About the hook at the beginning of the book

Because I’m starting to write a new book of my own, I’m particularly interested in beginnings at the moment. This week I decided take a closer look at the first paragraphs of ten middle-grade fantasies I’ve read recently. I wanted to check out two things. First, how many of these books had beginnings I consider intriguing? Which would I have continued reading if I wasn’t on a mission to dissect middle-grade fantasies to improve my own writing? Second, I wanted to get a feel for whether or not books live up—or down—to the promise of the first pages. How often did I like books with ho-hum openings? How often did books with clever beginnings feel like a letdown farther on?

What follows this isn’t scientific analysis, just personal opinion. I don’t think even my most analytical scientist-friends would have an easy time figuring out something like this scientifically; there’d be too much variability in what people think of the beginnings of books and what they think about the books overall.

When evaluating the beginnings of these books, I discounted the prologues, if any. Three of the ten books had official prologues; that is, sections labeled “Prologue.” One book, The Lightning Thief, had a sneaky little well-written half page that was actually a prologue but wasn’t labeled as such: a closet prologue, so to speak. I was generous and counted that as the actual beginning of the book, even though it wasn’t fooling me, not even for a minute.

One of the three out-of -the-closet prologues was truly execrable, in my opinion, and seemed to be there only to tie together a funky structure. Here’s the beginning of it, from The Ruins of Gorlan: “Morgarath, Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, former Baron of Gorlan in the Kingdom of Araluen, looked out over his bleak, rainswept domain and, for perhaps the thousandth time, cursed.” Seriously? Yikes. The other two prologues were well written, but I discounted them anyway and skipped right to the main dish.

I had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the openings of six of the ten novels. First paragraphs and first pages of books as varied as Liesel and Po, Saavy, Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers, A Tale Dark and Grimm, The Lightning Thief, and My Very UnFairy Tale Life all hooked me. They did it by raising questions in my mind, tickling my sense of humor, reeling me in with a great voice, or doing more than one of these at the same time.  In my opinion, only one of these books, My Very UnFairytale Life, failed to fully live up to the promise of its first pages. It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t as good as the other books with intriguing beginnings. To summarize, if these books are representative, I’d have to say that good first pages usually mean a good book.

But do less-than-stellar first paragraphs or even un-thrilling first pages mean a mediocre book? Maybe not. The openings of four of the ten books elicited a lukewarm or less-than-lukewarm reaction from me, but I read on, and ended up liking three of the four (all but The Ruins of Gorlan). I liked one of them so much I read it twice. That wonderfully funny book, The Wee Free Men, was the only one that had a beginning that would have stopped me cold if I didn’t have another reason for reading the book. Here’s how it opens: “Some things start before other things. It was a summer shower but didn’t appear to know it, and it was pouring rain as fast as a winter storm. Miss Perspicacia Tick sat in what little shelter a raggedy hedge could give her and explored the universe. She didn’t notice the rain. Witches dried out quickly.” My reaction was: Huh? And I only got more confused when I learned that Ms. P wasn’t really a main character. However, this was an utterly fantastic, laugh-out-loud book by a writer who could keyboard circles around the rest of the best. Just goes to show, you never can tell.

So what are my conclusions? As a reader, I learned that good first pages mean odds are better than even that the rest of the book rocks, too. But non-hook openings—especially old-fashioned first chapters that slowly introduce you to a character and his or her surroundings—are not necessarily a sign of yawns to come. So I’ll be keeping the faith and giving writers a chapter or two of grace before putting the book down and switching on NetFlix.

As an unpublished writer, though, I’m afraid the lesson is that only awesome first pages will cut the mustard. I better aim for great voice, intriguing questions, and if possible, a smile or two. Terry Pratchett can afford to give a puzzling first chapter to a secondary character. His thousands of loyal fans will forge on. Most of the rest of—including me—don’t have that luxury.

A book-by-book breakdown of opening pages follows.

Positive reaction – intrigued, definitely keep reading

“On the third night after the day her father died, Liesel saw the ghost.”
–Lauren Oliver, Liesel and Po
My reaction: Whose ghost was it? Her father’s? If not, then whose? What was the encounter like, and what happened next? Keep reading.

“When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he’d caused it.”
–Ingrid Law, Savvy
My reaction: Wow, a kid started a hurricane? How? Why? Keep reading.

“It was a typical, sunny summer afternoon on Karloff Avenue. A woman was watering plants in her garden. A mailman was making his daily rounds. Two mothers with strollers chatted on the sidewalk. And high above them, balanced precariously on the chimney of the oldest house on the block, Benjamin Franklin was disco dancing while mooing like a cow.”
–Matthew McElligott and Larry Tuxbury, Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers
My reaction: Oh, fun! Benjamin Franklin disco dancing on a roof in modern times? How? Why? Keep reading.

“Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome. I know, I know. You don’t believe me. I don’t blame you. A little while ago, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. Little girls in red caps skipping around the forest? Awesome? I don’t think so. But then I started to read them. The real, Grimm ones. Very few little girls in red caps in those. Well, there’s one. But she gets eaten.”
–Adam Gidwitz, A Tale Dark and Grimm)
My reaction: Fantastic voice. Speaker likes violent action, so this isn’t going to be your average fairytale. Keep reading.

“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood. If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life. Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways. If you’re a normal kid, reading this because you think it’s fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened.”
–Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief
My reaction: OK, maybe not my thing, but I bet kids would eat this up. I’ll keep reading.

“You know all those stories that claim fairies cry sparkle tears and elves travel by rainbow? They’re lies. All lies. No one tells you the truth until it’s too late. And then all you can do is run like crazy while a herd of unicorns tries to kill you.”
– My Very UnFairy Tale Life, Anna Staniszewski
My reaction: Fun voice, murderous unicorns. Keep reading.

Lukewarm reaction – OK, I’ll keep reading

“I’m going to die of boredom here, Sabrina Grimm thought as she looked out the train window at Ferryport Landing, New York.” Then comes a description of the town, the weather, the kids, and how they’re on a train. Then one of the kids speaks: “Do they have bagels in Ferryport Landing, Ms. Smirt?”
–Michael Buckley, Prologue, The Fairytale Detectives
My reaction: Right, I liked that thing about the bagels. I’ll keep going for a few pages on the strength of that. (Turned out to be a really fun book.)

“Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog. Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly, the Green Wind took pity on her and flew to her window one evening just after her twelfth birthday.”
–Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making)
My reaction: Reluctantly lukewarm, verging on less than lukewarm. OK, I’ll bite: What’s the Green Wind? What’s so important about May, the mole, and the feet? What happens to the little girl? I’ll keep reading because I’ve heard this is a good book.

“’Try to eat something, Will. Tomorrow’s a big day, after all.’
Jenny, blonde, pretty and cheerful, gestured towards Will’s barley touched plate and smiled encouragingly at him. Will made an attempt to return the smile but it was a dismal failure. He picked at the plate before him, piled high with his favourite foods. Tonight, his stomach knotted tight with tension and anticipation, he could hardly bring himself to swallow at all.”
–John Flanagan, Ranger’s Apprentice
My reaction: Meh. But this is the first book in one of my son’s favorite series, so I’ll keep going. (I am leaving out the excruciating prologue, which my son admits he also skipped.)

Less than lukewarm – I’ll read this because I trust the author based on previous work or because I’ve heard the book is good

“Some things start before other things. It was a summer shower but didn’t appear to know it, and it was pouring rain as fast as a winter storm. Miss Perpsicacia Tick sat in what little shelter a raggedy hedge could give her and explored the universe. She didn’t notice the rain. Witches dried out quickly.”
–Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men
My reaction: Huh? Keep reading because I read another book by this writer long ago and really liked his sense of humor. Maybe it will get better. (It did.)

Plot structure review: The Wee Free Men

Instead of writing a review this Sunday, I spent my day analyzing the structure of The Wee Free Men, a book I reviewed several weeks ago.

About a month ago I decided to analyze the structure of the books I review on this blog as one of a number of steps I’m taking to improve my writing. I’ve been using thriller writer Larry Brooks’ four-part plot structure as a guideline. You can read a summary of that structure here.

To my delight, The Wee Free Men follows Brooks’ structure well, deviating only at the very beginning, where there’s supposed to be an immediate hook. The first several pages of The Wee Free Men may hook for readers familiar with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, but the rest of us need to read on in faith, trusting that things will soon get interesting. They do.

So far I’ve analyzed the structure of three books. This is the second that generally matches the guidelines I chose to investigate, which please me because it confirms the guideline has practical value for me as a writer. I’m also feeling good because it’s taking me less and less time to analyze the structure of the books I read. Progress!

Next week I’ll be taking an intensive Friday-through-Sunday course on three-part plot structure, so I probably won’t have time to blog. The week after that I’ll be back with a review of Liesel & Po by Lauren Oliver.

Middle-grade sci-fi review: Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers

Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers, by Larry David Tuxbury and Matthew McElligott. Illustrations by Matthew McEllligott.

The Benjamin Franklinstein series:

Benjamin Franklin has been in suspended animation in his Philadelphia basement for the past two centuries, waiting to be awoken when the world faces a big emergency and needs its historical inventors. When lightning strikes the basement, Ben’s up and searching for the emergency. He’s also coping with advent of remote controls, bicycles, and Bermuda shorts. The only person who knows the founding father is alive is middle-school student Victor Godwin, Ben’s upstairs neighbor and guide to the modern world.

I have to admit that I meant to read the first book in this series, Benjamin Franklinstein Lives! but mistakenly ordered the second, Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers, so I’ll be reviewing the second book here.  Both books—and the third in the series, Benjamin Franklinstein Meets Thomas Dedison—were written by Matthew McElligot and Larry Tuxbury and excellently illustrated by Matthew McElligott. They’re for kids aged 8 to 12.

Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers:

The newly reanimated, electrically powered Benjamin Franklin and his guide to the modern world, middle-school student Victor Godwin, learn that an undead duo of famous inventors is under the control of a mysterious “emperor” with nefarious plans for taking over the city of Philadelphia. With the help of a local meteorologist, Ben, Victor, and Victor’s friend Scott use science and the weather to foil the emperor’s evil scheme.

This week I was feeling homesick for the United States in general and Pennsylvania in particular and wanted something light and fun to read, so I turned to the Benjamin Franklinstein series. My thought was that it would be harder to find a cooler premise than a reanimated Benjamin Franklin monster-hero loose in Philly hunting alleged vampires on the Fourth of July. By golly, I wasn’t disappointed, although I did wish for more Philly atmosphere.

One final caveat before moving on the kid-o-meter scales: although I ordered the book thinking it was fantasy, after reading it, I would classify it as science fiction. Nothing that happens is magic; it’s all explained by (admittedly fantastic) science.

Kid-o-meter scales

1. This book made me laugh out loud: 4. Benjamin Franklin just woke up from a really long sleep (like more than 200 years long), so he doesn’t quite have the hang of things like TV remotes and bicycles yet, but he does like cartoons and stickers. One of this book’s major strengths is its humor.

2. This book has good action: 3. Action abounds in this book, from vampire-like attacks on prominent city officials to zombie-like people chasing Victor and Scott, to a big final battle between Ben and early aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.

3. This book is suspenseful: 3. There’s certainly enough suspense here to keep you reading. You’ll wonder what the huge bats flying around and terrifying Philly really are; what the evil emperor’s goal is; who the emperor is; and how Ben, Victor, and Scott will stop him—just to name a few things.

4. The ending does not disappoint: 4. Right up to the final page I thought I’d give this item on the scale a lower rating. I thought the ending was good, but I just couldn’t understand why the emperor was hatching evil plans for dominating the city. What was his motivation? However, a surprise revelation in the very last sentence explains it, and I’m pretty sure you’ll want to read the next book to find out what happens.

5. I cared a lot about what happened to these characters: 3. Ben is charming, Victor is a pleasant tech-type kid who learns a lesson about underestimating others, and Scott is a really nice kid and loyal friend to Victor—even when Victor’s being difficult. I think you’ll care what happens to them.

Kid’s questions

1. How old is the main character? Middle-school aged. I don’t remember that the writers gave his actual age, but my guess is 11 or 12.

2. Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? Yes. Ben and Victor are joined by Scott and, near the end, by Scott’s father, who I hope returns in later books.

3. Is this a series or just one book? A series.

4. Is there at least one nice grownup? All the grownups but the evil emperor are nice in this book: Ben, Scott’s father, Victor’s mother, the major, the chief of police, the local reporter. Even the Wright brothers would be nice if they weren’t under the control of the emperor.

5. Does it get mushy? Is there L-O-V-E? Nope. Not even the tiniest whiff of mush.

Adult’s questions

1. What’s the major source of suspense? Ben, Victor, and their friends have several mysteries to solve. First of all, was Ben awakened by accident or on purpose? In other words, is society facing a great emergency, or did a fluke bolt of lightning reanimate Ben? What’s the truth behind the sightings of huge bats in the skies over Philadelphia? Are vampires at large, or is there another explanation? Who are the mysterious brothers in black, owners of a new bicycle shop, and what are they really doing with all those bikes? Who is behind the evil plan connected with the bike shop?

2. Which classic fantasy elements does this book contain? Well . . . I thought this book was fantasy when I bought it, but after reading it, it’s clear to me that it’s science fiction. The reanimation of Franklin, the apparent vampire attacks, the huge bats spied in the sky over Philly, the evil emperor’s plan to take over the city and Ben’s plan to foil the attempt are all scientific, not magical, at their core.

3. What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? Tolerance and empathy aren’t major themes in the book, but Victor does learn not to judge people so quickly: even unserious, silly-seeming people may be good scientists.

4. Is there profanity or violence? The book contains no profanity. Some of the scenes include chases and fights, but there’s no bloodshed, and no one dies. A number of “custodians”—people who watched over famous inventors while they were in suspended animation—have either died or disappeared mysteriously, but those events happened offstage before the action described in the book. I think the book is entirely appropriate for younger middle-grade readers.

5. How about mature themes or dark creatures? I did not notice any mature themes in this book. The giant bats, the vampire-like attacks on some of Philadelphia’s prominent citizens, and the pale and evil-seeming Wright brothers may seem to be dark creatures at first, but they are not. Instead, science lies at the heart of the plot.

This well-structured, nicely written, funny, imaginative, and well-illustrated book does not resonate with deep underlying themes, let alone deep underlying themes of darkness or evil, so my guess is that your kids will not find this book disturbing in the long run—just suspenseful, a little bit scary, and a lot of fun to read. After reading Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers, your child might become interested in learning more about Benjamin Franklin, American history, famous inventors like the Wright Brothers, famous scientists like Nikola Tesla, and scientific facts about electricity and meteorology. I doubt the book will prompt a deep interest in dark creatures like vampires.

6. What’s the take on religion and/or God in the book? The subject doesn’t come up.

7. What about politics and government? This topic doesn’t come up directly, either. The mayor and police chief are portrayed as good people placed under mind control by the sinister evil emperor.

8. Any gender issues whack you in the eye? The main characters are all male, which didn’t bother me. The mayor and a reporter are strong women characters, although they play minor roles. Victor’s mom appears in a few scenes and makes food. It’s not clear if she works from home, outside the home, or is a homemaker. Perhaps the authors have left this information purposely vague or explained it in the first volume in the series. As an aside, Victor’s mom doesn’t worry that her son hangs around alone in the basement of an older and very odd downstairs neighbor for large parts of the day, which would really have concerned me if I were in her place, but this is fiction, and it’s necessary for the plot for Victor to spend a lot of time together with Ben. Victor’s father doesn’t appear in the story at all. Again, I don’t know why, but maybe his absence is explained in volume one. It’s not necessary to the plot for us to know, either, so maybe the writers left it out for this reason.

Perhaps in an attempt to rectify the absence of a main female character, a middle-school-aged girl appears about halfway through the book in the role of a “custodian,” one of the people who puts inventors in suspended animation and reanimates them when they’re needed. She’s taken over the role after the disappearance of her parents, the real custodians. I look forward to reading more about her and her missing parents in the volume 3 of the series.

9. Any other important themes or issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child? The writers engineer a disagreement between Victor and his friend Scott toward the end of the book; the argument comes about because Victor needs to learn not to judge a book by its cover. To summarize, Ben and the kids need a meteorologist to help them defeat the emperor, and Scott wants to turn to his father, the local TV weatherman known for his outrageous on-air shenanigans. Victor, however, can’t believe there’s a competent atmospheric scientist behind the joking exterior. He soon learns better and grows to respect Scott’s father. I would want to discuss this incident with my kids: Is our first impression of people always correct? Why or why not?

10. Is the book especially challenging to read, and if so, why? No, this is a good book for younger middle-grade readers.

11. How’s the writing? What’s the writer’s major strength? What’s the writer’s Achilles heel? There are two writers here, and the end product is a competently written, well-structured, fun, and humorous sci-fi adventure. I’m no great judge of illustrations, but I found the illustrations in this book very appealing, and think your kids will, too.

If the writers have an Achilles heel, it has to do with believability of characterization, but remember, they’re working with a limited word count. Additionally, as an adult I may notice things that their target audience would gloss over as unimportant or irrelevant to the plot and thus uninteresting. That said, I felt there were several instances in which characters reacted in questionably believable ways. I’ve already mentioned the first one, Victor’s mom’s reaction to her son spending a lot of time alone with the odd (e.g., always wears a scarf to hide the bolts in his neck) older man who lives downstairs.

The second is cursory treatment of the trauma of the middle-school-aged girl custodian’s loss of her parents. Ben, Victor, and Scott meet this girl in a local diner. When she divulges the information that her parents are missing and she’s presumably living with a group of other custodians, the group’s reaction—especially Ben’s—seems too lukewarm. Here’s a middle-school kid who’s lost her parents. Where’s she living? Is she eating right? Who’s taking care of her? Any reasonable adult would be concerned, and many reasonable kids, too.

Finally, Scott’s Dad reacts with great equanimity to learning that Benjamin Franklin is alive and well and has been in suspended animation for 200 years. He’s not torn about helping Ben or curious for proof. He’s not excited to tell the world about the ability of people to go into suspended animation. He just wants to help.

12. The Philly thing. As a Pennsylvanian and the daughter of a man who grew up just south of Philly, I just can’t let this review go without a comment on the setting. To my mind, the least realistic part of the story was not that Ben Franklin put himself in suspended animation and re-awoke, or that a mysterious Emperor is using mind control to turn the Wright Brothers into bad guys to take over the City of Brotherly Love. It’s not that a few character react to events and circumstances in ways I found a little hard to swallow. Nope. It’s that the city has been cleaned up and cooled down.

In the book, it’s summer in Philly, but no one dodges a bullet or dies of heat stroke, both of which are, I feel, equally likely. No hoagies are eaten, no cheese steaks, no soft pretzels with or without mustard, no whoopee pies. There no tasteful statues of Mary and Jesus in people’s yards (OK maybe that’s a south-of-Philly thing). So what gives? Well, maybe the writers toned down the wilder local pastimes and lowered the temperatures for the youthful readership, but what I really suspect is that they are in factuality from someplace else, like maybe New York.

How comes do I suspect this? The big giveaway is that one of the characters asks the other—twice—if there are swamps in Philly. Oh heck yeah there are. Out by the airport. Back in the day my dad and his brothers used to bike in there and trap & skin muskrats there and sell their corpses for food and their pelts for those Davy Crockett hats kids wore when it was Howdy Doody Time. Those were the days, huh? Can you believe stuff like that went on only half a lifetime ago? Now Philadelphians have advanced to the point where they don’t kill animals like that anymore (I think), just each other. I hope that changes soon, too, because it’s no joke.

Man, I’m STILL homesick.

Middle-grade fantasy review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente

Twelve-year-old September hops a ride to Fairyland where she finds a cruel Marquess has forbidden mischief and chained up everyone who can fly. The Marquess manipulates September into acquiring a magical object that only September can use, then throws the girl’s two new Fairyland friends into jail. September sets out to rescue her friends, aware that her biggest challenge may be to resist the Marquess, who will surely try to trick, persuade, or force her into using the object for evil purposes during the rescue.

This week I read a complex story called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynn M. Valente—a book I would describe as a literary or possibly classic middle-grade fantasy. The book was thoroughly modern, yet reminded me of fantasies like Alice in Wonderland and the Chronicles of Narnia in that it is clearly the product of a highly imaginative original thinker. The plot has a slightly rambling, seat-of-the-pants, Charles Dickens quality that I found pleasant but that puzzled me until I learned the book originally appeared online as a serial.

I recommend this book for both kids and for grown-ups who enjoyed Alice in Wonderland; who are into philosophy, thinking, and the world of the mind; who like the original and experimental at least as much as the traditional and tried-and-true; who like to keep things open; and who don’t mind wandering off the beaten path into slightly (but not entirely) uncharted territory.

Kid-o-meter ratings (1 = lowest or least, 5 = highest or most)

1) This book made me laugh out loud: 3. I remember smiling, but I don’t remember laughing out loud.

2) This book has good action: 4. Really interesting, odd, and often unpredictable things happen in this book. You won’t find any epic battle scenes here, though.

3) This book is suspenseful: 4. This book has the kind of suspense that comes from knowing there is a surprise around every corner rather than the kind that comes from wondering if the hero or heroine will succeed in a quest and save the day (although you may wonder about that, too).

4) The ending does not disappoint: 4. Very good ending, but there are several loose threads at the end that I hope will be taken up in the sequel.

5) I cared a lot about what happened to these characters: 3.

Kids’ questions

1) How old is the main character? 12

2) Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? Yes–the main character, September, gathers friends during her travels in Fairyland.

3) Is this a series or just one book? It’s a series. At least, there’s another book, the The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.

4) Does it get off to a fast start? I wouldn’t call the opening either super fast or super slow. It’s Alice in Wonderlandish–fast in a classic way.

5) Is there at least one nice grownup?  The main character has a memory of a nice grownup–her mother–but no nice grownup guides the heroine through the story.

6) Does it get mushy? Is there L-O-V-E? No mushy scenes, but there is a mention of children that one couple will have, and there’s talk of Fairytale creatures who have mating seasons.

Adult’s questions

1) What’s the major source of suspense? The major source of suspense is wondering what the writer will come up with next. You might also wonder how she’ll tie up the many, disparate plot threads and elements. Some of them are clearly explained/tied up at the end; others are not, or perhaps I should say that I didn’t understand how these threads tied up in a first reading. Examples include the significance of September’s lost shoe and the shoes given to her by the Marquess, the prediction of the broken heart, the reason it’s bad to lose your shadow, and the significance of starting off heartless but growing less so as you get older.

2) Which classic fantasy elements does the book contain? Fairyland and all its inhabitants. Magic, including magical items and creatures.

3) What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? Not a big theme in the book, but the Marquess is intolerant of beings that break rules and do mischief, and you find out why in the end.

4) Is there profanity or violence? I don’t recall any profanity in the book, but note that the author also writes books for adults and there is some profanity on her website. Many of the distressing things that happen in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making are not scenes that I think of as particularly violent, at least not in comparison to similar events in other middle-grade fantasies. For instance, the main character chooses to let her shadow be cut from her body to pay a river-crossing fee. At one point she begins to turn into a tree (this entails a series of disturbing symptoms) and she meets her own death in the woods (not a violent scene, not even creepy, but a worrying scene nonetheless). The most violent scene is probably the one in which September is thrown down a well by Fairyland inhabitants who work for the Marquess. Her leg breaks when she hits bottom, and for a while, she’s in despair.

5) How about dark creatures? There are witches who can see into the future, and the inhabitants of one of the islands off the shore of Fairyland are quite cruel. The worst unpleasantness and darkest events are the result of the actions of one bitter human, but you don’t learn that until the end of the book.

6) What’s the take on religion and/or God in the book? Not a big theme. There’s magic in the book, and witches who can see into the future, but as far as I recall, God, religion, and spirituality don’t come up.

7) What about politics and government? Fairyland is a monarchy in this book, though apparently not a hereditary monarchy. I don’t think the author chose to make the government a monarchy to explore or comment on political issues, though. Instead, I suspect she chose monarchy because it’s a good metaphor for how each person rules his or her own internal world. In this book, what the Marquess does—the way she rules Fairyland—is an outward extension of what’s going on inside her. The same is true of September: everything she does in Fairyland, from the path she chooses to the shape taken by the magical object she finds during her adventure-ordeals is determined or at least influenced by what’s going on inside her, especially by the state of her heart (how heartless she is or is not). So you shouldn’t take monarchy literally in this book, but metaphorically.

8) Any gender issues whack you in the eye? No. September is good at mechanical stuff, so you could say the book works against gender stereotyping. The book takes place during the World War II era, and September’s mom is a kind of Rosie the Riveter. I really liked this aspect of the book.

9) Any other important issues or themes crop up that you might want to discuss with your child? Yes, the way that loss and exposure to unfairness of life can make us bitter and cruel . . . or not. I think that most of us who make it to adulthood have experienced an unfair life event of some kind; even the very lucky in the crapshoot of life have known someone who’s been randomly knocked upside the head by the apparent randomness of it all—who didn’t seem to reap what they sowed. If I could get my son to read this book, I would talk with him about the exceptionally well-done twist at the end of the novel involving the fate of Good Queen Mallow, who was charge of Fairyland before the bitter and cruel Marquess took over.

10) Is the book especially challenging to read, and if so, why? The book is extremely well-written, but the language is not always simple. For example, some of the Fairyland creatures have difficult names (e.g., Tsukumogami). If your middle-grade reader find this book hard to read, you might try reading it out loud. You can test-read a few pages on Amazon before buying the book to see what you think.

11) How’s the writing? What’s the writer’s major strength? What’s the writer’s Achilles heel? The writing is superb—imaginative, inventive, and technically excellent. The writer doesn’t have an Achilles heel that I can identify, but I can imagine that readers with open-ended, go-with-the-flow personalities might have an easier time loving the structure of this book than writers with “Gimme my checklist and scientific abstract and move that Barcelona chair one inch to the left because it needs to be centered on the carpet” personalities.

Does The Ruins of Gorlan fit the standard plot structure model?

I’ve spent large chunks of the past two days trying to figure out if the successful first book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series, The Ruins of Gorlan, fits into the plot structure described by writer Larry Brooks.

It doesn’t.

Let me back up a bit. I’m on a mission to learn more about how to structure a middle-grade fantasy that appeals to readers, so I’ve set out to compare the structure of the books I’ve reviewed so far on this blog with the structure described by Larry Brooks on his website. I chose that particular structure because I think I understand it fairly well, and most other descriptions of plot structure leave me as baffled as the question of why people buy and eat marshmallow Peeps.

My hypothesis was that although most books probably wouldn’t fit the structure like hand in glove, they wouldn’t deviate by much, either. There might be a chipped fingernail here or there, but no actual missing fingers. This was true of the first book I analyzed, The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan. However, no matter how I slice and dice The Ruins of Gorlan, I can’t make it fit the glove, not even a little bit.

The attempt was a fail from the word go. There’s no hook at the beginning of The Ruins of Gorlan unless you chop off the prologue. If you axe the prologue, though, you can argue there’s a hook at the outset of chapter one. There the reader learns the young main characters must choose their future occupations the next day, and there’s a chance the applicants will be rejected, in which case they are doomed to become . . . electrical engineers! No, I kid you. I put that in for my husband. They’re doomed to become farmers, which irritated me a lot because I grew up in a farming area and consider farming a noble and worthwhile occupation.

There are one or two candidates for an inciting incident and a big midpoint event in The Ruins of Gorlan, but after that, things really fall apart. I even tried looking at the book as two different, sequential stories: one about two boys finding their paths in life and defeating three bullies, and the other about dispatching the evil Kalkara monsters. That didn’t work either.

Nevertheless, many readers adore this book, and those readers include my son. He first read this book two years ago, at the age of twelve. Since then, he’s read every other volume in this series. Why? He likes the characters, the descriptions of apprenticeship training, the ordered society described in the book, the slow build to action, and the thorough descriptions of battle in a later volume in the series. “Most writers build up to battles,” he says. “They make it really suspenseful, but then they only give you a little action before they switch to the aftermath. Here you get the whole battle.”

So what about the prologue? I strongly suspect these few pages would have garnered the manuscript an instant form-letter rejection from most if not all agents in the United States.

“Tell me about that prologue,” I said to my son. “What did you think of that?”

“Oh, I didn’t read it. I never read his prologues. I skip right to the first chapter.”

Interesting. Next I’m moving on to a third victim, The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett.

Successful middle-grade fantasies: how closely do they stick to plot-structure formulas?

Underwood typewriter. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

This week I set out to test the idea that commercially successful middle-grade fantasies stick fairly closely to a certain plot structure. If that turns out to be the case, I also want to learn how closely they stick to the structure. In other words, what’s the range of variation?

My reason for doing this is simple. I’m a writer, and plot structure is my Achilles’ heel. Test readers and other writers tell me I’m good at creating engaging characters. I’ve learned to put these characters in peril, my action scenes are healthy enough to pass muster, and dialogue is my greatest strength. However, something’s still lacking. Two of the nine people who have read my middle-grade fantasy did so quickly and enjoyed it. The rest are slogging through as a favor to me. They find it easy to put the story down for weeks or even months, and some never pick it back up. So what gives? How is my work different from the world of writers who successfully engage a large number of readers?

It took me a month of intensive work to figure it out. I talked with my test readers and with other writers. I bought a one-month subscription to Writer’s Digest online tutorials and listened to as many tutorials as I could. I searched the Web for advice and started reading and reviewing one middle-grade fantasy a week to learn more about the genre. Gradually the mist has cleared, and even I–not the brightest porch light on the block–can now see the crux of the problem is structure. My plotting deviates from traditional plotting, and not just by a little. It lives in a galaxy far, far away. I’m not saying everyone has to stick to traditional structure to succeed, mind you, but I figure the folks who successfully color outside the lines probably know where those lines are. I don’t.

It’s clear that I need to get a better grip on plotting. Unfortunately, most descriptions of story structure frustrate me. I just don’t get them. I can generally follow the writer or speaker until they’ve explained what an inciting incident is. After that, they lose me. The rest either sounds like magic (too vague) or rocket science (too complex).

Finally, though, I found a description I understand, although I had to read it several times before I even comprehended the basics. The description is by thriller writer Larry Brooks, and you can find it here, on his website. In brief, as I understand it, the structure goes something like this:

  • 0%, page one: a hook that gets you interested. Could be an intriguing voice, mysterious or otherwise fascinating bit of information, humor, or action big or small. Something promising, anyway. In the section that follows, you learn about the hero’s status quo, their story to this point, and what they have to lose. You get some foreshadowing of things to come.
  • 20%, inciting incident (also called plot point one): A change in the hero’s status quo caused by the antagonist, be it a storm, bad guy, or whatever. The hero’s circumstances shift and s/he now has a need, quest, or goal but doesn’t yet know how to take effective action. If the hero tries to take action, s/he’s thwarted by an inner demon or demons.
  • 35%(ish): a reminder of the serious nature of the antagonist.
  • 50%, midpoint: Reader, hero, or both get information that changes their understanding of what’s happening. The hero can now be proactive rather than reactive.
  • 60%(ish): another reminder of the serious nature of the antagonist.
  • 75%, plot point two: Hero gets final information needed to fully succeed. No new information or characters after this point.

This structure isn’t universally accepted as the gold standard, but because I more or less get it, I decided to use it as my baseline. That is, I’ll map out the structure of the middle-grade fantasies I’ve reviewed on this blog to date and compare them with this structure to see whether, how much, and in what ways they deviate. If nothing else, I figure this will give me a better grasp of this specific way of structuring plot, which by golly is more know-how than I have now. The next step will be to come up with a nice, trite plot of my own and see if I can actually put the technique into practice. Knowing me, it’ll take a try or two . . . or twelve.

I’ve structure-mapped one book so far: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. As usual, it took me donkey’s years, but I’ve learned a lot. The Lightning Thief deviated from the baseline plot structure, but not by much. For one thing, the writer included all the basic structural elements, and for another, each element appeared in the correct order and in approximately the place it should be.

The biggest deviation was the length of the second third of the book–the part between the midpoint (when the hero starts being proactive) and the second plot point (when the hero gets the last bit of information needed to complete the quest). This section was twice as long as is standard according to the baseline structure. Mr. Riordan seems to have realized this and gives the reader two reminders of the terrible nature of the antagonist during the section instead of the standard one.

I also learned something else: I read too fast and miss stuff. During this second, slower reading of this book for structure, I found I’d missed a ton of humor in this book. I bet the book’s target audience, reading at less than warp speed, would not miss this humor. I will now revise my review of The Lightning Thief to give the humor a much higher mark than I originally did.

I’ll keep dissecting the structure of middle-grade fantasies and I’ll keep you posted about what I find. If I manage to do this with a nice, large sample of books, eventually I might even be able to check whether a book’s Amazon.com sales ranking is higher if it sticks closer to the formula–another of my hypotheses.

By the way, a couple of weeks ago I promised to write a list of middle-grade fantasy subgenres, and I haven’t forgotten that promise. It’s going to take longer than I thought, though, because I haven’t read widely enough to have a good grasp of the wide range of middle-grade fantasy that’s out there–everything from mermaids to steampunk. I’ll keep reading, though, and I’ll keep blogging.

Happy New Year!

Middle-grade fantasy review: Savvy, by Ingrid Law

Savvy, by Ingrid Law

Thirteen-year-old Mississippi “Mibs” Beaumont, two of her siblings, and two friends stow away on a Bible-delivery bus so Mibs can use a newly discovered secret talent—her savvy—to save her father, who lies critically injured in a hospital ninety miles away. The bus has to make a few stops en route, though, and Mibs, her fellow stowaways, and even the driver, find friendship, love, and understanding along the way.

Let me say it up front: Savvy is a fantastic book. Don’t miss it. It’s set in Bible-belt Nebraska and Kansas and loosely inspired by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The characters are fantastic; they make the story.

Kid-o-meter ratings (1 = lowest or least, 5 = highest or most)

1. This book made me laugh out loud: 2. I didn’t laugh out loud, but there’s plenty of low-key humor in this wonderfully enjoyable book.

2. This book has good action: 4. The action in Savvy doesn’t consist of epic battles, but the splash-battle at the pool, the disagreements among friends, the fight at a diner, and several storms caused by one of the main characters will be more than enough to keep you reading long into the night.

3. This book is suspenseful: 5. You’ll be so busy wondering what will happen in the next scene that once in a while you might forget to worry about what will happen to the main character, her friends, and her family—especially her dad—in the long run. Then you’ll remember what’s at stake and start reading faster to get to the end. Once you’re finished with the book, you’ll read it all over again because it’s just so good.

4. The ending does not disappoint: 5. I won’t tell you more because I don’t want to give anything away.

5. I cared a lot about these characters: 5. I have never read a fantasy book with characters I cared about more than the ones in this book. If you are fan of Meg and Charles Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time or Claudia and Jamie Kinkaid From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, read this book. I think you’ll like Mibs, her brother Fish, and the other main characters as much as you liked Meg, Charles, Claudia, and Jamie.

Kids’ questions

1. How old is the main character? At the beginning of the book, she’s about to turn 13.

2. Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? Yes, a great group of friends.

3. Is this a series or just one book? This is a stand-alone book, but there’s another book, Scumble, about one of Mibs’ cousins. The events in that Scumble take place 9 years after the ones in Savvy.

4. Does it get off to a good start? Yes. The book doesn’t have big action on the first page, but it has  what writers call a hook—something that makes you want to keep reading to learn more. The hook in Savvy is first-class. If you’re not super-curious to keep reading after page one, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

5. Is there at least one nice grownup? Yes. There are many nice grownups, from Mibs’ mom, dad, and grandfather to Lester, a down-on-his luck Bible salesman, and Lill, a waitress who falls in love with Lester. There are also a few grownups you might call half-nice and two really unpleasant ones. There’s a sad homeless man, too.

6. Does is get mushy? Is there L-O-V-E? There is love, and when my son was ten I think he would have described it as a little mushy. Mibs gets her first kiss and Lester gives Lill a big kiss (the kids are embarrassed and look the other way). Sixteen-year-old Roberta has a crush on one of Mibs’ brothers and manages to touch his hand near the end of the book. None of these kisses or crushes is romance novel-y, though. In other words, they’re not the kind you’d find in a love story for teenagers or grownups. Parents, I don’t think any of these romantic moments are inappropriate for kids.

Adults’ questions

1. What’s the major source of suspense? The one that pulls the reader through from beginning to end is the fate of Mibs’ father. The day before Mibs’ 13th birthday—just a few pages into the book—Mibs’ father is in a serious car accident (offstage) and is taken to the intensive care unit of a Salina, Kansas, hospital, ninety miles away from the family home in Hebron, Nebraska.

All members of Mibs’ family have a special inherited ability, a savvy, which becomes apparent on their 13th birthday. An important source of suspense early in the book is what Mibs’ special power will be. Even after it appears, the nature of Mibs’ savvy isn’t clear-cut, so there’s more suspense while Mibs and the readers figure out what it actually is.

Your middle-grade reader will also wonder what on earth will happen to Mibs and the other main characters who stow away in a Bible-delivery bus so Mibs can go to Salina to save her father.

There are many other sources of suspense, too; for instance: will the kids, who are at loggerheads with each other in the beginning, learn to get along? Will Mibs and her 14-year-old brother Fish ever tell the other kids about their savvies? How will the other kids react if and when Mibs and Fish tell? Can the kids trick Lester and Lill into thinking they’ve called their parents? Should they try? Will Lill lose her job at the diner? Will Lester ever learn to sell Bibles? Will Lester and Lill get in trouble for helping the kids? Can Mibs help her father? If so, how?

2. Which classic fantasy elements does this book contain? Inherited special powers. Fish can cause storms, Grandpa can create new land, Mibs’ mom can do things perfectly on the first try, Mibs’ deceased grandmother could capture songs in glass jars, and so on.

3. What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? Tolerance is not an overt theme, but the book is full of empathetic characters, especially Mibs, who is really a lovely, likable kid. Her friend and sort-of boyfriend-to-be, Will Junior, is no bad guy either. For instance, Mibs, backed up by Will, helps a homeless man, or at least tries. Will Junior sticks by Mibs through thick and thin, as does her older brother Fish. Samson, Mibs’ little brother, seems to be able to calm people with his touch, and he’s generous in giving this help.

4. Is there profanity or violence? There’s no profanity, but there is some mild violence. At one point, Fish gets mad and punches Will Junior, who remains calm and doesn’t punch back. Fish has a hard time controlling his savvy (causing storms), and wreaks havoc a couple of times in the book. There’s a cruel restaurant manager, the Great and Powerful Ozzie, who fires Lill in front of a group of people, brandishing a pie knife and saying really mean things about her. Near the end of the book, the kids hold down a bad guy—well, a really nasty woman—so Mibs can use her savvy to figure out where the woman has hidden the missing Samson.

5. How about mature themes or dark creatures? There are no dark creatures in this book. The savvies are described as genetic traits rather than supernatural powers, so there is no dark or light magic, either.

The two themes in the book that to my mind are “grown-up,” romantic love and homelessness, were handled in a way I think was fine for middle-grade readers. Lester and Lill fall in love and kiss, but the kiss is described in a way appropriate to a middle-grade book.

The meeting between Mibs, Will Junior, and a homeless, sleeping alcoholic outside a diner is moving. The writer takes pains to explain that it’s a potentially dangerous situation, so you needn’t worry that your kids will approach sleeping alcoholics without caution after reading this book. The writer handles the scene and its sequel well. The kids’ friends are never far away, should the kids need help, but help is very far away for the homeless man.

6. What’s the take on religion and/or God in this book? The characters in the book are Christians. One is the rebellious daughter of a minister and the other is grandson of that same minister. The kids stow away on the bus of a Bible salesman after he stops at the parish hall, where the haranguing minister and his officious wife are throwing a birthday party for the reluctant Mibs.

As far as I remember, God and religion are never explicit topics of discussion, but God comes up multiple times in Mibs’ internal thoughts. She says a quick silent thank-you to God in one scene, for instance, and in another, she hopes He’ll understand her choices better than the minister’s wife did.

The book doesn’t proselytize, so I don’t think it will be offensive to people who aren’t Christians. What’s more, I don’t think most readers will feel that the book portrays the Christian characters as unrealistically saintly. Although many of the characters are extremely kind-hearted and decent, they’re not angles. For example, the minister’s wife seems to think she’s intervening to help Mibs’ family in time of need, but she’s actually interfering in their lives in a high-handed and insensitive way. When Lill is fired, Lester commits petty larceny, snatching a banana cream pie from her boss and absconding with it. The children elaborately scam Lill into believing they phoned their parents from a motel and that it’s OK for Lester and Lill to give them a ride to the hospital in Kansas.

7. What about politics and government? No political issues in the book as far as I can tell.

8. Any gender issues whack you in the eye? No. On the positive side, I noticed that the female characters were strong and capable. On second thought, though, it’s possible that some readers will take umbrage at the perfection of Mibs’ mom. She’s a homemaker who is perfectly nurturing, perfectly patient, and perfectly tolerant, possibly because of her savvy, which is to be really good at things. She also seems to be perfectly balanced and content with her life until her husband is injured and her kids run away on the Bible bus, whereupon she becomes lovingly worried. But perhaps I only think that this character might get under people’s skin because I’m envious. I’d like to be perfectly good, perfectly balanced, and perfectly content, and perfectly loving, but I am most certainly am none of those things.

9. Any other important themes or issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child?
The hard road to friendship. You might want to talk about the trials and tribulations the kids face on their road to friendship with each other.

The homeless alcoholic. It would probably be good to talk about the homeless man, who is an alcoholic and has given up on life.

The family’s economic situation at the end of the book. I have to bring this up, even though it may not be something you want to talk about with your kids. It bothered me that at the end of the book, Mibs’ family had no apparent source of income and yet seemed to be doing just fine, economically. This fazed me, but for all I know, some or even most kids might accept it without a second thought. I guess you could explain it away by saying this is a fantasy. Or maybe grandpa, whose savvy is making land, made some extra acres and the family sold them off. Or maybe in her first draft, the writer mentioned how the family was getting by, but her editor told her to take it out because it wasn’t necessary to explain that kind of thing in a fantasy.

10. Is the book especially challenging to read? No, this is a well-written book by a writer with a distinctive and confident voice. I read the first two paragraphs critically, then relaxed and let the driving to the author because I trusted that she knew where she was going and how to get there.

11. How’s the writing? What’s the writer’s major strength? What’s the writer’s Achilles heel? The writing is excellent. This writer has a distinctive voice; she even makes up her own words. She’s confident and dexterous from the very first sentence, good at description and dialogue, and knows when to show and when to tell. What’s more, she deftly weaves a story of personal growth and changing from a child to a teen into a fantasy-adventure, and that must be anything but easy to do. Writing this book must have been hard work, but the writer makes it seem effortless.

If she has an Achilles’ heel, it’s not the writing, but rather a few choices that rendered it momentarily hard for me, as an adult, to suspend my disbelief. For example, no one in the book has a cell phone (perhaps the book is set in the past?), the family thrives at end of book without apparent income, Lill doesn’t seem angry after she learns the kids have played a very nasty trick on her, and Lester and Lill don’t get into hot water for driving runaway kids across Nebraska and Kansas.

12. Might some people be upset by the spelling or grammar? No, they were just fine.

What’s with all the dead parents in middle-grade fantasy?

One of many well-known characters with a missing parent. Image, from Wikipedia, is in the public domain.

Does it seem to you that most heroes of middle-grade fantasies have parents who are missing or dead? It’s not just your imagination. It’s a real phenomenon with a longstanding history that’s as old as fairy tales—maybe even older.

There are a number of good reasons for getting parents out of the way in middle-grade fantasy. The first is simple. Main characters in fantasies need to go on dangerous quests and adventures, and at the end of the road, they must face their antagonists alone. Your average parent’s goal of protecting his or her kids from harm is diametrically opposed to your average storyteller’s goal of putting those very same kids in harm’s way. For instance, if mom is so worried about stranger danger that she won’t let eleven-year-old Betsy Bravington walk two blocks to ballet school, you can bet your brass tutu she’s not gonna let Betsy cross the Sitherous Sea to slay Malwar the Malevolent, a dragon who gouges out people’s eyeballs, spears them with toothpicks, and uses them to stir his breakfast martinis. Betsy’s especially grounded if Moms finds out that the plan to get to Malwar involves a homemade raft, two 500-year-old dwarves with questionable personal hygiene, and a cute teenage elf who wears a diamond stud in his nose and keeps fifteen daggers hidden on his person.

Second, orphaning your hero opens up a treasure chest of opportunities for internal conflict. Betsy’s sad her mom’s dead, see, and even worse, they parted in anger that last day. Betsy actually used the F word because Moms wouldn’t let her wear meat-colored Lady Gaga eye shadow to Anita Smithson’s twelfth birthday party. Just after Betsy stomped off to the yellow walk-in closet that is her sanctum sanctorum, Moms set off for the strip mall. At the mall, Veronica Vanitas dropped the Poison of Periset into Moms’ spirulina smoothie so she (Veronica) could sneak into the Bravington’s McMansion, snitch the Nail Polish of Power, kidnap Betsy’s little sister Belinda, and deliver the feisty eight-year-old to Malwar the Dragon in exchange for the Earrings that Eliminate Eyelid Droop.

Third, killing off the parents equals instant room for character growth. Just to pick one obvious thing, Betsy could learn that contrary to what she thought at the beginning of the story, Anita Smithson’s opinion of eye shadow is not as important to her as the safety of her little sister. She could discover that if she doesn’t look deeper inside herself than her Burberry outerwear, she could easily start rolling down that slippery slope to Veronica-land. On the other hand, if she can just keep her vanity in check, she can enjoy the Nail Polish of Power and save Belinda, too.

Fourth, there’s the sympathy/empathy factor. Even readers who haven’t experienced deep loss like the death of a parent have experienced loss and loneliness of some kind, so it’s easy to imagine yourself in the shoes of the orphaned main character. As a writer, you want readers to sympathize with your hero, especially if she has some not-so-likable traits, as Betsy does at the outset of our hypothetical story.

In a stunning move that may well parallel the apparent worldwide drop in violence (see Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature), more and more middle-grade fantasy writers are moving away from classic murder to disappearance and abduction. The missing parents in the Sisters Grimm series are a good example. They vanished into thin air one day, the only clue a red hand print on the dashboard of their abandoned car.

Parents that are not dead but merely AWOL free up the main character for adventure and excite readers’ sympathy. They also give writers the opportunity to inject extra action and conflict into plot and subplot, because when Mom and Dad are missing, the kids want to find them. For example, if Veronica Vanitas doesn’t poison Moms’ smoothie, but uses the Calamitous Cuticle Scissors of Cathor to give Moms a haircut that sends her spinning into another realm, then Betsy can star in a trilogy. Finding, saving, and reconciling with Moms can be the goal that Betsy and her writer aim for at the end of Book 3. Neat, huh? Or Moms could become like Obi-Wan Kenobi and the parents in the Kane Chronicles, influencing events in Betsy’s books from afar even if she (Moms) can never escape from the Parallel World of Prada or the Blissful Bay of Balenciaga.

Some writers open Door Number Three and create parents who are too busy, too wrapped up in their work or life or whatnot, to pay attention to what the kids are up to. This is what Terry Pratchett does in his Wee Free Men books. A cool variation on this theme is to make it seem like the hero’s parents are oblivious and neglectful, whereas in reality the parents know all about what’s going on and are keeping an eye on the kid the whole time. This is what happens in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Just to be safe I better warn you that although Foer’s book stars a nine-year-old, it’s not a middle-grade novel. I highly recommend it for adults, however.

Whew. That was fun. Next time: a run-down of middle-grade fantasy’s many subgenres.

Middle-grade fantasy review: A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

Hansel and Gretel run away from the parents who have betrayed them, only to suffer and struggle through a series of dark and violent adventures that will later become Grimm’s fairy tales. As they live through the stories, the children grow up, coming to terms with the unfairness of the world and with the accidental and purposeful cruelty in themselves and in others.

Theme: “. . . in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.”

Kid-o-meter ratings (1 = lowest or least, 5 = highest or most)

1. This book made me laugh out loud: 1. No belly laughs here; this is serious stuff. It’s a fairytale for real. There are murdering parents, two serial killers (including a cannibal), many deaths, a soul sold to the Devil, and a trip to Hell. The writer warns you in the beginning about the violence, cruelty, blood, and gore. Throughout the book, he stops the story every now and then to tell you what’s coming, which should help you make it through if you’re a sensitive person. He tells you when you get to the sad part, for example, and explains that things will get better, although “not quite yet.”

The writer does have a sense of humor and a sense of irony, and some parts of some scenes may make you smile, so I have given it a 1 rather than a zero. Don’t expect to chuckle your way through this book, though.

2. This book has good action: 5. The story is a series of fairy tales, each one a chapter, stacked one after the other to make a novel. There’s violent action (and a message) in every chapter, and a larger story and message span the length of the book. Each individual tale matches or exceeds the original Grimm’s tale in darkness and violence, and if you’ve read the originals, you’ll know this is saying something. All the stories involve one or both of the siblings, and the unsettling effect of the book intensifies as story piles on story and the children’s circumstances go from bad to worse until one of them is literally in Hell.

3. This book is suspenseful: 5. It’s suspenseful even if you know the original fairytales, because the author retells a number of Grimm’s original fairy tales as the adventures of Hansel and Gretel, who have run away from home after their father tries to kill them. In fact, their father actually does kill them, but they come back to life. You’ll have to read the book to see how.

4. The ending does not disappoint: 5. Excellent, clever ending, that wraps the whole plot up neatly. This writer is one smart cookie. I am truly surprised that this book didn’t win a serious literary award. Or maybe it did. I will have to check the writer’s website after I finish writing this review. Anyway, if it didn’t, it should have.

5. I cared a lot about what happened to these characters: 4. It’s important for readers NOT to care about these characters one hundred percent flat out, because if we did, we might not make it through the book. Fortunately, the writer uses an old-fashioned fairy tale narrator’s voice to put some distance between us and Hansel and Gretel.  That way there’s a little insulation between us and the raw horror and heartbreak while reading, like the protection firefighters get when they wear those special suits in burning buildings.

Kid questions

1. How old is the main character? The writer never says how old these two characters are, but they’re not teenagers yet. My guess is somewhere between eight and twelve.

2. Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? No, but there is a brother-and-sister team.

3. Is this a series or just one book? Something in between a series and an individual book. I just checked Amazon.com and see that the author has written another book. It’s about Jack and Jill and I expect it’s just as bloody as this one.

4. Does it get off to a fast start? Fast enough. There’s a nice hook in the beginning to reel you in so you are patient through the next few pages of background information you have to read before the first heads are chopped off.

5. Is there at least one nice grownup? Gretel meets a nice widow at one point, who takes Gretel in and tries to protect her. However, even the nice widow can’t stop bad stuff from happening to Gretel, because Gretel disobeys the widow, goes straight into the dark wood, and lands smack dab in the trap of a serial killer. In this book, when the grownups don’t actually cause the kids trouble, the kids go out and find the trouble for themselves.

6. Does it get mushy? Is there L-O-V-E? There is no mush, but at one point, Gretel develops a crush. She doesn’t pick a nice guy, and when she goes to visit him, she barely escapes with her life.

Adult’s questions

1. What’s the major source of suspense? You’ll wonder how Hansel will come back to life after being killed a second time, whether and how Gretel will escape the serial killer who rips girl’s souls from their bodies and eats the corpses for supper, and how Hansel will escape from Hell. You’ll wonder a lot of other things, too, but most of all, you’ll wonder how the writer will bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. (I think he succeeds, and it’s a surprisingly happy ending, too.)

2. Which classic fantasy elements does the book contain? All the traditional fairytale elements, including the extreme bloody violence.

3. What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? The book doesn’t deal with tolerance and empathy, exactly. It’s about Hansel and Gretel’s journey toward coming to terms with the gigantic imperfections of their parents, other grownups . . . and themselves. Don’t be misled into thinking the book is about a journey towards forgiveness, though. Instead, it’s about learning to living with what they and others have done and how they move on from there.

In a nutshell, you could say it’s about growing up the hard way, and I guess there really is no other way to grow up. No matter how gentle your upbringing or nice the circumstances, you’re always going to get smacked upside the head by life somehow. There’s just no stopping it.

4. Is there profanity or violence? I don’t remember any profanity, but there’s violence from the foundation to the attic in this story—everything from cannibalistic serial killers to sinners tortured by Demons in Hell, where the Devil has an easy chair made of human skin.

My suggestion is to read this book yourself before reading it to your kids. If my son were still a middle-grade reader, I would have read the book out loud to him or at least tested the beginning on him to see how he took it. That way, we could stop if he wanted and discuss stuff that bothered him or that he didn’t understand. One of the reasons I’d feel OK about reading this book to my son, though, is that he would have a context for the books because we read Andrew Lang’s fairy books together—well, I read them and he listened—from the time my son was about eight. Perhaps I should note that although he is now a teenager, my son was definitely affected by the stories in Andrew Lang’s books. He still shakes his head over the one in which everyone just died in the end.

Every child and every parent is different, though. The omniscient narrator point of view gives the readers some much-needed emotional distance from the story, but there are still some scenes in which the narrator drops into close third person, and these hit you in Technicolor and Dolby Surround. They might be tough for an impressionable person, especially a very young one. An example is the scene in which Gretel, in hiding, watches a handsome young man on whom she has a crush drag a girl down the stairs into his basement by her hair. As the girl struggles, he shoves his hand down her throat, rips out her soul and cages it, chops the girl’s corpse into pieces (the blade falls graphically), and order his mother (whom he has shackled to the stove) to cook the dead girl for dinner. You get the idea.

5. How about mature themes? The whole book has a mature theme: growing up and coming to terms with the unfairness of the world and the accidental and purposeful cruelties of strangers and those close to you, especially your parents. There is also a point about spotting evil like “where’s Waldo”: seeing things for what they really are, of seeing and dealing with the evil that sometimes lives beside us, and perhaps even inside those two whom we are closest.

Has the author handled these mature themes in a way appropriate to middle-grade readers? I’m not sure. If I got this book for my middle grader, I’d want to be along for the journey. I’d read it out loud to him or her. But that’s just me.

6. Dark creatures? They abound. Readers will meet demons and the Devil, sinners great and small, murderous parents, a cannibalistic warlock, and a slimy evil mini-dragon that lives inside a character, possessing him and turning him into a monster that murderers swathes of people.

7. What’s the take on religion and/or God in the book? God doesn’t manifest in the book, but his opposite number is present in force. Hell is a real place where sinners (and some relative innocents, like Hansel) are punished in vats of boiling something-or-other by demons.  Hansel must outwit the Devil to escape from Hell.

8. What about politics and government? Hansel and Gretel live in a monarchy, and their father is the king of one of the kingdoms. I don’t think the monarchy in this book is one you could discuss as a form of national government. On the other hand, you could talk about it as a symbol for the power structure in a family. And you could discuss how what happens in the Kingdom of Grimm’s monarchy mirrors what happens in families as children grow up and balances of power shift.

9. Any gender issues whack you in the eye? Well sort of. Hansel and Gretel fall victim to gender-specific kinds of foolish behavior they must overcome to continue on their journey through the world. Hansel becomes a terrible, monstrous, environmentally destructive hunter, and Gretel falls in love with the wrong man, to put it mildly. I liked these aspects of book, but some readers might think the writer is gender-stereotyping.

10. Any other important themes or issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child? I think you will want to discuss every single individual chapter in this book with your child, or even with your teenager. In other words, there are too many important themes in this book for me to take them up in this review:

  • abuse of the environment
  • children who rebel against authority figures
  • the flawed nature of every authority figure
  • the question of whether people can reform
  • the question of whether and how people who commit horrible offenses against other people are or are not punished for what they do
  • and more–at least one theme per chapter.

11. Is the book especially challenging to read, and if so, why? The language in the book isn’t especially challenging, but the content of the book is quite challenging.

12. How’s the writing? Solid. I think this writer will win awards, if he hasn’t already.

13. Might some people be upset by the spelling or grammar? No, but perhaps by the violence. It’s truthy violence, though: stuff that really happens but is taken to a fairy tale level to make it more easily readable, digestible, and discussable for those of us who prefer to handle the world’s burning hot awfulness with the allegorical oven mitts of Once Upon a Time.

Review: The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley

The Sisters Grimm (The Fairy-Tale Detectives series) by Michael Buckley

Two parentless sisters move in with their grandmother and discover their family has a secret job: policing a rural New York town that’s really a ghetto-prison for fairy-tale creatures. When a giant climbs down a verboten beanstalk and kidnaps their grandmother, the sisters must figure out who’s behind the plot so they can save their grandmother . . . and the town.

Theme: Friends come in the most unexpected guises. So do foes. Be careful who you trust, but do trust.

Kid-o-meter ratings (1 = lowest or least, 5 = highest or most)

1. This book made me laugh out loud: 4. The book starts out seriously, but gets funnier as you read. I would have read this book for one character alone—a character called Puck who appears around the middle of the book. Once he horns in on the two-girl team, the slapstick really gets rolling and rounds out the other funny elements (like the names of some of the characters).

The only funnier middle-grade fantasies I’ve read are the ones by Terry Pratchett, and he came to middle-grade writing with a whole bunch of experience writing other books. I look forward to reading Michael Buckley’s next books, because I figure that with more experience, he’ll get even funnier.

2. This book has good action: 3. There is enough action, but the writer could have done a better job of showing action rather than telling you about it, especially early in the book. For example, a telling sentence such as “Tony leaped up and rushed at Mr. Canis again, only to feel the same painful results” would have been more effective as something like “Tony leaped up and rushed at Mr. Canis again, swinging his iron bar. Mr. Canis dodged left and the bar flew past, missing him. Tony crashed to pavement, dropping the bar and scraping his hands and knees on the hard concrete.”

3. This book is suspenseful: 3. If you have read a lot of fairy tales and are observant, you might figure out some of the mysteries before the girls do, although I don’t think you’ll guess what’s in the forbidden locked room on the second floor of Granny’s house.

There’s a neat detective-story twist toward the end of the book, and most readers will probably find it surprising . . . but surprising isn’t quite the same as suspenseful.

The town is menaced by a master criminal whose identity is not revealed, and it’s clear the girls are destined to tangle with this character later books. I am pretty darn sure I know the identity of this mysterious individual, but I’m a grownup and a writer, and I’ve have read a ton of fairy tales. See if you can guess, too.

4. The ending does not disappoint: 5. I enjoyed this ending. By the end of the book, the girls solve the mystery. They change as a result of their experiences during the story, their relationship with each other changes, and one of the major problems in their lives is resolved. Some loose ends are left hanging on purpose so the girls have plenty of stuff left to do in the next books. A great scene near the end makes it clear that one of my favorite characters will play a bigger role in future books in the series.

5. I cared a lot about what happened to these characters: 5. Yes. Really liked the Sisters Grimm. A lot.

Kids’ questions

1. How old is the main character? Sabrina Grimm is almost 12. Her sister, Daphne, is 7.

2. Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? Yes, the two sisters are a really good team and their Grandma’s dog Elvis, a Great Dane, is like a third member of the group. When Puck shows up, the trio becomes a foursome and the group gets even better.

3. Is this a series or just one book? I’m happy to say it’s a series.

4. Does it get off to a fast start? The author has used an old trick to get you hooked. He put an action scene from late in the book at the very beginning. I think the trick works well. The first chapter, which starts right after that action scene, isn’t action-packed, but it’s really interesting and will keep you reading. This is one of those books where the characters will grab you as much as the action.  For example, you will probably wish you had a little sister like Daphne. (I did.)

5. Is there at least one nice grownup? Yup. Several. There are several mean ones, too.

6. Does is get mushy? Is there L-O-V-E? Nope.

Adults’ questions

1. What’s the major source of suspense? This is a fairy-tale fantasy-mystery: a new genre that works really well in the hands of this writer. There are several sources of suspense in the book: Were the girls really abandoned by their parents? If not, what happened to Mom and Dad? Is the woman they meet at the beginning of the book really their grandmother? Who is the mysterious Mr. Canus? Who let the giant loose in Ferryport Landing and why? Will the girls save their grandmother from the giant?

Once your kids catch on to the fact that almost everyone the sisters meet in Ferryport Landing is a fairytale character in disguise who’s living under an assumed name, they’ll also have the fun of guessing who’s who.

As an adult, you’ll wonder why kindly Grandma Grimm left the kids to fend for themselves a year before coming forward to claim them. It’s hard to believe she’d do this, and the reason she waited is not explained in the book.

2. Which classic fairytale elements does this book contain? Missing parents, for one. Missing or dead parents—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say orphaned or abandoned children—are such a pervasive component of fantasies that I’ve decided my next non-review blog post will include a table showing the fate of parents in all the books I’ve reviewed so far.

Other people have written plenty of pages about why writers get parents out of the way in fantasies, so I don’t think I’ll go into that topic in depth, but I’ll go out on the Web and find some of the best analyses so I can give you those links.

The Sisters Grimm also contains tons of fairytale and fantasy creatures, from the Tin Woodsman to the magic mirror to the odious Prince Charming and all the wives who ever divorced him (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and I forget who else). There are a zillion magical items—from beanstalk beans to silver slippers—and there’s a dark forest, classically located right smack behind Grandma’s house. There are monsters, or at least there’s one kind of monsters: giants.

3. What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? The concepts of tolerance and intolerance are never discussed outright, but they underlie the book. If the Grimms ever figure out how to safely break the spell keeping the fairytale creatures imprisoned in the town, the world will have to tolerate the creatures, and the creatures will have to live in the midst of a majority population that’s very different from them in many ways. Perhaps the issues of tolerance and intolerance will come to the fore more in future books in this series.

4. Is there profanity or violence? There’s no profanity. There is violence. For example, you see a giant stomp on a house when three thugs are inside. It’s not clear, however, if the three thugs are magical creatures or not, and it’s also not clear whether or not magical creatures can be killed. On the one hand, all three little pigs are running around, alive and well. On the other, a major magical item gets pulverized in the course of the book. So can magical creatures be destroyed in the world of this series? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.

The only violence I thought an eight or nine-year-old reader might find disturbing was when the bad guy injures Elvis the Great Dane near the end of the book. You don’t witness the attack, though, and the writer makes sure the reader knows that the dog will be OK.

I would have let my son read this book from whenever he was capable of reading it, which in his case would have been about age nine. I would have read it out loud to him earlier than that.

5. How about mature themes or dark creatures?
a.
Mean foster parents and a cruel case worker. At the beginning of the book, the children, whose parents have disappeared, have been shuttled from one awful foster family to another for about a year, and their case worker is real thus-and-so. Sabrina, the older sister, has spent the entire time protecting her younger sister, but also bossing Daphne around and not listening to her.

Sabrina has understandable problems with trust, and learns to trust her grandmother and respect her sister’s wishes and strengths over the course of the book. This is a mature theme, but it’s handled in a way I think is fine for middle-grade readers.

On the other hand, if you are a foster parent, someone who knows a foster family—or even if you are one of the thousands of decent, caring, respectful caseworkers out there—you might take offense at the stereotypical depictions of foster parents and caseworkers.

You might want to talk with your kids about foster families and case workers: are all of them as mean as the ones in the book?

b. Giants and witches. The giants in the book are unintelligent monsters. There are witches working in law enforcement. They are employed by Prince Charming, the mayor of the town.

6. What’s the take on religion and/or God in the book? There is no mention of religion or God in the book, and no such themes flowing around under the surface, either, as far as I could tell.

7. How about politics? Ferryport Landing, NY is a lovely little microcosm of early 21st century American politics, which makes this book awfully fun reading for a grownup. None of the characters represents an actual politician, but you could argue that they represent streams of political thought and/or caricatures of types of politicians/employers.

The narcissistic traditionalist Prince Charming is mayor of the town, and it’s clear he wants to make it into his own kingdom, but he’s an elected leader. He intimidates some fairytale creatures into doing his bidding—especially those he employs—but he doesn’t intimidate all of them, a situation that will probably be familiar to many adult readers from their own working lives. Charming has some law-and-order and taxation headaches, and his authority is questioned by a number of citizens, including the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland and the mysterious terrorist insurgency leader The Red Hand (note the color—I doubt it’s an accident). Others, such as Puck the trickster king, have apparently been sniffing libertarian pixie dust. They ignore the Prince and do their own thing.

You might want to talk with your children about the political agendas in Ferryport Landing. Which of the creatures do you/they sympathize with? What do you think of their various political plans, and why do you feel this way?

8. Any gender issues whack you in the eye? This book is full of strong and highly awesome female characters. Puck, a boy who has been 11 years old for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, comes onstage about halfway through the book. He makes a number of idiotic sexist remarks to Sabrina when they first meet and she gives him the what-for. It quickly becomes clear that Puck has a sensitive ego, and Daphne, who has a great deal of emotional intelligence, tries to convince Sabrina to let Puck think he’s in charge. It’s hard to tell if the writer is trying to portray Puck as having a sensitive male ego or if Puck’s simply jealous of the girls for other reasons and is sensitive because of that. I lean toward the latter, but it might be both. These scenes would make a great topic for discussion with your kids.

9. Any other important themes or issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child? Yes, the ghettoization of minority populations, especially as perpetrated by Germans. The Sisters Grimm is in large part about the fairytale creatures that one of the (German) Grimm brothers persuaded to move to a small, rural town in New York during the 1700s. The idea was that the town would serve as a sanctuary from growing conflicts between fairytale creatures and the non-enchanted majority population in places such as . . .  wait for it . . . Germany (but also elsewhere). However, the town soon became a fairytale-ghetto/prison with the Grimm family as guards. A spell was cast, and no fairytale creature can leave the town until the last Grimm dies.

In a neat twist, very, very few of the fairytale creatures are dangerous, and some who were dangerous in their original stories have changed their ways. Even the giants pose no threat as long as the cops keep the magic beans out of circulation. In other words, there’s apparently no reason for the fairy tale creatures to be imprisoned . . . other than that some of them are powerful, and all of them are different from the majority population.

As you may have guessed, an eerie, Warsaw-Ghetto vibe lurks under the often-humorous surface of this book. The author recognizes this, although he never uses the word “ghetto” and never refers to the Second World War or 20th century European history. He does, however, let his two main characters feel the wrongness of the situation in the town and the awkwardness (to put it mildly) of their family’s role multiple times throughout the book.

This is not a heavy book in any obvious way, and your child will almost certainly breeze right by this theme without plumbing its depths. On the other hand, I think it’s a good idea to notice, and you might want to talk about it. Why are the fairyland creatures imprisoned in the town? Are they really dangerous? Was it OK to imprison the creatures? Is it OK to keep them in prison now that all the magic beans, fairy godmother wands and other magical items are locked way in protective custody?

10. Is the book especially challenging to read, and if so, why? No, I think an eight or nine-year-old should be able to read this book.

11. How’s the writing? Solid. The writer has a flair for comedy but needs to work on showing rather than telling in action sequences. He did a better job of “showing” in the final action sequences, which left me wondering if he used “telling” on purpose in the beginning to save words, or perhaps as a riff on traditional fairy-tale style.

12. Might some people be upset by the spelling or grammar? No, no odd spelling or bad grammar here.