Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Mighty Miss Malone


Love the cover. Wished I loved
(not just liked) the book...
First off, I love Christopher Paul Curtis. His stories make me laugh and very nearly cry. He can write the pants off just about anyone.

And if you ask any fifth or sixth grade boy if he knows Curtis’s books and the boy shrugs in that “I dunno” kind of way, just remind him of the Ticonderoga pencil scene in Bud, Not Buddy.

You will be rewarded with huge smiles, laughs, and flaring nostrils. I guarantee it.

That said, I liked The Mighty Miss Malone and wished I could truly love it. Malone is Curtis’s newest novel, focusing on Deza Malone, a character first seen in Bud, Not Buddy. Deza is full of energy, intelligence, and pluck. As her family navigates the horrors of the Great Depression, Deza simply demands that you root for her and follow her story to its end.

When I turned the last page, I was glad to have spent time with Deza, but I still had a question in mind. It’s the question my former writing teacher, Jane Resh Thomas, is famous for asking writers: “What is that character dying for want of?” What’s the main character’s “heart’s desire”?

I wasn’t sure I could put a finger on Deza’s heart’s desire. 

When I read the afterword, however, I was immediately sure of the author’s heart’s desire.

Curtis has felt deeply the parallels between stories of the Great Depression and news reports and personal stories he’s heard about today’s economic struggles. He is—as my writing teacher might say—dying for want of public acknowledgment that children are suffering in today’s Great Recession.

As Curtis says, “I hope that Deza can serve as a voice for the estimated fifteen million American children who are poor, who go to bed hungry and whose parents struggle to make a dignified living to feed and care for them.”

 It’s a point that needs to be made, that must be heard today. But I can’t help wishing Deza’s heart’s desire was as plain to me as that of her creator. Perhaps the best I can hope for, as an avid reader of Christopher Paul Curtis’s fiction, is that Deza will be back soon—and that Curtis will give us all a closer, deeper look into her heart.


Friday, October 19, 2012

On the Fence between Fiction and Nonfiction


…and liking the view!

A book discussion group I follow (CCBC-net) recently had some back-and-forth on books that straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction. 

Teacher and writer Monica Edinger linked to a great list from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of titles that mix the twoAs the list's authors (Megan Schliesman and Merri V. Lindgren) make clear, sometimes it’s good for kids to see books that creatively combine approaches:

“We believe books like these present teachers and librarians with a tremendous opportunity. In today’s web-connected, social media world, children are exposed to information—and misinformation—at a younger and younger age. Teaching them to becoming [sic] critical readers and consumers of information has become more important than ever.”

I’ve written straight nonfiction like my how-to craft book Bookworks: Making Books by Hand (Carolrhoda Lerner) and made-up stories (fiction) like my historical picture book Riding to Washington (Sleeping Bear Press).

But I’ve had the most fun mixing the two. Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices (Calkins Creek Boyds Mills Press) straddles the fence. 

It mixes straight nonfiction, in the form of factual captions and chapter introductions that outline Ellis Island’s history, with creative fictional monologues, dialogues, letters, and emails all from the point of view of people at Ellis Island.

Q: Why mix fact and fiction?

A: Because sometimes the best way to reach the truth about a time or place or experience is to dive deeply into the facts we know—and then use that knowledge of history to extrapolate.

For example, in Hope and Tears, one monologue takes the point of view of a patient detained at Ellis Island’s contagious disease hospital in 1922. At the monologue’s end the girl, named Pearl, gazes onto the Statue of Liberty and reflects:

Outside the window, the Liberty Lady stands tall.
I can’t see her face yet, not from here.
But I promise you this:
I won’t stay in bed.
Soon enough, 
I’ll leave this island 
and take my place in this new land.
I won’t let Lady Liberty turn her back on me.

The monologue is a work of fiction. It’s based, however, on my study of Pearl Libow’s oral history interview, readings about the two hospital islands, and research that Ellis Island’s librarians Barry Moreno and Jeff Dosik helped me to conduct.

Background research anchors the fictional monologue in something close to the truth: Pearl’s truth, the sad truth of being a very sick girl in a strange new place and seeing the promise of freedom just out of reach, beyond your window.

Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices certainly straddles the fiction/nonfiction fence—and from my point of view, that’s one of the best vantage points to write from when your goal is to make history come alive for readers.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Blue is the new...


In children’s and young adult fiction, blue is the new cover color of the day.

Fashions are constantly changing in cover art. Just take a look at elementary school librarian Travis Jonker’s blog 100 Scope Notes to see how dated some Newbery Award-winning books look today—and how those same covers could get a fashion update.

What’s fascinating to me is a recent trend away from photo illustrated covers and toward simple drawings on a blue background. We saw it last year with the Printz Award winning title Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. (Note the ample empty blue space left for round award stickers.)

This year, it’s true with John Green’s young adult love story The Fault in Our Stars (reviewed here by the story slinger)and for R. J. Palacio’s middle grade novel Wonder. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb if I predict that Fault has plenty of room on the cover for a Printz Award sticker, and Wonder has the perfect spot (lower right corner) for a glowing round Newbery in silver or gold.

See a pattern here? Blue is the new…

- book designer’s choice when covering great middle grade and young adult fiction

- practically perfect background on which to slap a gold or silver award medal


-splashy, sunny accent to hold in one’s hands while wearing fall fashions


-easy-to-spot color for books facing out on shelves or standing tall on top of display cases.

If they’re that easy to pick out and look that good with what you’re wearing, then you have no excuse. Get your hands on The Fault in Our Stars or Wonder today.

Watch the story slinger for a review of Wonder coming soon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Three Musketeers


While this isn't the Alexandre Dumas
classic, it's still captures the feel
of the original. 

When I was about twelve, I was captivated by Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. I can still recall swaggering down the hallway at Brown County High in Nashville, Indiana, letting my oboe case swing—as if it were a sword ready to be pulled from the scabbard. En garde!

Now, I have reason the celebrate The Fourth Musketeer—a book blog by youth librarian Margo Tanenbaum showcasing “reviews and more about historical fiction and history-related non-fiction for children and teens.”

Here’s a snippet from a post to give you a sense of this blog:  “Laurie Halse Anderson once wrote in her blog that she preferred to call her historical books ‘historical thrillers’ rather than ‘historical fiction,’ given that many kids and teens associate historical fiction with BORING.  However, it's not every historical fiction title that can be justly called a ‘thriller.’” Tanenbaum then goes on to review a recent thrilling-not-boring title by Marissa Moss.

Click here for the Fourth Musketeer's review!
Along with reviews of books by great middle school authors such as Shelley Pearsall and Mary Downing Hahn, Tanenbaum also posted one of Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices.

It’s a lovely, thoughtful review, and here’s the link. Hurray for bloggers! Hurray for musketeers!