Tag Archives: michelle houts

Keys. Journal. Imaginations.

I recently read Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. I loved this story of children creating change in their community through innocent acceptance.

At the heart of story lies a mysterious key. What does it belong to? And, once discovered, what secrets would be revealed from its home?

I was looking for my extra set of car keys the other day, and I came upon these.

23 keys.

They’ve all traveled with us as we moved into our new home six months ago, and yet, not one of them serves a purpose here. Except one, which is to my garage door. I guess I’d better figure out which one that is.

But, where do the rest belong? Their secrets remain with their notched blades, their wards a mystery.

Samar and Stephen, the two young protagonists of Wishtree, discover that their key, bestowed upon them by Bongo, an animated crow, opens a journal which holds a wish from the distant past. Their sleuthing changes the fate of Red, the long-standing neighborhood oak.

The keys now sit on my desk, as I’ve resolved to figure out which portals they fit into, or likely not, before repurposing them. They have found a temporary home next to a journal that is significant to my personal storyline.

It is a journal given to me by my friend Michelle Houts, editor of the Biographies for Young Readers series I’ve written for. My first contribution shares the life journey of Mildred “Millie” Benson, the original ghostwriter of Nancy Drew. The cover and contents of my gift are from The Secret of Red Gate Farm, a Nancy Drew Mystery Story written by Millie. There are lined journal pages in between the text. How cool is that?

I’ve got over a dozen journals, filled with reflections from our family adventures to all 50 states, notes from writing workshops, and musings.

Yet, this one was special, and its purpose needed to be just that.

I’ve determined it is to be my story idea journal. I get inspirations for stories, both imagined and real, daily. My challenge is finding that one, perfect idea, sticking to it, and finishing it.

I’m certain that my fellow Mixed-Up blog contributors are the same. Life presents us with story all the time. And, for those of you teachers and librarians whose days are filled with characters and plots, I encourage you to start writing them down too.

Find that one key that fits somewhere, and explore it. Use it to unlock your imagination and share the journey with children. They need our stories of acceptance, kindness and empathy.

This is my wish and goal for 2018, and it will be discovered in my journal. All I need to do is look, unravel that one unique, shiny, mysterious idea, and then help it find its place in the world.

As for those other keys? This may be their perfect ending.

STEM Tuesday Science in Fiction Books– In the Classroom

We’ve taken a few of the titles from last week’s book list – Science in Fiction Books – and found some fantastic ways to use them in the classroom. There are lots of links and places for teachers, students, and parents to go from here!  Have fun!

The Reinvention of Edison Thomas   by Jacqueline Houtman

Science comes easily to Eddy (Edison) Thomas. Social relationships? Not so much. On her website, Houtman shares a number of classroom activities which will prod middle-grade readers toward deeper discovery and understanding. Here are a couple.  See more cross-curricular classroom activities here. 

Design an experiment to test Fact Number 28 (p. 73): Listening to slow music can lower your heart rate, while music with a faster tempo can increase your heart rate. Who would be your subjects? How would you measure heart rate? What other factors might affect your experiment? How would you make sure that you are only measuring the effect of the music?

Find out how the special effects in your favorite science fiction or fantasy movie were done. (Many DVDs come with special feature discs that explain how the effects were achieved, or you can use the Internet.) How have special effects in movies changed in the last 10 years? 30 years? 50 years? How did they do special effects before there were computers and computer animation?

Eye of the Storm  by Kate Messner

A summer at science camp turns into a life-or-death situation for Jaden and her new friends Risha and Alex in this thrilling science-packed middle-grade novel.  Teachers can find a thorough Eye of the Storm Discussion Guide on author Kate Messner’s website as well as a link to a gallery of Eye of the Storm Resources on Pinterest. 

Is there a Placid Meadows in your state?  Use data from the national weather service to look at where tornados or super storms have occurred in your state in the past year. Map locations and decide if there is a spot that, like the fictional Placid Meadows, seems immune from such disasters. Or, is there a “tornado alley” or path that seems to attract severe weather time and time again?

Using gripping fiction like  Eye of the Storm in conjunction with nonfiction books about climate change and super storms can add a personal element to research and discussion of these topics.

The Same Stuff as Stars by Katherine Paterson

Truly a story of discovery, this novel takes readers along with Angel, the 11-year-old main character, on a journey in which she’ll find out things about herself and about the universe that she never believed possible.

The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA) has created a wonderful teacher’s resource for The Same Stuff as Stars here.  (Scroll past the resources for one of Paterson’s other books, but tuck those away for another day!)

As Angel learns more about the constellations, teachers and parents can help young readers do the same with websites such as KidsAstronomy.com and NASA Kids Club.

The Great Hibernation by Tara Dairman

Every great story and every great scientific discovery have started with the same question:  “What if?” So, what if every adult in the whole town of St. Polonius fell asleep and the children were left to run the town?

There’s so much fun to be had with a story that mixes science and problem-solving with  politics and mystery.

The Investigative Process and Premise –  Scientists begin their investigative process by asking questions.  Authors create a premise before drafting a novel. They are both asking and answering the “What if” question. Take a look at the books your class had read this year. What is the “what if” question posed by the author. Now, take a look the science topics you’ve discussed this year. What questions did the scientists ask for their investigations?  Now ask your students the following questions:   Can your science topics lead to new fictional story ideas?  Can fiction stories lead you to further investigate a science topic?

What is hibernation? Using the unexpected hibernation of the adults in St. Polonius to launch a study of real hibernation. Which animals hibernate and why? Where and when do animals hibernate?  Use facts found at How Stuff Works  to chart your findings on graphs or maps.

Add to the list!  If you have a classroom activity to accompany a sciencey-fiction book you’ve read, post it in the comments below. We love sharing your ideas!

Michelle Houts is the author of ten books for young readers. Her Lucy’s Lab series is another example of science-filled fiction. Find Lucy’s Pinterest page with classroom activities and experiments here.

An Interview with Tony Abbott

Today we’re pleased to talk with Tony Abbott, the author of more than 95 books for middle-grade readers, including the Golden Kite Award winner, Firegirl. Tony’s newest book, The Summer of Owen Todd (Ferrar Straus Giroux, 2017), is the subject of our discussion. (Giveaway Alert! Read all the way through for details.)

The Summer of Owen Todd could be the story of just about any 11-year-old. Summer has arrived, school is over, and for Owen, the days stretch long with the possibility of beach trips, go-kart races, and baseball games with his best friend, Sean. Sean’s own summer plans, however, are derailed by his mother’s new job and the presence of a babysitter, a young man Sean’s mom believes she can trust to keep Sean, who has diabetes,  safe and help monitor his blood sugar levels.  When Sean becomes the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his new babysitter, Owen is the only person Sean can talk to.  Told entirely from Owen’s point of view, The Summer of Owen Todd addresses a difficult topic as it explores issues of trust, friendship, and bravery.

MH: It wasn’t too long ago that a topic such as childhood sexual assault would have been taboo in middle-grade fiction. When did you know you wanted to write this story?

TA:  The “when” of this story is critical to me. To step back a few years, my wife knew a work colleague, and one day she told my wife a truly horrible story about her son. He was very young, molested, filmed, later told a friend about it, then swore that friend to keep it a secret, which he did. The boy eventually committed suicide. Some years later, his mother approached my wife, knowing I was a writer, saying she was ready to get her son’s story out and wondered if there was a book that could help other children and families. My wife told me about this, and one or two writer friends who had written tough stories for young adults were discussed, but almost from the beginning I had begun to feel some of the tensions and visualize some scenes that would need to be dramatized in any telling. There was something uniquely powerful in those moments. They drew me in.

I have not been molested, though there was a moment in high school, a meeting with an older man, that immediately came to mind, and I remembered how I felt when that happened. I also felt that the ultimate truth of what happened—the suicide—was something that occurred when the boy was approaching adulthood and that any story for younger readers would likely have to end before that. It might have been at this time that the element of telling the story from the friend’s point of view became the way into the tragedy. So, the molested boy’s friend tells the story, and it would chart the days and weeks of the ongoing abuse from the friend’s point of view. If, as I later discovered, from 1 in 7 to 1 in 20 boys is sexually abused, that left the majority of boys as bystanders, friends of the abused. It seemed a way to broaden the story, make it approach real life, to write from the likely reader’s point of view.

These tensions drew me into the story both deeply and quickly and there was no question of talking to other writers; I would try to create a draft to see how it might work. The narrator’s name, Owen Todd, came to me from that place where names come. It wasn’t assembled. It came, he came, with a voice and a personality, as these things often do. I loved him, his vulnerability, his likes and dislikes. I don’t think this is news to any writer. A character is born, not crafted, and that’s the way of it with Owen.

MH: The awful reality of what is happening to Sean is clearly, and yet delicately, stated. How much discussion happened in the editorial process about what words would be used and what words might be avoided?

TA: To begin to answer this, I have to say that the original draft had the characters aged around 8 or 9. The summer was between 3rd and 4th grade. What I knew, but perhaps not completely consciously when I submitted the draft, was that the language I was using, both in conversations between Owen and Sean and in describing the events of the abuse, was pushing the story out of that lower-age area of middle grade stories. To tell the story properly it had to be harsh and raw in parts. To have really worked it for younger readers, some of the language would have to be less precise and more vague. “Bad touching,” instead of the wordage Sean actually uses in the book. I felt that the gauzier language would have made the book poorer as a piece of art and as a representation of reality. So my editor kindly brought me back up to meet my own language, so to speak. The characters are now eleven and in the summer between  elementary and middle school. This made the story match the kind of humor and emotion, description and relationship interaction the characters already displayed. The Summer of Owen Todd may be one of the first middle-grade stories to talk this way about the sexual abuse of a boy, but what is still needed is a book for younger boys who are very much the prey of molesters. Another way of saying this is that I failed to find the way to tell the story I had in mind to a readership lower than ten years old.

MH: I wouldn’t say you failed as much as you adjusted the story you had in mind to fit a slightly older audience. Tell us about the sale of the manuscript. What did your agent say about the manuscript’s marketability?

The first draft was some 18,000 words long. Eighty pages. The events in the published book were mostly all there, but in compressed form, one abuse following the other until the end. My agent at the time, Erica Silverman loved the story as I submitted it. She thought, I suppose, that it was too short as is, but it was like a, what did Dickens call such things, a sledgehammer, and that it would find an editor with an encouraging response. We assembled a list of six or eight editors from different companies and imprints, and Erica sent copies to some of them, keeping a reserve of a few for a second round of submissions. There were a couple of odd passes from good editors, a useful letter or two, but it took a few submissions and weeks to find Joy Peskin at Farrar Straus, an editor who saw the inside of the story, saw what it could be, and knew from the brief draft that I could pull and push and enlarge the story into what it has now become. Joy’s wanting me to go back and draw some of the background characters and situations into the light—Owen’s sister, Ginny; his grandmother; the buying of the go-karts, the baseball game, the outdoor theater—proved to me that the story was both bigger and more real when I made it fuller. We knew from the beginning, Joy, Erica, and myself, that it was a specialized sort of book. Not one that you could market to all comers.

MH: How much outlining/preplotting did you do while writing this book?

TA: I tend to outline very specifically when I write a mystery or a thriller, and I have done quite a few of those. For novels—and yes, I guess I make a distinction between my books this way—there isn’t anywhere near as strict a machine for getting from the first page to the last. There is a very strong thread, I would call it, that I know the story will follow, or that I suspect it will. But there is enough play throughout so that events and motives can transform themselves, and that thread becomes more like a tapestry of several motives, weaving together what is a more complex whole. Some of what results during the writing of the story are, of course, elements I hadn’t the least conceived when I set about to write it. Those surprises are organic and, as such, exciting and life-bearing. All this is to say that I knew where the story would go, how it would end, but not all the features of the landscape.

MH: You capture summer on Cape Cod from the perspective of the locals, which is different from many seaside stories told from the point of view of vacationers. Why did you choose to set the book there?

Place has always been a character in the stories I love to read. Give me descriptions of rooms, weather, streets, the panorama of life. When I start to read a book and I find I don’t feel the place, I don’t go on.  I’ve visited the Cape for decades, just about every summer, often off-season. I am deeply in love with it, want to live and die there, if at all possible. If the characters and their voices and feelings come first, the setting comes quickly after. Where are they speaking and feeling? In this case, everything I knew about living on the Cape would find a home with these boys. I love go-karting, I love the Gut in Wellfleet, Provincetown, Chatham, Brewster, all of those things became living backgrounds for the psychological progress of Owen and of Sean. The idea of being locals; now that’s interesting. I suppose after going there for so long, I don’t feel like a tourist anymore. My wife and I and our daughters have so many “regular” places, it’s like being home.

MH: In the bookstore scene, there’s a nod to Brian Lies’s Bats at the Ballgame when Owen’s little sister Ginny picks out a “picture book about vampire bats playing baseball.”  Is Owen’s choice— “I find a novel about a boy who disappears”— also a nod to one of our own middle-grade contemporaries?

TA: Ha! This is funny. Because Brian lives on the South Shore below Boston, he’s quite familiar with the Cape; I thought of his books immediately when the bookstore scene came around. The novel, the one that Owen would buy for himself, is a veiled reference to one of my own, which isn’t out yet, and turns out to be not a quite truthful description of it, after all (but I still claim it!). I thought I would save Owen’s choice for something of mine, didn’t want it to be an old one, so it sort of just hangs out there as a question: what book is he talking about?

MH: Talk to us about using the truth as a springboard into fiction, as you’ve done so beautifully in this book.

TA: The idea of fact becoming fiction is always fascinating to me. Although the impetus for The Summer of Owen Todd came from a real event, the novel that emerged is almost completely imagined, and this sort of thing happens in an interesting way. The voice of Owen came first, I feel comfortable in saying. Sean’s voice, second. The center of the story would be Owen and his reaction to what  happens to Sean, but also his reactions to summer, which is a big deal in a resort area. So, first the voices, then the setting, then the emotional thread I mentioned earlier begins to establish itself. You know instinctively, I believe, when the novel you are writing cleaves too closely to what really happened, because it lacks a certain kind of fictive truth. Fictive truth, I’m compelled to say, is not less true than what really happens, but creates itself out of the emotional reality of the story you are crafting. If an imagined conversation or event aligns with that truth, then it is as true as life.

MH: Tony, thank you. Thank you for the brave way in which you tackled a project that many would have deemed too difficult. Thank you for generously sharing your process with us. And, thank you, for providing The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors with TWO signed copies of The Summer of Owen Todd for our giveaway. Your kindness is so very appreciated.

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