workby Bryan Patrick Avery
I’ve written before about my enjoyment of watching and performing classic magic tricks. There’s something extra satisfying about an effect that has stood the test of time. In addition, studying the classics can help any magician improve his own work. Among my favorites is Triumph (Google it). It’s been performed for decades (longer if you count some of its predecessors). This month, I’d like to take a look at some classic children’s books. Just as with magic tricks, studying these can help us all become better writers.
The first of these is the classic middle grade mystery The Westing Game. Ellen Raskin's novel won the Newberry Medal in 1979 and has, for the nearly forty years since, been a favorite of both young readers and teachers. It tells the story of a young girl named Turtle, her family and neighbors, who play a game in an attempt to determine who is responsible for the death of Samuel Westing. The winner becomes heir to Westing’s incredible fortune. The story twists and turns as it moves towards it surprising conclusion, immersing the reader all the wall to the final page.
As writers, we often hear that character is one of the most important parts of a story and Ellen Raskin has created a compelling cast of characters. From Turtle’s over the top mother to the highly organized but a bit too judgmental judge, there is no shortage of diversity of character. In fact, in a story with more than a dozen key characters, it remains surprisingly easy to tell each character apart. This, along with Raskin’s brilliant mystery, keeps the reader engaged. Whether you’re into mysteries or not, The Westing Game is great example of classic middle grade fiction.
A picture book that is consistently referenced in writing classes and also remains a kid favorite (it was one of my daughter’s favorites) is Gene Zion’s Harry the Dirty Dog. Illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham, it tells the story of a dog (Harry) who goes to great lengths to avoid taking a bath. When his efforts end up making him unrecognizable, Harry must figure out how to get reunited with his family.
Published originally in 1956, Harry the Dirty Dog has stood the test of time. It is a simple, straightforward story that resonates with kids but also shows the consequences of our main character's actions and the escalating conflict that ensues. Another great thing about this book are the page turns. Zion and Graham have done an excellent job of making the most of every page turn. It’s a fun read and we can all learn a lot from studying the pages turns alone.
Lastly, I’d like to take a look at a relatively new book, but one destined to become a classic: 2008 Newberry Award Finalist Chains, written by Laurie Halse Anderson. Set at the start of the Revolutionary War, Chains tells the story of Isabel, at thirteen-year-old black girl who is enslaved. When an offer of freedom in exchange for spying on her owners goes awry, Isabel decides that she can depend only on herself.
Set against the backdrop of one of the most important times in American history and populated with fascinating characters, all of whom must deal with their own internal and external conflicts, Chains is a book that pulls readers in from the very first page and never lets go. If, like me, you reach the final page and wish for more, you’re in luck. Chains is the first in a trilogy. Also look for Forge (2012) and Ashes (2017).
That’s all for this month. Post in the comments your favorite classics. Happy writing!
We are so excited to be mixing things up at CBA, 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 Maggie Brown.
And 5th Mondays will feature a surprise reprise from over nine years of archives.