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in the path of falling objects: the sandwich book

There’s no prison worse than “I promise.”

A promise can carry you through tough times.

Or cause them.

Jonah and Simon, two abandoned brothers, set out to rendezvous with a third brother coming back from Vietnam. The only guarantee they have of meeting up with him is in his letters.

The boys hitch a ride on the highway with Mitch and Lilly. As the story unspools they figure out that Mitch is a psychopath. Lilly’s a flirt. She likes to push Mitch’s buttons.

Jonah tries to keep the promise he made to his older brother, to keep Simon safe. Like all little brothers, Simon doesn’t like getting bossed around. Mitch encourages Simon’s minor rebellions, coaxes them into bitter hatred for Jonah. Who would blame Jonah if he just walked away?

Well, there’s that promise.


Andrew Smith’s second book is gut-punching good. Each chapter is labeled with the character whose point of view it’s written in. Not necessary. Because every character’s voice is so distinct you can tell them apart without a scorecard.  The attention to setting puts you right in the desert southwest without getting artsy-fartsy. And the Vietnam letters have heart-breaking historically accurate touches.

Andrew writes really fast. His third book came out last November: The Marbury Lens. It has been named one of the Best Children’s Fiction Books of 2010 by Publisher’s Weekly, and is on the ALA Best Books for Young Adults list 2010, just like his other two books. And he’s got more in the pipeline.

I’m kind of afraid Andrew’s second book, In the Path of Falling Objects might have been overlooked because it was sandwiched between book one and three, way close to The Marbury Lens release date.


That is an order.


crossing the tracks by barbara stuber

You’ve been to the party–today you get to hear about the book, Crossing the Tracks by Barb Stuber.

It wasn’t Iris Baldwin’s idea to leave her home in Atchison. Just like it wasn’t her mother’s idea to die and leave Iris alone with her father.

This particular summer, Iris’ father decides to hire her out as a companion to a doctor’s elderly mother.

Without consulting Iris.

Seems like a reasonable solution to him–after all, he’s got his hands full with a fiancée and a new store he’s opening in Kansas City.

So Iris leaves her hunkalicious friend, Leroy, and obediently boards a train to live with strangers in the middle of nowhere.

I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, because it’s too delicious to spoil for you. I want to assure you that plenty of stuff happens. PLENTY. Also, DO NOT COUNT LEROY OUT.

Usually, a book stays with you for one striking characteristic, but Crossing the Tracks is one of those rare books that dazzled me for multiple reasons.

First, the beauty of the language. There will be passages you stop and reread just to savor the words. But I’m not the kind of gal who loves words just for their own sake. There’s gotta be story.

And there is story. Man alive, there is story. Barb Stuber has gleaned vignettes and narrative from family and acquaintances who lived during the era. And of course, from her magnificent brain box.

Last of all, the historical detail. Crossing the Tracks contains the kind of information you can only get  from reading stacks of magazines, listening to old radio programs or from people who experienced the times.

This book was especially interesting to Freckles McYoungest, as her grandmother was a teen in the ’20s in Kansas City. But it should appeal to any reader with a grandmother or great-grandmother who lived during this time.

Read Crossing the Tracks, even if you think you don’t like historical fiction. You’ll like this.

master writer #2–laura manivong, escaping the tiger

Last Friday I started a blog-series in which I look at kidlit books whose authors have mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.

This week it’s Laura Manivong’s Escaping the Tiger:

Straddling the Middle-Grade /Young Adult market, Escaping the Tiger tells the story of one family’s escape from communist Laos. 12-year-old Vonlai, his sister Dalah and his parents risk their lives to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. There, they discover life in a refugee camp is anything but pleasant. They will have to conquer hunger, violence, boredom and despair in their quest to build a future where they can be free.


She makes you feel as if you are physically present in her setting.

Maybe you’ve been in a refugee camp in southeast Asia, but I haven’t. After reading Escaping the Tiger, however, I feel like I visited there for a very long time.

1.  A great way to establish setting, especially in an exotic locale, is to USE DESCRIPTIONS THAT ARE ROOTED IN THE CULTURE WHICH YOU ARE DESCRIBING. Laura does this here, where Pah tells Vonlai on the night of their escape how quietly he must walk on the way from their house to the Mekong River.

“Walk like a tiger hunting a meal. Understand?”

Notice that Laura isn’t even describing “the setting”, per se, but this one line lets you visualize an entire jungle, and  Vonlai walking silently through it. As a bonus, the ferocious image of a tiger lets you feel the anxiety of carrying this order out successfully. It means life or death.

2.  Laura has the distinct advantage of being married to Troy Manivong, who escaped from Laos and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand as a young man. She had access to USE DETAILS  SO SPECIFIC ONLY SOMEONE WHO HAD BEEN THERE WOULD KNOW THEM.

“His bike that had a rolled towel wired and taped on for a seat.”

Even novels that are pure fiction contain details so well thought-out they appear to be true.

3.  An effective way to draw in your readers is to SHOW HOW THE SETTING AFFECTS YOUR CHARACTERS. Laura doesn’t describe the weather or living conditions anywhere in this passage:

“Inside the building, Vonlai tried to sit upright on the bench that lined the wall. Pah and Meh filled out paper-work. Dalah slouched over her own lap, her face buried behind a wall of hair that should have been washed a week ago. An oscillating fan pushed a blanket of air toward them every few seconds….

Vonlai swept palmfuls of sweat from behind his knees…

Vonlai rubbed a hand across his leg. A streak of clean skin appeared and a muddy drip of sweat fell from his hand.”

I would like a bubble bath and loofah sponge immediately, please. Ick.

Of course Laura Manivong has a lot of tricks in her bag. Pick up Escaping the Tiger to learn from her, my candidate to you as Setting-the-Reader-In-The-Book Master.

Did you know Escaping the Tiger started out as a Picture Book? What does Laura’s Manivong-family think of the book? Watch a mini-interview:

master writer #1–jennifer brown, hate list

I have a brilliant, new idea.

No, no, come back!

For the next weeks I’m going to profile different kidlit books whose authors have mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.  These are the books I go to when I’m stuck in revisions and need a refresher course.

First up:

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown

A gut-wrenching YA, The Hate List is about the aftermath of a school shooting. Valerie and Nick, two high school outcasts who find each other, are bullied by just about everyone else in the school. As a way to blow off steam they keep a running list of people who treat them badly–the “hate list”. Near the end of junior year, Nick cracks. He shoots up the school, killing kids, using the hate list as a guide. Even though Valerie saved a classmate she’s implicated in the deed. She helped write the hate list. She loved Nick. How responsible is she? How much guilt does she bear?


She can make you feel sympathy for her villain.

Can you imagine a more unsympathetic character than a mass-murderer?

Don’t get me wrong, Jennifer doesn’t excuse Nick’s actions. Or blame them on society. But she does give us a reason to lament the loss of his soul. Nick is by turns repulsive and endearing.

1. The poor, misunderstood villain is a great way to stir up sympathy. Jennifer does it here, by CONTRASTING WHAT SOCIETY BELIEVES ABOUT THE VILLAIN vs WHAT THE NARRATOR KNOWS

How could Valerie have loved such an awful monster? Jennifer takes us back to when Nick and Valerie meet:

  • Society sees: “His clothes were ratty, sometimes too big, and never stylish.”
  • But Valerie looks beyond that: “He had these really sparkly dark eyes and a lopsided smile that was adorably apologetic and never showed his teeth.”

2. Just when you think you’ve got this guy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks pegged, Jennifer gives Nick AN UNEXPECTED INTEREST OR TALENT.

Valerie visits Nick’s room for the first time and stumbles upon his stash.

“…To you yourself, to us, to everyone”

“Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answer’d?” Nick said, quoting the next line before I had a chance to read it.

I sat back and looked at him over the top of the book. “You read this stuff?”

That’s right, Nick is somewhat of a Shakespearean scholar. All on his own. Now, I find that awfully endearing, don’t you?

3. And as you might imagine in a book about bullying, there is more than plenty of UNEARNED SUFFERING.

“I could almost feel the embarrassment and disappointment radiating off of him, could almost see him crumple into defeat before my eyes.”

Note that the most effective use of unearned suffering comes AFTER you have established your villain’s likability.

This has been a mini-crash course. Pick up Hate List to learn from Jennifer Brown, my gift to you as The Sympathy-for-the-Villain Master.

book report #11: letting boys be boys

smellthetestosterone Wow.

Just finished Ghost Medicine, by Andrew Smith.

Did I mention, “Wow” ?

This is YA Guylit for manly men.  As the cover promises, the story is about friends, enemies, heroes and blood. But it’s…so…mindful.  It’s downright…now don’t take this the wrong way…lyrical.

Wait!  Come back here!  I didn’t say it was sappy.  Or girly.

It’s thoughtful.  Andrew Smith takes his time, lets the story unspool at a steady pace.  Lulls you into a feeling of security that ends up being false.

Smith provides the type of detail that proves he knows how to handle horses, dig post holes, handle a gun.  The characters chew tobacco, experiment with alcohol.

They are downright naughty.

But naughty doesn’t mean bad.  Smith portrays the passage to manhood without apology.  No one has to learn a politically correct lesson, though there are plenty of lessons learned.  I hate to call this book a “coming of age novel”.   That’s a flat description of this rich, immersive story.

I’ve got to admit that having read Smith’s breezy blog, I was surprised by the voice.    It took several pages for me to settle into the rhythm of the book, trust the author to take me where I needed to go.  Glad I did, because the setting became so real to me, I could swear I’d visited the Benavidez spread myself.  The pace of the book matches the narrator, Troy Stotts, a boy whose life revolves around ranching.  And you can’t hurry those things.  Horses.  Guns.  Hard, physical labor.

Troy isn’t a scholar, but he’s a deep thinker.  And we get to share his thoughts as he endures incredible trials that make him into a man.

Ghost Medicine teems with interesting characters.  The powerful rancher, who doesn’t appreciate the strength in his own son.  The widowed teacher, who just wants to hide.  The lazy sheriff.  Good people.  Bad people.  Ambivalent people.  Every character seems fresh, every bit of dialogue rings true.

Just found out that Ghost Medicine has been picked as one of  the ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults of 2009.

Really not surprised.

Guys, I’m talking to you.  There’s probably stuff in here your moms don’t like.

But I bet your dads do.

book report #10: evolution of a fairy tale

We all know the story of Little Red Riding Hood.


Girl goes into the woods to bring her poor grandmother some sustenance, wolf tries to eat her…

But there’s a whole book about that “yadda yadda yadda”.

Little Red Riding Hood UNCLOAKED: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale by Catherine Orenstein is an entirely readable book about…well, look at the title.

We can all agree that Red’s mother sent her with supplies to see her grandmother.  But then you have to pick your era to find out what happens next.


Charles Perrault wrote a version for adult entertainment at the court of Louis the XIV.  It’s full of innuendos and sly allusions that we don’t get.  Red represents the naïf at court who had better watch out for the ravening roué that will ruin her reputation and chances for a profitable marriage.   (Ravening is really hungry.  A roué is a manslut.  A naïf is an airhead.  That’s right.  I own a thesaurus.)  In the end, the wolf eats her without so much as a burp.

The Brothers Grimm version has a better outcome.  Grandma and Red get eaten, sure, but the brave woodsman comes and slits the wolf open, extricates the poor defenseless females and kills the wolf.

Yay, men!

I bet you don’t remember that Red meets a second wolf later, and she and Grandma are on guard this time.  They kill the wolf in a pre-emptive strike.  Why the different ending?  Different audience.  This rendition was told to Victorian children, who needed to learn the value of minding their elders.  Girls were helpless, and if they didn’t follow their parents’ instructions they would come to no good.


But the Grimms collected stories from a different demographic than they claimed.  The source for Little Red Riding Hood was their fellow gentry, not the folk they supposedly interviewed.

The story told by the peasants was a little different.  In it, the wolf commands that Red strip naked and come to bed with him.  When he gets fresh, Red feigns (that thesaurus again) a need to relieve herself.  She escapes.

Sounds like the perfect story for girls that have to fend for themselves, not sit around the parlor like hot house plants, smocking.

Orenstein shows us Red Riding Hood as victim, vixen, bitch, empowered woman, cross-dresser…

Seems Red changes with the times.

Little Red Riding Hood UNCLOAKED is more than a study of fairy tales, it’s a real-life example of storytellers knowing their audience.

Something every writer needs to do.

book report #9: writing disasters

No, this isn’t about garbled dialogue or a 200,000 word manuscript. 

Or typing a hilariously scathing reply to an inane memo from your boss, and instead of sending it to your cubicle buddy you hit “reply all”.

We’re talking actual, matter-of-factual horrors.  I’ve found the perfect book for writers of action-adventure-tragedy, middle-grade, YA or adult.  (I love obscure but useful reference tomes.)  It’s The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley.  (Believe it or not.)

The Unthinkable explores the ways people react in emergency situations.  Amanda Ripley begins with one woman’s story of  9/11.  We’ve been told how well people executed the evacuation of the towers, but Ripley throws a new light on the behavior of the survivors.

Rather than leaving immediately, most people waited to be told what to do.  After the first plane crashed into the twin towers, the Port Authority actually advised workers to remain at their desks and wait for further instruction.  The “further instruction” never came.

Some people fled to the roof, which was locked.  Some stayed making phone calls and sending emails, gathering folders and briefcases, logging off their computers.  They soothed each other with theories about how a pilot could accidentally slam into the building. 

They milled around.  They couldn’t find the stairs.  They zoned out.

It took much longer to empty the twin towers than was physically necessary.  Investigators wanted to find out why.

9/11 victims have been interviewed extensively to learn how the human animal responds to catastrophe.  Scientists have identified the stages people go through.  Everyone passes through these stages, but the people who survive pass through the ineffective parts quicker than the people who become krispy kritters.

Chapters include the story of a man who refused to leave his home as Katrina bore down on New Orleans.  An analysis of  a supper club fire.  A stampede in Mecca.  Plane crashes.  Virginia Tech.

Denial.  Gathering.  Deliberation.  A person in a pickle must pass through these phases.

I repeat: pass through.

Too often they become stuck. 

In her conclusion, Ripley tells us that the two key elements of creating survivors instead of victims are information and practice.  But companies and governments usually shy away from such a simple solution.  They don’t want to panic the populace.  But studies confirm that people who know what to do in an emergency do not panic.

Need to know what motivates a hero?  How a panicked person really reacts?  How to get out of a plane crash alive? 

Here ya go.

book report #7: where the wild things are, and aren’t

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.


If you’ve never heard of this book, let me be the first to welcome you to earth:

As a child, I read this book.  Once.  I hated Max.  I thought he was a naughty little boy.  He scared me more than the Wild Things did.  He was a kid running around terrorizing his own dog with a fork, for God’s sake.

I had nothing more to do with him until I had hellions of my own.

(Before you decide that I am the only child that reacted that way, read this exchange between Mr. Sendak and one mother:

Mother: “Every time I read the book to my daughter, she screams.”
Sendak: “Then why did you continue reading it to her when she does not like it?”
Mother: “She ought to, it’s a  Caldecott book.”

Sendak mentioned that he thought that was ridiculous and “if a child does not like a book, throw it in the trash.”)

When Boywonder was young we did LOTS AND LOTS of things that didn’t cost one red cent.  Feeding bread too stale even for us, to the ducks at the park.  Digging gigantic holes in the back yard.  Going to see the covered wagon and steamboat exhibits for free at the Kansas City Museum.    Highest on the list, of course, was a weekly visit to the library.

On one sojourn to the children’s floor, my darling three-year-old with the nearly-blond hair and the trust-me dimples came running  with a fascinating-looking book…

You guessed it.

Oh no!  Boywonder wanted this book!  He was a bully!  A jerk!  Maybe even a psychopath!

With trembling fingers, I turned to the first page:

“The night Max wore his wolf suit, and made mischief of one kind…and another…”

Gee, that sounded like a certain little boy I knew rather well.

“…his mother called him ‘Wild Thing,’ and Max said ‘I’ll eat you up…'”

Wow.  I know someone a lot like his mom, too.

We flipped the pages, Boywonder lingering over every Wild Thing portrait.  We laughed as Max wielded his authority over all things wild, and sighed when he came back  to his own home where his supper waited for him.  “And it was still hot.”

We read it three more times before we checked it out.

So why the big difference in reaction?

Who knows.  I’m sure it’s some big deep psychological secret that I would be loathe to reveal.

But I think it’s as simple as this:
Boywonder focused on taming the Wild Things.

I focused on the kid wielding a weapon on his beloved pet.

I think my son got the point a whole lot faster than I did.

book report #6: nerds are real characters

If you’re going to write a YA novel with a less-than-popular teen character, you’ve got to read  the book American Nerd: The Story of My People  by Benjamin Nugent.

Nugent confesses to being labeled  a nerd in high school.  But he doesn’t rest his expertise on his personal experience. He looks at the nerd in scholarly studies, interviews, popular culture, and even touches a bit on the nerd in history.

In Nugent’s view, a true nerd is more inward, more directed by logic and reason and less by emotion and physicality.  A nerd is more machine-like, stiffer, and has some relationship to Japan.  You’ll have to read the book to understand that last part.

There are two types of nerds: people who truly deserve the name, and others who are guilty by association.

And then there is the anti-nerd, the nerd wanna-be. 

Nugent takes us through the trends that have helped to define the nerd, such as Dungeons and Dragons, the high school debate team, manga and anime, Star Trek, Star Wars, pseudo-Medieval societies, computer games…

But through interviews we find out that while these pursuits alienate the nerd from the mainstream, they also serve as a vehicle for friendship with other nerds.  In some cases, these nerdly endeavors are even a salvation.

And then there is the issue of Asperger’s Syndrome.  Are nerds mentally ill?  Should we try to “cure” nerdiness?  If we do, will we lose our greatest technological innovators and scientists?

This book is thoughtful as well as interesting.  It’s a peek into nerds’ feelings, understandings, and often their self-loathing.

If you’re a writer, American Nerd will be a big help in developing your characters.  If you’re not a writer, it might just help you be a little kinder.

book report #5: what’s so dang funny?

I can only afford so many conferences a year, so when I saw The Portable Writers’ Conference, edited by Stephen Blake Mettee,  I drooled a little.

There’s a lot of jewels in here:

Unforgettable…Creating memorable characters…by Sara Ann Freed                                           

Can These Bones Live?…Writing good period dialogue…by Leonard Tourney

Slice Yourself a Piece of Mud Pie…Writing for the children’s book market…by Andrea Brown

Meet  a Jerk, Get to Work…Find your fiction characters and settings in everyday life….by Jaqueline Girdner

But the article that really gave me pause was not written by an editor or author, but by a stand-up comedian.  The article is: Humor Impaired?…the hows and “wise” of humor for Roger Bates.

First of all, my favorite quote is “People enjoy laughing.”           



But after a few paragraphs convincing us that not only is laughing good, but people actually like it, Roger gets to explaining how to write a set up and a punchline.   He also discusses the reverse, the indirect resolution, hyperbole, the callback, and other terms that will get you through humor 101.

That’s where the guy leaves me in the  book jacket dust.

If I try to dissect what is funny, my sense of humor goes deaf.  It’s like thinking about how to skip or how to steer a canoe or how to balance on a horse.  I fall on my fanny pack, every time.

I can see how Roger’s information can be very helpful, but I’m too intuitive to work that way.

“Intuitive”, in this application, means “dumb”.

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