Author Archives: Laurie J. Edwards

Regrowing Tails (or Tales)

Did you know today is No Socks Day? That makes me happy because I despise socks and shoes. Researchers say creative people prefer to go barefoot, so I use that as an excuse. But I suspect the real reason is an incident that happened when I was two.

We had just moved to Africa, and I crawled out of my crib at night. My dad insisted we always wear slippers in the house, so I slid my foot into my slipper. And…

I stepped down on this slippery, wiggly thing. It squished, and I screamed. I shook the shoe off my foot. A lizard scooted out, but he left his tail behind. That skinny, green, wormlike tail wiggled and wriggled inside my slipper.

I’m still not sure what was more traumatic – the slimy surprise in my slipper, the twitching tail, or knowing I’d hurt an innocent creature.

My father tried to reassure me that the lizard was fine and would grow another tail, but I didn’t believe him. Not until he read it to me from a book. I didn’t learn until recently that it takes about 60 days for the tail to grow back. Poor lizard!

So what do shoes and lizards have to do with writing middle-grade books?

One of the hardest things for an author to do is to get emotion onto the page. Emotion is what hooks readers, and books that grab readers have heart and vividness. They make readers care about the character and immerse them in the scene.

One of the best ways to do that as a writer is not only to recall incidents from your past, but to re-live them. Investigate traumas in your life. These incidents are stored in the brain along with the many emotions connected with them. The minute I think about the lizard, my body freezes in terror, chills run through me, my foot recalls every detail of squishing down, and I recoil. All the visceral (or involuntary) reactions place me right in that scene again. I’m immersed in sensory details. Not just the wriggle, but my screams, my father’s feet pounding down the hall, the taste of bile in my mouth, the steamy sweatiness of the night. I can still see the way the moonbeams slanted through the window striping the shadows on the floor, hear the waves crashing against the shore in the distance. I can even hear the whine and buzz of mosquitoes against the netting.

All those details from one event that lasted only minutes.

Your brain is a treasure trove of memories. Tap them when you need to get more emotion on the page. Close your eyes and go back to a time when you felt the same emotion as your character. Feel the memory in your body, see it in your mind’s eye. Immerse yourself in it, and then let it flow onto the page. Readers will feel the terror or grief or joy along with you, and your books will stay in their hearts and minds long after they close the cover.

 

Daring to Be Different

Because this is Black History month, I asked several experts to recommend some not-to-be-missed middle-grade books. Not all their suggestions are about the African American experience, but they’re all about the multicultural experience and kids dealing with differences. If you’re discussing the timely topics of prejudice or exclusion, here’s a great list of resources:

TWO NAOMIS by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick

Two girls named Naomi are forced into an unlikely friendship when their parents begin dating. The girls’ emotional journeys take them through the struggles of living in a blended family and learning to become friends as well as sisters.

 

 

AS BRAVE AS YOU by Jason Reynolds

This multi-award-winning book examines bravery from the viewpoint of Genie, who wonders how you can tell who’s brave. What about his blind grandfather, who never leaves the house? Or his older brother who doesn’t want to shoot a gun? Maybe bravery is being strong enough to admit what you don’t want to do.

 

 

GHOST by Jason Reynolds

A National Book Award Finalist, Ghost tells the story of four kids from diverse backgrounds whose personalities clash. But they must come together to form an elite track team bound for the Junior Olympics.

 

 

 

THE LEFT-HANDED FATE by Kate Milford

Caught up in the war between England and France, Lucy Bluecrowne and Maxwell Ault hope to stop the battle by finding parts to an engine. They’re imprisoned by a twelve-year-old American midshipsman, Oliver, who must decide whether to become a traitor or risk the lives of enemies he now sees as friends.

 

 

MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON by Linda Williams Jackson

Set in Mississippi in 1955, Jackson’s novel blends fiction with the true story of the trial of Emmett Till. Rose Lee Carter decides to be a part of the movement that changes the South.

 

 

 

FRAZZLED by Booki Vivat

Filled with doodles by Booki Vivat, this hilarious story of Abbie Wu is filled with drama. Will Abbie “survive the everyday disasters of growing up”? Great for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

 

 

 

THE SEVENTH WISH by Kate Messner

Charlie feels unimportant until she discovers a wish-granting fish – only what she wishes for comes true in unexpected ways. Then her family faces a challenge. Should Charlie risk a wish on something this important?

 

 

 

THE GAUNTLET by Karuna Riazi

In a steampunk set in the Middle East, twelve-year-old Farah and her friends get trapped in a game board. The only way they can escape and save the others inside is to figure out the puzzle set up by a diabolical gamemaker.

 

 

 

TOWERS FALLING by Jewell Parker Rhodes

An award-winning author, Rhodes tells the story of the Twin Towers from the point of view of children who weren’t born when it happened. While they’re learning about their town’s history, they’re also discovering things about themselves and what it means to be an American.

 

 

MAGNIFICENT MYA TIBBS: SPIRIT WEEK SHOWDOWN by Crystal Allen

With pink cowboy boots and the upcoming Spirit Week, Mya’s all set for partnering with her best friend. But then she gets paired with the school bully. Great for fans of Clementine and Ramona.

 

 

 

 

If you want more great titles written by and about African Americans, take a look at Brown Bookshelf’s daily featured books and authors every day this month. If you’re not familiar with the Brown Bookshelf,  be sure to return to our blog on February 22 to learn more when Jacqueline Jaeger Houtman interviews Kelly Starling Lyons, one of the founders.

ABOUT THE BLOG AUTHOR

A former teacher and librarian, Laurie J. Edwards is now an author who has written more than 2300 articles and 36 books under several pen names, including Erin Johnson and Rachel J. Good. Living in Africa as a child and traveling extensively as an adult taught Laurie the importance of appreciating other cultures. She spent last weekend with an African friend, learning to properly cook grasshoppers and caterpillars. To find out more about Laurie, visit her website and blog.

How Do Writers Get Ideas?

question-mark Every time I do an author visit, I get asked this question, and I always stumble as I try to answer it. Most writers I know dread this question. How do we explain what happens in our brains? How do we describe the way everything we see, read, hear, and do generates story ideas?

Interesting ideas are all around us and seem to hop into our heads all day long. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.” Maybe the key is not how we get ideas, but what we do with them. Perhaps taking a peek into an author’s brain might clarify this process.

Say we walk into the grocery store and see a scruffy-looking girl with a backpack struggling to reach for a box of cereal. Nonwriters might think, “Poor girl, she looks a mess. I’m surprised her parents let her out of the house looking like that.” Or maybe, “I wonder where her parents are.” Some might judge her choice: “I can’t believe she’s picking that sugary cereal. Kids her age should have healthy breakfasts.” Caring souls might ask, “Do you need help reaching that cereal box, honey?” Suspicious people might wonder: “She doesn’t look like she can afford that. I hope she’s not planning to shoplift.”

dogWriters may think those thoughts too, but then their brains start racing. Hmm…what if she’s a mess because her family’s homeless, and this is their only food for the day? Where might they be living? In a homeless shelter? In their car? What would it be like to live there, and how did they end up there? What would a little girl like that want or need if she were living in a car? And the writer is off, plotting a new story or maybe even two. Perhaps all those questions might lead to a story like Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog, where a girl living in a car is lonely and wants a pet so badly she decides to steal one.

Or the writer might think: That girl looks sad. What if her mom left, and her dad doesn’t pay much attention to her? Maybe she’s lonely and needs a friend. What if a stray dog wandered into the grocery store, and the girl tried to save it? Maybe similar thoughts ran through Kate DiCamillo’s head as she plotted Because of Winn Dixie, the story of a girl who misses her mother and adopts a stray dog.winn-dixie

Perhaps the writer notices the girl looks neglected. Her next thought might be: What if she looks so scruffy because her parents are dead. Maybe she lives with mean relatives who don’t take good care of her. But what if the relatives don’t realize she has secret powers? Hmm… what if she goes to a magical school and… Oh, I wonder if it would be better if it were a boy, and he goes to wizard school. The plot could easily turn into Harry Potter.harry

Another writer might think, That girl’s all alone. What if that older lady choosing a carton of oatmeal befriends her? Maybe the two of them could form an unusual friendship. Or wait… What if the old lady is a kidnapper, and when she sees the girl alone, she pretends to help her and she invites the girl back to her house and…

Or maybe the girl’s only pretending to look at cereal, but she’s really been stalking the older lady… Why would she do that? What if she thinks the lady is the grandmother she’s never met? Is it really her relative? If so, why wouldn’t she have met her grandmother? Maybe her mother ran away from home as a teen? So how did the girl discover the grandmother’s whereabouts? Will the grandmother be overjoyed to discover she has a grandchild? How will the mother react when she finds out?

And once again, several story ideas have formed in the writer’s mind. He can’t wait to get home and jot them down. Or if he carries a small notebook, as most writers do, he’ll scribble some notes in it. The whole way home, his brain will be whirling with what-if questions.

A fantasy writer might look at the girl and think: What if she took that box of cereal home, and a fairy popped out when she was having breakfast? Maybe the fairy could grant her one wish. I wonder what she’d wish for. It looks like her family needs help. Oh, but what if she has a brother who’s deathly ill? Would she give up her wish to save him?

Or the writer’s thoughts might run in other directions. What if the fairy was bad at spells and messed up the wishes? Wouldn’t it be funny if… Or What if that isn’t a backpack, but a jet pack? She could fly off with that cereal. But where would she go? And how did she get that jetpack in the first place? Once again, the writer has the seeds of plot or two.

We could keep going with story ideas just from seeing one girl in a grocery store. Now imagine living inside a writer’s head. Everything sparks ideas for stories. We’re always asking questions about what could happen. Or wondering why people do things. And everyone we see or meet becomes a potential story. Yes, even you. So beware when you’re around a writer. You never know when they might make up a story about you.

But what about you? Can you think like a writer? As you go through your day, ask yourself: Who is this person really? Why is she doing what she’s doing? What would he be like if he lived in another country or on another planet? What if that person is only pretending to be a teacher? What if she’s a superhero in disguise or a kid (or animal) who switched bodies with an adult? What if something magical or unusual happened to her? What if this person got into trouble? Who would save him? What does that person dream of? How could I make her wish come true in a story? What does that person need? What’s the scariest idea I can come with about this person? The most unusual idea?

Ideas are all around us. You don’t need magic to create a story, only a little imagination, a lot of curiosity, and many, many questions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A former teacher and librarian, Laurie J. Edwards is now an author who has written more than 2300 articles and 30 books under several pen names, including Erin Johnson and Rachel J. Good. To come up with ideas for her books, she people-watches and eavesdrops on conversations in public places, which starts her brain racing with questions. To find out more about Laurie, visit her website and blog.