Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Maniac Magee and the Fine Art of Getting Through This Crazy World

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Jerry Spinelli's 1990 book, Maniac Magee, is set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Two Mills, which is racially divided into the East End (black) and West End (white). The title character is an orphan (! - see nearly EVERY OTHER post on the Newbery-winning books I've read) who finds himself on the "wrong" side of town. Although he is white, he is taken in by the Beale family, who are black. When others disapprove of his presence on the East End, Maniac heads out to find another home.

Throughout the book, Maniac Magee moves from one place to another, even living for short spells with Mars Bar, who hated that Maniac Magee beat him in a foot race, and John McNab, who could strike out everyone but Maniac. Most amusingly, he lives for awhile in the buffalo pen at the zoo. He is also taken in by Earl Grayson, a groundskeeper at the zoo and a minor league pitcher who was the last to strike out Willie Mays.

Maniac Magee's method of dealing with this crazy world is what propels the book. He deals with bullying and racism by simply not acknowledging them. Instead, he excels at being who he is meant to be.

It makes for a different angle for a protagonist. He is important to know that Magee is deceptively passive. He isn't really sitting back and just letting things happen - he's steering the outcome of events precisely because of his choice not to react. Ultimately it teaches me as a writer to know that a novel's main character might not actually be the catalyst behind the main action of the story. While a character's actions in a story often drive the plot, the character's reactions are what drive its heart.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Penguins and Portals: Chris Baty Discusses the Origins of NaNoWriMo

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For those not in the know, November is National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo (learn more at I participated last year and wrote the first draft of my just-published Otter and Arthur and the Round Table.

The idea is to write a very rough draft of a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. I'm participating again this year with the intent of penning the rough draft of Abigail's Atlantis, my story of a 12-year-old girl who visits her grandparents at Topsail Island, North Carolina, for the summer. She helps her grandfather at the sea turtle rescue center where he works - and finds what she thinks is a connection to a modern-day Atlantis.

The point of this post, however, isn't just to plug my projects, but to talk about NaNoWriMo. I had the privilege last night of being one of roughly sixty people to see Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. Originally from Prairie Village, Kansas, he was back in town to offer a history of how the organization came about and where it has gone.

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He started it in San Francisco in 1999. He tapped his friends to help with his crazy new idea and 21 people signed on board. It was up to 140 by the next year and ballooned to 5000 by the third year. Now in its 15th year, there are more than 300,000 participants as well as 1000 classrooms.

Baty possesses the rare talent of being a writer who also knows how to engage an audience. He talked about his own love of books and how they inspired his imagination. He shared how he loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid and would go into the closet at home and search for a portal.

He relayed this experience to writing and how that opens a portal to one's own mind. He also joked about interviews with authors where they are asked questions like, "Where did you come up with the idea for the penguin?" and how the response was inevitably, "The penguin found me." As silly as he said that sounded, he realized how true it was once he began writing. Once the penguin found him, he knew the writing portal was open and would never close again.

Thanks, Chris Baty, for opening the portal for so many of us. Let the penguins rule!

Found: One Penguin. Considered Armed with the Ability to Inspire.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

The Midwife's Apprentice: The Role of Mentor and Student in Writing

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Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice (Clarion Books, 1995) won the Newbery medal in 1996. For anyone who's followed along on my journey through the Newbery winners, you won't be surprised by my eye roll here. This is yet another orphan story.

The orphan in question is a girl who starts out with the less than hospitable nickname "Brat" but gives herself the name "Alyce" later in the story. Her tale is set in Renaissance-era England, starting with her inauspicious "home" sleeping near the dung heap. She is taken in by the local midwife, Jane. While Alyce learns to become her apprentice, the relationship leaves her feeling more worthless than worthwhile so she eventually sets out on her own.

The mentor-student relationship is almost as common a theme in Newbery books as the orphan concept. It makes sense; a child without parental guidance must seek supervision in some manner. However, I am tiring of the unlikable teachers with which these main characters are so often saddled. It isn't that the mentors must be likable characters, but it is important that the main character transforms as a result of the relationship. Sadly, in a story like this, the character does grow, but would have done so faster and more successfully under someone else's tutelage.

The lesson I take from this book as I work on Abigail's Atlantis is the relationship between 12-year-old Abigail and her grandfather. While I present him as slightly gruff, he is also intended to be likable. The important factor to keep in mind is to make sure that there is some conflict which pushes Abigail and the action forward. That, however, does not have to be a sour relationship with a mentor figure.