by Bryan Patrick Avery
This month, we lost a living legend in the magic world: Johnny Thompson. A mentor and consultant to many top magicians, Johnny came to prominence as the Great Tomsini in an act he performed with his wife Pam. The two created a slapstick act, integrating illusions with a series of hilarious mishaps, all of which made the magic more incredible. In the realm of magic, this is called routining. In the world of the writer, it’s called world-building.
This month, let’s take a look at two middle grade mysteries that prove world-building isn’t just for science fiction and fantasy. First up, “Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head”.
Written by Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester, “Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head” features four orphans with amazing abilities who live and perform at Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders in early 20th century New York City. A mentalist, a contortionist, a strong man (err, boy), and a knife-thrower, the four kids attempt to solve the mystery of who stole the museum’s shrunken head, it’s most prized feature. Along the way, they encounter danger and deception, and even a few murders.
What makes this book work so well is the complete immersion into the setting. The museum’s many halls and artifacts are brought to life by the authors, as are the behind the scenes areas. The homey kitchen, the dismal basement, and the attic living quarters, itself a labyrinth of furniture, mattresses, and other odds and ends all help the reader experience the sights, smells, and sounds of the museum. By the time the book is over, the reader will have truly experienced the Dime Museum, with all it’s faults and flaws.
In addition to the setting, Oliver and Chester paid close attention to the abilities of the characters, including how those abilities would affect them and the world around them. For example, what happens to the world’s strongest kid when a concrete block falls on him from several stories up? “Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head” is a satisfying mystery made even more enjoyable by the sense of place and time created by the authors. It’s no wonder it’s an Edgar award nominated book.
If you’ve ever wondered what the afterlife might be like, “Denis Ever After”, written by Tony Abbott, is the story of Denis Egan. When we meet him, Denis is living a carefree afterlife in Port Haven, the place where souls go. When Matt, the twin brother he left behind, starts having problems, Denis knows he has to help. Helping, in this case, means solving the mystery of his own death. Because you start to forget who you are as soon as you reach Port Haven, Denis doesn’t remember his own death. So, Denis and Matt go on a search for answers.
Abbott’s world building really pays off for the reader. The view of Port Haven as the afterlife creates a story world that is both accessible and compelling. It also adds to the tension of the story. Because souls go to Port Haven to forget, and be forgotten, the details about his life that would help Denis and Matt are inaccessible. Also, the method of moving between Port Haven and the living world is ingenious. It exacts a toll every time, leaving the reader to wonder if Denis will be able to keep doing it. Even the day to day experiences in Port Haven (the daily ships full of souls arriving, the foursome gathering to play bridge but only ever shuffling the cards) make an otherworldly experience relatable to the reader. Like “Curiosity House” above, “Denis Ever After” is an Edgar Award nominee and the nomination is well deserved.
Well, that’s all for this month. I’m off to do some world building of my own. Have a magical month!
by Melissa Stoller
There are many benefits to joining a critique group. I gain so much from my partners’ insightful comments on my work. And I benefit by reading critiques of work written by other group members. Additionally, I learn by analyzing and providing critiques of my critique partners’ manuscripts. I belong to several different critique groups and my writing life would not be the same without them all (I’m sending a huge love-filled shout out to my amazing writing pals!).
Here are tips for organizing and conducting your critique groups, providing critiques, and accepting critiques. Next time, in Part 2, I will discuss sustaining a critique group and what to do when it's time to move on.
1) ORGANIZING A CRITIQUE GROUP:
There are many methods for critique group organization. You can participate in groups that meet online or groups that meet in-person. Setting up a group that meets via Skype or Zoom chat room allows for some face-to-face time as well as time to critique offline.
Where can you find critique group members? Try asking about starting a critique group or joining an already existing group in Facebook or Twitter writing groups or chats, ask members of a writing class you may be taking if they want to form a smaller critique group, and inquire at your local SCBWI chapter if they have a method for organizing a group.
It’s important to establish ground rules for your group. Here are some examples of questions to ask: What’s the perfect size for your group? How often can members submit for critique? How does the critique timing work? How often must members critique other people’s work? How many words can make up a submission? Can you submit unlimited revision drafts? What genre will your group critique? What if you write in more than one genre? And what about logistics such as will your group use track changes or email to deliver critiques? If you are meeting in person, other logistical issues will become important to discuss as well.
2) PROVIDING CRITIQUES:
There are many ways to critique another writer's manuscript and sometimes you need to experiment with critique formats. I prefer to always provide comments about what’s working in the manuscript and also about what the challenges are or the places that need extra attention. I do like the “sandwich” method where you offer compliments about what’s working well first, then in the middle you offer three places where the manuscript can be strengthened, and then the final layer of the sandwich is another positive point. Also, as you grow in your critique group, you can better assess which members enjoy “picky” comments and which members benefit from a more gentle approach. It’s also great to discuss commenting style with your group as you are forming the group so everyone has similar expectations for the style of critiquing.
And here are some points to consider when critiquing:
Big picture comments like plot, character development, themes, structure, pacing, logical inconsistencies.
Line edit comments dealing with word choice, grammar, lyrical language, rhyme, typos.
3) ACCEPTING CRITIQUES:
It’s equally important to be able to listen to critiques, take in the comments, and decide if the comments resonate with you and your writing style. Often, where there’s a pattern of the same or similar comments, it’s important to pay attention and think about those comments. As long as everyone is approaching the manuscripts from a place of respect, growth, and kindness, the members of the group can feel safe and confident in the space. Sometimes, when faced with comments that offer viewpoints that contrast with your vision, it's helpful to put the work and the comments away for a few days and come back to the project with fresh eyes. And of course, a writer should always be confident in reading the comments but ultimately incorporating what they like and discarding what doesn't work for them.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 of this post, focusing on sustaining a critique group and what happens when it's time to move on. In the meantime, happy writing and creating!
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection - Book One: Return to Coney Island and Book Two: The Liberty Bell Train Ride (Clear Fork Publishing, 2017 and 2019); and the picture books Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush and Ready, Set, GOrilla! (Clear Fork, 2018). Upcoming releases include Return of the Magic Paintbrush and Sadie’s Shabbat Stories (Clear Fork, 2019). She is also the co-author of The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading (HorizonLine Publishing, 2009). Melissa is an Assistant and Blogger for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, a Moderator for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, and a volunteer with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators/MetroNY. Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. Additionally, she is a member of the Board of Trustees at The Hewitt School and at Temple Shaaray Tefila. Melissa lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy.
by: Sarah Momo Romero
This winter has been an usually cold and wet one in Los Angeles. For me, the unexpected rains and cooler temperatures are a welcome change, our Earth definitely needs all the replenishment it needs after the scorching summer heat. But I also find myself with the winter blues, cooped up inside longer than I’m used to. It made me realize how different circumstances or changes in our lives affect our emotions and well-being. This month, I’m featuring a few picture books by author/illustrators who focus on the different feelings we all experience, diving a bit deeper than just the happy feelings picture books often create.
The Happiest Book Ever written and illustrated by the “friendly author” Bob Shea is a refreshing take on a seemingly happy book. The bright colors and collage style illustrations fill each page with energy popping off each page. The narrator’s voice is snazzy and commands attention, like the life of the party, while the glum toad seems to ruin all his fun. With plenty of happy, dancing animals and shapes to explore on each page, Shea also creates tension with his dynamic use of color. Young readers will connect to the range of emotions and the interactive nature of The Happiest Book Ever.
No Fits Nilson written and illustrated by Zachariah Ohora puts a fun spin on the tantrums all of us can experience, especially someone like me who deals with the horrendous driving and the L.A. traffic. In Ohora's signature animated style, a little girl and her gorilla friend experience the consequences of losing their tempers and try to figure out the best way to handle not losing their cool.
Whether you're feeling the love from this month's Valentine's Day or trying to kick the winter blues, I hope these picture books offer you a different perspective on all the emotions and the enjoyable ways illustrations express them.
Sarah Momo Romero is a Japanese Peruvian American artist, a graphic designer by day and children's book author and illustrator by night. She’s loved drawing and painting since she was a chiquita and now crafts stories of adventure and wondrous creatures. Sarah is an active SCBWI member who draws inspiration from her life in sunny Los Angeles with her husband/creative partner and dog/infamous escape artist, Peanut. Her debut picture book, "Wake Up, Little Bat!" is out now through Clear Fork Publishing!
by Bryan Patrick Avery
Inevitably, after I perform a magic trick for someone, the age-old question comes up: “How did you do that?” I usually just smile and fall back on my time-tested answer: “Magic.” This might sound strange, but there’s something about that particular answer that actually pulls people in closer. The fact that I have a secret makes me just a little bit more interesting. The same principle can work in our stories as well. This month, let’s look at two books with main characters who have a secret and see how it helps the reader relate, and even sympathize with them.
“The Season of Styx Malone”, a middle grade novel by Kekla Magoon, tells the story of two brothers living in rural Indiana. Caleb and Bobby Gene spend the summer playing in the woods behind their house. When an ill-advised trade for a sack of fireworks goes horribly wrong, the brothers flee into the woods behind their home to hide the evidence. There, they literally run into Styx Malone. Bobby Gene is wary, but Caleb is instantly enamored with Styx’s charm and style. When Styx helps them out of their fireworks jam, and then ups the ante with a promise of something even greater, Caleb jumps at the chance to break out of his ordinary life.
The “something greater” becomes known as the Great Escalator Trade, where the three boys plan to trade a list of items that increase in value until they reach their ultimate goal, a green moped. The catch, of course, is that their plan must stay secret. We of course, are let in the secret, and the ever-growing list of risks they take and lies they tell to get to their goal. As Caleb’s confidantes (the book is told in first person from his point of view), we are taken along on the roller coaster of emotions that accompany keeping the secret, and the dread that comes once it all starts to fall apart.
If you’re looking for a middle grade example with great voice and emotional tension, check out “The Season of Styx Malone”. You won’t regret it.
Xiomara Batista, heroine of the National Book Award winner “The Poet X”, has two secrets. The first is the poetry hidden inside her leather journal. The second is a boy, Aman, who she’s begun to fall for. In Elizabeth Acevedo’s incredible book in verse, it’s these two secrets that pull us into Xiomara’s life and make us want to fight alongside her.
As Xiomara begins to understand what, and who, she wants, she is confronted with the harsh reality that her dreams are far from what her mother wants for her. As a result, her secrets become more important to keep, even through the fights and punishments that come. Once her secrets are laid bare (first Aman, then the journal) Xiomara pushed to the breaking point and we stand by her side. Acevedo’s poetry, honed by years of poetry performance experience, is nothing short of breathtaking. Xiomara’s journey is a tale not to be missed. By the way, I also recommend checking out the audiobook as well, read by Acevedo herself. Hearing her poems, coming from heart, gave me chills.
That’s all for this month. Take my advice, try giving your character a secret and see where it takes your story. Have a magical month.
by Melissa Stoller
I work with many writing groups that perform varied functions. I’m part of several outstanding critique groups and I value my critique partners tremendously. I’m also a member of a few marketing groups that offer invaluable assistance surrounding a book’s debut year promotion and beyond.
This weekend, at the SCBWI Annual Winter Conference in New York City, I met in person for the first time many of my critique partners and marketing group pals. I had met other writing friends previously at book events, and some I haven’t connected with live yet. I look forward to continuing the strong relationships I have created with my writing groups - I know they will continue to be sources of support and encouragement during our book writing journeys!
Here’s some insight into my writing groups:
Some members of the #BOOKBLASTERS marketing group at the SCBWI NY Conference
Critique partners fulfill many important roles. They are the other talented writers who can help you make your stories shine. CPs provide excellent feedback on manuscripts.They offer constructive comments on what’s working, and they provide suggestions about the challenges that need further exploration and revising. And critique partners can help with brainstorming ideas and discussing the marketability of a story. Excellent critique partners can cheer each other on, offer inspiration, and help set and achieve writing goals. Above all, who else will read your draft and make helpful comments multiple times besides your trusted critique partners?
Some member of the #EPIC18 marketing group at lunch during the SCBWI NY Conference
I enjoy being part of several vibrant marketing groups that provide support as we navigate through our publishing journeys. These groups offer guidance related to marketing and promotion, book launches, school visits, and so much more. #Epic18 is a group of incredible debut picture book authors and illustrators who banded together for support during 2018, our debut year. I’m also working with #BookMeshuggenahs, a wonderful group of Jewish women authors publishing Jewish-themed children’s books; #BookBlasters, an amazing new group of children’s book authors connected to The Children’s Book Academy and Clear Fork Publishing; and #SeenIn19, a talented group of non-debut authors with picture books releasing in 2019. I’m so happy to be part of these groups as we travel similar publishing paths. I look forward to being a cheerleader for all my marketing group friends as our new books burst into the world!
Stay tuned next month for part two of this post, examining how to organize, conduct, and maintain a thriving critique group. In the meantime, happy creating!
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection - Book One: Return to Coney Island and Book Two: The Liberty Bell Train Ride (Clear Fork Publishing, 2017 and 2019); and the picture books Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush and Ready, Set, GOrilla! (Clear Fork, 2018), and Return of the Magic Paintbrush and Sadie’s Shabbat Stories (Clear Fork, 2019). She is also the co-author of The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading (HorizonLine Publishing, 2009). Melissa is an Assistant and Blogger for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, a Moderator for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, and a volunteer with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators/MetroNY. Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. Additionally, she is a member of the Board of Trustees at The Hewitt School and at Temple Shaaray Tefila. Melissa lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy.
We are so excited to be mixing things up at the Children's Book Academy, beginning with some delicious additions to the Blogfish. Meet our awesome new bloggers!!
Here's our lineup:
1st Mondays begin with Clear Fork/Spork editor/art director, former agent and former kidlit professor Mira Reisberg PhD who is also the Director of the Children's Book Academy.
2nd Mondays will feature super smart Melissa Stoller whose career is taking off with several new books.
3rd Mondays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer, man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
4th Mondays will feature the fabulous debut author/illustrator Sarah Momo Romero.
And 5th Mondays will feature awesomely irreverent and super funny Aussie author Brydie Wright.
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