Monday, September 23, 2013

Kira-Kira: What Gives a Book Its Glitter?

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On the first page of Kira-Kira the main character, Katie, explains that the word means "glittering" in Japanese. As the book jacket says, Katie sees the world as glittering through the eyes of her older sister, Lynn. It doesn't take a genius at sketching out plots to guess that this is a sure sign that something will happen to Lynn. In the interest of not spoiling the book, however, I will leave it at that.

Instead my focus is on how to give a book its glittering quality. What makes it special? What makes it stand out above others? Certainly good writing, solid characters, and an intriguing story all contribute. There is, however, another ingredient which really makes a book shine. Imagination.

I believe a book is better when it has a fantastical element to it. What do I mean by that? Well, I'm a sucker for a very realistic story - with a twist. Craft a solid tale which feels real and throw in something quirky and you've got a good chance of hooking me. I cite John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany as an example. It is one of my favorite books precisely because it creates a world of believability around a have-to-see-him-to-believe-him character.

This leads me to the challenge of Kira-Kira. As regular followers of this blog know, I'm on a mission to read all the Newbery winners. Kira-Kira won the Newbery in 2005. For me, however, it lacks glitter. It is a well-written story, but it feels so real that it reads more like an autobiography than fiction. It may be that author Cynthia Kadohata isn't writing from personal experience at all. Maybe she imagined all the events in the book. My take, though, is that too much reality is, well, too much. I want something magical, something imaginary, something fantastical. I want the glitter. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Out of the Dust: The Importance of Research

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Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (Scholastic Press, 1997)is my most recent read in my quest to conquer all the Newbery-award-winning books. At the onset, I was pretty certain I wasn't going to enjoy it. The book is written in verse and I'm not big on reading poetry. However, I quickly became engrossed in the story. It helped that there wasn't a rhyming, sing-songy pattern to the writing and I was able to read it mostly as prose.

The story is set in the Dust Bowl during the depression. As is often true of a good story, this one worked for me because it did such an excellent job transporting me to a particular time and place. I still have to point out that in the well-established Newbery tradition, this book focuses on an orphaned coming-of-age girl. At least this book makes the loss of Billie Jo's mother a part of the story.

For my own writing, the lesson I take away is the importance of research. Hesse wasn't even alive during the depression or the Dust Bowl era. For this book to work, though, she clearly had to do a phenomenal amount of research so that it felt authentic.

With my latest project, Abigail's Atlantis, research becomes pivotal on two fronts. 12-year-old Abigail learns all about sea turtles while visiting her grandparents at Topsail Island for the summer. That brings about its own amount of research, but on top of that I am learning about Atlantis because of the parallel Atlantis-set storyline which will mirror Abigail's.

When researched properly a story - like Out of the Dust - becomes intriguing because the setting feels completely natural and real in the context of its story. In fact, while an author should have the basic story in mind from the onset, the writer should welcome whatever twists and turns the research may add to the story. It will make the journey more authentic.