Tag Archives: humor

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts: An Interview with Avi

As a big fan of other novels by Avi like Crispin: The Cross of Lead and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I was thrilled to get to read an advance copy of The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts and interview Avi. If you’re devoted to middle grade historical fiction, action, and adventure, you’ll definitely want to read this one!

About the Book

In The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, a young boy wakes to find his father missing and his house flooded by a recent storm. It’s 1724 in the seaside town of Melcombe Regis, England, and Oliver is alone with no money and no food. His father has left behind a barely legible, waterlogged note stating that he’s gone to London, where Oliver’s sister, Charity, is in some kind of trouble.

Exploring damage to the town in the storm’s aftermath, Oliver discovers a shipwreck on the beach. Removing anything from a wrecked ship is a hanging offense, but Oliver finds money that could save him from being sent to the ghastly children’s poorhouse, and he can’t resist temptation. When his crime is discovered, Oliver flees, following his father’s trail. His journey is full of cruel orphan masters, corrupt magistrates, and conniving thieves—but when he finally reaches his destination, Oliver finds that London might be the most dangerous place of all.

The Interview

All the reviews, which have been glowing and star-studded, compare this story to those of Charles Dickens. Are the wonderful similarities they note intentional? Is your book an homage to Dickens?

Thanks for your kind words about The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts. I am a reader and admirer of Dickens, but I think this book is cast more in the light of those great 18th century literary lights, Fielding, Defoe, Sterne, Smollett, et al.

My real homage to Dickens is to be found in Traitors’ Gate. It is full of references to Dickens and his life. Indeed, my hero there is named John Huffam, which is taken from Dickens’ extended name.

Oliver is a fantastic character. He’s pugnacious and funny and brave. There’s so much to love about him. Where are the points of intersection between Oliver and a contemporary twelve year old? Where do they diverge?

Young people today, as in the 18th century, lived and still live in a world created, and usually controlled by adults. Not necessarily a bad thing, and often a necessary thing.  That said, the young will often chaff under the restrictions, both physical and psychological of the adult world. Keenly aware of what is fair and unfair, they are the ones who should sit on the Supreme Court.

As I was reading your book, I was struck by the very tricksy way you use language. Here’s a bit from the first page:

On November 12, 1724, I, Oliver Cromwell Pitts, lay asleep in my small room at the top of our three-story house, when, at about six in the morning, I was shocked into full wakefulness by horrible sounds: roaring, wailing, and screeching. Confounded by such forceful clamors, I was too frightened to shift from my bed.

You manage to start with action but also language that feels appropriate for the 1700s. Can you tell us how you chose language that evoked the time period but was still accessible to young readers?

I have a great love of language and words. I enjoy browsing through dictionaries. (Short chapters!) English, the only language (alas) I know, has a huge and wonderfully rich vocabulary that has evolved over centuries. All of it is available to the writer.  (And language invention is welcome.) I love using old, but understandable words in a historical context. Indeed, when writing historical fiction one of the key challenges is giving the language itself a sense of the past. I think of the Unabridged Oxford Dictionary as my writing partner.

One of my favorite things about this book is how funny it is. As I read, I started marking particularly funny lines, and by the end, I had a ton of tagged pages. Here’s one of my favorites:

I am of the belief that when two adults exchange a meaningful look in the presence of a child, there is little doubt that the adults will have nothing pleasing to say to that child.

Oliver is both astute and funny in this passage. And what about the horrible Mr. Probert (who gets what he deserves if you ask me!), who says:

An authority has written: The sooner poor children are put to laborious, painful work, the more patiently they will submit to it forever.

And of course, in this description of Oliver’s father:

A stiff-rumped clink-clank.

I could go on quoting you to yourself for a long time, but instead, can you tell us about the role of humor in this book? Dickens wasn’t very funny. How did you work in the laughs and still end up with a book that feels Dickensian?

Funny is serious work. In this book, what is humorous comes out of Oliver’s character, who is often alone, and keenly observant. But it also derives from the historical style of the 18th century, which can be comical and satirical. Writers of that day looked upon the world with amusement, affection, and skepticism, as did our own Benjamin Franklin.

The poorhouse where Oliver ends up is pretty awful, and Oliver’s escape from it is pretty marvelous. Were there really places like that for children in the 1700s?

The poorhouse is based on research I did, even to the daily food allowance.  I also came upon an image of a punishment basket. The moment I saw it I knew I wanted to use it.

I know there is a ton of research behind this book. Were there any delicious factual tidbits that would have loved to work in to the pages but didn’t have room for?

As for what I left out, there is a whole library about British prisons, Newgate in particular, that could have been included. I somewhat regret that I did not use more of that.

We at the Mixed-Up Files are obsessed with middle grade literature. Why are you drawn to writing for this age group? What do you think characterizes middle grade and makes it distinct from young adult or adult books with young protagonists like those by Dickens?

I love the way middle-graders read. They are passionate readers, who can engage fully with the experiences depicted in a story. They embrace character and plot with enthusiasm. They care about what happens. They can be articulate about what they read, too, but not in a pedantic fashion. “It’s good.” “It’s bad.” “I loved it.” I hated it.”

“It was boring.” “It was exciting.” All cool.

They approach reading with both hands and an open heart.

I once had a letter from a middle-schooler which began, “I read your book, and it was boring at first. But by page two it got really good.”

I loved that.

They also like puns.

For the reader who adores The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, which one of your other books should he or she read while waiting for the next installment?

Those who enjoy The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts might like the above mentioned, Traitors’ Gate, and also, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Crispin, Beyond the Western Sea, Catch You Later, Traitor—all adventures stories with historical settings, all character driven.

I know more books are in the works. Any hints about what dreadful fate will next befall our noble hero?

As for Oliver’s fate, he has been sentenced to be shipped to the American colonies and sold into slavery for a period of seven years. I am writing the book now, and he is not enjoying the experience.  Freedom calls, but an iron collar round his neck is not easy to get off. And where is his sister?  I’m not one of those writers who always knows the endings.  So, I’m working as fast as I can because I too want to know what happens.

About the Author

Avi is the author of many books for young readers including Catch You Later, Traitor, the Newbery Medal novel Crispin: The Cross of Lead, and the Newbery Honor books The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing But the Truth. He lives in Colorado. For more information, visit www.avi-writer.com.

Using Humor to Lighten Heavy Topics

via GIPHY

E.B. White once famously said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” And yet, analyzing how other authors have used humor is one of the best ways to learn how to do it in your own work. When asked to think of middle-grade authors who write humor well, folks like Dav Pilkey, Tom Angleberger, Brandon Sanderson, and Jeff Kinney come to mind. Their books make readers of all ages laugh out loud.

But what I want to talk about today is using humor to lighten up heavy topics in middle-grade. Humor arises when authors set readers up with certain expectations and then subvert them in an unexpected way. There are many ways to do this, but here are some of the most common:

Humorous Language:
Puns, plays on words, and even just words that sound funny (just try saying collywobbles, blubber, or discombobulated without laughing) are a great way to interject humor into a story that is otherwise serious. Including a character who often says the wrong word (saying prism instead of prison), who regularly gets idioms wrong (another one bites the rust), or who often makes punny jokes is a great way to inject a little humor. Metaphors and similes are great humor-generators, especially when they’re unexpected. So is freshening up an old cliché. A great example of this is when Trudy Trueit uses “scare the fingernail polish off of me” to describe a teacher in My Top Secret Dares & Don’ts. “Scare the pants off” would have been a cliché, but she makes it into the perfect MG-appropriate phrase with humorous results.

Misunderstandings:
When two characters misunderstand each other, comedy can ensue. In Rosanne Parry’s The Turn of the Tide, the cultural misunderstandings between two cousins, one raised in the US and one raised in Japan, add a dose of levity to a story that deals with the aftermath of a devastating tsunami.

Book jacket for Kate Messner's The Seventh WishHumor as a Motif:
Although Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish nearly broke my heart, the family plays a somewhat absurd word game throughout the story that adds some much-needed levity and sweetness.

Using Physicality for Laughs:
This is the Larry Curly and Moe style of humor that involves trips, spills, fights, and other humorous incidents involving movement and the human body. John David Anderson uses this effectively in Ms. Bixby’s Last Day to add a little humor to a real tear-jerker of a story.

Book Jacket for I Am FartacusToilet Humor:
Never underestimate the power of a good fart joke. Just ask Mark Maciejewski, whose debut, I Am Fartacus, has as many fart jokes as the name implies.

The Magical or Unexpected
Whether it’s the magical wish-granting talking fish in The Seventh Wish or a talking monument in Tricia Springstubb’s Every Single Second, the magical or unexpected is a great way to add humor.

The Absurd
Using absurd characters or situations is a great way to inject some unexpected humor into your story. Dobby from Harry Potter is probably one of my favorite examples of this (and one of my favorite heroes in the series) because he’s always doing something ridiculous and ridiculously funny. But so is the bakery owner, who is extremely devoted to the quality of his very highly priced cheesecake, in Ms. Bixby’s Last Day.

Voice
An unexpected or unusual voice can add humor to a story too. Part of the reason the combination of Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly in Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale works so well is because they are such unusual characters who are different from each other. The cementing of their friendship and their somewhat absurd adventure to rescue a library book, a caged bird, and a dog, is a story full of laugh-out-loud moments even though all three girls are dealing with heavy family situations. Gary Schmidt’s Okay For Now is another example of two contrasting characters, sarcastic/angry Doug and his friend Lil Spicer, have voices that add humor to a story colored by abuse and bullying.

Additional Resources:

December New Releases

Looking for some great holiday gifts? Check out this list of new releases. These books will make fantastic presents for kids (or adults)!

The End of Olympus (Pegasus) by Kate O’Hearn  (Aladdin)

Emily and Pegasus face their greatest challenge yet when they venture back to Earth to save a friend in this sixth and final book of an exciting series that puts a modern thrill into ancient mythology. As Emily and her friends delve deeper into the CRU’s history, horrible discoveries are made. Not only about the victims the powerful agency has been trapping and abusing for centuries, but about the very origins of the secret agency itself.
Origins that lead directly back to…Emily.

 


Dog Man Unleashed (Dog Man #2)  by Dav Pilkey  (Scholastic)

Dog Man, the newest hero from the creator of Captain Underpants, is still learning a few tricks of the trade. Petey the cat is out of the bag, and his criminal curiosity is taking the city by storm. Something fishy is going on Can Dog Man unleash justice on this ruffian in time to save the city, or will Petey get away with the purr-fect crime?

All Heart: My Dedication and Determination to Become One of Soccer’s Be  by Carli Lloyd (HMH Kids)

In the summer of 2015, the U.S. women’s national soccer team won the World Cup behind an epic performance by Carli Lloyd. Carli, a midfielder, scored three goals in the first sixteen minutes the greatest goal-scoring effort in the history of World Cup finals. But there was a time when Carli almost quit soccer. She struggled with doubts and low confidence. In All Heart, adapted from When Nobody Was Watching specifically for younger readers, Carli tells the full inspiring story of her journey to the top of the soccer world an honest, action-packed account that takes readers inside the mind of a hardworking athlete.


Crystal Storm:A Falling Kingdoms Novel by Morgan Rhodes (Razorbill)

An epic clash between gods and mortals threatens to tear Mytica apart . . . and prove that not even the purest of love stands a chance against the strongest of magic.

 


Word of Mouse By James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

James Patterson’s newest illustrated middle grade story follows the illuminating journey of a very special mouse, and the unexpected friendships that he makes along the way.
What makes Isaiah so unique? First, his fur is as blue as the sky–which until recently was something he’d never seen, but had read all about. That’s right–Isaiah can read, and write. He can also talk to humans…if any of them are willing to listen After a dramatic escape from a mysterious laboratory, Isaiah is separated from his “mischief” (which is the word for a mouse family), and has to use his special skills to survive in the dangerous outdoors, and hopefully find his missing family. But in a world of cruel cats, hungry owls, and terrified people, it’s hard for a young, lone mouse to make it alone. When he meets an equally unusual and lonely human girl named Hailey, the two soon learn that true friendship can transcend all barriers.

 



Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina  by Misty Copeland (Aladdin)

Determination meets dance in this middle grade adaptation of the New York Times bestselling memoir by the first African-American principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre history, Misty Copeland. As the first African-American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has been breaking down all kinds of barriers in the world of dance. But when she first started dancing—at the late age of thirteen—no one would have guessed the shy, underprivileged girl would one day make history in her field.

 


The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey (Scholastic Press)

They sound like bad guys, they look like bad guys . . . and they even smell like bad guys. But Mr. Wolf, Mr. Piranha, Mr. Snake, and Mr. Shark are about to change all of that…

 

 


Spy on History:Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring    By Enigma Alberti (Workman Publishing)

Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring introduces an exciting interactive series for middle grade readers Spy on History, where the reader gets to experience history in a whole new way. Meet Mary Bowser, an African American spy who was able to infiltrate the Confederate leadership at the highest level. Enigma Alberti dramatizes Mary Bowser’s suspenseful story how she pretended to be illiterate, how she masterfully evaded detection, how she used her photographic memory to copy critical documents. Using spycraft materials included in a sealed envelope inside the book, a canny reader will be able to discover and unravel clues embedded in the text and illustrations, and solve the book’s ultimate mystery: Where did Mary hide her secret diary?

 



 Pallas the Pal By Joan Holub; Suzanne Williams (Aladdin)

Pallas, the daughter of Triton and messenger of the sea, enrolls at Mount Olympus Academy in this twenty-first Goddess Girls adventure!


 The Stolen Chapters By James Riley (Aladdin)
Owen Conners’s whole life changed the day he found out his classmate Bethany was half-fictional, and could take him into any book in the library. Which story would they jump into next? Another fantasy, like the Kiel Gnomenfoot, Magic Thief books? Maybe something with superheroes? Owen’s up for anything except mysteries those just have too many hidden clues, twists that make no sense, and an ending you never see coming.

 Hidden Rock Rescue (Secrets of Bearhaven #3)
By K. E. Rocha (Scholastic Press)

Spencer and the team will have to sneak in, find his parents in the maze of the zoo, and make their escape. Or at least that’s the plan. But when it starts to go wrong and Spencer and Aldo are cut off from the rest of the team, it will take some fast thinking, some serious stealth, and a lot of teamwork to get everyone out safe!