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

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Word after Word after Word by Patricia MacLachlan

Word after Word after Word coverThe kids in Miss Cash’s fourth grade class have their very own, real, live author for the last six weeks of school. Each day, Ms. Mirabel teaches them a little bit more about writing: that people might write for lots of different reasons — to tell a story or ask a question or figure out what they think or feel about something; that different people write in different ways; that writing gives you a chance to be brave. The story focuses on a group of friends within the class, and explores the ways that each child takes on Ms. Mirabel’s challenge to be brave. Russell, who helps his parents by watching his baby brother Oliver every afternoon, writes about missing his dog, Everett. May expresses her frustration with her parents’ determination to adopt another child, and her surprised affection for the funny-looking baby who arrives. Lucy struggles to write something free of the sadness that surrounds her mother’s cancer. Gradually their writing, and the conversations that surround it, help the children to understand and share their experiences a little bit better.

Word after Word after Word is a beautiful story. There’s no doubt that the children are more articulate — and certainly more sensitive to each others’ feelings – than most real people of any age. As Ms. Mirabel points out, though, sometimes writing something unreal — a parable, a metaphor, a remarkably compassionate child — helps to communicate something true. I think that MacLachlan may have managed just that.

Check out more reviews from Shelf Elf and The Deakin Review of Children’s Literature.

Find some great questions and activities in the publisher’s teaching guide for Word after Word after Word.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan coverIvan’s feelings about human beings are complicated. On one hand, humans destroyed his family and carried him far from home. On the other, he enjoyed his childhood in Mack’s house, raised more or less like a human son. And while he’s not sure he remembers how to behave like a wild gorilla, his domain at Mack’s mall is reasonably comfortable. He even has his own TV.

Stella, Mack’s elephant, remembers more about life before, and understands more about the life she and Ivan are living now. When Mack brings in Ruby, a baby elephant, in an attempt to revive his failing mall, Stella is horrified. And Ivan? He discovers that Mack’s “domains” start to look an awful lot like cages once a child is closed inside.

I loved Ivan. His voice is straightforward, insightful, and occasionally witty, without ever feeling affected. I liked Stella’s gravity and Bob the stray dog’s attitude, and I was impressed by the open exploration of the complex relationship between the human and the animal world. That said, it took some time for this book to settle for me. I liked it, but it’s a quick read, and I reached the end feeling like it hadn’t quite accomplished what I’d anticipated — I didn’t feel entirely satisfied. I think, though, that this is a book that deserves contemplation. Applegate’s few words sketch an image with the potential to linger in the memory and challenge the reader in more ways than one, if it’s given the space to do so. So here’s what I suggest: read the story once for the characters. They’re wonderful. Then sit with it awhile and, if you can, read it again. Then come and tell me what you think.

Read other reviews from Steph the Bookworm and School Library Journal.

Watch a particularly well done trailer:

When No One Is Watching written by Eileen Spinelli and illustrated by David A. Johnson

When No One Is Watching coverEnergetic and creative when she is alone, Eileen Spinelli’s unnamed protagonist sings and dances, shows off her basketball skills, and is “brave as a bear / in a cave / in the dark.” When others are around — her classmates, her family, other adults in public places — the boldness disappears and she fades into the background. While others play and argue, she stays out of the way. That is, of course, unless the other is her friend Loretta, who is shy, too. When the girls are together, they make space for one another, and each feels free to play and make noise, even if others are watching, too.

Spinelli’s protagonist is beautifully complex and very relatable. Even readers who are rarely shy have likely found themselves in situations when they didn’t feel quite free to be themselves, and will feel a tug of familiarity when reading When No One Is Watching. For those children (and adults!) for whom shyness is a more frequent experience, the book is a gem, offering a character who understands what it’s like and who finds joy in both aloneness and friendship. Johnson’s illustrations are as exuberant as the child they depict. She is brightly coloured, full of motion from her hair to her shoelaces. The others — with the exception of Loretta — live their busy, talkative lives in softer colours, separated visually, as well as experientially, from the protagonist’s inner life.

Find reviews on Publishers Weekly and Waking Brain Cells.

Read an interview with Eileen Spinelli.

Ten: Fathers and Mothers, Daughters and Sons

It’s not uncommon for parents to play a minimal role — or no role at all — in children’s and YA fiction. It gives the protagonists additional space and agency to explore themselves and their world, and allows readers to do so vicariously. Even so, the parent-child relationship remains an important one for young readers, and plenty of books offer insight into both its challenges and its potential. This week’s Ten suggests that even when parents are distant, even when they break trust, there is a place for hope in love and the possibility of restoration.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban
Zoe’s dreams and her father’s psychological limitations come into conflict, introducing new tension into a quirky but loving father-daughter relationship. Growth in both characters makes this a very satisfying story. Continue reading

Naamah and the Ark at Night written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti and illustrated by Holly Meade

Naamah and the Ark at Night coverIn Bartoletti’s telling of the Flood story, Naamah (pronounced Nay-ah-mah or Na-ah-mah) is the name of Noah’s wife. One night a great storm sets the ark thrashing on the waves and surrounds it with thunder and lightning. Noah and their children toss and turn on their mats and the animals grow restless, but Naamah, calm and wise, moves through the ark singing blessings over those on the ark and for the world around them. Two by two, people and animals settle in to sleep, comforted by Naamah’s song and by her presence. At last Naamah puts herself to bed and the story closes, just as the reader catches a hint of land in the distance.

Though the book’s cover calls Naamah a lullaby, no music is provided or tune suggested. Instead, the rhythm of the lines themselves — which together form what the concluding Author’s Note identifies as a ghazal — effectively soothes the reader (and presumably the listener, as well). It took some time for the illustrations to capture my attention, and at first they seemed rather unremarkable. On closer inspection, I decided that a better term might be “adult” — they are simple and evocative rather than bright or playful, as in most Noah’s Ark picture books. My favourites are the breathtaking images that accompany the chorus — full, two-page illustrations depicting silhouettes of Naamah and one or another pair of animals against a vast starry sky.

Read reviews from Publishers Weekly or the blog Waking Brain Cells.

An earlier version of this review was originally part of a project on the repurposing of stories, focused on Noah’s Ark. To see more on the subject, including online games, reviews of other picture books and novels, and a glimpse into the vast range of Noah’s Ark-related products available, take a look at the project webpage.

Bruiser by Neal Shusterman

Bruiser coverBrontë and Tennyson are at odds again. Soft-hearted Brontë has started dating local mystery Brewster Rawlins. Tennyson doesn’t want a guy nicknamed “Bruiser” anywhere near his twin sister. When Brontë accuses her brother of being a snob and a bully, Tennyson follows Brewster home from school, looking for further arguments against the relationship. Instead, he finds himself drawn into Brewster’s story. As the truth about Brewster gradually becomes clear — who he is, what he can do, and the price he pays — Brontë and Tennyson discover that this new friendship requires more of them than either knew they had to offer.

I picked up this book both because I had enjoyed Neal Shusterman’s Unwind and because the premise reminded me of one of the most intriguing gifts in Zenna Henderson’s People stories — the ability to literally share someone else’s pain. What I found was that, once again, Shusterman had told a great story that left me thinking about something deep: in this case, the role of suffering in relationships and in personal development. The choice to tell the story not only in four different voices — those of Brontë, Tennyson, Brewster, and Brewster’s little brother, Cody — but also in four different forms (Brewster’s chapters, for example, are written entirely in verse, while Cody’s are presented in stream-of-consciousness form) adds further distinction to already well-developed and dynamic characters. Readers willing to follow the somewhat complicated path of the narrative will find themselves engaged in both the unravelling of Brewster’s secret and the overarching exploration of the cost — and value — of suffering.

Read the Kirkus or Publishers Weekly review (warning: both reviews contain significant spoilers).

Read a sample

Watch a book trailer: