Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Year Down Yonder - and Another Novel from Me a Year from Now?

This is the fifth book I've read in my exploration of Newbery-award-winning children's books. A definite pattern is developing. Like Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me and Clare Vanderpool's Moon Over Manifest, Richard Peck's A Year Down Yonder explores the life of a girl making sense of life in another era. Like Manifest, it also helps if the story involves being displaced from one's family while they try to get back on their feet financially.

The cynic in me says that apparently to win a Newbery all I have to do is mimic this apparently tried-and-true formula. I must admit, though, that these books have inspired me to write a tale in a similar vein. Hopefully my motives remain, however, to serve the story first and foremost and not shoot for some lofty and unlikely dream. My newest story idea is that of a 12-year-old girl who spends the summer with her grandparents at Topsail Island in North Carolina. While helping Grandpa at the sea turtle rescue center he runs, the girl helps rescue a turtle with a tracking device. The device leads her on an interesting journey - and the possible discover of Atlantis.

Sea Turtle Hospital in South Padre Island, Texas

In the Newbery winners I've dissected thus far, the real story behind all of them is the journey on which the main character goes. The character doesn't actually do any traveling, but learns about herself because of the people around her. In Peck's Yonder, Mary Alice's year with her grandmother opens her eyes to just how much Grandma takes care of the people in her town despite appearing very gruff and unapproachable.

Book Trailer

My greatest lesson in all this is to 1) create an interesting story and 2) populate it with interesting characters. Hopefully, let's say a year from now, we'll see if I've accomplished that with my Atlantis-themed book.

Richard Peck on Writing

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Crispin...and Other Stories of Boys of Unknown Origin

In my effort to familiarize myself with Newbery-award-winning books, I just polished off Crispin: The Cross of Lead. The book, the 50th by the author Avi, explores the life of a peasant boy who must deal with the death of his mother and then fleeing the only village he has ever known after being accused of a crime he didn't commit.

His journey pairs him with a juggler known as "Bear." The man takes Crispin under his wing as a sort of apprentice, but it turns out the man will also lead Crispin to find out the identity of the father he never knew.

As now happens with every book I read, I inevitably find similarities to my own writing. In this case, Crispin shares a common storyline with Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone. Avi's story focuses on an orphaned boy coming of age in medieval England and being led to his destiny with the help of a wise, but sometimes mysterious, man who takes a special interest in the boy. That, of course, is also at the essence of the origins of the story of King Arthur as Merlin guides the boy, unaware of his true identity, to his destiny.

While such commonalities in stories might suggest a lack of originality, there is another interpretation - good stories aren't necessarily original. They just find a way to put a fresh spin on the familiar. That may happen in the portrayal of character (I particularly enjoyed Bear), description of setting (I loved the detailed descriptions of the town of Great Wexly), or the ability of an author to capture a world set in another time.

As I slog through the second draft of Otter and Arthur and the Round Table, the sequel to the Sword in the Stone book, I am reminded of these challenges. I am telling a familiar tale, but must keep an eye on how to bring a freshness to the story via my characters, settings, and era. It certainly doesn't guarantee me a Newbery award like Avi got, but then I've got another 48 books to go before I have his resume.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village - and Mastering a Single Voice in Your Story

In my exploration of Newberry winners, the 2008 winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village, has me baffled. It is not my intent to read the Newbery winners with a smug "I can write better than that" tone, but rather to see what can be learned from these award-winning works.

That's proving a bit of a challenge with Masters. It isn't a story. It is a collection of mostly monologues and occasional dialogues crafted by school librarian Laura Amy Schlitz. When her students were studying the Middle Ages, she took it upon herself to craft these bits for reading aloud.

Each piece focuses on one or two characters who live within a medieval village. Occasionally characters overlap as secondary references in other pieces, but mostly each piece stands alone. That means we get dozens of perspectives of what it is like to live in a medieval village - we hear from the blacksmith's daughter, the miller's son, the glassblower's apprentice, and the beggar. These different voices go a long way in fleshing out what a medieval village might be like.

The biggest strength of this book is also its greatest weakness - by giving voice to dozens of characters, there is no one character on which to focus attention. That means this becomes a good exercise in teaching children about medieval history and its people, but not such a great exercise in getting children to love the story itself. Because there isn't one.

I definitely learned an important lesson from this book - the value of researching another era to get the characters and setting correct. That is relevant to my Otter and Arthur books - both the already published Sword in the Stone and the upcoming Round Table sequel. For both of those books, I have read extensively about the true history of King Arthur as well as the popular legendary variations of his story.

However, in the end, the story comes first. My goal with those books was to follow the well-established Arthurian tradition of shaping the popular legends to my agenda. I want to deliver an intriguing story and important messages to kids within an Arthurian context, but am not aiming for historical fiction.

I'm also at the very beginnings of another project in which a mix of fact and fiction will become very relevant. My as-yet-untitled Atlantis-themed children's novel will tell the story of a 12-year-old girl spending the summer at the beach with her grandparents. She becomes fascinated with Atlantis when she and her grandpa rescue a sea turtle with a tracking device which leads to a seemingly impossible conclusion - that this turtle has delivered a message from the ancient sunken city of Atlantis.

I have already done extensive research on Atlantis, Poseidon, sea turtles, sea turtle rescue centers, and Topsail Island (the North Carolina setting for the story). My goal is to make the story feel as real as possible.

depiction of Atlantis from

This is all my way of emphasizing that research can be crucial to telling a story effectively. However, the story comes first. A book like Masters forgoes the balance in favor of showcasing the research without really telling a singular, unifying story.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Book Signing: Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone

Thanks to everyone who came out to my book signing at Shawnee Books & Toys! With more than 40 attendees and 18 book sales, it was a success. I did a couple of readings, signed books, and enjoyed mingling with friends, family, and brand new fans.

While the focus was on my first work of children's fiction, Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, I also had a dozen other books with me.

Thanks to my wife for providing treats, including (of course) a cheese plate to go with the mouse theme.

I started out discussing the writing process and how the book came about. Then I did a couple of readings from Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone.

There were also a few door prizes and then I signed books.

Then I got a chance to hand out with friends and family!

Special thanks go out to:

  • my wife, Becky Gunn, for providing the treats
  • my writing group peers who turned out to support me
  • Nicole Cunningham, who took the photographs
  • my sons' Campfire group for making this their event of the month
  • friends, family, and fans who showed up to support me
  • and, of course, Shawnee Books & Toys for sponsoring the event!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Upcoming Book Signing: May 18

Event: Author Dave Whitaker will be signing copies of Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone.

Date: May 18, 2013
Time: 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm
Place: Shawnee Books & Toys
Address: 7311 Quivira Rd, Shawnee, Kansas 66216

You can sign up for the event on Facebook at Book Signing - Dave Whitaker - Otter and Arthur.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

When You Reach Me: Making Sure You Reach Readers with Satisfying Conclusions

This month I've launched my effort to plow through a healthy chunk of Newbery Award winners in my quest to get a bead on the best children's literature out there. I delved into Clare Vanderpool's Moon Over Manifest earlier this month (Musing Over Manifest and Mockingbird, 6 May 2013) and have now added Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me to the list.

With a whopping two under my belt now, I already see a pattern. These are slice-of-life tales. The main character in each book is a pre-teen girl learning to navigate the world around her, by understanding her family, making make friends, and grappling with the bigger pictures of life.

The two stories also involve mysteries. In Manifest, Abilene wants to learn about her father's childhood while in Reach Me the quest is to learn the identity of whoever is leaving secret notes. Manifest and Reach both engaged me in the overall stories and characters. However, the former did a little too much signposting and left me feeling a little letdown by the finale. The latter had peppered in the clues so that it all came together in the end, but I was still scratching my head a bit.

Rebecca Stead discusses When You Reach Me

I have integrated some mysteries in my own endeavors writing Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone and now fine-tuning its sequel, Otter and Arthur and the Round Table. The lesson is to make sure the reader will 1) want to learn the outcome and that 2) the reader will be satisfied with the outcome once it arrives. This means that the reader must be well-invested in the characters and the story, but also that the ending comes across neither as too signposted nor as too much of a surprise.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Musing Over Manifest and Mockingbird

Most of my visits to the library involve my kids. This is a good thing because I end up browsing the children's section. Recently I stumbled across the 2011 Newbery winner, Clare Vanderpool's Moon Over Manifest. As stated on the Association for Library Service for Children website, "the Newbery Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children's book published the previous year."

Having dipped my toe into the literary waters of middle-grade fiction with Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, it seemed appropriate to read some of the most celebrated works targeted at that age group. Manifest succeeds largely in that it is written such that it has as much, if not more, appeal for adults as it does kids.

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird often sprang to mind. Manifest lacks the powerful theme of that classic, but resembles it in how we see the town and its people through the eyes of a young girl trying to better understand her father. The two books also resemble each other in that kids are central figures, but that doesn't make these children's stories. Mockingbird deals with heavy themes and circumstances suggesting readers be at least teenagers. Manifest is so rooted in giving the reader a glimpse of history that it would have limited appeal to pre-teen readers, which makes me question somewhat what criteria Newbery uses to define something as a "children's book."

The lesson for me as a writer is the value of telling a story which appeals to children and adults. Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone and its in-progress sequel, Otter and Arthur and the Round Table, are much less sophisticated stories. I deliberately kept the language and the plot simple to keep younger readers' interest. At the same time, I worked hard to infuse the stories with themes, characters, and scenarios to which adults would relate. Did I succeed? You'll have to stay tuned for the sequel (due in Autumn 2013), but you can check out the first book here: