Author Archives: Rosanne Parry

Happy Book Birthday Michele Weber Hurwitz

The Mixed Up Files’ own Michele Weber Hurwitz has a book birthday! Her newest MG novel Ethan Marcus Stands Up comes out this week from Simon and Schuster/Aladdin.

Here’s the gist of the story.

Perennial good kid Ethan Marcus has just done the unthinkable: refuse to stay seated during class. He’s not causing a riot; he’s not wandering around; he’s just super fidgety and sick of sitting. But the rules aren’t designed for Ethan, so he is given two afternoons of Reflection—McNutt Junior High’s answer to detention. The science teacher who oversees Reflection suggests that Ethan channel his energy into the school’s Invention Day event. Ethan doubts his ability to make anything competition-worthy; that’s his sister’ Erin’s department. But then Ethan gets a brilliant idea and recruits his best friend Brian to help.

Enter Romanov, the resident tech whiz, who refuses to give them tips, which causes Erin to be furious at her formally slacker now traitor brother, because Romanov won Invention Day last year. Meanwhile, Erin’s friend Zoe is steering clear of Erin’s drama for the first time ever after realizing that she may be crushing on Ethan. Brian has bigger things to worry about though, and loner kid Wesley may know more than others realize. Narrated by five seventh-graders, discover what really happens after one fidgety kid decides to take a stand against sitting down.

Congratulations Michele! This was such a fun read! It totally reminded me of my middle grade justice warrior self.  MG readers range from 8 to 13 years old, spanning the range of late elementary through middle school. Why choose characters from the upper end of this range, in the 7th grade?

Kids are able to move around more in earlier grades but as they get older, they’re expected to sit for long hours in class. But just because they’re older doesn’t mean they have any more patience for sitting! In fact, in the preteen years, kids may even be more fidgety as their bodies are typically undergoing a big growth spurt. I remember when my son was in eighth grade, he needed to move around while he studied for a test, usually throwing and catching a ball at the same time. This was actually what sparked my initial idea for the story. He once told me that when he’s moving, his brain “works better.” I thought, of course it does, that makes perfect sense! So, seventh grade seemed like a natural fit for this story about literally standing up for a cause you believe in.

I totally relate to Ethan’s need to move. I’m a long way from middle school but I can’t stand to sit still either. One of the things I loved about being a teacher is that you’re always on your feet and on the go. I think if I’d worked in an office all these years I’d have been murdered by my colleagues for spinning in the office chairs! 😀 School science fairs are a staple of the elementary and middle school experience. Why did you decide to branch out into the Invention Day?

There were several middle grade books with science fair themes, and the growing popularity of maker fairs and the whole maker movement, where kids can create anything, not just work on a science experiment, felt like an exciting, fresher backdrop for the story.

One thing I’ve noticed working at Annie Bloom’s in Portland this year is a proliferation of non-fiction maker books for kids. I’d totally pair your story with this one from the Smithsonian! Of course I have to ask, did you really make a prototype of a clip-on standing desk like Ethan does? And what is your workspace like? Do you stand? Walking desk? Combo?

I didn’t make a standing desk prototype like Ethan does in the book although that would’ve been fun. And my model would’ve turned out worse than what Ethan cobbles together because I have a very challenged mechanical aptitude. As for my workspace, I generally write on a desktop and those long hours of sitting really get to me. I take frequent standing breaks and I have this sort of makeshift platform for my keyboard so I can stand and type when I want to. I remember when I was a kid, getting that sort of brain soup dazed feeling in school – Ethan calls it “scomas” (school comas). I never did stand up to protest, though!

I have a standing desk too, a former woodworking bench, it even has a vice on the end should I need to get a grip! I’ve written one novel in two points of view and found it really tricky. Why five POV characters? And how did you keep track of them all?  How did you choose which character was perfect for that particular scene?

I’m so excited about this book because it’s different than my two previous middle grade novels which both had one girl narrator. This is my first book in multiple points of view but it felt natural and necessary for the telling of this story. I wrote several drafts where Ethan was the only narrator and it didn’t feel like it was working. When I added the other POVs, it clicked. The back-and-forth narration between the kids feels almost like comments on social media posts – everyone has an opinion and their own version of what “really happened.” I chose to have the five characters all narrate because they were so interconnected – Ethan, his sister Erin, their best friends Brian and Zoe, plus the outcast kid, Wesley, who knows more than everyone realizes and is an integral part of the plot. As I wrote, it seemed like each character popped up exactly when it was their time to talk.

It was satisfying to see Ethan and Erin’s combative sibling relationship evolve through the story. Not to give away the ending, but I love how they realize their differences can work for them, not against them. Did you draw on your relationship with your own siblings, or your kids?

I have two younger brothers who are insanely competitive with each other but mostly, I drew from my two older kids’ relationship. They have similar personalities to laid back, easy going Ethan and organized, perfectionist Erin. There are times (in real life and in the book) they can’t deal with each other, and other times they realize how much more they can accomplish as a team if they put aside their differences.

I love the message of empowerment in Ethan Marcus Stands Up because it’s subtle. Yes, you should stand up for things you believe in. Yes, anybody can do it. But real change is hard and not especially linear. And often requires collaboration with others. Did you have a particularly empowering experience as a young person in advocating for a cause?

I love how Ethan changes things (or tries to) in a roundabout way. All he wants to do in the beginning of the story is be able to stand up in class when he’s fidgety, but that goes against his language arts teacher’s class rules. It takes a kind-hearted science teacher to suggest that he can solve his problem through inventing his own solution. The story becomes much more than just about standing and sitting as Ethan digs deep and finds a resolve within himself. I was a quiet, shy kid so I didn’t really stand up and advocate for a cause but I do remember going “on strike” one day and not doing my household chores. That did not go over well with my parents.

What do you think kids will love most about this book?

It’s an easy to read story, and the characters are very relatable. I think it’s interesting and eye-opening to hear each character’s perspective because we all see the world from our own lenses and can interpret a situation so differently than someone else.

You mention on your website that there will be a follow up book in 2018. Are you finished writing that one? Can you give us a preview?

In the sequel, which will be out in September 2018, Ethan and Erin are nominated by the science teacher to attend a prestigious invention camp with brilliant kids from around their state. They feel intimidated and aren’t sure if they’ll be able to measure up. But when they meet two new kids and form a team, they dream up something that just might rise to the top. Not without a lot of drama mixed in, of course.

How exciting to have a sequel already on the way! Congratulations. Can’t wait to share this book with our patrons at Annie Bloom’s bookstore. I hope you have a very happy book birthday!

Start with a Bang–Or Not: Story Openings

     “Begin with a bang!” Is the advice I’ve heard as a writer over and over from the very beginning.
     “Kids attention spans are short.”
    “Grab them from the very first line and don’t let them go!”
     It seems like sound advice. Certainly there are clear advantages to beginning a book with a scene of physical action, high suspense or emotional intensity. It establishes what’s at stake at once and sets up an expectation for a fast paced, high energy plot. It can create an element of mystery or suspense. It can highlight a distinctive voice

 

     A splashy opening is lots of fun to write and who doesn’t love a gripper of an opening line? And yet in my own writing I’ve come across a few limitations to the big bang beginning. For example, If the reader doesn’t identify with the MC right off the bat, the stakes you create won’t matter to your reader. Also there is a danger that the reader
 may not know who the MC is and feel sympathy for and loyalty to a character you don’t intend them to. A power house opening can feel manipulative & jarring at best and over-wrought & silly at worst. And sometimes a very intense first scene sets an expectation that’s nearly impossible to top.

     So what’s a writer to do? I have always been drawn to a high action beginning, but more and more often I’ve found myself editing out my zippy opening paragraphs or moving them a page or two into the story.
As I often do in a quandary I turn to the books of authors I admire, to stories I’ve found moving. In a quick search on novel beginnings. I chose 12 books, 10 of which were published in the last 15 years. They were all award winners and strong sellers. To my complete shock only one of the 12 had an action opening. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry begins with the main character and her friend racing home from school only to be stopped and questioned by a Nazi soldier. Two others had action scenes that started within the first 3 pages, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Heart of a Samurai by Margie Preus. And in the case of Speak the it’s a scene of great emotional intensity rather than one of action in the classic sense.
But by far my sample of best selling and award winning books did not begin with action. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie begins with an explanation of encephalitis, and its repercussions in the life of the narrator Junior. The first scene that has anything resembling action is actually a moment of incredible emotional power in which Junior’s father shoots Junior’s dog because they can’t afford to take him to the vet. The scene occurs on page 9. Holes by Louis Sachar maybe the most popular MG novel ever to win the Newberry, but it does not begin with action either. Stanley doesn’t start digging a hole until page 26.
So what are those authors doing in those precious first pages?

In every book I looked at they were introducing me to a character so unique and compelling that I cared about what happened when the high stakes action finally came into play. They opened not with a bang but with a voice–a choice well worth emulating.
So here’s my reading challenge for the week. Pick up 5 of the books you’ve read in the last year that you admired the most. Go look at the opening scene and analyze what you see there? You might be surprised. I’d love to hear about your favorite opening scenes in comments below.

 

Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari

Summer is a great time to read a new mystery and FINDING MIGHTY is the epitome of a great summer read. Even better it’s written by Edgar Award nominee Sheela Chari. Sheela and I met several years ago when her first book VANISHED and my SECOND FIDDLE were out in the same year. Both books had a musical element and so we did some events together with a group of MG and YA authors on the Stages on Pages tour. One of the real delights of writing is the people you meet on the journey, and I’m thrilled that my path has crossed Sheela’s again.

 Let’s start with Parkour and why you chose it. Are you a practitioner of this sport?

I came to learn about parkour in a roundabout way. While writing FINDING MIGHTY, I envisioned that some of the graffiti tags that appear as clues in the story were up very high off the ground. I wondered how someone would reach such heights without being slowed down by equipment. So in my research, I came across parkour, and I thought of course! So that’s how some of my characters ended up being practitioners of both graffiti and parkour.

But then as I kept writing, I found myself being drawn to this art form more and more. And I specifically refer to parkour as art because even though it’s an urban movement sport, parkour runners use their bodies in efficient ways that emphasize the beauty of their form. I began to go past the stereotypes we normally associate with parkour – daredevils climbing bridges and jumping off buildings – and see how, like yoga, parkour is about controlling your movement and negotiating physical space. As someone who is fascinated by bridges and yet incredibly afraid of heights, it makes sense to me that I would find parkour beautiful and thrilling. For me, the ability to jump and fall gracefully, and land on your feet is the ultimate superpower. So a not-so secret admirer of parkour? Yes. A practitioner? No. Well, not yet.

If you are curious about what a parkour run looks like here’s a video of one of the more extreme practitioners of the sport James Kingston.

Tell us about the relationship between Myla and Peter and how the racial element of that friendship plays out. I think MG kids are both more relaxed about interracial friendships but also more aware of nuances. Is that your experience as well?

In thinking and writing about Myla and Peter, I came across their characters very differently. In the simplest way – Peter started off as plot and Myla as character. With Peter, his story began with an “Omar” tag I would see on the highway near my home. I would wonder who wrote it and why. Eventually I shortened the tag to “Om” and Peter’s story emerged, not as the person who wrote the tag, but the younger brother searching for his missing brother, Randall, and the tag’s mysterious role in Randall’s disappearance. Myla was more like me as a young person – a highly observant girl who feels largely unnoticed by the world. Because she was so much like me, it made sense to make her Indian-American, with a family and lifestyle similar to my own. With Peter, I wasn’t sure who he was yet – I had to write to find his character. As I did, he evolved into someone part Indian, but also a mixture of other communities (Peter’s mother is Indian and his father is half African-American and half white). And I liked the way that organically came to the story. Myla’s and Peter’s racial identities are not the basis for their friendship, but it was a nice meeting ground – the fact that they were sort of alike but not completely. It gave them each something to learn from the other. In the end, FINDING MIGHTY is really about what happens when these two different people meet and become friends, and how their qualities become so important to the other person, whether it is help in finding a lost sibling, or in finding your sense of self.

Tell us a little bit about this gorgeous cover. As a bookseller in a diverse community I love it that you can tell from the cover that the characters are not white. Did you have any input on the cover?

 

 

 

 

Thank you! I like this cover a lot. Myla is modeled after my close family friend’s daughter. The original drawing of Myla was good but she didn’t look Indian to me. So I sent in a photo of my friend’s daughter, and then the cover artist, R. Kikuo Johnson, used that to create the final Myla on the back cover. He did an amazing job, both with Myla, and the whole cover.

Can you share some tips for MG mystery writers. I, for one, think it’s hard to write a mystery when your detectives can’t drive.

  1. MG characters make great snoops. They can be present during conversations and overhear without giving themselves away, because adults don’t often realize just how smart or intuitive kids are. So don’t be afraid to put your characters where the action is.
  2. Lists are a great way to keep track of information. Some of my favorite mysteries, such as THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY, use lists to describe theories or clues. Lists are also a very visual and quick way to remind readers what they already know.
  3. Know that as crime solvers, your MG detective will have to take risks. It’s what makes her different from the rest of the mold. At the same time, not every sleuth has to scale a building to prove herself. Although in my case, Myla does, because she’s scared of heights. Which is why climbing out of her bedroom window one night to find Peter’s brother becomes necessary for both the plot and her character. So have your main character take risks, but make sure that they’re risks that test her qualities the most.
  4. It’s true that middle grade kids can’t drive. But they can walk and take the train or bus. Keep those options available – make your characters savvy enough (or brave enough) to understand a train schedule or know which stop to get off on the bus. In both my MG mystery novels, VANISHED and FINDING MIGHTY, my characters have to rely on public transportation to get them where they need to be. And in FINDING MIGHTY, two characters walk 50 blocks in Manhattan to track down a clue!
  5. Even if you’re a “pantser,” try to have a sense of the end of your book before you start. It’s not always possible – I didn’t know the ending with VANISHED until I got to the end. But even if you don’t, it’s important to know what happens during the “Big Reveal.” If you divide your story into beginning, middle, and end, I like to call this point the end of the middle. It’s when your main character finally finds out what they’ve been searching for. The more you know about this moment of revelation, the easier it will be for you to write towards it – like moving to the light at the end of the tunnel. This tip holds true for writing any mystery, or for writing a book in general.

Terrific advice! I’m going to keep it in mind for my next project. Thank you Sheela for sharing your thoughts with our MUF readers. Sheela is giving away a copy of FINDING MIGHTY. Leave us a comment to enter the drawing. A winner will be chosen in three days.

Sheela Chari is the author of FINDING MIGHTY, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and VANISHED, which was an APALA Children’s Literature Honor Book, an Edgar Award nominee, and an Al’s Book Club Pick on the Today Show. She has an MFA in Fiction from New York University and teaches creative writing at Mercy College. Sheela lives in New York. Visit her online at sheelachari.com and @wordsbysheela.