Thursday, December 19, 2013

Missing May - and How to Be Careful Not to Miss with Your Audience

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I'm really getting tired of bringing this up every time I read a Newbery medal winner. I've now read 21 and a third of the books feature an orphan as the main character.

I get it. Clearly no experience would be more unimaginably traumatic for a child than the loss of a parent. It is understandable that an author would want to delve into such rich territory. Unfortunately, in most of the books I've read so far, it feels like a device.

This makes Cynthia Rylant's Missing May (1992) more unique. The main character, Summer, is - wait for it - a pre-teen orphan. She is passed around from relative to relative before ending up with Aunt May and Uncle Ob. However, this book does something most of the other orphan-starring books fail to do - it actually confronts death and the impact it has on the main character.

Like the orphans in so many of the other Newberys, Summer doesn't deal with the death of her parents. She does, however, confront the death of Aunt May. More to the point, she has to address the effect it has on Uncle Ob. Summer, along with her friend Cletus, accompanies her uncle on a journey to hopefully bring him some closure. Summer's concern about her uncle and helping him get his will to live back is what ultimately drives the story.

The book was a quick read (I consumed it in just over an hour), but consequently comes dangerously close to not giving the reader closure. I certainly won't spoil the book for others, but I grew concerned as the ending approached because the story didn't feel finished yet.

It can be a challenge for a writer. It definitely served as a reminder for me as a writer to have a clear sense of not just where a story is going, but where it is going to end. An ending doesn't have to be a shocker or a tear-jerker or even completely satisfying. However, a reader does need to feel a sense of closure - that something hasn't been left out of the story. Missing May comes close to missing that point.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Walk Two Moons - and the Art of Telling Two Stories

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Walk Two Moons (1994), by Sharon Creech, is a Newbery medal recipient which - like seemingly every other Newbery winner - focuses on a girl coping with an absentee parent. I wish I could stop railing on this, but I'd like to see the Newbery committee acknowledge other challenges in the lives of teens and tweens. Anyway, that shouldn't be part of my commentary on Walk Two Moons.

Here's the description of the book at

"Walk Two Moons is the story of thirteen-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle from Bybanks, Kentucky, whose only wish is to be reunited with her missing mother. As Sal travels with her Gram and Gramps across the country to Idaho, she tells them the “extensively strange story” of her friend Phoebe Winterbottom, Phoebe’s disappearing mother, and the potential lunatic that comes knocking. Sal also reveals to the reader another story — her own."

As my latest project, Abigail's Atlantis, also strives to tell two stories simultaneously, I was intrigued by the novel's structure of having one story unfold within another. Gram and Gramps are quirky, lively, and heartwarming - and eager to hear their granddaughter's tale as they trek across country to let Sal discover why her mom left. The book does an admirable job jumping back and forth between the stories. Sal's telling of Phoebe's story is really Sal's way of expressing her own fears and doubts and wonders.

My biggest qualm with the book is its need to build the story around characters keeping secrets. Even though Sal's father and grandparents know what happened to Sal's mom, they don't tell her. If they were honest with Sal, the premise of the book largely falls apart. As is usually the case, they do so in the name of protecting her, but I had a hard time not just seeing it as a ploy for writing the book.

As such, I learned some important lessons as a writer. Two stories can be intertwined very successfully together. However, it is important to recognize that techniques like having characters keep secrets can leave a reader thinking, "Why didn't they just tell her?" I want to tell a story that doesn't leave the reader asking, "Well, if this happened, wouldn't that kill the entire story?"

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Lois Lowry's The Giver: What Does Your Writing Give to the Reader?

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Anyone who regularly follows my blog knows I have been on a quest to seek out and read all the Newbery medal winners. This is no easy task, considering the award has been given out annually since 1922. Since May 2013, I've plowed through about 20 of them. Lois Lowry's The Giver (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) is my favorite so far.

Lowry creates a supposed Utopia in which the threat of individuality has been stripped from society in favor of "Sameness" (think George Orwell's 1984). The story centers on Jonas and the coming-of-age ceremony which happens when kids turn 12 and are given their "assignments;" that is, the jobs that have been selected for them.

Jonas is tasked with becoming the society's new Receiver, which means the Giver will transfer his memories - both the good and bad - which are being shielded away from the general public.

Clearly the thought-provoking nature of the subject matter makes for rich territory. It also has generated a certain amount of controversy, although as Lowry herself says, she isn't sure why. She considers the book to be highly moralistic and notes that when the book has been challenged, it is in a vague way.

Of course, this is also why it has been my favorite of the Newbery books I've read so far. The book makes the reader (no matter what age) think. In my own writing, it challenges me to remember that the ultimate goal in writing is to give the reader something - maybe it is just entertainment, maybe information, maybe inspiration. In the best of worlds, a book accomplishes all three. The Giver is such a book.