“The War Outside” by Monica Hesse

It’s 1944. World War II is raging across Europe and the Pacific when Margot is taken from Iowa and Haruko from Colorado in “The War Outside” (Little Brown 2018), by Monica Hesse. Now the two teens, each lives with her family in a dusty Texas internment camp for those accused of colluding with the enemy.

German American Margot says, “In the middle of this dust, in the middle of these chaotic arrivals, I feel I am watching a secret.” American families are imprisoned by the U.S. government. What did their parents do? Margot’s father is keeping a secret, clearly, all the while her mother’s health is deteriorating radically. Did her father fraternize with Nazis?

Japanese American Haruko was popular in her Colorado high school. After all, she’s cute and she laughed at the jokes made against Japanese people. Margot goes to the same school as Haruko rather than the German school in Crystal City Internment Camp in order to receive a better education in preparation of her dream to become a scientist.

Each imprisoned family lives in a prefabricated “victory hut,” and the food isn’t bad. The prisoners say, that’s in case the Japanese win the war. The USA wants their prisoners to look well fed. But the Japanese prisoners are fed Chinese rather than Japanese rice—one of many interesting details.

The two girls start meeting in the dark icehouse, sitting on bales of hay. They discuss their families—first tentatively. Then Haruko asks if Margot’s father is a Nazi. No, they just lived in a German farming community—they aren’t Nazis. Her father went to one meeting in Iowa to hear a band and a speaker, as a favor to a friend, just to keep neighborhood peace. Wasn’t that true? Haruko says that she thinks her father is keeping a secret.

Margot says, to survive the camp you must put the experience in a box and keep it there. Tell yourself that you choose to be here, so you have control of the box. Haruko is angry all the time. What did her father do to get them here? He was the one imprisoned but the rest of the family chose to join him.

Haruko’s brother Ken, enlisted as a U.S. soldier, hoping it would help the family cause. When he gets injured he visits his family in the camp. He’s not the same. At the icehouse Haruko cries in Margot’s arms. Their relationship grows more intimate.

Haruko’s father, a hotel manager in Colorado was accused of passing messages to hotel guests. Is he a spy? West Coast Japanese were all evacuated to prison camps, due to their proximity to Japan. West Coast evacuees lost everything whereas Coloradans had the luxury of selling or giving awayt their possessions. Yet, Executive Order 9066 allowed the government to send Americans anywhere—based on the artwork they displayed on their walls or if they practiced martial arts.

There’s so much to learn here. And the girls—is it a crush? Are they in love? One betrays the other. Why? Vulnerability and fear? What is the truth?

 

 

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award winning Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue among others         talesforallages.com

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Book Launch Party – Advice and Ideas

The Book Launch Event

 

In the same way that we bring our experience to writing, we bring our experience to launching a book. I hope to give you some ideas that might help you launch your baby. The book, of course, helps dictate the party theme. Holiday books are great party inspirers. I know what I’d do if I had a tea party depicted in a book. Dog or cat washing? I’d throw a wet and messy bash. If I happened to have a book about a construction site, I’d throw a site-specific event. We have a massive square mile construction site a couple miles west of town. My hound loves it. Boy children would go nuts. Some girls, too.

 

 

TALENT AND COMMUNITY

My book Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz (Charlesbridge) will have released December 11, 2018, and is an early jazz story about Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis Armstrong’s wife and a jazz pianist and composer in her own right. WOW za DOO! I’m throwing a jazz party the very next day—which, praise the heavens, falls before Christmas and Kwanzaa.

 

For planning your party, consider your talents.

 

Talent. I know how to do things on a shoestring. Having run a dance company, One Plus One, for many years, I can attest to the fact that Necessity is the Mother of Invention. Necessity has given me an ability for shoestring operation. Shoestring, folks. I’ve got shoestrings. AND there will be dancing!

 

Next consider your community—both your friends and your town. You know, like character and setting. So, where will your event take place?

 

 

WHERE AND WHEN

Is there an attractive bar/restaurant near you that you frequent? Try them out. Go regularly and sit at the bar. Make friends with the management. Perhaps this is easier after you’ve consumed a beer or a pineapple margarita. Do they have music events at least occasionally? That could help you choose the venue. I guess I’m suggesting you start frequenting nearby bar/restaurants. That can be fun. Start in plenty of time, maybe even before you write the book. Unless you’re a really good drinker who can chug down pint after pint in venue after venue.

You might be thinking, Wait, this is a kid’s book. Why launch at a bar? Well, it’s usually adults who buy the books—even young adult book. Having your book launch before a gift-giving holiday is a plus, of course. But that’s the luck of the draw. Your publisher will be deciding when your book releases.

 

So, the bar part is important (but not essential), because you want your attendees to have the option of drinking. The more people drink, the more generous they become, the more books they buy. Trust me. I know this to be true. And you won’t have to pay for their beverages. Or the food.

 

And the restaurant part is important. The establishment will love you because you’ll bring in a load of people—perhaps new customers—who will buy food and drink so you shouldn’t have to rent the place. It’s a symbiotic relationship: win/win. This is what you must convince the management of your chosen venue, while drinking that pineapple margarita at the bar.

 

“My” restaurant/bar makes a menu item to honor my book. For Struttin’ they’ll make a barbecue sandwich. For Loving vs. Virginia they made Brunswick stew which is, apparently, a traditional Virginia down-home dish. At another wine bar, for Josephine I had soul food catered. Through experience I learned, this expense wasn’t required. Find a restaurant/bar that serves food.

 

 

MUSIC          

Music makes it a party. I want music performed which pertains to my book. This is easy for Struttin’. That would be my husband’s band, Traditional Jazz Orchestra. “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” is the name of a tune that Lil Hardin Armstrong wrote with Louis Armstrong on their back stoop, and is the name of my book. Yep, I’ve got an advantage, having a jazz musician for a husband, but use your perks. (Maybe you married a massage therapist. That’s a good perk). But I married a musician. So for my previous book, Loving vs. Virginia, I hired a string band led by Robin Kearton, because Mildred Jeter Loving’s father and step brothers played in a “hillbilly” string band. Actually, I didn’t hire the band, I traded my husband talking to them about improvisation—their request. That Morgan Powell, jazz trombonist, is quite a perk.

 

If you’re not married to a musician, you’ll need to make friends with musicians. That’s on you. And I don’t suggest you ask the band to play for free. It’s important to pay the band members. That is my only real expense—$50 per player, plus I strutted around with a tip jar for another $150 to add to their pay.

 

I guess you could substitute canned music and make an appropriate play list to be played during the event. But it’s not the same as live music, which actually helps draw a crowd to your event.

 

 

BOOK SALES

Ask your local bookstore to sell books so you don’t have to do the sales. I work with Jane Addams Bookstore, which is, primarily a second hand bookstore in downtown Champaign. Because we hope to sell 100 books at that party, they make out. They’ll sell your book at its full amount and you’ll make your complete royalty.

 

Yes, some people will come with books that they’ve purchased from Amazon and that’s fine. But, if you book your launch party the day after the release date, people probably can’t get your book through the mail in time. Just a thought. And how mine happened to work out. And you can explain to your friends, your students, interested people, that they are supporting the author/illustrator by purchasing your book at its full amount. They don’t want you to starve or anything, so they’ll usually (oftentimes) understand and be willing and excited to pay the publisher’s list price for your book.

 

 

PUBLICITY

Chronicle Books gives its authors and illustrators business cards, displaying the image of the book cover. On the backside are the creator’s social media contacts. That’s all you need. Back in the day, Salina Bookshelf made postcards of my books. I made postcards for my first book, Blossom Tales. I’d hand out my Vista Print-made postcard, with a notice of a book event and watch people fold my $.25 card in half and put it in their pocket. Agh. No one has to fold a business card. It fits in pockets, wallets, palms, you-name-it. So I begged Charlesbridge to make me a business card of Struttin’ With Some Barbecue. If they hadn’t, I would have gone to Vista Print to make my own. But I’d have asked my publisher/publicist to design the card (to my specifications), because I don’t even own PhotoShop. But, yep, you could design it on Vista Print too.

 

So let’s say you have 1000 beautiful business cards with the image of your book on the front. Leave enough room on the back—at least 1 ½” wide by 1” high—where you can affix your specific announcement.

 

Then go to Staples or some other Office Supply denizen and purchase full-page labels (that is, 8 ½ x 11). Format a page on your computer, using Times New Roman, 8 point font, which is compact and legible. Format 6 columns and margins set at .2. Succinctly designate:

What: Book Launch Party

When:

Where:

Music by:

Book Sales by:

Print, slice lengthwise or whatever direction allows the peeling seam to be accessible. Peel, cut one announcement, affix to back of business card, and repeat. I only do a few at a time so I don’t go nutty. Or nuttier.

 

I hand them out months ahead of time as I see people who I think might be interested (aka everyone I know or meet who lives locally). This way you get to a whole lot of participants and build excitement for your book birth. I tell anyone who’s interested some pithy detail about the book. For instance:

Lil was Louis were each other’s second marriage.

We named our Tree Walker Hound Lil after Lil Hardin Armstrong.

Lil’s papers, including the first 5 chapters of her autobiography, were stolen from her house at the time of her funeral, which is probably in part why so little is written about her.

Lil’s extended family is owed loads in royalties, but they can’t be found; their names would probably be Hardin or Martin and might live in Tennessee.

Louis remarried a couple times but Lil never remarried.

A month after Louis Armstrong died, Lil collapsed while playing the piano at a commemorative concert in his honor in Chicago; she died shortly after.

 

I give a stack of the cards to Jane Addams Bookstore, a stack at my body-worker’s waiting room, and wherever people might pick one up. I still won’t use all 1000 cards, so I’ll leave some without the affixed Book Launch invitation and will hand them out whenever I meet people. My husband hands them out, too.

 

I’ll make a few 8×10 images of the book for a poster announcing the party. I’ll post one each at Jane Addams Bookstore, my public library and the Esquire Lounge where the party will take place.

 

SOCIAL MEDIA INVITATIONS

About a month before the party, I create a FaceBook Event page and invite all local FaceBook Friends. This has become so easy on FB. Check out “Create” on your home page. It’s so straightforward it nearly does itself.

 

I also send an e-mail message with the book image to local friends, first as a Save the Date, then a week before. After all, not all your friends are on FB. But if you overlap, I think it’s okay. To receive occasional announcements is a way to help create buzz.

 

I also send a press release to my local newspaper, the paper for which I review YA books. They’ll definitely list the event. Maybe they’ll even write an article. We’ll see.

 

What will I do at the event? Tell some anecdotes about Lil, about the research, and read a bit. Then talk to people as I sign books. But mostly the band, the community of people, and the venue provide the entertainment.

 

Outcome: Some people bought multiple books. Some people didn’t buy books, but just came for the party, which is fine. More than 150 people attended, Jane Addams sold about 90 books. I signed the rest of the books and the bookstore expects to sell those. We created buzz for the book. And the party was extremely fun.

 

 

 

First published in The Prairie Wind, the newsletter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Illinois. https://illinois.scbwi.org/files/2019/01/PW-Winter-2019-Interactive.pdf

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“Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster” by Jonathan Auxier

Nan Sparrow has been a chimney sweep ever since she can remember, in Jonathan Auxier’s “Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster” (Amulet 2018) set in nineteenth century London. In the beginning, the Sweep was her guide, but he disappeared five years ago. Now twelve, Nan is changing into a young woman while working for Wilkie Crudd, a cruel master with a pack of boy sweeps. They all live together in a coal cellar. The story and writing is reminiscent of Charles Dickens, specifically, Oliver Twist.

Nan is canny and lithe, but that doesn’t keep her from getting stuck in a narrow bending flue where a competitive boy “nudges” her—or shoves her deeper into the flue—when a chimney fire breaks out. Did she die? If not, where could she have escaped to? And who is with her?

The Sweep had given her a fistful of char—soot and ash—which has lived in her pocket these past 5 years. This clump of char begins to awaken and grow. The glob comforts and eventually protects her. It develops legs and arms and can move about. She names him Charlie. He’s sweet, innocent, but is growing larger and becoming frightening, but not to Nan. Nan protects Charlie from ridicule and her own fear. She doesn’t want him to become fearful. With research, she decides he’s a golem. Research also tells her that golems become obsolete—but what does that mean exactly?

Nan and Charlie move into the House with a Hundred Chimneys, which has lain vacant for years. They use an upstairs window as their front door. In fact, they prowl the city along the rooftops, which the reader will find exhilarating—at least this one did. They watch the streets below and stay hidden from the cruel Crudd who is searching for his best sweep, Nan.

Nan and Charlie assign each room with a purpose—the Tantrum Room (lined with cushions), a Dress-Up Room with all the capes and hats left by the previous owners, and the Rubbish Room, which becomes too smelly to use.

Back in the days when they’d roamed the streets together, the Sweep had sung to her, so now Nan sings. She sings to advertise her service—sweeping chimneys. And it’s effective in getting work.

Toby, a street boy and junk seller, is cocky and sweet and clearly fancies Nan. She’s dismissive of him, but the reader is grateful for Toby’s occasional presence in Nan’s hard life. Nan says, “Toby was one of those irritating people who got on with everyone.” Toby notes that Charlie woke up Nan’s heart—which had been pretty hardened.

At times the writing is lyrical, as when the sun comes out and Nan sees the light “erasing the shadows, street by street.” Reading this book is both comfortable and comforting.

The story addresses child labor of the late nineteenth century and the beginning of laws to protect children. The Sweep, Toby, and another friend, Miss Bloom, are all Jewish and the issue of anti-Semitism is an important thread running through the story. Together, Nan and Charlie, experience wonder, love, and grief—in spite of having no mother.

And on this Mother’s Day, I’m so grateful to the mother I had. Happy Mother’s Day, Mama.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award winning Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue among others         talesforallages.com

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“The Chaos of the Stars” by Kiersten White

This is a guest post written by Megan Sutton

Things aren’t easy when you’re the daughter of ancient Egyptian deities. No one knows that better than Isadora, who is the mortal offspring of Isis, the goddess of magic and wisdom, and Osiris, the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld. The Chaos of Stars traces her steps as she runs off to California in the hopes of escaping their clutches and living a separate life, but she soon realizes that her connection to her parents is much more complicated than mere geography. Dark, terrifying dreams haunt her at night and they’re dangerous enough to kill a god.

Here, author Kiersten White puts a spin on family drama with Egyptian mythology. Other than having immortals for parents, Isadora leads a typical life. She makes friends with interesting fellows like energetic Tyler and the Greek boy Ry, and her days in California are an odd mix of interior design and worshipping god. Although she may resent her parents, she still plans to build a museum dedicated to them someday. It’s confusing, but totally understandable.

Isadora’s feelings, as White relays them, are relatable. She thinks her parents never truly loved her, especially since they made her mortal while the rest of her relatives get to live forever. The grudge grows as soon as she finds out about her mother’s pregnancy. Isadora also has a difficult time with love, like most people her age do. Her witty charm and sarcastic views of the world makes for a delightful read, but sometimes come off as a little too self-absorbed.

All in all, fans of White and her work will understand that her fascination with ancient Egypt runs deep; the first book she ever wrote was set in Egypt. White has said many times that Egyptian mythology is blunt and straightforward, and its family feuds are even more complicated than that of Greek myths — which is delightfully reflected in her printed work.

But the effect of this deep respect and reference to the ancient is that it encourages readers to explore well-known deities and characters in a new light. After all, Egyptian mythological icons have survived generations and become an interesting part of modern pop culture, so much so that both Isis and Osiris are familiar names, regardless of how well versed people are about the lore. For one, they both appear as characters in the 2016 film Gods of Egypt. In the well-known video game Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which is also set in ancient Egypt, both Isis and Osiris are referenced numerous times. On a smaller scale, they are featured in Egyptian-themed games on online portal Slingo. Titles like Temple of IrisPyramid: Quest for Immortality, and Crown of Egypt feature the deities’ common images so that players can recognize them immediately. And although not everyone is familiar with Egyptian mythology that doesn’t mean that Chaos of the Stars isn’t for everyone – as it is. It is an enthralling read that doesn’t solely focus on in-depth knowledge about the ancient Egyptian gods.

So, while the book certainly leans on Egyptian mythology, the narrative focuses less on the details of the lore in favor of highlighting common family issues. This may be a disappointment for readers who picked up the book to expand their understanding of Egyptian gods. But if you do enjoy it, it’s important to understand that White has written books with similar fantastical themes. Her latest novel, Slayer, is a story set in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe. She is also author of the Paranormalcy trilogy, a highly acclaimed series that landed on the New York Times best-seller list.

For more book reviews, feel free to explore Tales for All Ages.

 

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“Pride” by Ibi Zoboi

“Pride” (Balzer & Bray 2018) by Ibi Zoboi is a remake of “Pride and Prejudice.” If you’ve read Jane Austen’s masterpiece, this is, in part, a fun puzzle. How will Zoboi—a National Book Award Finalist of 2018 for her work “American Street”—translate 19th Century white mores to the hood? And who is who?

Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet becomes Zuri Benitez, one of the five Benitez sisters whose parents are Haitian and Domincan-American. So we get Haitian santoria culture as well as Hispanic flavors and foods. Mrs. Benitez isn’t as ditzy as Mrs. Bennet, although she does love the culture of gossip and matchmaking for her daughters. She has charisma that Mrs. Bennet lacks, and throws block parties in Bushwick that are renowned in their section of fast-gentrifying Brooklyn.

So not only does Zuri feel pride in her culture and her Bushwick neighborhood we have the theme of being driven out of one’s neighborhood by gentrification—due to soaring real estate costs. The rich African-American Darcy family moves in across the street to a luxuriously renovated mansion helping to drive up the price of property.

Zuri detests Darius Darcy for this as well as for his snobbery. Darius’s older brother Ainsley (yep, you got it, Misters Darcy and Bingley are brothers in Zoboi’s version) falls for Janai Benitez, Zuri’s older sweet and lovely sister.

Kayla and Layla Benitez are the boy crazy younger twins whose gossipy prattle includes speculation of who is “digging pockets” or gold-digging. Darius overhears, misunderstands, and alerts Ainsley who backs off from poor heart-broken Janae.

Mr. Benitez is less long-suffering and more heroic than Mr. Bennet, in raising his five daughters. And yep, there’s a Colin, but nowhere near as colorful as the despicable Mr. Collins. He’s present nevertheless.

What about the scandal? And the villain? Warren is a poor smart black kid from the hood who won a scholarship to attend Darius’ spiffy Manhattan private school. Warren speaks Zuri’s language, has the right swag, likes the right music, and shares her “ghetto” experience. So she falls for him and despises Darius for not backing up Warren—until she finds Warren compromising the reputation of her thirteen-year-old sister Kayla at a party.

It all comes clear for Zuri with the help of Darius Darcy. We we cheer for her and her aspiration to attend the traditional black Howard University outside of Washington DC.

This is such a fun and informative read! Rural and white reader learns a lot about urban African American culture. I’d have called “Pride” a resurrection if I thought that “Pride and Prejudice” were dead. Burt for some young readers “Pride” might indeed be a resurrection.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award winning books: Struttin’ With Some Barbeuce; Josephine; and Loving vs Virginia. She teaches a community class in writing at Parkland College. talesforallages.com

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“Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam” by Elizabeth Partridge

“Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam” (Viking 2018) by award winning author Elizabeth Partridge is a great read for all adults—young and otherwise.

If you grew up in the 60s or 70s, you can follow the history and marvel at your junior high (elementary, high school or college) understanding of the events.

How do you organize a book about this complex politically shameful war? Partridge follows each American President—Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. None wanted to be the first president to lose a war. They were winners, not losers. But American and Vietnamese boys were dying by the thousands.

Interspersed throughout the President-sections are chapters following diverse selection of individuals “on the ground” or “in country.” We follow a gung-ho Hispanic foot shoulder who enlisted for a year-long stint early in U.S. involvement, 1965-1966. His aim was to leave behind gangs and drugs to get on the straight and narrow. You see him and his buddies in impossible situations, seeing friends die, getting drunk and stoned back at base to alleviate the pain of it.

A mixed-race “dirt poor” machine gunner from Selma, Henry Allen, had been a civil rights worker, a member of SNCC registering black voters—a disciple of Martin Luther King, Jr. and nonviolence. Once drafted he had to decide to shoot or disobey orders and be court-martialed.

Martin Luther King Jr. claims a powerful chapter, as “protestor” to the war, and leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King, in spite of his work with LBJ on black rights and getting the Civil Rights Act signed in 1964, followed his conscience to the monstrous dismay of LBJ. MLK said, “If I am the last, lone voice speaking for non-violence, that I will do.”

A medic is haunted by those he cannot save. A young infantryman says, “I was ready for combat, but I wasn’t ready to see people die.”

A Japanese American Green Beret is called a “gook” by fellow soldiers, and assumed to be an enemy spy by some. After his year in Vietnam he is relieved to go home but suffers the classic survival guilt. Why did I survive?

Country Joe McDonald, an early veteran of the war later became a protest singer. Largely by happenstance, filling in at the famous Woodstock Music and Peace Festival, he sang “And it’s one, two, three, What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, Next stop is Vietnam; And its five, six, seven, Open up the pearly gates . . .” It became an anti-war anthem.

Lily Lee Adams, an Asian-American nurse and war protester, was tricked by a recruiter to serve in Vietnam. She treated “blown up” boys, from both our side and the Viet Cong North.

There’s a chapter for a young Vietnamese refugee and her family attempting to escape the country when America pulled out in 1975 and the Communists of North Vietnam rushed in.

All these soldiers speak of the distaste with which they were met on their return home—another reason for American shame—and why it’s so important to read this award-winning book.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award winning Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue among others         talesforallages.com

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“Hey, Kiddo” by Jarrett J. Korosoczka

“Hey, Kiddo” (Graphix/Scholastic 2018) is a graphic novel and a memoir by author/illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Its subtitle, “How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction,” is a pithy description of this important, page-turning book.

Jarrett was raised by his grandparents who drank heavily and smoked constantly. But they loved him dearly. His absent mother, a heroin addict, wrote him heart-felt notes and occasionally showed up for visits, but always missed the big moments, like his graduation, in spite of her promises.

His working-class grandparents raised five of their own children, the younger ones overlapping Jarrett’s time with them. The grandparents scraped together money to send their grandson to comic-making classes.

One of the more poignant scenes has Jarrett not notifying his grandparents of his eighth grade graduation ceremony. Of course they discover this and are understandably crushed. When his young aunt, Holly, expresses her concern, thirteen-year-old Jarrett rectifies the matter, feels deep shame, and the entire family attends the ceremony. Clearly the whole family—barring his mother and father—was raising the kid.

The author’s unwavering honesty is what gives this story its depth—along with the unusually accurate cartoon depictions of the entire “cast.” The renderings of Jarrett at all his various ages, up to about eighteen, are remarkable. There are photos of his grandparents as part of Krosoczka’s Ted Talk linked to his website, studiojjk.com, and his renderings of them are right on. But even before I saw the photos of his grandparents, I knew from Jarrett’s cartoons exactly what they looked like.

The author outlines how art saved him. He says, “When I was a kid, I’d draw to get attention from my family. In junior high, I drew to impress my friends. But now I draw to survive.”

He tells us that his mother started using when she was 13. Krosoczka heard the stories. “She’d walk into a store with a trash bag, fill it with batteries, and then run out of the store—selling the batteries on the black market to fuel her addiction.” She stole from Joe and Shirl, her parents and Jarrett’s grandparents. She even stole her mother’s diamond ring, and sold it to feed her habit. She’s a mess.

In his early years, Krosoczka never considers his biological father—doesn’t even know his name. But in his teen years, that changes. Jarrett finds him and now he has a relationship with him.

It’s a heart breaking story, yet sweet and uplifting, because Krosockzka finds his way.

This book was a Finalist for the National Book Award for Young Readers. Wow!

 

 

Patricia Hruby Powell’s most recent book is Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz.   talesforallages.com

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“The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle” by Leslie Connor

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle

“The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle” (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen 2018) by Leslie Connor is the story of a lovable misfit. Not only is he a gigantic seventh grader, but he is sweaty beyond belief. He changes T-shirts throughout the day and mops up his forehead with paper towel and bandanas. What’s worse, his best friend Benny died mysteriously.

Mason has told the police lieutenant countless times what he experienced with Benny on that fateful day, but Lieutenant Baird keeps coming back for more information. The reader knows that Baird doesn’t believe Mason, but Mason doesn’t understand that. And people keep giving Mason that “so-sad” look. Mason can’t read or write but he does have support from the school counselor—wonderful Ms. Blinny.

Ms. Blinny gives Mason all the time he needs, a place to escape, and a computer program that lets him speak his story as it is typed out. Everyone in school should have a facility and a counselor like Ms. Blinny. Her room is a refuge for anyone who needs it.

And Mason has support from his Grandma and Uncle Drum who raise him in the “crumbledown,” their old house on the apple orchard. The family of three are grieving for Mason’s mother and the adults have lost hope. They’re having to sell off orchard land to make ends meet and developers are building houses beyond the woods and all over their sight lines.

Living in one of those new houses is Matt Drinker who bullies Mason mercilessly. But Matt has a fabulous dog, Moonie, who Mason loves and dog sits. Thank heavens Mason makes a friend in the funny wise Calvin Chumsky who moves into one of the new houses up the hill. Calvin brings out the best in Mason and the two find a hideaway on the property, just as Mason and Benny had in the woods.

Bully Matt and his crony Lance fling apples at Mason and Calvin as they all get off the school bus together. Big sweet Mason and tiny brainy Calvin are reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Lenny and George in “Of Mice and Men.” But this is wholly Mason’s story.

Whenever Lieutenant Baird comes around, Mason sees dark green fog oozing into his field of vision. When he sees green, he believes it’s bad luck following him. Grandma and Drum try to protect Mason, but they’ve given permission to let the police speak to him, feeling completely confident in his honesty. Mason sees pink when he and Calvin chalk prehistoric animals on their hideaway walls—like the ones in the Lascaux Caves in France. Seeing colors that corresponds to emotions is called synesthesia.

Should Mason tell the police about their hiding place? He swore not to. And he’s loyal, but he wonders. He tells the computer program at school, “I feel stupid. I feel dangerous. Makes me scared to be me. The way I am. Because what can you do about that. Nothing.” What happens is believable, honest, satisfying, and hopeful.

This fabulous book was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Try not to read the flap text, which gives a monstrous spoiler. Why did they do that?

 

 

Patricia Hruby Powell’s newest book is Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz        talesforallages.com

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“Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo

Xiomara’s strict and ultra Catholic mother fears for her daughter’s virtue. Sexy curvaceous Xiomara seems to be doing pretty well taking care of herself. Males of all ages have been muttering, whispering, grabbing at her for a few years now. Of course she’s angry. Anger serves her well.

Fifteen year old Xiomara lives in Harlem with her problematic Dominican-American parents in “Poet X” (Harper Teen 2018) by slam poet champion Elizabeth Acevedo. Acevedo’s poems tell the story with explosive energy and powerful insights.

Xiomara protects her smaller weaker brother, Xavier, who she calls Twin. Xiomara says, “My brother was birthed a soft whistle:/quiet, barely stirring the air, a gentle sound. But I was born all the hurricane he needed . . .” Twin goes to a “fancy genius school” while Xiomara makes her way in public school that’s fed by students of five boroughs. “I walk through metal detectors, and turn my pockets out,/and greet security guards by name,/ and am one of hundreds who every day are sifted like flour through the doors.”

Xiomara’s father once had a reputation as a womanizer, but ever since the birth of his twin children, he’s been on the straight and narrow, if emotionally distant. “Just because your father’s present/ doesn’t mean he isn’t absent.”

Mamí will allow no dating. Xiomara, who objects, says to her best friend, the more conservative Caridad, “I’m just saying. I’m ready to stop being a nun. Kiss a boy, shoot. I’m ready to creep with him behind a stairwell and let him feel me up.” Caridad responds, “Learn yourself some virtue.” Acevedo packs a lot into Xiomara’s insight, without preaching: “I’m afraid of my mother so I listen to what she says. Caridad genuinely respects her parents.”

The twins and Caridad attend Catholic Confirmation classes, but Xiomara is not sure she believes. She asks, “ . . . what’s the point of God giving me life/ if I can’t live it as my own?/ Why does listening to his commandments/ mean I need to shut down my own voice?” Why have faith “in the father/ the son/ in men/ and men are the first ones/ to make me feel so small.”

And then a boy, Aman, is assigned to be her lab partner in biology. And her English teacher urges her to attend Poetry Club. But Poetry Club meets during Confirmation class. First she begins skipping Confirmation class to meet up with Aman who loves rap music and loves Xiomara’s verse. And respects her. Mamí finds out and that’s a very bad scene.

Now Xiomara skips Confirmation class to attend Poetry Club and her life changes. She’s found what she needs. And the reader is delighted that this bright talented insightful woman has found her way. The story is inspiring. The writing is insightful. It’s no wonder this is the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature winner as well as the Boston Globe Horn Book Fiction winner. It’s bound to win more major accolades.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz; Loving vs. Virginia; and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker talesforallages.com

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Writing Tip – Metaphors and Similes

We are Okay

Metaphors and Similes

Metaphors

 A good metaphor makes my mind leap, flies me over a landscape, then, sets me down in a soft landing. Metaphors take “show-don’t-tell” to a higher level.

Consider Nina LaCour’s “We Are Okay” (Dutton 2017) (winner of the 2018 Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature). Marin, the protagonist says, “It was terrifying, the idea that we could fall asleep girls, minty breathed and nightgowned, and wake to find ourselves wolves.

If this were a werewolf story, this line would be clunky—prosaic. But it’s not a werewolf story, it’s realistic fiction. One day we’re children, then we fall in love, discover our sexuality and we become something wild and dangerous. Wolves. What a mind-soaring metaphor!

One dictionary defines metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.”

There are famous frequently-quoted metaphors, such as Shakespeare’s, “All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players./ They have their exits and their entrances . . .” from As You Like It. We enter at birth, play a child, a wife, a writer, a whatever, and then we exit in death. What kind of child? Writer? Whatever? It depends on your role. Because Shakespeare was a great thinker this is still a great observation of human life.

 

Cliché or Dead Metaphors

 

There are cliché metaphors, such as “it’s raining cats and dogs.” Obvious advice would be, avoid those clichés. But that’s too simple. Speaking as a person who likes to bend rules, what if you have a character who speaks in lots of clichés because he’s annoying; or a character on the spectrum who is trying to make the non-literal more literal. She piles up metaphor clichés. That’s sort of fun. And funny. She says, “I’m the black sheep of the family. My brothers eat sausage but I eat kale.” “I tried to sneak out of the party, but I stepped in the ice bucket and got cold feet.” “My dad ate so many kettle chips, watching TV, that he turned into a couch potato.”

Or you could play with those cliché or “dead” metaphors and say, “it’s raining rats and frogs.” Or you could develop a gufus or simply hyper-creative character who gets clichés wrong and says, “I’m the purple sheep of the family.” “I got luke-warm feet.” My dad is a “couch rutabaga.” Old metaphors are fun to play with to develop characters or show a character’s quirkiness, creativity, or humor.

 

Sustained Metaphors

Not only can a metaphor be a word or a phrase, it can be sustained in an on-going passage. Lilli de Jong (Doubleday 2017) by Janet Benton is an adult book, but could definitely be read as a young adult novel. Besides which, the great Richard Peck (RIP) said “We write by the light of every story we have ever read.” You’ve heard it before: Read everything—in and out of your genre. Read the best.

Anyway, Lilli (de Jong) is a young Quaker woman in 1890 Philadelphia who gets pregnant and is abandoned by her fiancé. She gives birth in a home for unwed mothers, and is pressured to give up her child and never look back. She says,

“I consider the lie that will underpin my own life. . . We each have our own version of that lie. It’s the currency with which we buy our return ticket to society.”

The lie is “currency.” That’s the metaphor. Then Lilli has an epiphany. She sees herself on the deck of a boat for which she has just purchased passage. A wave pulls her overboard. She can breathe underwater. She feels ecstatic. A lie would buy her passage into society, but when she’s washed overboard she envisions a different life path. This path has her consider keeping her child.

Several pages later, still speaking of the lie, it becomes a simile, first cousin to the metaphor. “The lies spread like a layer of lard beneath my skin.” More about similes in a moment, but can’t you just feel that lie under your skin—its greasy distasteful existence enveloping you?

 

A metaphor can carry a whole book as it does in my own Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle 2014). In fact an earlier title was “Vive la Volcano: Josephine Baker.” In the end, I kept the sustained metaphor, but not the title. On the first page, Josephine “erupted into the Roaring Twenties/—a VOLCANO.” When Josephine experienced rioters—whites against blacks—cross into her neighborhood . . .

 

Fear grasped hold of her heart

and squeezed tight

the core of a volcano.

Anger heated and boiled into steam,

pressing HOT

in a place DEEP IN HER SOUL.

Later she’d let the steam out

in little poofs.

POOF!

a funny face.

That used to be fear.

POOF!

She’d mock a gesture.

That used to be anger.

She’d turn it into a dance.

AH, VERY WITTY.

 

That volcano metaphor runs through the story. “Deep-trapped steam FLASHED and WHISTLED.” She slid like “BLACK LAVA.” “Sparks flew.” In earlier drafts, I’d used similes instead of metaphors, saying Josephine was like a volcano. But in a SCBWI workshop, editor Carolyn Yoder of Calkins Creek, suggested using metaphor to give the piece more muscle. She was right. (Going to workshops and receiving critiques is an important part of the learning process).

 

Similes

Using simile—a comparison of one kind of thing to another, using like or as—is pretty fun, too. I’ve often thought of similes as slightly prosaic metaphors, but they can be powerful ways to “show.”

Sheila Turnage in her Newbery Honor book, Three Times Lucky (Dial 2012) has Mo say, “my stomach rolled like a dead carp.” Disgusting. Funny. Perfect. Or she describes a boy walking toward a pretty girl, “like he was sleep walking.” Can’t you see the smitten guy, too young to have learned to mask his desire, floating in puppy love? Many men never learn to mask their desire. Consider the hilarious Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Penguin 2017) by Gail Honeyman. About a 35 year old man, Eleanor says, “He couldn’t take his eyes off Laura, I noticed, apparently hypnotized rather in the manner of a mongoose before a snake.” “In the manner of” is the “like” or “as” in this simile.

 

In the picture book Free as a Bird: The Story of Malala by Lina Maslo (Balzer & Bray 2018), the title is a simile. In the story Malala’s father says, “Malala will be free as a bird!” This, of course, is the story of the Pakistani girl whose government forbade education for girls. After recovering from the attempt made on her life, Malala has spoken around the world for all girls (and boys) about their right to be educated. Her father’s wish for her daughter came true. She is free as a bird.

 

Similes are a great exercise to use in the classroom. One of the finest I’ve encountered was in a 4th grade classroom from a “naughty” boy. We were brainstorming on various similes. I requested a simile for, “The man is as bald as ____ .” A boy answers, “A light bulb.” Perfect. Not only is a light bulb fuzz-free, it’s shaped like a head. So it gives us a very accurate visual. Huzzah for the naughty boy. Of course, as light bulbs have become spirals, this particular simile has a limited shelf life or might have to be relegated to historical pieces—in the waning days when we use light bulbs shaped like heads.

 

Personification

A personification is an implied metaphor—the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristic to something nonhuman—as is used in Matt Killeen’s Orphan Monster Spy (Viking 2018). In 1939 Germany, Sarah is a young blond Jewish girl spying in an elite Nazi girl’s school. Sarah speaks of her longed for safety and says, “Sarah seized on this longing and strangled it, squeezing its pitiful and pathetic neck. She was not safe.” This unattainable desire for safety (non-human) is made human by giving it a neck that she must squeeze and strangle. Pretty cool.

Emily Dickinson famously said,  “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That’s how I feel about a great metaphor. And great similes. After all, metaphors, similes, personification are all poetic devices.

 

Stretch us in your writing. Take us somewhere new, somewhere we’ve never been before—and perhaps you the writer has never been before. I love it when a writer makes me see something that I’ve always known but never articulated. Metaphors can do that. Make your readers leap. Make them feel the top of their heads were taken off.

 

 

 

First published in The Prairie Wind, the newsletter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Illinois.  https://illinois.scbwi.org/prairie-wind-2/

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