, but I assume I’ll finish before the end of 2016.  So far I’m enjoying it a lot, so we’ll see.  It could be a RECOMMEND!

 

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I highly recommend this book.

 

NONFICTION: 8

Hidden Figures The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age by Katherine Ozment

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams by Deepak Chopra — RECOMMEND — This is a short little book with a lot of good, simple advice for how to live a happy and satisfying life – whether or not success, in your mind, includes money and accolades.

The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two by William Sears, Martha Sears, Robert W. Sears, James Sears

Girl in the Woods: A Memoir by Aspen Matis — I absolutely hated Aspen as a character and found her insufferable, and yet I couldn’t stop reading. I don’t know whether that’s a recommend for this book or not.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot -– HIGHLY RECOMMEND I’m sure you’ve heard of this book already, but the hype is real. It’s an interesting example of narrative nonfiction and an author who really inserts herself into the story.

Big Magic: Creative Living Without Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert —  Normally I love Liz Gilbert. I loved her novel The Signature of All Things and I loved her first nonfiction book The Last American Man. I also loved Eat Pray Love. But I did not love this book. It was okay — not terrible — but mostly forgettable.

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman — HIGHLY RECOMMEND — Written in a chatty, anecdotal style, I actually read this book before I got pregnant – just for fun. It’s very interesting and shines a light on how culture influences parenting styles.

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I highly recommend this book, whether or not you’re an expectant parent.

How Much Should You Reveal About Your Novel or Your Baby?

How Much Should You Reveal About Your Novel or Your Baby?

Last weekend, my college girlfriends threw me the most amazingly-detail-oriented baby shower imaginable. It was circus-themed, so they served caramel corn, candy-apples, veggies and fruit (including a watermelon carved into the shape of an elephant), and cupcakes in a freaking cupcake Ferris Wheel. They also created carnival games like ring toss (with teething rings and bottles), “diaper dunk,” and “bobbing for babies.” We won tickets at the games, and we could even cash in our tickets for fun prizes.

On a whim, I decided to create my own carnival game: Guess the Name of My Baby. My husband and I have had our name picked out since before we even knew if the baby was a girl or boy. Paul has started telling people because he finds it impossible to keep a secret for very long, so I decided if he was telling people, I should, too.

But, I have to admit, it was a little scary to reveal the name.

I know a lot of people keep the name a secret until after the baby is born, and for a variety of reasons: they don’t want other people to steal their name, or they haven’t quite decided on one, or – and this would have been my reasoning if we’d chosen to wait – they don’t want to jinx anything. They don’t want to speak out loud the name of a baby who isn’t quite a sure-thing yet.

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Watermelon carved into an elephant — impressive!

Just as I was a little nervous about revealing the name of our soon-to-be-born baby (due February 4th), I often get apprehensive when people ask about my novel-in-progress. When I’m in the “first trimester” of a writing project, I rarely tell anyone anything other than perhaps the genre or the vaguest description because I know that the draft is in a fragile, early stage and may never actually go anywhere, or may become something totally different by the time I’m done.

Right now I’m in the third trimester of my pregnancy, and, I suppose, the third trimester of my writing project. At this point, my baby has all of her pieces and parts. All she’s doing now is fine-tuning her organs and senses, and putting on weight.

Similarly, I have finished a first draft of a middle-grade novel. It has all – or most – of it’s pieces and parts and now just needs some fine-tuning. I’ve gotten some great feedback from beta readers, and I’m waiting for a bit more feedback before I dive into a revision. My goal is to have a revised draft finished by the time baby comes. Maybe I’ll even write a query letter and send it out to agents before I go into labor. We’ll see.

So you’d think at this point I might be ready to tell people about my book. To reveal its name, so to speak. (Although, ironically, I have yet to come up with a good title…)

But still, it’s scary to talk about my novel out loud. To people.  Especially people I know.

It’s not scary because I think someone will steal my idea. In most cases, even if someone “steals” your idea, they will use a totally different approach and write a totally different book than yours.

And it’s not scary because I haven’t decided important things about the book. That might have been true at the beginning, but now I have a pretty good idea of the shape of the story.

The fact is, it’s scary to talk about my draft because it’s not a sure thing yet. And I don’t want to be one of those people who blabs about the novel they’re writing and secretly everyone rolls their eyes because they know the novel will never actually happen.

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Prize booth!  (Of course, the best prize will be my baby!)

 

But, here’s the thing I’ve realized lately. Talking out loud to other people about the book you’re writing makes it more real, and sometimes that’s a good thing. People might have questions or comments that point out holes in your plot or possible themes you didn’t notice. Talking about your book to other people might make you more motivated to finish it, or revise it, or seek representation for it. In a way, talking about your book can make you take it more seriously. This is not just some project you’re working on alone in your room, never to see the light of day, this is something that you are planning on bringing out into the world.

It was a little scary at my baby shower when someone guessed the name, and I said “yes, you’ve got it!” and handed her a roll of tickets. But in a way, it made this whole baby thing more real. My husband and I are to the point where we really have to get ready: buy a car seat and set up the nursery and pack an emergency hospital bag. Telling people our baby’s name is one way of saying, “hey, we’re serious about this. In a little over a month, we’re bringing a baby the world. And this is what we’re calling her.”

Sorry, I’m still not ready to talk about my novel, or reveal my baby’s name, to the Internet.  One thing at a time…

What Comes Next? On Getting an Agent and Being a Parent

What Comes Next?  On Getting an Agent and Being a Parent

My husband and I are having a baby (due Feburary 4th) and have been attending a 12-week-long Bradley childbirth class. We have one more class, and at this point we’re feeling as prepared as possible for labor.

At the suggestion of our teacher, I went the other day to a meeting of La Leche League, a nonprofit organization in which mothers support other mothers with issues about breastfeeding and parenting in general.

Up until this point I hadn’t been thinking too much about breastfeeding other than I want to do it. I wasn’t sure it made sense to attend the meeting. What was I supposed to do there? I don’t have any breastfeeding problems yet.

But, always the diligent student, I went.

I was the first to arrive. The rest of the mothers straggled in ten, fifteen, thirty minutes late. They carried diaper bags and pushed strollers. As we sat around in a circle to chat, babies cried and needed to be nursed. Toddlers squirmed on their mother’s laps, threw toys on the floor, took off running around the room. All around the room were the sounds of Cheerio-crunching and the plastic being stripped off of fruit leathers and string cheeses. (Okay, okay, so one of those string cheeses was mine, but at least I ate my cheese and didn’t throw it, half gummed with saliva, onto the floor.)

This is going to be my life soon, I thought. I’m going to be the one chasing a sticky-fingered toddler around the room.

Being there, listening to moms ask about weaning and co-sleeping and pediatricians made me realize: Paul and I have been preparing so much for labor and birth — this one single day (or two) — when maybe we need to spend more time preparing for everything that comes afterwards.

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Here I am in childbirth class demonstrating how to use a scarf to support my belly.

 

I recently taught a workshop at The Bethesda Writers Center on “How to Land a Literary Agent.” It was a great class, and I think the students learned a lot about how to research agents and write query letters. But I also think many writers (myself included) put too much emphasis on this one part of the becoming-a-writer process.

For years I thought, essentially, that if I could just get an agent, then I would be a Real Writer and everything else would fall into place. But the truth is, landing an agent is just a first step in the long journey of becoming a professional writer.

So many writers, it seems, focus on getting an agent. They attend query-writing workshops and go to agent panels at conferences. And these are good things to do, don’t get me wrong. But don’t lose sight of what’s to come, which is, hopefully, a long career in writing.

Once you get an agent for your manuscript, what will you do then? Have you started writing another book? Do you have a platform so you can spread the word about your book? Do you have more to learn about your craft?  Have you made connections with other writers who can write blurbs for you? What will you do if your agent doesn’t pan out or your book doesn’t sell?  How will you refill your creative well and continue to make time for your writing?

Perhaps, in addition to preparing for the agent-hunt, writers should be preparing for the many writing years they have ahead – for everything that comes after an agent says yes.

And part of that preparation, I think, is psychological.

I’ve had to adjust my expectations of both myself and the publishing industry. I’ve had to accept that this is a marathon, not a race. I’ve had to realize that I still have a lot to learn and a lot of work to do on my craft. I’ve also had to figure out how to make writing a part of my life in a way that is healthy and doesn’t makes me feel anxious or self-doubting.

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Here I am at 31 weeks pregnant

 

Going back to my upcoming status as a parent… It’s not that I haven’t given any thought to what happens after the baby comes out. I’ve listened to some parenting podcasts and read part of The Baby Book by Dr. William Sears. The other day, Paul and I went over to a friend’s house and forced her to give us a cloth diaper demo. Yesterday we bought a used changing table for $35. So we’re slowly getting prepared for our upcoming career as parents.

But we also need to prepare psychologically. We need to adjust our expectations of what we can accomplish professionally, especially in the first six months. (I hope to be writing again by the time the baby is six months old, but if I’m not, I need to find a way to be okay with that.) We need adjust to our new lifestyle in a way that is healthy for our marriage as well as healthy for all three of us individually.  We also need to accept that we’re not going to be perfect parents and things aren’t always going to go the way we’d like. All we can do is  love our baby, get advice, trust our instincts, and try our best.

Come to think of it, that’s probably good advice for my writing career, too: love my writing, get advice, trust my instincts, and try my best.

And goodness knows, all the preparation in the world will never truly prepare me for the real thing.  Experience is always the best teacher, and I’m ready to learn.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, by Ali Benjamin

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2015

National Book Award Finalist

Suggested age range:  10-13 years

 

SUMMARY:

Suzy Swanson is pretty sure she knows the real reason Franny Jackson died. Everyone says that there’s no way to be certain…that sometimes things just happen. But Suzy knows there must be a better explanation—a scientific one. Haunted by the loss of her former best friend — and by a final, terrible moment that passed between them — she retreats into a silent world of her own imagination.  Convinced that Franny’s death was the result of a freak jellyfish sting, she crafts a plan to prove the truth, even if it means traveling around the globe… alone. As she prepares, she learns astonishing things about the universe around her… and discovers the potential for love and hope in her own backyard.

(summary taken from Ali Benjamin’s website)

TOPICS AND THEMES:  Death of a child, divorced parents, some bullying. It’s also possible that Suzy is on the autism spectrum, although this is never addressed outright.     

 

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Eva and Meagan display their favorite MG books.  To read more posts from Middle Grade Bookshelf, go here!

 

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  This book is formatted as a lab report.  It’s broken into sections with headings from the scientific method, which accomplishes two cool things right away.  First, it sets the book apart and helps distinguish it from other contemporary realistic fiction.  It also provides characterization for the narrator, Suzy.  She is a scientist at heart, and so the structure of the book shows us her unique world view.

 

Eva:  Exactly.  The book is divided into sections: purpose, background, hypothesis, etc.  This was probably my favorite thing because it was so clever — and perfect for this character and her story.  John Truby in The Anatomy of Story would call this a designing principle:  

“The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.  It is… what makes the parts  hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

Most stories, he says, don’t have a designing principle, but stories that do have one are original.  And structuring the story in this way definitely made the book more interesting to me.      

 

Meagan:  I was not surprised to discover that the author, Ali Benjamin, is an established science writer.  This book is so immersed in scientific facts and scientific thinking, it could hardly have been written by someone who was not.

 

Eva:  Totally.  Suzy knows and learns so many amazing facts about jellyfish (and many other things) — it was fun for me as the reader to learn about them, too.  She is a fount of knowledge, but all the facts are written in fun, kid-accessible ways:  

Mrs. Turton says that if you lived to be eighty years old, your heart would beat three billion times.  I was thinking about that, trying to imagine a number that large.  Three billion.  Count back three billion hours and modern humans don’t exist — just wild-eyed cave people all hairy and grunting…  And yet here’s your heart, doing it’s job all the time, one beat after the next, all the way up to three billion.  

I was amazed at how much research went into the book, so it made sense when I realized the author started out writing an adult article about jellyfish for a science magazine.  The article didn’t work out, but it eventually became this book.

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Meagan:  I also loved how I saw the story so clearly through Suzy’s eyes.  It took a long time to get how anyone else in the story was perceiving Suzy and why.  That realization made for an interesting and dramatic moment in the middle of the story, and it was almost like I got to have that realization along with the character.  Very well done.

 

Eva:  Yes, it takes a while to realize that Suzy is seen as a weirdo by many of her classmates.  I cringed at one of the flashback lunchroom scenes when she’s sitting with the popular girls, but it’s a perfect example of Suzy’s personality and how she’s seen as odd to others but doesn’t quite realize it herself:  

“Actually, humans have the most sweat glands on the bottom of their feet.”  I say this because it’s true, and also because it’s joining the conversation.  

Molly looks at me and raises a single eyebrow.  That’s how I know I said the wrong thing . I try again.  “Did you know that sweat is sterile when it comes out of your body?”  …  “It’s kind of like pee,” I say.  “Everybody thinks pee is so gross, but it’s actually totally clean.”  

 

Meagan:  Yes, some of those scenes from Suzy’s daily life in sixth grade are the best.  I liked the parts about Suzy and Franny’s unraveling friendship (in the flashbacks).  It’s set up so that you know they used to be best friends and you also know things ended badly between them, but you don’t quite know how.  Most of the dramatic tension in the book arises from watching this social disaster unfold.  

 

Eva:  I thought the flashbacks were well done, too.  And I liked the way they were written — as if Suzy is talking TO Franny — because it helped set them apart from the present-day story:  

You were dead for two whole days before I even knew.  

The flashbacks set up a nice little mystery because we know from early on that Suzy feels guilty about something, but we don’t know what happened.  We get the story parceled out to us through the flashbacks.  

 

Meagan:  I liked the present-moment plot less, although I thought the structure that interwove the two worked well.  Some things in the present plot seemed a little over-dramatic.  Trying not to spoil anything…I thought Suzy’s decision to stop talking, and her plan for how to address her concerns and meet with the jellyfish expert, were both unnecessarily dramatic.  The lower-level drama between the friends in the flashbacks was much more believable and therefore more emotionally real and interesting to me.  

 

Eva:  I enjoyed the present-day plot. I DID question the believability of some of Suzy’s actions, particularly carrying out the plan to meet with the jellyfish expert and the strange measure she takes to “send Franny a message.”  On the other hand, I sometimes thought Suzy might be on the autism spectrum, so in light of that, perhaps her actions are more believable?  I’m not sure.  

 

Meagan:  I also thought the book was about 30% too long.  I kept thinking I’d read to the end, and then realizing there was still more.  Once I read the end of the flashback story, I think I’d had my “core emotional experience” (as Mary Kole puts it), so the rest of it just kind of felt like a long wind down.  

 

Eva:   Yeah, the climax in the flashback story was more emotionally satisfying than the present-day climax, but I think the story probably needed both.  Maybe there was a different way the present-day story could have ended, though, to make it feel more organic and satisfying.  In some ways, the present-day story just seemed like a vehicle for the very-cool lab report structure.  But since I loved the lab report structure so much, I was able to forgive some of what the story was lacking.    

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:  In some ways it reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon.  In The Curious Incident, the narrator, Chris, is a math-obsessed teenager with autism who does not see himself or the world in the same way that everyone else does.  The Curious Incident also has a designing principle.  Not only is it a mystery story told by an unreliable, autistic narrator, but the chapters are numbered using prime numbers instead of consecutive numbers to mirror Chris’s interest in math.  Similar to the way Jellyfish is broken up into lab report sections.   

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • A book with a “designing principle”
  • Alternating a present-day story with a flashback story
  • A unique voice
  • Unique characters, and characterization that’s shown rather than told
  • Dealing with grief (death of a friend)
  • Contemporary middle-grade fiction

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  The lab report structure, unique main character, and loads of fascinating science facts make this novel an original and interesting read.   

Meagan:  I would suggest this book to anyone looking to write MG, contemporary, realistic fiction.  I think it’s tempting to take an easy route with contemporary, realistic fiction and tell a story about friends, family, school etc. that ultimately doesn’t stand out in any way.  This book is a good example of how a contemporary, realistic story can be told with a unique designing principle and a unique first person narrator such that it really makes the story special and memorable.