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A Story About What Really Makes America Great

A Story About What Really Makes America Great

I don’t normally blog about politics, and this isn’t really going to be a political post, but with all that’s going on in our country right now, it sometimes seems absurd to be posting my cutesy anecdotes and not even mention the yuge elephant in the room.

I have a lot of issues with that elephant. I won’t go into all of them here. But one thing that continues to irk me about the “make America great again” slogan is its inherent hypocrisy: America is a country founded by immigrants and founded on the notion that people can come here for better opportunities. To me, there’s nothing more un-American than being anti-immigrant.  Are we not The Great Melting Pot? Isn’t it our diversity that makes us great?

The other day, while I was reading the news, it occurred to me that the book I had been planning to write last winter would have been an appropriate book for these times.

I had been planning to write a narrative nonfiction account of a family I know with an incredible story. I started doing preliminary research and interviews, but the book fell through pretty quickly because the matriarch of the family was uncomfortable with the whole idea, and I didn’t want to do it without her blessing. I told her I’d check back with her in a few years to see if she’s changed her mind. And I still intend to do that.

In the meantime, though, I want to give a brief summary of her story here. I will change the names and locations and identifying details to protect the family’s privacy. I feel like this is something people need to hear, and now is a time they need to hear it. Because it is, to me, a story about what makes America so great.

(P.S. If, you happen to know who I’m writing about, please keep it to yourself.)

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The following story is about America, and what America should be.

 

The story begins with Emily, a cute, smart girl growing up in the small town of Franklin, North Carolina. Shortly after being crowned Homecoming Queen of her high school, she finds out she’s pregnant and decides to have the baby. Her mother, angry about the pregnancy, kicks Emily out of the house.

For the rest of senior year Emily works part-time at the grocery store and lives in a run-down efficiency apartment, using the WIC federal assistance program to buy blocks of cheese and gallons of milk to feed herself, and the baby growing inside of her.

A year after the birth of her mixed-race son, Jack, Emily gets enough in scholarships and student loans to attend a nearby university, where she studies Spanish. She even spends a year abroad in Europe, taking Jack, now a toddler, with her.

Meanwhile, far away in an impoverished Latin American country, a twelve-year-old girl named Cristina is also leaving her hometown for the wider world. Cristina is the oldest of eight children, and her mother is dying. It is Cristina’s responsibility to provide for her family.  But in her country, public school for girls only goes through elementary school, and Cristina has no good way of making money.  So she packs a bag and travels towards Mexico City, hoping to find work.

Though the details are unclear to me, Cristina ends up crossing the U.S. border into Texas. She knows of a family friend in the town of Franklin, North Carolina, so she decides to make her way there.

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Emily is now in Texas, too. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she and Jack have moved to Laredo, where Emily gets her Master’s. She graduates in December of 2008 and moves back home to Franklin so nine-year-old Jack can spend more time with his father.

On Christmas day of that year, Emily sits on the floor of her childhood bedroom, staring out the tiny window and watching a single, brown leaf make its slow, swirling decent to the ground. Having made amends with her mother, she is staying in her mother’s apartment until she can find a car, a job, and a place for her and  Jack to live. She is in debt. She is jobless, homeless, and penniless. All she has is a brand-new degree and the lofty goal of starting her own business. She closes her eyes and prays. Please, just help me. I don’t know what to do.  

A few days later, she gets a call that will change her life.

 *   *   *

The call is from an old classmate named Dawn, now a social worker. Dawn tells Emily about a fourteen-year-old Latin American girl who has just given birth to a baby boy in the Franklin hospital.

“She’s apparently been living here illegally with an older man,” Dawn explains. “We need to get her into the foster care system. She needs to start attending school.”

“Okay…”

“The girl doesn’t speak any English,” Dawn explains. “You’re fluent in Spanish, right?  Would you consider becoming a foster parent for Cristina and her baby?”

“I don’t see how that could work,” Emily says. “I don’t have a job or a house right now…”

“Don’t worry about the logistics. We’ll work that out later. The question is, are you willing to do it?”

Emily looks into her heart and decides that she is. She is only twenty-eight years old.

*   *  *

Emily borrows $1000 from her mother and gets an advance from social services in order to pay the deposit and first month’s rent on a small house. Friends and acquaintances give her old furniture: a brown and orange 1970’s loveseat, a round dining room table, beds for Jack and Cristina. For now, Emily will have to sleep on the floor.

At first, the transition is difficult. Emily works multiple jobs, unable, for the time-being, to pursue her dream of having her own business. Ten-year-old Jack has to get used to sharing his life with teenage Cristina and baby Samuel. And while little Samuel goes to daycare, Cristina struggles to learn English at the very same high school where Emily was once crowned Homecoming Queen.

But the patchwork quilt family perseveres. Two years later, Cristina is a junior and can speak English fluently. Emily has started her business, and though she still has to work another part-time job to make ends meet, her client-base is growing. Jack, now in middle school, calls Samuel his little brother.

It is around this time that I go over to their house one morning for breakfast. Despite it being a school day, Emily scrambles a big pan of cheesy eggs while Jack toasts slices of bread, and we all sit down to eat at the table. Samuel babbles over his breakfast while Cristina eats quietly.

Afterwards, Emily loads everyone up in her new minivan. We drop off Jack and Cristina at school and Samuel at daycare. “I’m a regular soccer mom now,” Emily jokes, though it’s obvious she’s anything but regular.

That was several years ago. Now Emily’s business is thriving – she’s not rich by any means, but she doesn’t have to work any jobs other than the one she’s passionate about. Jack is in high school and on the football team. He recently got his driver’s license and is working part-time at a fast food restaurant. Cristina is now a legal resident, living in her own apartment with Samuel. She is taking classes at community college and wants to be a nurse… or maybe even a doctor. She works part-time as a waitress, sending as much money as she can back to her family. She hasn’t seen them since she left home nearly a decade ago.

As for Samuel, he is seven-years-old and an American citizen. His story is just beginning.

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So that is the shortened version of the book I hope to one day write. I still get teary-eyed thinking about it. Emily, despite her own hardships, opened her heart and created a diverse and supportive family. With hard work and good spirit, she and her family found opportunity and acceptance in our melting pot of a country. That, in my mind, is what makes America great: open minds, welcoming arms, opportunity for all, and the willingness to make things work.

 

The Baby Will Come Out, and So Will Your Book

The Baby Will Come Out, and So Will Your Book

For the past seven weeks, my husband and I have been spending our Sunday mornings at Bradley childbirth class. We absolutely adore our teacher. Not only is she approachable and hilarious (she introduced us to this video), but she’s a doula and a mother of four — so she knows a lot about birthing babies. She’s also a huge fan of natural childbirth, which is great because that’s what Paul and I are hoping/planning to do.

I don’t want to get too preachy, but were you guys aware that the national Cesarean rate is 33%? And at Sibley Hospital in D.C., the C-section rate is a whopping 47%!

“I just can’t believe that 47% of women going to Sibley can’t get their babies out the normal way,” our teacher has said on multiple occasions.

I agree. I know that sometimes C-sections are necessary, but not 47% of the time.  That seems crazy.

Without going into too much detail, Paul and I have learned a lot about how hospital interventions (like epidurals that numb you from the waist down, and drugs that induce or speed up labor) can lead to more interventions, which can lead to C-sections or other less-than-ideal situations.

Our teacher advises that we try not to mess with the natural process. As she likes to say, “Don’t worry. The baby’ll come out. That’s what babies do.”

Naturally, as a writer, it’s easy to liken growing a baby to writing a book. Both take a long time and are simultaneously exciting and exhausting. And in both cases, it can be scary: how am I going to get this thing out of me and into the world? Will I really be able to do it?

Sometimes it’s hard to trust the natural process.

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I am now 29 1/2 weeks pregnant!

 

One of the annoying things many hospitals do is put time limits on how long a woman can be in labor. When doctors feel a woman is “not making progress,” they might break her water, give her Pitocin (which speeds up labor), or threaten a C-section. Although some circumstances might call for these interventions, they mess with the natural process and can often cause further complications.

And giving a woman a time limit on her labor is likely to stress her out. Stress makes the woman tight and tense, which then makes it hard for her to open up and push the baby out.

As my teacher likes to say, “just leave the woman alone. The baby’ll come out. It’ll be fine. Babies come out.”

Not that babies come flying out on their own.  It’s a lot of hard work to push new life into the world, and it can be painful.  But if you stick with it, the baby will come out.

For first-time moms especially, the labor process can take a long time. And most of us aren’t used to that. In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t live in a very patient culture. We’re not used to the uncertainly of not knowing how long something is going to take. We don’t like the idea of working hard and making seemingly little progress.

 

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Birthing a baby takes time!

 

Come to think of it, those are things most writers struggle with, too. The uncertainty: will I ever get this book published?  When? And the frustration: I’ve been working on this novel for weeks/months/years but I feel like I’m not making progress!

The writing process can be hard on the impatient ego.

When I graduated from my MFA program at the age of 28, I put a time limit on myself: I would have a published novel by the age of 30.

Not only was this unreasonable – the publishing industry moves at a snail’s pace and I had never even written a full-length book before – but I also wasn’t respecting the natural process of creativity. With the self-imposed time limit, I started to feel stressed and doubtful, which made it harder to open up and let my story come out. I thought that if a book deal didn’t happen now, it never would, and I got to the point where I almost gave up on writing altogether.

I wish someone had told me this: Don’t worry. Your book will come out. That’s what books do.  It’ll be fine.”

I know I have to work hard and push myself, but I will bring my stories into the world…eventually.

 

*    *   *

I’m glad that Paul and I are working with a group of midwives that doesn’t put time limits on labor unless there is truly a concern about the safety of mother or baby. I’ll be allowed to labor as long as it takes in order to bring my wee one into the world.

And I’m glad that I’m no longer imposing time limits on my writing. It might take a while, but my book will come out when the time is right. I just need to open up and trust the natural process.

 

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The baby will come out — that’s what babies do!

Online Dating, the Problem with Books, & the Importance of Beta Readers

Online Dating, the Problem with Books, & the Importance of Beta Readers

The other day a coworker asked me about my experiences with online dating. (I used various dating sites off-and-on from 2009 – 2012, and ultimately I met the man who became my husband via the Internet.)

“Be open-minded about it,” I recommended. “But also, don’t get your hopes up too much.”

For a lot of online dating sites (at least in my day), you create a profile with pictures and information about yourself, and then you message people whose profiles catch you eye. Online daters can spend a lot of time perfecting their profiles (I know I did!), and they might spend a lot of time thinking about the coolest, cleverest ways to message you.

What that means is, someone could seem super awesome online. Then you meet him/her in person…

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One of the photos I had on my online profile.  I think the caption was, “I’m really good with children.”  It was supposed to show all the men out there that I was fun/funny.

 

Naturally, I had a few “bad” dates over the years. Like the ex-rugby player who was such a close-talker his spit actually flew into my eyes as he told me his plan to move to Mexico and “watch the dolphins swim while I wait for the end of the world.” Or the guy who showed up for our date wearing toe sneakers, told me he was a professional juggler who lived at his mom’s house, and then offered to give me a hand massage. (Note that in this case the only truly offensive thing to me was his wearing of toe sneakers on a date.)

But for the most part, the dates I went on weren’t bad. There were just… meh. “There was nothing wrong with him,” I’d often find myself saying to my roommate in our debriefing sessions, “but there was nothing very exciting about him either.”

Sometimes I’d go on a second date and be even less enthused. “I guess I could go out with him a third time,” I’d tell my roommate. “But honestly, I don’t really care whether or not I ever see him again… That’s probably not a good sign, is it?”

No, probably not.

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Another photo I had on my dating profile.  Again, to show that I was fun and funny.

 

Unfortunately, I’ve been feeling the same way about a lot of books lately. I get a book from the library, and after reading the back cover and the first couple pages I’m super excited. This book is going to be AWESOME! But then, the more I read, the less enthused I become.

Often a book will start off with a really intriguing hook or inciting incident within the first chapter or two. The writing is excellent, and I’m looking forward to a beautiful reading relationship over the next few days. But then the story will go nowhere (or at least nowhere very interesting). The middle will sag, becoming boring, confusing, over-written, or all of the above. And if I make it to the end (sometimes I don’t), I’m often left unsatisfied. “That’s it? I read this whole book for that?”

Like an online dater with a perfected profile but a ho-hum personality in-person, it seems like some authors are polishing their first fifty pages to a shine without working so much on the book as a whole.

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I also put this picture on my profile because, you know, pretty stuff.

 

Part of the problem is that we writers know how important the beginning is. We’re told over and over that if we don’t hook the agent/editor/reader in the first few pages, no one will read on. So what happens is our first fifty pages get revised to awesomeness while the rest of the novel stays so-so.

Another part of the problem is that writers attend writing groups and workshops. Not that these are bad – it’s good to get an outside perspective on your writing! – but you’re often not getting feedback on the whole book. For example, I recently joined an online writing group; each month we submit up to 2500 words, but at this rate it will take two years for me to receive feedback on my entire novel!

With the workshop model you are getting feedback on a small section (often only the beginning section) of your novel. You’re not getting feedback on the overall structure: the plotting, the pacing, the character arc, the ending. No one is able to tell you that your middle is confusing or meandering.  No one is able to tell you that your main character is static, or that the problem you set up in chapter one is never fully addressed, or that your ending doesn’t really work with the rest of the story.

And what that means is you have a book that starts out with a brilliant bang but fizzles halfway through, leaving frustrated readers like me pouting on the couch, trying to decide whether or not to keep reading. I guess I could keep reading, I say to myself, but I don’t really care whether or not I find out what happens. That’s not a very good sign, is it?

No, probably not.

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How I feel after reading a so-so book:  MEH!

 

So what’s the solution? Find some beta readers! These are kind souls who will read your entire manuscript at one time (within a few weeks is reasonable), and give you feedback on how it’s working overall. As helpful as writing groups and workshops can be (and they can be very helpful!), getting some beta readers is the way for a novel to be spruced up from head to toe instead of getting only a polish on the first fifty pages.

Recently I found a few beta readers for my novel draft. One is a friend who is requesting nothing in return, but the other two are fellow writers – I am reading their novels in exchange for feedback on mine. Really, the manuscript swap is the best way to go, in my opinion. Not only can friends and family members be biased with their critiques, but you might learn something from reading someone else’s novel-in-progress. (It’s often a lot easier to spot problem areas in someone else’s writing than in your own. I’ve had it happen where I critique another manuscript and then realize, oh my god, I did that in my novel, too!)

In the end, I’m not saying that all books have the problem of being awesome at the beginning and then meh the rest of the way through. There are plenty of books out there that are amazing from cover to cover. What I’m saying is, I want my book to be one of those.

My plan is that after I get revisions from my three beta readers, I will revise again and then get a few more beta readers to give me feedback on the second draft. I’ll continue this process until the book is as good as it can get. It might take a long time, but hey, it took me a long time and a lot of online dates before I found a man who was as good as it gets. In the end, it’ll probably be worth it.

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After years of online dating and meeting so-so guys, I finally found a good one!

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE, by Kate Dicamillo

Illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline

Published by Candlewick Press in 2009

Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Fiction

suggested Age range:  7-10 years

 

SUMMARY:

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a china rabbit named Edward Tulane. The rabbit was very pleased with himself, and for good reason: he was owned by a girl named Abilene, who treated him with the utmost care and adored him completely.

And then, one day, he was lost.

Kate DiCamillo and Bagram Ibatoulline take us on an extraordinary journey, from the depths of the ocean to the net of a fisherman, from the top of a garbage heap to the fireside of a hoboes’ camp, from the bedside of an ailing child to the streets of Memphis. And along the way, we are shown a true miracle — that even a heart of the most breakable kind can learn to love, to lose, and to love again.

(from the official Edward Tulane website)

 

TOPICS AND THEMES:  Love and loss.  Includes the death of a child.  

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So what did we think?  

Meagan:  I am always impressed with Kate DiCamillo’s writing.  It is imperceptible.  She manages to write in a way that feels immersive and natural and lets me read the story without being aware of her writing.  Her use of language, pacing, tone etc. is borderline perfect.  

I read a feature article in Compose literary magazine a while back about the bad advice great writers give to beginning writers.  One of the examples of common bad advice was “In order to be a great writer you need to read a lot of great books.  From them, you’ll learn how to write.”  The writer went on to say that this is bad advice because one of the characteristics of a great book written by a very talented author is that you lose the sense that you’re reading a book someone wrote.  The story just is.  Great authors are great at hiding the machinery, in other words.  I think that is very true of Kate DiCamillo’s writing.  The machinery’s hidden from view pretty well.

 

Eva:  I one hundred percent agree.  Kate DiCamillo’s beautiful language and masterful storytelling make this book shine.  It begins with:

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china.  He had china arms and china legs, china paws and a china head, a china torso and a china nose….

You can hear the rhythm of the repeated words, and young children love both repeated words and poetic language.   

 

Meagan:  But despite the beautiful writing, I can’t say I really enjoyed this book much.  It was okay.  After talking a couple weeks ago about the super-active protagonist in The Graham Cracker Plot, it was such a departure to read a book with a completely inactive protagonist.  Edward literally cannot move or speak.  We hear his thoughts, and stuff happens to him and around him.  This is breaking a major writing “rule,” which the author gets away with because she’s fantastic and well-respected already.  I seriously doubt this would fly as anyone’s debut novel.  

 

Eva:  On the other hand, the story follows John Truby’s “rule” from The Anatomy of Story that a main character should begin with a weakness or moral flaw that he/she will overcome by the end of the story.  Of course, it’s not Edward’s actions that help him overcome his flaw because, like you said, he can’t act.  Still, it makes for a satisfying story because he starts with a flaw and changes for better by the end.  

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Illustrations in the book by Bigram Ibatoulline

 

Meagan:  Reading this felt like being told a very sweet bedtime story that begins with “Once upon a time there was a toy rabbit who didn’t know how to love.”  Once you read the beginning, you pretty much know it’s going to end up with, “And then he learned how to love.  The End.”  I can forgive it, because the story in the middle is pretty and well-written, but it’s not anywhere near compelling enough to make it onto a favorites list for me.   

 

Eva:   You’re right; this is a sweet, old-fashioned bedtime story with a predictable ending.  And I will even add that a lot of characters seemed like stock characters: the train-hopping hobo, the poor girl with consumption, etc.  BUT, I enjoyed the book overall.  It was beautifully written, and I think it makes a great read-aloud story for parents with kids ages, oh, 3 to 10.  In fact, I heard about this book because a woman I knew said she was reading it out loud to her five and eight year old.  This is the sort of book you could do that with.  It has a classic, story-telling tone and is accompanied by lovely illustrations.  In some ways it reminded me of The Velveteen Rabbit, which I will go into more in a bit.    

I will say one thing about the plot.  It is very simple and episodic.  In one chapter Edward is found by a new owner and experiences life with him/her.  Then, in the next chapter, he loses this new owner and is put in dire circumstances (thrown into the ocean, thrown into a dump, thrown off a train, etc.)  He is found by someone new and the cycle continues.  But again, the simple plot works because it’s DONE SO WELL.  It also works if you are reading the story out loud to younger children who don’t mind a simple plot.  

 

Meagan:  In my opinion, this is a book that adults are more likely to love than kids.  It’s very sentimental and tear-jerking regarding love and relationships and the transient nature of all that is most precious in life.  As a mom, I would definitely cry if I tried to read this to my son.  But, I think it’s the rare child who would embrace this book.  There certainly are some kids for whom a sweet story about love is going to be exactly their cup of tea, but it’s not for most kids.  As a teacher I would not read this to a class, or assign it, for that reason.

 

Eva:  In some ways I agree that this book is too sweet and sentimental and young for older elementary kids, but on the other hand, I remember LOVING The Velveteen Rabbit when I was a kid.  I remember rereading it even when I was in 5th and 6th grade — when I knew it was too young for me.  Now, do I think that The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane will become a classic like The Velveteen Rabbit?  No.  It’s a beautiful little story, but it’s not original enough, in my opinion, to be included in the cannon of classic children’s literature.  That honor can go to two of Dicamillo’s other books:  Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux.     

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Eva & Meagan

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:  As I said, I was reminded of The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (first published in 1922).  They both have that classic, story-telling tone and a heartstring-plucking message.  The Velveteen Rabbit is a bit shorter than Edward Tulane, but for fun, let’s compare the opening lines of the two books:

THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE:  

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china.  He had china arms and china legs, china paws and a china head, a china torso and a china nose….

His ears were made of real rabbit fur, and beneath the fur, there were strong, bendable wires, which allowed the ears to be arranged into poses that reflected the rabbit’s mood – jaunty, tired, full of ennui.   

 

THE VELVETEEN RABBIT:  

There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen. On Christmas morning, when he sat wedged in the top of the Boy’s stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws, the effect was charming.

 

Rather similar, don’t you think?  As I was reading Edward Tulane, I couldn’t help thinking, “couldn’t she have picked something other than a toy rabbit?  A toy rabbit has already been done!!”   

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Classic, story-telling tone
  • Rhythmic, poetic, beautiful language
  • Simple, episodic plot
  • Read-aloud story for younger middle-grade
  • Inanimate object as main character
  • A main character who overcomes a weakness/flaw

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  A beautifully-written, read-aloud story, but not Dicamillo’s most original;  it will never replace The Velveteen Rabbit as the classic children’s book about a toy rabbit.   

Meagan:  I am tempted to say this is the kind of book you get to write once you’re already an established author.  But on the other hand, I do believe you should write what’s in your heart and not worry too much about what you can or can’t sell as a debut.  You never know.  So, if this kind of story is what’s in your heart, go for it.  If it speaks to you, it will speak to someone else, too.

 

What Can Novel Writers Learn from Picture Books?

What Can Novel Writers Learn from Picture Books?

*Note:  This post contains spoilers about the picture book Blue Hat, Green Hat.*

My husband and I are currently attending a Bradley Method childbirth class in preparation for our first baby (due February 4th). The Bradley Method is all about “partner-coached” natural birth, and it’s twelve sessions long, covering topics like nutrition, breastfeeding, and newborn care, along with teaching techniques to use during labor such as relaxation and positioning.

At first Paul and I were a little annoyed at the thought of giving up twelve Sunday mornings in a row (the classes are from 10 to noon, and it takes us twenty-five minutes to drive there), but we’re really enjoying the class. Our teacher is wise and practical and hilarious, and it’s nice to have time set aside every week for us to talk about our baby.

Every week we start class with a relaxation exercise. This past Sunday, the exercise was reading out loud. (Some women find that being read to in a soothing tone during labor can aid relaxation.)

Our teacher brought out a stack of children’s books, and told the partners to each pick one. Paul chose a  board book called Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton. (Apparently Boynton is a best-selling picture book author with about a million awesome titles to her name, but we didn’t know this at the time.)

Anyway, Blue Hat, Green Hat is AMAZING. Seriously, one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I doubt it’s more than 100 words long.  Here are the first few pages:

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from Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton; published in 1984 by Little Simon

 

And it goes on in such a manner, with the poor turkey getting it wrong every time.  Oops!  In the end — SPOILER ALERT — the turkey finally puts on all of his clothes correctly — hat, shirt, pants, socks, and shoes —  but then he jumps off a diving board into a swimming pool!  Oops! 

Pretty great for a picture book, right?  But what can “more serious” writers learn from this?  Um… a lot, actually.

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In my opinion, Blue Hat, Green Hat is a great example of one of Aristotle’s “rules” from his famous work on literary theory, Poetics.  Aristotle says the ending must be “the inevitable, though unexpected [consequence] of all that has proceeded.”  This doesn’t mean the climax should be predictable, however.  Readers shouldn’t be able to see it coming, and yet when they get there, they should have the satisfying feeling that this is the only way the story could have ended.

Blue Hat, Green Hat follows Aristotle’s rule perfectly.  After making so many mistakes over the course of the book, it is logical and inevitable that the turkey will finally learn how to put on his clothes correctly.  But it is unexpected that he will then go swimming fully-clothed.  And yet, that is logical, too, because we have gotten to know the turkey’s character throughout the course of the book.  He’s sort of a bumble-head.  He has mastered one lesson, but it’s inevitable that he has now  made a different kind of mistake.

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I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about picture books.  But I’m going to start learning about them really soon.  Paul and I have already been given a couple for our new baby, and I’m noticing that picture books might be just as carefully-crafted as longer stories.  In a picture book, there is still often a protagonist with a flaw who is striving for a goal.  (Like the poor, flawed turkey and his goal of getting dressed properly.)  There are still themes and symbols and imagery.  There is still a rising of tension and stakes until the story reaches its (hopefully inevitable and surprising) conclusion.  A good picture book might have everything a good novel has, just in a condensed and simplified form.

Who knows — maybe at some point I’ll try writing a picture book of my own.  Or, at the very least, story time with my baby can be another way I learn how to become a better writer.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure that I want Paul to read to me while I’m in labor.  But if I decide that I do, I might choose Blue Hat, Green Hat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing a Baby, Writing a Book

Growing a Baby, Writing a Book

For the first half of my pregnancy, I kept waiting for the day when I’d actually start looking and feeling pregnant. “This isn’t a food baby,” I wanted to tell people about my slightly-poochy gut. “There’s a real baby in here.”

Even though my pregnancy app told me each day how my baby was growing and changing, it didn’t seem from the outside like much was happening. From week to week it was hard  to notice any changes. I often had to remind myself that there really was a baby in there – it was surprisingly easy to forget.

A month or two after I found out I was pregnant, I started working on a new middle-grade novel. At first, it wasn’t much of anything. Just some half-formed ideas and attempted outlines. Even when I started writing a draft, I wasn’t sure it was going anywhere. I didn’t tell anyone about the novel because I feared it was terrible. Still, every day I managed to eek out a couple pages. My goal was to finish the draft by the time the baby was born.

So imagine my surprise when I finished the first draft last week – it had only taken me four months! Less time than gestating a human!

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I’m finally looking pregnant!  Me at 25 weeks.

 

Now, with three months left until my baby’s due date, I’m finally looking pregnant. I’m feeling pregnant, too. The baby kicks (and wriggles and summersaults) all the time, which is really exciting. And I’m experiencing some back pain, along with The Worst Heartburn Ever. (Seriously, I have to sleep sitting up so that stomach acid doesn’t burn my throat all night long. Ugh.)

Still, it doesn’t feel all that strange to me. Sure, I’ve gained 12% of my original body weight since getting pregnant, but it happened so gradually I don’t really feel any heavier. I’m still doing most of my normal yoga, even some of the difficult balance poses like half moon. (Talk to me again at nine months and we’ll see what I have to say about this!)

But the point is, it’s not like you go from normal to enormous overnight. It takes nine months to grow a baby, and, for me at least, it’s been happening so slowly that my body has had time to adjust.

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In a prenatal yoga class a few weeks ago.  (I’m in the front middle.)

 

It occurs to me that the same is true when writing a novel. At first it seems from the outside like nothing is happening. I spin my wheels for a while in the brainstorming stage, wondering when I’ll actually get to work and begin writing.

When the pages start coming, it still feels frustratingly slow. Two pages yesterday. A whopping three pages today. Doesn’t seem like much progress. When is this going to start looking and feeling like an actual novel? But 15 pages a week makes 60 pages a month, which makes 240 pages in four months. And suddenly it’s a novel. It happens gradually, but it happens all the same.

Not that my book baby is ready to be delivered into the world. It’s still a draft. It needs a couple of good revisions, I’m sure. I’ve let one trusted writer friend read it, and to my delight, she stayed up until past midnight to finish it.  That gave me a much-needed shot of confidence:  apparently this new book isn’t as terrible as I feared.  Of course, she also gave me some helpful feedback for how to make the novel better.  Now my new goal is to finish a revision by the time the baby is born.

If experience has taught me anything, it’s that I can write a novel in a couple of months, but it takes me a couple of years to revise it… So maybe writing a book takes longer than growing a baby after all.

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It takes a long time to grow a baby human!

 

Sometimes this pregnancy thing seems like it’s taking so long. It’s been forever since I’ve had a glass of wine at dinner, and I can’t believe I still have three entire months to wait before I can meet my  wee one. Still, the body knows what it’s doing. Slow and steady wins the race, and my baby will be worth the wait.

The same will be true for my book. These things take time.

 

Doll Bones by Holly Black (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Doll Bones by Holly Black (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Just in time for Halloween…  A spooky edition of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf!

 

DOLL BONES by Holly Black

Published by Doubleday Children’s, May 2013

Winner of a 2014 Newberry Honor Medal

suggested age range:  10 – 14

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SUMMARY:

Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends forever. And for almost as long, they’ve been playing one continuous, ever-changing game of pirates and thieves, mermaids and warriors. Ruling over all is the Great Queen, a bone-china doll cursing those who displease her.

But they are in middle school now. Zach’s father pushes him to give up make-believe, and Zach quits the game. Their friendship might be over, until Poppy declares she’s been having dreams about the Queen—and the ghost of a girl who will not rest until the bone-china doll is buried in her empty grave.

Zach and Alice and Poppy set off on one last adventure to lay the Queen’s ghost to rest. But nothing goes according to plan, and as their adventure turns into an epic journey, creepy things begin to happen. Is the doll just a doll or something more sinister? And if there really is a ghost, will it let them go now that it has them in its clutches?

-courtesy of Holly Black’s website

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  Friendship, growing up, loyalty.  Includes the idea of the death of a child in the past, but this is not the main focus.    

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Back cover of Doll Bones hardcover.

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  I was almost too scared to read this based on its description.  I’m glad you talked me into it, but it WAS scary to me–enough so that I avoided reading it at night.  I don’t read enough ghost story type books to know if this is typical, but I liked how the story always seemed to have two possible explanations for anything ghostly.  So it was easy to read along thinking, well….maybe Poppy is making this up.  Or, maybe it was a raccoon who trashed the campsite, etc.  

 

Eva:  That’s funny because although I enjoyed Doll Bones, I was hoping for it to be MORE of a straight-forward ghost story.  For a lot of the book it seemed like Poppy was perhaps just making it up, and that made me a little disappointed and made the stakes for getting The Queen to the graveyard not as high.  I kept thinking, “this better be real or I’m going to be disappointed!”  Of course, I was a kid who LOVED reading ghost stories in upper elementary and middle school.  

 

Meagan:  One thing I loved was the specificity of the setting.  It’s set in modern-day, post-industrial towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and having been in that part of the country, it feels spot on.  The buildings, the landscapes, everything feels just right and not generic.

I also saw that Doll Bones was a winner of something called The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature.  According to the award website, It honors books for beginning readers to age thirteen, in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia.  I will definitely look at their nominees and award recipients for reading recommendations in the future!

 

Eva:  I’m not surprised this book has won awards!  I thought this was well-written with good pacing.  And the mix of ghost story and real-life adventure was unique and interesting.  I liked the characters — although Zach annoyed me sometimes —  and I liked the adventure overall.  Black did a great job of blending magical aspects with real life adventure.  Like you said — the very specific setting was a great benefit.  

But honestly, I think my favorite thing was the creepy doll and the ghost story surrounding her.  I love that she lived in a locked glass cabinet in Poppy’s living room and that the three kids called her The Queen:  

The Queen was a bone china doll of a child with straw-gold curls and paper-white skin.  Her eyes were closed, lashes a flaxen fringe against her cheek.  She wore a long gown, the thin fabric dotted with something black that might be mold.

And I loved the stories the kids made up about the doll:

According to the legend they’d created, the Queen ruled over everything from her beautiful glass tower.  She had the power to put her mark on anyone who disobeyed her commands.  When that happened, nothing would go right for them until they regained her favor.

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Doll Bones is illustrated by Eliza Wheeler.

 

Meagan:  I also want to mention that the themes are superbly developed.  They aren’t overly obvious, but once I started thinking about what they were, I found they were woven in in so many different ways.

Reality versus Fantasy is an obvious one.  Is the ghost of Eleanor real?  Is she really doing these things?  It’s also present in the way the three kids play:  a pretend quest (like with the action figures at the beginning or a real quest that they go on later).  It’s also in their struggle with middle school identities.  Are their childhood selves their real selves?  Are their newer interests in sports and dating pretend identities that they are putting on in order to fit in, or are these part of their real selves too?

Another theme is Hanging On versus Letting Go. There’s the whole idea that a ghost is hanging onto life in this world versus passing on to the afterlife.  There’s also the story of how Eleanor’s father couldn’t let her go and hung onto her in a creepy way.  And then there’s the challenge Zach, Poppy, and Alice face:  can (or should) they hang onto childhood and their friendship as it was?  Will hanging onto it actually destroy it?  Should they let go and be okay with becoming teens and introducing a new dynamic to their friendship?

 

Eva:  You’re absolutely right about the themes.  This is much more than a straight-forward ghost story because Black did such a great job of weaving in coming-of-age themes.  

I have to say, though, one thing that bothered me was Zach’s motivation.  At the beginning of the book, his dad throws away his action figures, so Zach tells Alice and Poppy that he can’t play the make-believe game anymore.  I kept thinking, “couldn’t he just get some more action figures?” and “Does he even need the action figures — aren’t they just playing make-believe anyway?”  

I understand that he was upset with his dad and that it sent a message to Zach that he needed to grow up, but I think his motivation for quitting the game would have been stronger if his father forbade him from playing with the girls, OR, even better, if some of his teammates found out about the game and he was embarrassed.  As it was, I didn’t totally buy the fact that a)  his father throwing away the toys makes him decide to quit the game and b) that even after days go by he still feels like he can’t tell his best friends what happened.

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Meagan:  Really?  That didn’t bother me at all!  I was impressed with what believable interiority and emotional reactions we get from Zach.  His response to his fight with his father (hiding it from his friends for fear of crying about it) feels tragic, but also so real.  Holly Black is a female writer writing a male protagonist very well.  It can be done!

My one writing criticism is that I was a little surprised by some of the “telling” descriptions of the characters.  There’s a fair amount of “Poppy is fierce” and “Alice is quiet” rather than just showing us that through choices and action.  It didn’t wreck it for me though.

 

Eva:  Yeah, although there were a few things I would have changed, I really enjoyed the book overall.  I thought she did a GREAT job of writing an appropriately scary/creepy story for middle grade readers.  When the kids find the little bag of ash inside the doll — oh!  So creepy and awesome!  But also, the story was never too creepy and scary for middle grade readers.  I also liked the historical explanation at the end.  It seemed very plausible.  Like I said, I really enjoyed the ghost story aspect of it, and I think kids will, too.    

 

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Eva & Meagan are the hosts of Middle Grade Bookshelf.

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:  I don’t know!  If I had accidentally started reading this book or one like it when I was a kid, I would have put it down in a hurry!  I can tolerate (though not totally embrace) the ghostly stuff as an adult, but as a kid, it would have given me nightmares.  So…I can’t think of any titles for comparison.

Eva:  Meanwhile, I LOVED ghost stories as a kid, especially anything by Mary Downing Hahn (Wait Till Helen Comes, The Doll in the Garden).  But I was most reminded of The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatly Snyder, which is also a Newberry-Honor-winning novel (1967) about a group of kids playing a make-believe game.  I remember reading this book multiple times as a kid, and each time I expected it to be something different than what it was.  I thought it would involve real magic, but it was just kids playing make-believe (and there was a real-life menace).  So I came to Doll Bones with that same sense of wanting there to be a real supernatural element, but not sure whether or not I was going to get it.

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Adventure story
  • Setting and tone
  • Well-developed themes
  • Interiority
  • Close 3rd person narration
  • Appropriately scary story for middle-grade

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Meagan:  For me as a writer, this book is an inspiration to develop multi-thread themes!  A good theme isn’t too obvious (not stated outright) and shows up again and again in the main plot, the subplots, and in different ways for different characters.

Eva:  This is a great books for kids who like ghost stories and/or action/adventure.

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