Saturday, June 21, 2014

Shiloh...and the Moral Choices Characters Face

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Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Shiloh (1991) is a classic "boy and his dog" tale. This Newbery-winning (see a full list here) book delves into the moral struggles faced by Marty, an 11-year-old boy, when he rescues an abused dog. Because the dog doesn't belong to him, faces the dilemma of having stolen someone else's property and hiding this from his parents (he keeps the dog in a fenced-in area out in the woods).

Naylor does a nice job shaping ethical quandries to which children can relate - and doesn't get preachy about what is right and wrong. Instead, Naylor provides good food-for-thought in contemplating just what are the right courses of action when faced with not-so-easy choices.

In my own writing, I've focused lately on the struggles of pre-teen characters through Abigail's Atlantis. The dual story delves into the lives of Abigail, a 12-year-old girl spending the summer with her grandparents, and Kai, a 12-year-old boy in modern-day Atlantis. While not facing moral dilemmas, both characters struggle with how to fit in with the worlds around them. They end up facing hard decisions about doing what feels right to them.

In that sense, Marty, Abigail, and Kai all face the greatest challenge of all - making hard decisions about what feels right to them. As an adult writer, the greatest challenge in penning middle-grade fiction is to properly capture that dilemma - to accurately tap into that feeling of being too old to still be considered a child, but too young to be considered an adult.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Flora & Ulysses vs. Otter and Arthur: Which Didn't Win a Newbery?

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Okay, I'll acknowledge that one of these books is slightly better known than the other. Kate DiCamillo scooped up her second Newbery Award (given to distinguishd American children's literature, see full list of winners here) for Flora & Ulysses. She is the sixth author to win the prize twice. Stunningly, I have yet to win the award. ;)

Let's see if we can figure out why. Flora is a story of a child who wants a more interesting life and seeks out a relationship with her parents. When she rescues a rodent from certain death, the creature starts exhibiting amazing powers - such as the capacity to communicate with humans - and repays her ten-fold by helping her find the adventurous life she's always sought.

Hey, wait a minute. That's the plot of my first children's novel, Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone. Oh sure, mine's only about a mouse who proves instrumental in giving King Arthur his legendary status while DiCamillo's book focuses on a squirrel who gets sucked up by a vacuum cleaner and then learns to type poetry.


That's what I thought. In all seriousness, I the book left something to be desired. DiCamillo populates her series of Mercy Watson books with lovably quirky characters and amusingly silly plots, aided by great illustrations. By comparison, Flora is served by a quirky, but less-endearing cast in a more head-scratching tale. The book has some illustrations, but not enough to lift it the cartoonishly over-the-top, but fun antics of the Mercy Watson books.

I suppose I should concede that Kate DiCamillo is one of the best-known children's authors around. She's even had her books made into movies, including the Newbery-winning Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie. It would be nice to think my little self-published effort could rise above it all and, like the little engine that could or the story of David vs. Goliath, triumph over the big-time works backed by major publishers.

It would be nice, but I'm not counting on retiring on the vast amount of wealth I anticipate accumulating in the wake of my inevitable Newbery win. Sigh.