Ten: For Young Writers Part 3 — Stories about Young Writers

This last For Young Writers post leaves advice (mostly) behind in favour of story. The writers described in these stories may approach the task with eagerness or doubt, teacher expectations, or a deep need of their own to write. What they have in common is a growing understanding of the potential of their own words.

Once Upon an Ordinary School Day written by Colin McNaughton and illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura
On a perfectly ordinary, ho hum day, a new teacher arrives who challenges his students to open their imaginations to music and story. In bare handfuls of words, McNaughton captures a multitude of approaches to creativity, as well as the effects that creativity can have on those willing to give it a try. Continue reading


Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky coverHattie Inez Brooks arrives in rural Montana in January, 1918. Behind her is a lifetime of being shuffled from one reluctant relative to another — whenever someone stops needing her help, on she goes. Before her are the remaining requirements for “proving up” the land claim her Uncle Chester has left her. Specifically, in the next 11 months, 16-year-old Hattie must plant 480 fence posts, farm 40 acres, and finish the season with enough money to pay her debts and cover the final fee that will make the land hers.

Hattie takes the challenge eagerly, thrilled to be working toward a home that’s truly her own. With advice from books and neighbours, determination, and especially the help of the Mueller family down the road, it looks like Hattie just might make it. But in 1918, hard work in the fields isn’t necessarily enough to earn the respect of the community. With WWI reaching its peak, patriotism is everything, and suspicion is everywhere. Though Hattie dutifully attends town events in support of the war, and promises far more than she can afford in the war bonds drive, her friendship with the part-German Mueller family means she shares their assumed guilt.

It’s a year full of challenges, some funny, others devastating. As Hattie struggles toward her November deadline, letters to a childhood friend on the front line and Wingfield-esque, “making a go of the farm” articles for a city newspaper in Iowa allow her to interpret and reinterpret her experiences, gradually drawing meaning from the senseless, and preparing to face an unknown future with grace and courage.

I grew up loving homesteading stories, and I’ve become increasingly fascinated by home front stories in the last few years. Hattie Big Sky does a fantastic job of exploring both in a period of overlap I didn’t know existed. If you haven’t yet, read this book — you won’t regret it!

Find more reviews at Nerdy Book Club and Slatebreakers.

Check out the publisher’s Reader’s Guide.

Catch a sample of one of the Wingfield plays:

Watch for a review of the sequel, Hattie Ever After this fall!

Ten: Defining “Hero”

The topic for this week’s Ten followed my discovery, on following a recommendation, that my library had three different books called Sidekicks — a middle grade series starter, a YA novel, and a graphic novel. Of course I requested all three. As I read these, and the others listed below, I found that while the term “hero” is still popular, almost every story focused on a “hero” is at least partly concerned with what exactly heroism means. Traditionally — according to dictionary.com — a hero is (some mix of) daring, altruistic and courageous, and admired by his or her community for these qualities. Is that really what makes a hero? And what does heroism look like when you’re called on to be the hero? Check out this week’s titles for ten answers.

Sidekicks written by Dan Danko and Tom Mason and illustrated by Barry Gott
A group of kids with promising but undeveloped powers provide their services whenever the League of Big Justice needs a hand. When the League is captured, Guy Martin (Speedy) leads the other sidekicks on a rescue mission. While several characters claim the role of “hero” based more on supposed “powers” than on actual heroic activity, Guy and his fellow sidekicks are brave, resourceful, and willing to use their respective talents to help when needed. Continue reading

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton by Matt Phelan

Bluffton coverHenry can’t believe his luck. Just down the road from his ho hum town, a whole troupe of vaudevillians have moved in for the summer. There’s an elephant, a zebra, and, best of all, a boy Henry’s own age who can tumble and flip like you wouldn’t believe.

The rest of Henry’s community gets over the excitement quickly — the troupe seem nice enough, but the vaudeville lifestyle doesn’t fit well with their comfortable routine. Henry finds something special, though: not only a hint of the life he’d like to be living, out on the road, performing for sold-out audiences, but also a true friend in the one and only Buster Keaton. Buster, for his part, is glad to experience a bit of normalcy for a change. Henry slips away from the family store as soon as he can each day, and heads out to Bluffton to hear stories from the adults, and fish, swim and play ball with Buster and Lex, the son of another of the acts.

So it goes for two summers, but by the third, Henry has started to discover some of the benefits of his own world. When Buster visits Henry on his territory, a bit of jealousy might prove enough to end the friendship for good.

Matt Phelan turns his soft and whimsical style from illustration to graphic novel in Bluffton, giving the final presentation a nostalgic feel that fits Henry’s reminiscences perfectly. And though Henry’s story is fiction, much of Buster’s is true, so readers get a fascinating glimpse into a largely-forgotten era of show business. Recommended especially for readers with an interest in the history of the stage.

Check out the Kirkus review.

Read a Q&A with Matt Phelan.

Watch a Buster Keaton movie for yourself on the Internet Archive!

Releases July 23, 2013. I obtained an advance copy of this book from Candlewick via NetGalley. I received no compensation; my interpretation and opinions are my own.

Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco

Beholding Bee coverBee has been part of Ellis’s travelling show all her twelve years. Since her parents’ death, she and her unofficial guardian, Pauline, have been a team. Bee helps with the hot dog cart and looks for a home that will finally get the two of them off the road. Pauline keeps records of Bee’s life and fights to keep her — and her large, diamond-shaped birthmark — out of Ellis’s “Look See” exhibit. When Pauline gets involved with a newcomer, Ellis takes the opportunity to send her off to help start a satellite show that he hopes will boost flagging wartime profits. Feeling betrayed, and vulnerable to Ellis’s greed, Bee takes off, looking for a place to claim as home.

What she finds is the cozy little house of her dreams, inhabited by two old women who welcome her and settle her into the bedroom they’ve prepared. Mrs. Potter offers comfort; Mrs. Swift insists that Bee make something of herself, beginning with school. And here’s where the story really gets going. At school, where she’s placed in the “special” class to avoid teasing, Bee discovers the responsibility of friendship, the satisfaction of being expected to thrive, and the possibility that standing up to a bully may require as much compassion as it does bravery.

Though I wasn’t completely satisfied with the book as a whole, the complexity of the characters and the relationships between them is exceptional. Nearly every character with any significance in the novel has flaws and struggles of his or her own, and each is eventually shown to deserve at least a bit of sympathy. Beholding Bee would be a great choice for a group read, with lots of potential for discussion about friendship, bullying, home, and what it means to be a good teacher or parent.

Read other reviews from Fourth Musketeer, Beth Fish Reads and Kirkus.

The American Library Association’s Association for Library Services to Children recently included Beholding Bee in its list of nominees for Notable Children’s Books. Check out the rest of the list!

Ten: Favourite Rereads

Ingathering by Zenna Henderson
Mum introduced me to Zenna Henderson as soon as I was old enough to be interested, and I gradually collected my own set in my late teens (Henderson published four books of short stories, all of which are rare thrift shop finds now). Ingathering is much easier to get, and combines two of the collections, plus a few extra stories that didn’t appear in the earlier books, so it’s a good place to start. Henderson’s stories, characters, and vocabulary are about as much a part of me as almost anything else I can think of. Discovering someone else who has read them (it’s happened twice, ever, and one of those was via Jo Walton’s Among Others) is rather like discovering an unknown relative — an unexpected someone in the world who shares important bits of my own history.

Devil on My Back and The Dreamcatcher by Monica Hughes
Choosing two is sort of cheating (though there will be plenty more of that before I’m done, so why fret?), but they’re sort of two halves of a whole, and these, more than any of the others, are remembered not only as stories, but as experiences. Devil on My Back is about learning to see and accept uncomfortable truths about a world you’ve taken for granted; The Dreamcatcher is about finding a legitimate place in a community that seems at first not to fit you at all. Both involve high stakes commitments from teenagers to use their knowledge and gifts to make real changes in their world. There’s also a trek on foot through the mountains that I mean to experience for myself at least once in my life. Continue reading

This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Book I by Kenneth Oppel

This Dark Endeavour coverVictor may be brilliant, but it’s his twin brother, Konrad, who seems to have life figured out. Konrad is cheerful, athletic, and gets along with everyone, while Victor is passionate and stubborn — fitting in doesn’t come easily. There’s jealousy, to be sure, especially when their childhood companion seems to become more than just (distant) cousin Elizabeth to both brothers at the same time. Still, the boys love one another deeply, and the majority of their daily lives is lived in common.

When Konrad falls mysteriously and seriously ill, Victor is determined to do whatever is necessary to make him well. Dismissing the ineffectual methods of conventional doctors as a waste of time, Victor, his cousin, and their friend, Henry Clavel, turn to the books collected in a library hidden deep under the Frankensteins’ castle. Everything rational marks the books as untrustworthy, but the promised Elixir of Life appears to be Konrad’s only chance. The thing must be attempted, no matter what the cost.

Though I’m not generally a fan of the sort of dark, emotional atmosphere Oppel evokes here, to me it felt very much in line with what I remember of Shelley’s novel, even if the specific details didn’t quite line up with the original. I really enjoyed the questing and the complex relationships between the main characters — the fact that most of them had conflicting motivations in particular made the characters feel remarkably real. I think that This Dark Endeavor (and its sequel, Such Wicked Intent) would work especially well either as an introduction to Shelley’s novel, and as a follow up to the same. The novel stands on its own, but there’s so much potential to draw more from both Oppel and Shelley by reading each novel with the other in mind.

Find more reviews at Librarianaut and The Globe and Mail.

Find some great extras — a discussion guide, videos of the author talking about the book, and more — on Kenneth Oppel’s website.