I am working on writing a middle grade novel, which I am sure I will hide in the dark recesses of my computer once I am done but I am writing. Writing leads to reading or maybe it is the other way around but I am reading middle grade fiction as I write.
I am reading for story, for leads, for how the author holds our attention, for how a character is developed. You get it – I am reading like an author. Reading for story is great but I need to learn the other stuff as well. So here are the books I looked at this week:
I reread Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord. She sets us up with Lucy and her family making a move to a small town by a lake. Dad, a well known photographer, takes off for an assignment leaving Mom and Lucy to settle in and get to know the neighbors. Right away you can sense Lucy feeling lost in her new surroundings, Mom busy getting settled. This story is all about building relationships, trust and understanding. Lord uses a photography contest to keep her plot moving forward. It is the lens of the camera that allows us to see what is happening with the families. Sometimes we see things we don’t want to see when looking through the lens of a camera.
This is a simple and clear story. It makes a good mentor text for adults as well as student writers. Lords chapter are short, they easily build on each other, you care about her characters and want to know what happens with the photo contest that has pulled the neighbor kids together and also pulled them apart.
I followed this up with Lisa Graff’s new book Absolutely Almost. I was in love with A Tangle of Knots so had to check this one out as well. This plot line is not as complexed as A Tangle of Knots but you quickly connect with Albie, our main character. The setting is in New York City with Albie struggling to keep up with the private school expectations and as well as those of his Grandfather, his father and even his Mother. It is hard to find a place where you can just feel comfortable and accepted for who you are.
Graff helps us understand Albie as he spends time with the new “nanny”, a young aspiring artists who helps Albie see the world from a different point of view. This book is similar to Lord’s in that there are no big mysteries to solve, no great battles or magic to over come but with a close look at the every day life and conversation we begin to care about our characters. We worry about them and want things to be different for them. We watch them grow and learn to respect each other as learners and friends.
Both of these books are great models for young writers. They are based in real life experiences, looking at what happens day to day. It is what all students know and can understand. These are great texts for the teacher phrase – “write what you know”.
My third book was Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. This was perfect for me to read since it required research. This story drops us into a family mystery of a lost or stolen painting. A painting that could hold the remains of Theo Tenpenny’s family together or could mean they lose everything. Fitzgerald sets up high contrast between her characters and includes strong emotions. She uses humor when things are getting tough but doesn’t shy away from the realities of a family without money.
We are sent off on a journey of finding the truth about a painting that Grandpa Jack has left behind. Theo is sure this is the treasure she is meant to find to help save her family. She and her wealthy and famous new friend from down the block take us on an adventure through history. In an effort to find out who painted this picture we learn that Jack was in WWII both as a POW but also helping to recuse and protect the art that Hitler stole.
This novel really shows you the importance of research. Not only does the information about paintings need to be correct but also the war history. The characters are traveling all over New York seeking information so it is important that those facts also line up to make this believable. There are many more characters who intersect with our story which increase the mystery and intrigue. This is a more complex story. A great one for reading and a bit harder for young students to use as a writing model. For me it is just what I needed to think about. How does fiction and real life connect to give us an adventure, a story with heart and a chance to learn a little history along side?
I also finished The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry: A Novel by Gabrielle Zevin. An adult fiction that literally swims in the words of the books we have read. The story is the life of A.J. Fikry who owns a book store on a small island. We are constantly connecting to real books and writers that help see and understand Fikry’s life.
He is morning the loss of his wife as the story opens but soon finds himself in the mystery of what happened to his prized and priceless book and who left a baby in his book store. More importantly who is going to take care of her? A great read for people who have read a lot since for me the fun was in the connections that Zevin kept making to the world of books I have enjoyed for so long.
As I continue to write I have the following set up to read:
- The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern
- Bluffton by Matt Phelan
- Wake Up Missing by Messner (finishing this one – I started a few weeks ago)
- The Night Gardener by Jonathon Auxier (which fell to the bottom of my pile so I am pulling it back up to read)