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Melissa Hart Interview & Book Giveaway – Avenging the Owl

Avenging the Owl by Melissa HartI recently had the chance to read Avenging the Owl—a new middle-grade novel by Melissa Hart. I also had a chance to interview Melissa and get the inside scoop on her book. Now, you can get the inside scoop, too. Read on . . .

T. P.: Thanks for giving me an opportunity to chat with you about your new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl. I’m sure that your own volunteer work at a raptor center and your brother with Down syndrome must have both been major sources of inspiration for the story you created. This made me wonder: Where did your overall idea for Avenging the Owl come from?

MELISSA: You’re absolutely right; I drew upon my eight years of volunteering at a raptor rehabilitation center for the setting details in Avenging the Owl, and my brother is the inspiration for Eric in the novel. But the idea came from a high school boy with whom I volunteered at the raptor center one summer. He’d left his mandatory school community service until the last minute, and the only venue left was the raptor center. Problem was, he hated birds. My husband and I worked an evening shift with him every week, and I got to watch him go from sullen and resentful to gradually intrigued by the injured and orphaned raptors. Eventually, he grew so enamored of them that he came back the following summer to volunteer. He’s the boy I had in mind when I crafted Solo Hahn’s character. Later, I took a good look at Han Solo in Star Wars and used his narrative trajectory (from apathetic mercenary to committed helper), as well. Solo starts out caring only about surfing and material possessions, and then gets to know fellow raptor center volunteers Lucas and Leah and begins to take joy in helping those in need.

T. P.: What a cool inspiration for your story! I always enjoy getting a glimpse into how much real-life experiences sometimes shape a fictional narrative. I also like how you modeled Solo Hahn’s character arc after that of Han Solo in Star Wars. I must confess: That similarity slipped right past me as I read Avenging the Owl, but I certainly see it in retrospect!

Now you’ve got me wondering: What was the timeline for creating your story? What was the journey like from your initial experience with the reluctant high school volunteer . . . to your “Ah, ha! I’ve got myself a story!” moment . . . to when you began outlining or drafting . . . to your final draft that was ready for submission?

MELISSA: It took me about a year and a half to write Avenging the Owl–multiple drafts. I’d written two YA novels (currently mildewing in a desk drawer) before I started work on the middle-grade novel, so I knew about narrative arc and structure and all that. For Avenging, I got a 12-foot piece of butcher paper, divided it into several sections, and then taped it around my office walls. I used different colored markers to jot down key plot points and character conflicts and motivations for each chapter, so that I could easily see a graphic representation of the novel as it took shape. (I really love pre-writing visuals like highlighter pens and multicolored cluster diagrams, etc. Sometimes I even sketch images of my characters, though I can’t draw at all.)

A friend of mine who was a literary agent at the time suggested Solo’s obsession with B-movies and the insertion of screenplay scenes. And my editor at Sky Pony Press, Julie Matysik, had really good suggestions for keeping Solo’s character consistent in the final drafts. He got pretty lusty for Leah in a previous draft (as did Eric), and I toned it down a little for middle-grade readers.

Glad you saw the Star Wars/Han Solo parallel, by the way–read it again, and you’ll catch all sorts of cool Star Wars parallels and references!

T. P.: Although the similar Solo Hahn-Han Solo character arcs slipped past me, I did manage to catch at least some of the Star Wars references you slipped into your story! (Lucas and Leah come to mind. . . .) Now if only you could have inserted a Pacific Northwest-based Big Foot-Wookiee comparison. . . . 🙂

Anyway, focus I must. . . .

I love your use of butcher paper to create a visual plot outline as part of your prewriting process. I’m very much a visual-kind-of-guy (I wield a minimum of 4 colors of highlighters when adding things to my calendar), so I know my brain would appreciate the big-picture overview your prewriting approach must provide.

Once you finish prewriting and complete your initial draft, what’s your favorite aspect of the revision process? How about your least favorite?

MELISSA: I love revision so much more than writing the first draft. With the first draft, I’m pretty angsty and neurotic, and I drink way too much coffee and eat way too many cookies. But the second draft feels like a big lump of clay that I can trim or add to as needed. My favorite part of revising a novel involves adding humor. I love looking at every paragraph and gauging where it might be funnier, and what would make it funnier. Sometimes, I’ll draw upon real life for the humor. For example, there’s a scene in Avenging the Owl in which my character who has Down syndrome karate kicks someone who’s called him a “retard.” That’s art imitating life–my younger brother actually did this to a kid once, for exactly the same reason.

My least favorite part of revision is cutting word length. I didn’t have to do that with Avenging, but I frequently have to cut my essays down for magazines and newspapers. It’s excruciating to have to cut 500-1000 words from a piece I really love, but if I believe in the mission of a particular magazine or newspaper and want my work to appear in its pages, I’ll do it.

T. P.: I loved the scene with Eric’s rather unexpected karate kick! Not only was it a blast of humor, but it made me cheer for Eric all the more. It’s pretty cool how you were able to draw on a real-life experience for that scene.

Now let’s go to the flipside of real-life inspiration. What are one or two events or scenes in your story that you really like but that sprang completely from your imagination?

MELISSA: Most of Avenging the Owl came from my imagination–I love to “imaginate,” as my nine-year-old daughter says.

Two of my favorite scenes take place at the top of the butte, where Solo and Eric end up after some pretty eventful hikes. I took as the inspiration a butte (a solo mountain) in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, but the scenes are pure fiction. In the first butte scene, I love how being surrounded by nature affects Solo. It calms him down in the midst of his angst and jolts him into another reality–one in which he feels grounded and peaceful and optimistic. He really gets how magical the natural world is, and he’s able to let go of a lot of anxiety about his parents and his living situation for an hour and focus on weird insects and plants and birds. Plus, as Solo discovers, hiking up a butte is always a good excuse to eat cookies.

In that second scene, near the end of the book, he and Eric flee to the butte as a refuge. And then (no spoilers here!) someone dear to him discovers the tranquility of the place, as well, which starts them on the path to healing a really difficult relationship. I hike almost every weekend with my husband and daughter; we’re the best versions of ourselves when we’re surrounded by trees and rivers and mountains. I hope these “imaginated” scenes will inspire readers to get outside!

T. P.: Well, Melissa, I’ve never hiked up a butte, but I do love cookies. So . . . let’s use that as a springboard for one final question: If you were all alone on top of a butte, working on your next novel, what kind of cookies would you be eating?

MELISSA: Well, I really adore these flourless chocolate cookies that our local bakery, Crumb Together, sells. But for a hike, I’d want homemade oatmeal chocolate chip. I’d probably sneak some whole wheat flour in there, too, but the chocolate is essential.

T. P.: Okay, Melissa, you’ve officially made me hungry. . . . But I must stay strong and finish this post. Otherwise, people won’t get the opportunity to win a copy of your book! So . . . I’ll leave it at this: I enjoyed Avenging the Owl, and I also enjoyed getting a glimpse into what led you to write the story in the first place. Thanks for sharing with the Mixed-Up Files!

Want a chance to win a copy of Avenging the Owl by Melissa Hart? Entry is easy! Just comment below by leaving an answer to one simple question:

What kind of cookie would you take along for eating at the top of a butte?

The lucky winner will be selected on Friday, 6/24/16.


Author Melissa HartAlong with Avenging the Owl, Melissa Hart is also the author of her memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family, and her YA memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood. Along with writing books, she teaches Literature for Laurel Springs, a distance-learning high school based in Ojai, California. To learn even more about Melissa and her writing, visit her website at www.melissahart.com.


T. P. Jagger The 3-Minute Writing TeacherAlong with his MUF posts, T. P. Jagger can be found at www.tpjagger.com, where he provides brief how-to writing-tip videos as The 3-Minute Writing Teacher plus original, free readers’ theater scripts for middle-grade teachers. He also has even more readers’ theater scripts available at Readers’ Theater Fast and Funny Fluency. For T. P.’s 10-lesson, video-based creative writing course, check him out on Curious.com.

 

Interview with Laura Shovan + Giveaway

As we look forward to National Poetry Month, I thought it would be a nice time to have a poet on the blog. Laura Shovan is a celebrated poet whose debut novel in verse, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, comes out on April 12th. Read through to the end for an opportunity to win it!

Laura Shovan

Photo credit: Karen Leigh Studios.

Why is poetry appealing to kids?

Children love the idea that words can create pictures in their minds. I sometimes play a game with them where I say, “An elephant is not standing on your teacher’s desk.” And we all laugh about the elephant who suddenly appeared in our imaginations, in spite of the word “not.” Prose has imagery too, but the white space of poetry allows those images to breathe. The pause we naturally make between one line and the next gives the reader time to absorb the sensory images and ideas, and to make connections.

For kids who haven’t discovered poetry yet, what are some good places to start?

I love Calef Brown’s books for early experiences with poetry. At home, we started with his Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks. The poems are short and funny. They include quirky rhymes and great characters, like Olf the terrible pirate (“terrible” as in really bad at being a pirate) from Brown’s book Dutch Sneakers and Flea Keepers. Nursery rhymes are great, as are tongue twister books such as Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Piggy in the Puddle and Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks, which both feature wordplay.

As children move through elementary school, I like poetry books on subjects they are interested in, such as Marilyn Singer’s Echo Echo for fans of Greek mythology, Jeff Moss’s dinosaur book Bone Poems, and Laura Purdie Salas’s A Fuzzy-Fast Blur: Poems about Pets. Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog is a wonderful introduction to novels in verse.

Can you recommend some exercises to get kids writing poetry?

The first thing I recommend is to focus on a single poetry-writing skill in each workshop, at least with elementary schoolers. One of my favorite workshops to begin with is onomatopoeia poems. I ask students to write about a place they know well, or an activity they like to do, using as much onomatopoeia as they can. We make it into a riddle poem. The poet will read his draft out loud to the class and everyone guesses where he is or what he is doing in the poem.

The fun part about this workshop is that, as we move ahead and write other poems, the onomatopoeia words stick. The children naturally incorporate them into their later writing. This and other writing prompts for kids are included in the back of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY.

Can you share any stories about your work with kids and poetry?

I hope you don’t mind a sad story.

I was doing a fourth grade poetry residency one winter. There was a boy in the class whose mother had died. He hadn’t been participating much, but sat with an aide in the back of the room. Then one day, he wrote a poem wishing his mother could come down from heaven and scold him for not doing his chores. All of the adults started tearing up. I found out later, it was the first time he had talked about his mother’s death at school.

There is something about making space in the school day, or at home, for writing poetry, that allows young people to open up. I think it’s because the writing task is different from the usual school assignments, which focus on analysis, persuasion, and earning a grade. When we ask children and teens to write about their experiences, the things they feel deeply about, we’re letting them know that they are valued not only as students, but as full human beings. That’s a powerful thing!

last fifth grade cover

Laura Shovan’s engaging novel, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, is a time capsule of one class’s poems during a transformative school year. The students grow up and move on in this big-hearted debut about finding your voice and making sure others hear it. To win a copy of this lovely story, leave a comment below by midnight EDT on Friday. For two entries, tweet about this giveaway! (Please make sure your email address and twitter profile are included in your comment.)

Laura Shovan is former editor for Little Patuxent Review and editor of two poetry anthologies. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura works with children as a poet-in-the-schools and is currently serving as the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s Writer-in-Residence. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, her novel-in-verse for children, will be published in April 12 (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House).

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer who has loved poetry since a teacher handed her Gwendolyn Brooks’s We Real Cool in fourth grade. You can read her middle grade book reviews, including of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, at Kid Book List. You can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and @SuperKate.

It’s No Mystery. The Winner is….

Last Friday’s post about Middle-Grade Biographies included a GIVEAWAY of the newly-released Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist by Julie K. Rubini.  Nineteen people commented by the deadline, so tonight, nineteen sticky notes went up on the goat gate. Because that’s how every giveaway works, right?

Giveaway 1

Picking the goat who would pick the winner was the hardest part! They all wanted to be part of the action.

Giveaway 2

I chose Kristoff because he’s the youngest. And he loves to read mysteries.

Giveaway 3

After tasting a few, Kristoff took this name off the gate and proceeded to chew.

giveaway 4

My daughter had homework up to her ears, so I was left to attempt this all by my selfie.

kitten

Next time, maybe I’ll choose a barn animal who will sit still for photographs.

But, for now, Kristoff and I are happy to announce that the WINNER of a *signed* copy of Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist by Julie K. Rubini is…

giveaway 5

Congratulations, Dee!