Monday, September 30, 1991

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, March 31, 1991

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.