Tag Archives: contemporary fiction

What I did this summer

Today is my kid’s first day of school and I thought I’d celebrate by tackling my least favorite essay topic from school. I hated it simply because if something exciting happened it felt like bragging to write about it, and if nothing much happened, well, it’s a little depressing to call that to mind at the beginning of a school year.

The truth is I’ve had, by most standards, a very ordinary summer. We took a little trip to the mountains and a day trip to the beach. We did yard work. We made jam. But four things have stood out for me as making a difference in my writing. So I thought I’d say a little bit about all four.

1. A change of setting tends to lead to new work or at least new ideas.

View north from Harsin ButteIt was my great pleasure to participate in the Outpost Workshop of the Fishtrap Summer Gathering. I spent a week tenting out on the Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon. It was an astonishing landscape–outwardly empty, yet on closer inspection teeming with wildlife from bull elk to least weasel to all manner of song birds. The days got into the 100s with barely a scrap of shade and the nights dipped down into the 30s. The altitude was a challenging 5000 feet or so. Not the most conducive environment to productive writing, and yet I found myself flooded with story ideas, thinking for example, of what it would be like to homestead such a place with it’s punishing climate but rich resources.

2. New company tends to lead to new perspectives

I met a woman named Janet at the Outpost workshop who has worked on the Zumwalt and in the near by Wallowa Mountains and Snake River canyons for most of her life. She knew an incredible amount about the natural and human history of the area. She shared some of the history of the Joseph band of the Nez Perce who lived near Wallowa Lake up until the famous surrender of Chief Joseph in 1877.Unknown  You probably remember ‘From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.’ Its one of the most quoted bits of Native American writing ever. Janet gave the fuller version of his surrender and cast the story of Chief Joseph into an entirely different and far more interesting light. Whether the things I’ve learned become a story I write or not, it’s good to periodically revisit what I’ve learned as historical truth, and consider what that truth might look like from a different perspective.

3. World news is less distant than it seems

Along with the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri and the ebola outbreak in Africa, one of the world events that has dominated the news this summer is the solo migration of children from Central America.  It would be easy to think of these events as comfortably distant and unrelated to me personally. However, I’ve been researching the famine-era migration of Irish children to the US and a shocking number of them came to this country alone at very young ages. It’s easy to mentally scold parents that would send their children into such danger and hardship and yet, just like Central America of the present day, the children of mid-1800s Ireland faced near certain death in their home country. I find it much easier to think through the issues about what to do with these migrant children knowing my own ancestors were in exactly the same position a mere 150 years ago. I read a great book from a migrant’s point of view called Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea.  It was so thoughtfully done and not at all the pedagogic thing I’d be tempted to write if I took on this topic directly myself. The topic of migrant children is a rich one but I think if I took it on I’d write about the famine-era Irish. I’ve been thinking about what books might help children process the information from the ebola epidemic and from the human rights demonstrations in Ferguson, but that is a post for another day.

4. Changing genres is good for the brain

I’ve been working on the same two novels for quite a long time and as much as I love both of the stories I was feeling a bit uninspired at the beginning of the summer. But I spent a little time being a workshop participant rather than a leader and I learned a bunch new things which lead me to try a non-fiction picture book and a screenplay. I managed to get through a whole draft of the non-fiction and part way through a screenplay, and I’m feeling more energized than I have in ages. Not a vacation exactly but definitely a change that did me good.

And all this changing up and refreshing has been perfect timing because one of those two novels I’ve been working on for such a long time is going to be published by Random House in 2016. I’ll do the final edits this fall and now after my summer break I’m 100% ready to dive into the revisions whole-heartedly. The new book will be called The Turn of the Tide. It’s a contemporary middle grade adventure story set in Astoria, Oregon and told in two voices. I’ll have lots more news about that in later posts.

How about you? Did you change things up in your summer routine? Gain an insight from a summer trip? How do you refresh yourself when you’re feeling stale?

Middle Grade Monday Book Review: Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle

567_nate_coverHere’s what it’s about:

In the sequel to Better Nate Than Ever, Nate Foster’s Broadway dreams are finally coming true.

Armed with a one-way ticket to New York City, small-town theater geek Nate is off to start rehearsals for E.T.: The Broadway Musical. It’s everything he ever practiced his autograph for! But as thrilling as Broadway is, rehearsals are nothing like Nate expects: full of intimidating child stars, cut-throat understudies, and a director who can’t even remember Nate’s name.

Now, as the countdown to opening night is starting to feel more like a time bomb, Nate is going to need more than his lucky rabbit’s foot if he ever wants to see his name in lights. He may even need a showbiz miracle.

The companion novel to Better Nate Than Ever, which The New York Times called “inspired and inspiring,” Five, Six, Seven, Nate! is full of secret admirers, surprise reunions, and twice the drama of middle school…with a lot more glitter.

3 things for a young reader to love

1. The thing I loved the most about my childhood reading was being swept away to someplace new and exciting and this book has that in spades! The backstage look at Broadway as a child performer was fun and fresh and eye-opening. Even if you’ve never been in a show or wanted to perform there’s something appealing, and I think fairly universal, in the summer-campy, we’re-all-in-this-together vibe that Federle presents in this story.

2. For kids who do love the theater and are acting, singing, or dancing in community shows I think they’ll find a kindred spirit in Nate, who is such an appealing blend of strengths (memory for lines, heart, team spirit) and weaknesses (perhaps not the best dancer on the set). The arts are so often the red-headed stepchild of after school sports, it’s nice to have a book that celebrates theater with such unabashed joy.

3. The crush in a middle grade book is so tricky to get just right because middle grade kids are all over the map about romance, from deeply repelled to just as deeply intrigued. Nate hits the sweet spot with a story that manages to capture the intrigue of secret admirer notes and the slightly befuddled, what-just-happened-there of a first kiss without ever heading into territory that seemed to be icky or off-putting to the middle grade sensibility. Kids who are ready for a first kiss in a book will love this. Kids who aren’t quite ready for that probably won’t be grossed out.

Something for a writer to think about

Tim Federle has done something fairly amazing here. He’s got a story with a boy’s first kiss with another boy and yet it’s not a coming out story, not really even a story about being gay. The driving conflict in the story has everything to do with the show and orientation is not the contentious issue. Which seems exactly where the middle grade sensibility is with LGBT issues. The characters aren’t brimming over with anxiety about being gay because most kids in 4th to 8th grade are not at all concerned with the issues that drive such passion from older generations. It refreshing to see in print and I hope we see a lot more of it.

Likewise Federle has written a story with a kid who is a little self conscious about his body size without it being a book about a fat kid who needs to get thin. Nobody’s plaguing this kid to lose weight (although they’d like him to be a better dancer). He, in fact, doesn’t get in shape over the course of the story. His eventual triumph is based on his generous spirit, his ability to memorize other people’s parts, and his willingness to perform open heartedly. Qualities which have nothing to do with body type. Again, refreshing and well worth emulating! It’s got a razzle-dazzle cover, but this book is far more subtle than first meets the eye.

How I found this book

Unlike many of my reviews, I’ve never met the author. There are many theater-loving young people in my life which is why I picked it up at my public library and why I’ll be recommending it to lots of singing, dancing and acting kids I know.

Middle Grade Monday Book Review: Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachman




Rouge is the poignant story of a girl coping with Asperger’s syndrome as she navigates the foreign territory of friendship…

Kiara has a difficult time making — and keeping — friends. She has Asperger’s syndrome, so relating to other people doesn’t come naturally. Most of the time, she relies on Mr. Internet — her go-to when the world doesn’t make sense, which is often — and her imagination, where she daydreams that she’s Rogue, one of the mutant superheroes of the X-Men. In the comics, Rogue hurts anyone she touches, but eventually learns to control her special power. Kiara hasn’t discovered her own special power yet, but when Chad moves in across the street, she hopes that, for once, she’ll be able to make friendship stick. She’s even willing to keep Chad’s horrible secret, if that’s what it takes. But being a true friend is complicated, and it might be just the thing that leads her to her special power.

3 Things for a middle grade reader to love

I should begin with a caveat. This is marketed as a YA book and for good reason. It deals directly with a child who lives in a home where illegal drugs are being made. A middle school boy and one much younger, live in the house and are cruelly treated by their parents. That said there is very little in the way of swearing, no sex or romance, and the violence happens for the most part “off screen”. It’s not for a tender-hearted reader but I think it’s a valuable conversation starter for a kid with a taste for realistic fiction with a harder edge.

1. There are quite a few books about kids on the autism spectrum these days. Here is one written by a person with Aspergers Syndrome, and shows a keen insight into a kid who longs for friendship and connection even while her outward actions seem to signal the opposite. It also shows how vulnerable a highly intelligent child can be if she is not emotionally and socially sophisticated.

2. For kids who love real life drama and conflict with no magical solutions and no super powers or wise mentors to save the day, this is the perfect book.

3. BMX bike riding is really popular and I seldom see it portrayed in a book. I don’t see a lot out there for comic book fans to read that isn’t also a comic book. It would be a huge mistake to think that a kid who likes comics and graphic novels can’t or won’t read something else, so if you’ve got an X-men fan in your life, here’s a novel that’s likely to strike a chord.

Something for a writer to think about.

Something my own editor and I have gone back and forth on with each of my manuscripts is whether the character sounds authentic to his or her age. It’s a tricky problem because kids in real life sound worldly-wise one moment and babyish the next. A characters position in the family and region of the country have a huge impact on how sophisticated they sound. So how to capture the “true voice” of a character without confusing the reader about the characters age is always a challenge. I thought Kiara’s character did a good job of both sounding highly intelligent but also young for her age and naive.

How I came to review this book

As always I make no claims to objectivity. Lyn Miller-Lachman is a friend and gave me an ARC of her book. I would have reviewed this one many months ago but the kids in the carpool found it and passed it around and then another friend wandered off with it and then my own kids read it. Not that I pushed the book on them by any means, in fact I was rather put out when the book vanished for months. But I’m happy to have finally gotten a chance to read it.