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Can You Take Yourself Out of Your Writing?

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Can You Take Yourself Out of Your Writing?

One field of science my physicist husband studies is called “uncertainty quantification,” which, to my understanding, is pretty much what it sounds like: finding ways to quantify how uncertain scientists are about computational and real-world applications.

I’ve always thought it sounded like a rather poetic (and difficult) mission. Isn’t uncertainty something you feel? How do you put a number on your feelings?

Paul admits that this is a problem. “Uncertainty quantification implies that there is a person who has uncertainties,” he said to me the other day. “A scientist’s goal is to be objective – to take himself completely out of the equation — but UQ rests on the notion of a person with uncertainty.  The scientist is automatically a part of it.”

“Isn’t it virtually impossible for scientists to take themselves completely out of their work anyway?” I asked.

Paul admitted that it was.

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This is what our baby looks like when she is uncertain.

 

My writing life has many uncertainties. Will I ever get a book published? How long will it take? If I do get a book out into the world, will anyone read it?

I feel certain that I will have my novels published one day, but that’s just a feeling. It’s not based on anything scientific.

In fact, were I to be scientific, I might feel less certain. A quick google search tells me that most agents reject 99% of the queries that come their way. And getting an agent doesn’t guarantee that your novel will get published. Even if it’s published, you can’t be certain that people will read it.

I’ve just started querying agents with a new middle-grade novel, and I’m feeling anxious about it. In part because this book has so much of me in it.

The main character is an eighth grade girl who loves math and writes poetry. Hmm… Hits pretty close to home. (You guys were aware that I used to be a math teacher, right?)

In fact, I got the idea for the novel while reading one of my old diaries, and though the protagonist is not me, nor is the story something that happened to me, I certainly poured a lot of my actual middle school feelings into this book. There’s even one line in the novel that I lifted nearly verbatim from my ninth grade diary because it was just too perfect not to use.

So it’s scary to send this manuscript into the world. It was easier when I was querying a novel set in the middle ages about a disabled girl who goes on a magical quest. Not only was the book written in third person, which gave me a feeling of distance, but the protagonist and her story had very little in common with me and my life. This new novel, on the other hand… The protagonist and I definitely have some similarities. And her story, as well as her emotions, draw on my own teenage experiences. When an agent rejects the book (which will happen, of that I’m certain), I might feel like it’s not only my book that’s being rejected, but my experiences and feelings as well.

It’s scary to put your writing out there. It’s even scarier when your writing contains so much of yourself.

But isn’t it virtually impossible, you ask, for writers to take themselves completely out of their work? And I must admit that it is.

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My 8th grade school photo.  Note the flannel shirt — it was 1993.

 

My husband likes to say that physicists are storytellers. The universe is too mysterious for us to be totally certain about anything, and though I’m a huge fan of science, its theories are, in the end, simply stories. They are stories that help us explain and understand our world. And as much as scientists may try to take themselves out of their experiments and observations, the fact remains that they can’t separate themselves totally from their work.

I’ve often thought that I write fiction as a way to understand my world. Even if I’m not writing about my own experiences, I’m still there somewhere in the writing. I can’t take myself out of it completely.

And maybe I shouldn’t worry about separating myself from my writing. In some ways, I think this newest novel is the best one I’ve written so far. Perhaps because it contains so much of myself.

No matter what I write, I’m always going to be a part of the equation.

Of that much I’m certain.

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This is the type of book my husband likes to read for fun.  No joke.

 

Get Rolling, or, When You’ve Forgotten How to Write

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Get Rolling, or, When You’ve Forgotten How to Write

When my baby was nearly eleven weeks old, she started rolling from her tummy onto her back, and I was very impressed and proud. Recently, at three and a half months, she’s started rolling from her back onto her tummy. Again, I am impressed and proud.

What’s frustrating, though, is that now, when I lay her down on her play mat, she immediately rolls over and then starts to cry because she’s on her tummy and she doesn’t like it.

“Roll back over,” I tell her. “I know you know how. I’ve captured you doing it on video.”

But for some reason she can’t remember this previously-learned skill. And she’s upset about it.

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Baby on her tummy.  I know she doesn’t look upset, but believe me, she started crying 5 seconds after this picture was taken.

 

The other day I was doing some final polishes on my novel in preparation to start querying agents. As I was reading over the manuscript I began to wonder, how did I ever create this story in the first place?

I developed the idea for the novel a little over a year ago and wrote the first draft last spring, but I seem to have forgotten how I did it. Sometimes it feels like I’m revising someone else’s work.

Now that I’m finishing up this project, it’s time to start something new. Time to switch from revising to creating.  Time to start rolling the other way.

If I can only remember how.

 

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One way to get the baby to sleep.

 

Nap time with the baby has been a challenge these past few days. When I put her in her crib, half the time she immediately flips onto her tummy and then starts to cry. Yesterday I had to walk her around the neighborhood in her stroller for over and hour because that was the only way I could get her to take an afternoon nap.

Paul and I wonder if we should leave her on her tummy to struggle and cry. Maybe, if she gets frustrated enough, she’ll remember how to do it.

Or, maybe, we just have to be patient and give her time.

Normally, when I finish with one writing project, I rush to start something new; I’m in a panic not to waste time. But having a baby has made me a bit more relaxed. It’s a successful day if I manage to get dressed and go grocery shopping. So if a day goes by when I don’t work on writing, it’s not the end of the world.

Still, there is a part of me that worries — what if I’ve lost this previously-learned skill, this ability to create fiction?  I worry that this time I won’t be able to write another novel.

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Come on, baby!  Get rolling!

 

While walking the baby around the neighborhood the other day, an idea for a novel popped into my head. That’s how ideas usually arrive. You can’t force yourself to have one; they appear out of the blue, usually when you’re doing something unrelated to writing.

The idea has gotten me thinking, and I can feel the gears in my brain shifting from revision mode to creation mode. I haven’t forgotten how to write, I just haven’t done it in a while.

I’m not in a hurry, but I’m sure soon enough, I’ll get rolling on a new novel.

Flying Lessons, edited by Ellen Oh (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

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Flying Lessons, edited by Ellen Oh (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh

published by Crown Books for Young Readers, January 2017

suggested age range:  8 – 12 years

SUMMARY:

Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascos, first crushes, or new neighborhoods, this bold anthology—written by the best children’s authors—celebrates the uniqueness and universality in all of us.

In a partnership with We Need Diverse Books, industry giants Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson join newcomer Kelly J. Baptist in a story collection that is as humorous as it is heartfelt. This impressive group of authors has earned among them every major award in children’s publishing and popularity as New York Times bestsellers.

From these distinguished authors come ten distinct and vibrant stories.

-courtesy of Amazon

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Various because it’s an anthology.  Stories touch on identity, perseverance, prejudice, friendship, family influence, and individuality vs. conformity, just to name a few.

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So what did we think?  

Meagan:  I’m not normally the biggest fan of short story collections, but I really enjoyed this one. I’m glad Ellen Oh and We Need Diverse Books put this together.  It was a great way to get exposed to a bunch of authors all at once and I found myself taking note as I read of authors whose longer books I’d like to read.  

Eva:  Definitely!  I thought some of the stories, though self-contained, could have been the first chapters of novels … novels I’d like to read!  I’m not sure I’ve ever read a middle grade short story collection before, so this book was unique in that way, not to mention the diversity of characters, settings, and situations.  It makes me wonder why there aren’t more short story collections for this age group. Middle grade readers are notorious for their short attention spans, so it seems like a great idea.

Meagan:  If I were still teaching 4th grade, I’d absolutely use this book in my classroom.  For one thing, it’s great for kids to see stories with different kinds of protagonists representing the wide array of kids’ backgrounds and experiences.  For another thing, middle grade short stories aren’t super common, and it’d be helpful to have short read-alouds that could be finished in one or two sittings.  Perfect for before a vacation or some other time when it’s not practical to start reading aloud a new novel.  

Also, for both students and writers, short stories can work as a quick snapshot to help you focus on a particular skill or topic without needing to tackle a whole novel.  “How does an author establish a memorable and believable character in just a few pages?” is a great question to investigate whether you’re a kid learning about characterization and making inferences, or an adult writer who’s looking to improve your own craft.  Gift this book to teachers you know!

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Eva:   Let’s talk about the particular stories.  One that stood out to me was “Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents:  A Story-in-Verse” by Kwame Alexander.  Books in verse seem to be very “in” right now, especially in YA, but I’ve avoided them because I thought it would be annoying to read a novel in verse.  But I really enjoyed Alexander’s story and wasn’t annoyed at all by the format.  If anything, it made it a fun, quick, and interesting to read.  

It seems like this story could be a good way to introduce kids to verse.  It shows that poetic language doesn’t have to rhyme; poetry is also about rhythm, word choice, and imagery:  

The most beautiful girl

in school

walks up to me

fast and furious

like a wave rushing

to the shore.  

I feel like

I’m about to drown,

but I don’t care,

because like my dad says

about my mom,

“She’s a stone cold fox!”  

Also, I imagine that, like me, kids might be more willing to try a short story in verse before jumping into an entire novel written that way.  

Meagan:  How about “Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina?  I loved the journey the protagonist went on.  She began very confident in a simplistic way then got exposed to a complex world that included some class- and race-prejudice.  She sees how her older brother and her father deal with things.  At first she looks down on her brother and dad’s responses, but through the story she comes to understand why they act the way they do.  By the end she seems to neither adopt their approaches completely, nor look down on them for their choices.  She will have to face injustice in her own way and also be compassionate towards those who choose to face it in a different way.  I think this is an appropriately nuanced problem for middle grade students to grapple with, both theoretically in the story as well as in real-life application.

Eva:  I think my favorite story was “The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin.  All the other stories were set in the U.S. in contemporary times, but from this story’s first line, the reader is transported to a totally different time and place:   

“When I was sold to the Li family, my mother let Mrs. Li take me only after she’d promised that I would be taught to read.”  

I was immediately drawn into the world, and this was one of the stories I wished was the first chapter of a novel.  I also would have liked if at least one of the other stories in the collection was historical fiction and/or set somewhere other than the U.S., like this one.  

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Meagan:  I think I have a tie for my favorite between Meg Medina’s story, which I described above, and “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist.  I thought this one was a great little primer on showing-not-telling.  The author sets up a sympathetic character in a very difficult family situation with perfectly chosen details that give the readers everything they need to know, without resorting to telling or labels.  We’re never told “my mom is depressed” or “we got evicted” or “now we’re homeless.”  The reader experiences everything right along with Isaiah and his sister and can easily get the scariness of the situation without needing to be told the names for the problems.  Yet despite some pretty dark circumstances, there is also hope in the story.  

I liked this story so well I went immediately to the Internet to find out what else the author had written, only to discover that she doesn’t yet have a published novel!  This story is her debut publication!  Kelly J. Baptist…I’m waiting for your novel to come out!  You are writing one, right???

Eva:  I hope so!  I just want to mention one last story (the last one in the book):  “Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers.  I think what comes to many people’s minds with the “we need diverse books” campaign is race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation — which are all types of diversity found in this collection.  What isn’t so often considered are kids with disabilities.  I was glad to see this story — about a boy who plays wheelchair basketball — included in the collection.  

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:   I don’t know.  I don’t think I’ve ever read an anthology of middle grade short stories.  

Eva:  I don’t know that I’ve read an anthology before, but I definitely used to read short stories for middle grade readers.  When I was a kid I subscribed to the American Girl magazine.  In each issue there was a short story, and I remember one in particular about a girl who finds out that her grandmother had her feet bound when she was a little girl in China.  I think that was how I first learned about foot-binding, and obviously the story was so powerful that I still remember it quite clearly now, twenty-five years after reading it!  So short stories can definitely have just as much power as novels for the middle grade age group.       

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The first issue of American Girl magazine from 1992.  I totally remember reading this issue from cover to cover (several times!)

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Short stories for middle grade readers
  • Diversity
  • A short story in verse
  • First person narration (Almost all of them are)
  • Middle grade stories that deal with race, class, sexual orientation, and disability.

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva: A quick, interesting collection of short stories for middle grade readers.  Not only is there diversity in the subject matter, there is diversity in the way the stories are told.  One is told in verse, one is told in second person, some are in past tense while others are in present, etc.   

Meagan:  A good reminder that a short story anthology with a variety of authors can be a great way of discovering authors you might like to read more of.  As a reader, it’s a way to sample more broadly and try out the styles and stories of a lot of writers in a short time.

Writing About Apples, or, How to be Creative

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Writing About Apples, or, How to be Creative

Back in March, my mom texted me happy St. Patrick’s Day and asked, “so what percentage Irish is the baby? Only a math major can figure it out!” I took this as a challenge, and after texting my mother-in-law for information, I did some calculations and came up with this:

Phoebe is approximately…

  • 1/4   Italian (25%)
  • 7/32   German (approx. 21.9%)
  • 3/16   Scottish/Irish (approx. 18.8%)
  • 5/32   English (approx. 15.6%)
  • 1/16   French (approx. 6.3%)
  • 1/16   Danish (approx. 6.3%)
  • 1/32   Polish (approx. 3.1%)
  • 1/32   Czech (approx. 3.1%)

 

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My baby is probably less than 15% Irish.  But still very kissable!

 

Now that the baby is three months old I’m slowly getting back to my paying jobs, one of which is writing math curriculum.

And last week I created an assignment called “Melting Pot Math” in which the students have to figure out the “fractional ethnicity” of a person based on the countries his great-grandparents are from.

My bosses are happy to have me back; they continually praise me for my ability to come up with creative math projects. And I’m sort of amazed myself. I’ve been doing this job for over four years now; you’d think I would have run out of ideas for teaching fractions and long division. And yet I always come up with something, often based on whatever is going on in my life: wedding planning, visiting Mexico, getting an ultrasound. I even wrote a math curriculum called “Literary Agent.”

I’m also getting back to my other part-time job – tutoring – but right now I’m only doing it on Skype. I just hired a high school girl who will come to the apartment one afternoon a week to watch Phoebe while I’m on Skype, but up until now my husband has been watching her while I tutor.

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On Sunday I was tutoring, and my student’s camera wasn’t working.  She could see me, but I couldn’t see her. It didn’t matter, though. She was just reading out loud to me from To Kill a Mockingbird, and we were discussing.

Out of the corner of my ear, I heard Phoebe start crying, and it sounded like a hungry cry, so I told my student to hold on a second. I fetched the baby and then said, “okay, keep reading. I’m just going to feed her.”

I guess I had a moment of flamingo syndrome –I couldn’t see my student, so I assumed she couldn’t see me. I pulled down my tank top and started breastfeeding. A few seconds later, I remembered that my student could see me, and I adjusted the camera so that only my face was visible on the screen. Oops! I can only hope she was so engrossed with To Kill a Mockingird that she didn’t notice her tutor flashing her!

Toward the end of the lesson, my student told me that she had to give a speech the next day to the entire middle school. “Our teacher told us we could pick any topic we wanted, so I chose apples,” she said.

“Apples? Like the fruit?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

She practiced her speech, and I gave her a few pointers.

“Why did you decide to write your speech about apples?” I then asked.

She grinned. “I didn’t know what to write about, and I was eating an apple, and my friend said ‘why don’t you write about apples.’” She shrugged. “So I did.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not what her teacher had in mind for the assignment. On the other hand, it’s a good lesson: when you don’t know what to write about, look around and write what you see. Write about your baby. Write about your day. Write about the apple you’re currently eating.

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When I started this blog four and a half years ago, I worried I might run out of things to write about. But, like with math curriculum, I always come up with something. Often I take inspiration from whatever is going on in my life, big or small.  Like accidentally Skype-flashing my student.

I don’t consider myself to be an amazingly creative person, pulling brilliant ideas out of thin air. Often I’m just a girl writing about apples. I look around, shrug, and write about whatever is in front of my face.

 

 

 

How I Chose My MFA Program, or, Doing Your Research

How I Chose My MFA Program, or, Doing Your Research

It’s a funny story how I decided to get my MFA in Fiction Writing.  Spoiler alert:  it does not involve research.

I was twenty-four years old and in my second year as a full-time math teacher when I stopped by a little bookstore near my house in Uptown New Orleans and my eyes fell on a paperback called Pretty Little Dirty by Amanda Boyden.

I didn’t know Amanda Boyden then. I didn’t know that she lived in New Orleans and that one day I would sit with her and her husband at a bar in Spain, or that, a few years later, we would have margaritas together in Mexico. I didn’t know I would go to parties, and even a wedding, at her house in Mid-City New Orleans. All I saw was the skinny girl on the cover of the book, her arm cocked like she might be holding a cigarette, her face scribbled out with fluorescent yellow highlighter, and I knew it was just the sort of thing I liked to read: a literary coming-of-age story.

So I bought the book and devoured it. Then I read the author bio and learned that Amanda Boyden taught a class on fiction writing at the University of New Orleans.

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It was around this time that I started thinking to myself, gosh, do I really want to be a math teacher for the rest of my life? The answer was no. What I really wanted to do was write novels, but I’d always assumed that was something people did in their spare time – it wasn’t  a viable career option. (And, to be honest, I still think that’s somewhat accurate… at least for a lot of people.)

The problem was, teaching left me emotionally, physically, and mentally drained. It was difficult to find the energy to write in the little spare time I had. So I made a bold move: I quit my teaching job and embarked on a series of random jobs (barista, receptionist, orthodontic assistant) that gave me more time and energy for writing.

That summer, I sat down to write what I hoped to be a literary coming-of-age novel. When I finished the last sentence, I was elated. A day later, I reread the whole thing and was completely dismayed. The book wasn’t good – I knew it wasn’t good – but I had no idea how to make it better.

That’s when I decided to contact Amanda Boyden.

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Author Amanda Boyden

 

I’ve since looked to see if I could find the original email I sent to Amanda, along with her reply. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I can’t, but I know I said I’d enjoyed her book, and then I explained that it was the sort of thing I hoped to write, but I was having trouble figuring out how exactly to write a novel in the first place. I was thinking maybe she and I could get together for coffee sometime to talk about writing.

Yes, I realize now how naïve that sounds. So I don’t blame Amanda for how she responded. I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something along the lines of, no, I don’t have time to meet with you, but maybe you should check out the MFA program at The University of New Orleans.

And here’s where I’ll admit that up until then, I didn’t know there was even such a thing as a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. (It does sound rather absurd, right?  A Masters degree in creative writing?!)  I realize that might make twenty-five-year-old Eva sound a bit dumb, but, to be honest,twenty-five-year-old Eva was a bit dumb.

Twenty-five-year-old Eva was also excited. Going to school was something I’d always exceled at. No wonder I was having trouble writing a good novel: I needed to go back to school and learn how to do it properly!

So I went online and found information about the University of New Orleans “low residency” program, which sounded cool. In the program, students took classes online during the school year and then did intensive summer abroad sessions. That sounded good to me. Online classes meant I could keep my day job at the orthodontist’s office, and I hadn’t studied abroad as an undergraduate, so this would be my chance to do some traveling.

I’m embarrassed to say that I did no other research. None.  I didn’t look to see if there were other MFA programs that were more highly rated, or that perhaps focused specifically on novel-writing. I didn’t look into ways to get my tuition paid for. I didn’t even realize that there was also an in-person MFA program at the University of New Orleans I could have applied to.

I’ve never been a fan of research, and I’ve always been a bit trigger-happy when I’m excited about something. At the time, I honestly didn’t think that anyone would pay for my MFA. I didn’t realize that many schools offer teaching assistantships – something that would have been smart for me to do because not only would my tuition have been covered, but I would have gotten experience teaching at the college level.

Instead, without researching any other programs, I applied for the low-residency MFA at the University of New Orleans, and I was accepted. The following summer, I headed to Madrid, and my Fiction Workshop professors were Amanda Boyden and her husband, Joseph.

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My first year in the MFA program, Amanda Boyden gave a reading while doing THIS.

 

It’s hard to say whether or not I regret making such a quick decision. Yes, I did have to take out a student loan to pay for my degree, but I paid if off pretty quickly. And it’s true I could have gotten a teaching assistantship that led to a college teaching job, but I don’t want to be a teacher (remember?) And I probably could have gone to a more “prestigious” school, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would have liked that any better.

Besides, so many good things have come out of my MFA from UNO. I met some wonderful (and eccentric!) people, and I had some amazing travel experiences. If not for my MFA from UNO, I never would have become involved with Burlesque Press or gotten to spend a month in Mexico on a writing fellowship.

In this case, my utter lack of research didn’t seem to hurt me. In other words, I got lucky.

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Here I am in Madrid with fellow writer Jeni Stewart(now Jennifer Wallace), who has become a very dear friend and resource.

 

I’m thinking about all of this as I prepare to query agents with the novel I recently finished revising. In the past I’ve been trigger-happy about contacting agents, and I’ve learned my lesson. This is one case where I am definitely doing my research. I am spending time on Twitter and agency websites and Manuscript Wishlist. I’m reading agent blogs and interviews. I’m making a spreadsheet of possible agents and revising my query letter over and over again. I know that when it comes to querying agents, it pays to do your homework.

My MFA didn’t teach me anything about querying agents. That’s something I learned on my own after a lot of practice, and probably in part because I did it wrong the first time around.

And, in a way, that’s how I’ve learned to write as well.

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Here I am in Madrid for the running of the bulls.  There’s a story in this picture.  There definitely is.

Shut Up About Your Rocket, or, Why You Need Writer Friends

Shut Up About Your Rocket, or, Why You Need Writer Friends

My husband won’t shut up about rockets. For the past few months he’s been designing and printing model rockets on his 3-D printer (because yes, he has one of those), and he is OBSESSED.

“Can I show you my launch pad?” he says, coming at me with a plastic box spewing red and blue wires out the back.

I sigh because this is the fourth time in past few hours that he’s wanted to show me something rocket-related. I know he’s proud of his handiwork and wants to show it to someone, so I say sure. He then goes into a detailed description about all the buttons and wires while my eyes glaze over.

In fact, a normal conversation these days (if you can call this a conversation) might go something like this:

ME: “So I read an article about how to transition your baby out of swaddling.”

HIM: “I finished fiber-glassing my rocket last night.”

ME: “I think she might be going through a growth spurt. She was cranky and eating a lot today.”

HIM: “Now I just need to sand it and get the wireless in my raspberry pi zero working.”

It’s both funny and sad how I can talk of seemingly nothing but our baby these days, and Paul can talk of nothing but his baby, the rocket. Of course, there is one difference: Paul actually cares about our baby, whereas I care not a whit about his rockets.

 

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Paul with a model rocket he built two summers ago.  He’s working on MUCH larger ones now.

 

That’s why I was excited when he found out about a local model rocket club that meets once a month. “Dear god, please go,” I told him. “Please make friends with people who are interested in rockets.”

We were taking the baby on a walk around the block when I said this, and then I added, “I mean, I don’t talk to you about my writing.  I talk to other writers about my writing. In fact, I’m going to dinner with a friend in a few days, and we plan to discuss the novel I’m working on because she just finished reading it.”

Paul said he felt bad that he hadn’t read my latest novel.

“It’s really okay,” I told him. “I have writer friends for that exact purpose.” I told him about the time I saw Joyce Carol Oates speak. “She said that her husband never read any of her books, and she liked it that way. They had plenty of things they shared, but her writing wasn’t one of them.”

Paul then apologized for talking excessively about rockets. “But I wish I had friends I could talk to about my interests,” he said, looking forlorn.

I feel bad for him. His interests (theoretical physics, model rockets, extremely sophisticated mathematics, 3-D printing) are ones that not many people share. He sometimes feels isolated and alone in his endeavors. And when he makes an exciting breakthrough, no one is able to appreciate it with him.

Again, this is why I’m really excited for him to go to the rocket club.

I’m also super grateful for the friends I have who share my interests.

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Paul does share my interest in the baby, but he has had to tell me to shut up about baby sleep schedules and other such things that I’ve researched to ad nauseam.

 

For example, I’ve recently started hanging out with other new moms. We’ll meet at each other’s houses and let our babies roll around on the floor while we discuss sleep schedules and cloth diapers. They understand when I show up late, with spit up stains on my shirt, and it’s nice to have some low-key adult interaction during the day. I read somewhere once that there can be nothing lonelier than staying at home with your baby.

But you know what else can be lonely? Writing. It’s inherently a solo venture. Which is why I think it’s so important to have people you can talk talk to about your writing (or talk to about writing in general). People with whom you can work through your ideas. People who will read your first draft. People who can sympathize with you about that rejection letter or that scene that just won’t come together.

I’ve found my writer friends in all sorts of places. Some are from my MFA program. Others are from writing groups I’ve been a part of or writing conferences I’ve attended. One is a high school friend. Another is a college friend who happened upon my blog and contacted me.

Because of these wonderful people, I feel supported in my writing life. I write alone, but I don’t feel isolated, and I know that when I have breakthroughs both big and small, these people will celebrate with me.

I’m really hoping the rocket club can provide at least a little bit of this for Paul. Because there are plenty of things that he and I share, but an interest in rockets is definitely not one of them.

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Meagan and I try to get together regularly to discuss our writing.  We also write a monthly blog:  Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf!

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 2015

Suggested age range: 10 and up

An ALA Notable Children’s Book for Middle Readers

SUMMARY:

For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.

All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?

Celebrated author Kenneth Oppel creates an eerie masterpiece in this compelling story that explores disability and diversity, fears and dreams, and what ultimately makes a family. Includes illustrations from celebrated artist Jon Klassen.

-courtesy of Amazon

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Perfection vs. Imperfection, Identity (are your flaws part of what makes you who you are?)

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Read more of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf here.

So what did we think?  

Eva:  Wow.  Just wow.  This was an INCREDIBLE book that totally blew me away, both as a reader and a writer.  

Meagan:  Me too.  This is the first book I’ve read in awhile that I just LOVED with no reservations.  Partly because it’s well done, and partly because it’s just my kind of book.  Super-imaginative and inexplicably weird.   

Eva:  It’s one of those books that defies categorization.   Is it an eerie fairy tale?  A psychological thriller?  A morality tale?   I suppose it’s best categorized as middle grade (the protagonist is an eleven-year-old boy), but is it really meant for children?  I would definitely recommend this book to teens and adults, as well as to older kids who can handle spooky stuff.          

Meagan:  This book reminded me so strongly of  The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (one of my favorite books and authors).  Ocean is an adult book, but it is also a category defier.  The protagonist is seven years old for most of that story.  Like The Nest, it is scary and has a lot of eerie, other-worldly stuff going on.  This really got me thinking about what makes The Nest MG, which I do agree it is, while Ocean is usually categorized as adult.  MG categorization is something I obsess about because I sometimes worry that my own work is not easy to categorize.

Here’s what I came up with:  While the other world and antagonist in The Nest are strange, they are also relatively simple and straightforward.  Ocean’s other world (and supernatural characters) are never really explained and a lot of complexity is left up to the reader’s imagination.   Also, in The Nest the protagonist’s parents are basically on his side.  They’re kind of unavailable and not as helpful as they should be, but they’re never actually in opposition to the protagonist.  I don’t want to spoil Ocean for anyone who hasn’t read it, but one of the scariest scenes in it involves a parent siding against a child.  That alone probably makes it too heavy to be MG.  It also has a suicide and some other pretty dark aspects, so just to be clear:  The Ocean at the End of the Lane = Not MG!

Eva:  Speaking of spoilers…It’s hard for me to know what to say about The Nest  because I don’t want to give too much away.    I entered into this book knowing next to nothing about it, and I’m glad.  I was immediately drawn in from the first beautifully-written and hauntingly-engaging paragraph:  

The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels.  What else could they be, with their pale gossamer wings and the music that came off them, and the light that haloed them?  Right away there was this feeling they’d been watching and waiting, that they knew me.  They appeared in my dreams the tenth night after the baby was born.  

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Meagan: So much my enjoyment of this book was rooted in solving the mystery and slowly figuring out how the different parts fit together.  So, I agree, it’s a story that’s especially susceptible to spoilers.

Eva:  What impressed me about this story was… pretty much everything, but for now I’ll say that the pacing and building of tension was fantastic.  The book really plays with emotions and expectations.  Things are not always what they seem, and the spookiness builds slowly until we reach a truly horror-filled climax.  I can see this book giving an adult the heebie-jeebies, and I say that as a compliment.     

Meagan:  I was also impressed by many aspects of this book, but if I had to pick just one favorite quality it would be the simplicity.  I know in the past I’ve complimented other books on their complexity, so maybe that’s kind of ironic.  While a complex story can be super impressive in the way that a chef-created meal is impressive (the perfect blend of complimentary flavors, unexpected yet perfect combinations of textures, a great wine pairing etc.), a simple story like this one feels like a perfectly simple little story unit all on its own.  Less like a multi-course meal and more like the very best clementine from the box.  The one that’s easy to peel, and completely seedless, and juicy but not messy, sweet and tart all at once.  Maybe I’m going too far with this comparison, but instead of an impressive composition of many things, The Nest is like a sweet little package that doesn’t need anything added.

Eva:  I like that comparison!  (Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this story “sweet.”)  Oppel concentrates solely on the story he is telling and everything in the novel serves a purpose in the main storyline.  He sets it in the summertime, I think, so that he doesn’t have to bother with Steve’s life at school.  Unlike many middle grade books, this isn’t a weaving together of various school, family, and friend storylines.  Oppel also doesn’t feel the need to “prove” to us that Steve is a real kid by showing scenes of Steve in real kid situations (eating lunch in the cafeteria, getting into squabbles with friends, etc.).  Instead, Oppel focuses solely on this very strange experience that Steve is having.

The Nest is also written simply on a sentence-level, but that just makes it seem all the more deep — like fable with an underlying message.  The story is also so imaginative.  Without giving too much away, Steve begins having conversations with a wasp queen in his dreams, and the lines between what’s real and what’s a dream become blurred:  

“And where I am now,” I said, looking around, “this is the nest, isn’t it?”  

“Right again.”  

“It’s a real place.  But I thought…”  

“What did you think?”  

“That I just dreamt you.”  

“You are dreaming.  But it’s also real.”

I wasn’t sure this made any sense.  “But how can I fit inside?”  

“Your dream self can fit into any space,” she said as if it were the simplest notion in the world.  “Outside the nest you’re big.  Inside you’re small.”  

The idea of a wasp-fairy being able to “fix” a sickly baby brother is so interesting and creepy-cool.  Since I just had a baby, I can’t help but wonder if Oppel himself is a parent.  When I swaddled my baby for bed the other night, I suddenly saw the similarity to a wasp pupa tightly swaddled inside a silken cocoon.  I wondered if perhaps that was where Oppel got the idea for this story.  

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Meagan:  Not only is the line between dream and reality blurred, but there’s also a blurry line between “crazy” and “sane.”  This dovetails perfectly with the book’s theme re: flaws that make us who we are.   Steve has been to see a psychiatrist already because of obsessive tendencies and anxiety, so he is worried that others view him as “crazy.”  Then the wasp queen uses this fear to manipulate him further (if he tells anyone about the wasps and their plans then he won’t be believed, might be considered schizophrenic etc.).  Then, as the climactic scene plays out and Steve attempts to defend himself and his baby brother, as a reader I kept thinking…Steve looks completely crazy to any outside observer of these actions.  He could end up getting himself and his brother killed by playing out some paranoid delusion.  It is intense to say the least.  

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:   Others have compared it to Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and that’s what I would say as well.  Every time Steve talks to the wasp queen he enters an “other” world much like the one Coraline enters.  At first, it seems like a dream-come-true, but slowly the truth (and the horror) emerge.  Meagan, I’m curious to know what you think because I know you’re a huge fan of Neil Gaiman.   

Meagan:   Absolutely, Coraline is a good comparison.  And, as I mentioned above, I was reminded of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (also by Gaiman).  

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • An eerie fairy tale
  • Pacing
  • Building of suspense
  • Deep themes in a simple story
  • Simple yet effective language
  • Keeping the focus on a single storyline

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva: A masterfully-written tale of suspense and horror that also explores deeply spiritual themes — a must-read.  

Meagan:  Maybe I like “horror” (or at least certain kinds) more than I think I do.  I think of myself as disliking scary books and trying to avoid them…but I wholeheartedly loved this one. Though I did avoid reading it at night.