Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hello to Stirling Senior P.S.

A place for good books - the Kansas City Library. Click on the photo to make it big and see the details. (This picture has nothing to do with this post but isn't it a neat looking building?)
It is Tuesday March 30th and I just had a great experience talking with students at Stirling Senior P.S. and their teacher Mrs. Yearwood. It was my first time using SKYPE for a presentation and it worked really well. (at least from my side it worked well) For a few minutes I read from Leaving Fletchville and also told about the new story I am writing about teenagers Adrian and Kayla sneaking into the mine to find Adrian's father. They had excellent questions for me about writing and how to get a book published. I was impressed by the quality of the questions and the insights some of these students had, especially when they asked if I 'like' some of my characters more than others, and which characters resemble me or people I know. Excellent questions! There are definitely characters writers like to create more than others; in my case it is creating the quiet hero type, a modest person who does what is right to do at the right time. Another very good question was about how a book title is chosen; an editor will choose a title which will help the book sell. My choice for Leaving Fletchville was originally "Can You Keep a Secret?" - and it's called a working title because everyone knows it'll probably get changed, but you need to identify the book when you write a contract. (The contract is a legal agreement between the publisher and the writer; the writer promises to deliver the full manuscript, work with an editor to edit it within a period of time and not sell it to some other publisher, the publisher promises to publish the manuscript within a year or two, and print a set number of copies and give the writer a percentage of the purchase cost of the book.) My editor pointed out that "Can You Keep A Secret?" was a lousy title choice because there are about twenty books with the same title already out there. The same goes with the cover design. I was never asked what I wanted on the cover because it really is no business of mine - I'm not an artist or cover designer. It was always a surprise to me to see the cover for the first time. My first book, Canadian Disasters (from 1985) showed a fire which was not a disaster and had nothing to do with the book, but it was catchy and colourful. The last Canadian Disaster book (2006) shows some American firefighters somewhere even though the stories are all from Canada... no big deal.
BTW Hello Katie
Also BTW I promised Mrs Yearwood to include an email address but I see it isn't here. Contact me at MisterS@accglobal.net Thanks again for a great visit!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Greener Grass by Caroline Pignat

Having tried to find 'good reads' in the Historical Fiction category during the many years I taught school, I was often disappointed in the books available. Many had the characters speak as we do today, with perhaps a few dated words worked in to make it sound old-fashioned. The characters themselves invariably participated in history with no more than a teenager's angst about their latest crush or heartache. The historial events they lived through seemed wallpapered over the story and not very believeable.

Imagine my pleasure then at reading another Red Maple nominee book, Greener Grass by Caroline Pignat. I was pulled into the story at every page. The main character, Kit Byrnes, grows emotionally and in maturity as her family suffers terribly during "The Great Hunger" of 1845-1850 in Ireland, when potato blight rotted the crops in the ground and the people gradually had to sell all they had, just to survive. The remnants of the fictional Byrne family become immigrants to Canada. Kit maintains an authentic 'voice' throughout the story and the situations, no matter how extreme, always seem believeable. What better way for a teacher to introduce the ugly realities of our past than with a book such as this? North American immigration, basic concepts of human rights, worker's unions, landlord and tenant laws, and major changes in democratic government are more easily understood after a student reads Greener Grass. Written in first person in an authentic Irish brogue, Pignat immerses the reader into a reality of hardship which is achingly vivid.
Best of success, Caroline Pignat. Again I am humbled to be in such good company!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Two More Books

I have just finished two more books in the Red Maple finalist series. They are After by Hazel Hutchins and Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen. Both of these are well written but appeal in a different way to different readers.

After is a story which unravels 'after' a tragedy. Hutchins does a great job in slowly revealing the mystery. It is like the letter V; beginning at the wider parts and the two stories converging to a point by the end of the book. It is written in two styles; switching back and forth between a first person journal which 'Kate' writes in the form of letters to her best friend, and a third person narrative involving the life of Sam. We see Sam from the outside, looking in. Both Sam and Kate have lost loved ones in a connected event. I won't give away more than that for you kids who want to complete a book report without having to actually read the book. No sir, I'm too much of a teacher to give away the ending!

If I was still in Grade 7 or 8, I would appreciate the way Hutchins understands how teens think; they do feel deeply and understand more than adults give them credit for. It takes a while for the story to unfold, but it is worth the effort.

Word Nerd is a witty story about a completely geeky and peanut-allergic boy named Ambrose whose mother is so seriously over-protective she could be a bad example on Oprah. Ambrose does what kids do when faced with too many rules - he does what he wants anyway and lies about it. Ambrose is rescued from his nerdy fate by a young ex-con named Cosmo. One thing I love about Canadian books is that there are so many settings I recognize. This one takes place in Kitsilano, a part of Vancouver, and I keep recognizing streets and places because my oldest son Adrian lived there a couple of years. Even my son's rental house is similar to the one where Ambrose and his seriously whacked-out mother live in the story. Ambrose has a talent for Scrabble, which I can also relate to because I like the game. (But then I'm old, and a teacher, and have the nerd-gene deeply running through my cells...) Ambrose, in a clever way, gets Cosmo the bad-boy to play Scrabble too, which helps Cosmo get closer to a young attractive hottie named Amanda who runs the Scrabble club. Uh, right...
These days we need more books written for boys and about boys, for the simple reason that boys are reading less and taking school and academics less seriously. Susin Nielsen includes plenty of funny references to erections, male fascination with breasts, and a lack of style in dressing, but Ambrose cries too often and Cosmo, the tough guy, willingly humiliates himself as he follows Amanda around like a whipped puppy. These two characters may appeal more to female readers who think boys are actually like this.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lunch With Lenin by Deborah Ellis

Again I am impressed with the work of another red Maple nominee! Lunch with Lenin is a book of short stories. These are sophisticated stories which are well suited to the mature grade 7 & 8 reader or adults. The theme is drugs and the underlying message, that 'there is always more than meets the eye" is an important message for everyone. The characters are often heartbreakers. Ellis, who wrote the 'Breadwinner' books has a keen eye for the dirty realities of some people's lives and she pulls no punches with this book. Besides the excellent plots I also admire anyone who can write dialogue well, (because that's what I try to do, too). Ellis is convincing in her dialogue and makes every voice ring true, whether the character is male or female, from small town Ontario, rural Alghanistan, Russia, the Phillipines, Bolivia, a girls prison boot camp, or has the haunting voice of a boy with Fetal alcohol syndrome. This is an over-the-top collection of good stuff.
Again, I am humbled to be a part of this Red Maple competition with entries such as there.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

review of 'Starclimber' by Kenneth Oppel

This weekend I finished reading Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel. It is a 'page-turner' of the first order. Young Matt Cruse is an accomplished pilot who foils an attempt to hijack his airship and demolish a tower in Paris which the French are planning to use to reach outer space. A very exciting start!
Matt also is in love with Kate de Vries, a fiesty, talented, very rich and beautiful girl. He, of course, is brave, talented, handsome and accomplished and from a poor family (you see where this is going). But the romance part doesn't interfere with the action side of things, much. Instead of the sweetness of a 'Romeo and Juliet' subplot, Oppel allows the relationship lots of misunderstandings, sharp tongued witticisms and heartbreak, mostly because of Kate's intrigues. Soon Matt is offered an opportunity to earn a positon on a secret Outer Space mission - the first of its kind. Kate is invited to go as well. Oppel creates this fantasy from a 19th century world of escorts for young ladies, lighter-than-air ships, wind-up clock mechanisms, winches, immense towers and some serious gaps in the laws of physics. Flash Gordon returns! (Ask your grandpas who Flash Gordon was.) Aircraft engines, jets, telephones, computers, and cell phones don't exist in this book. For that matter, neither does the Women's Vote or the United States, but Canada seems to rule North America. Nice touch. The dialogue of the characters is British sounding and from a previous era.
And it all works!
Congratulations to Kenneth Oppel for an excellent book.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Another Red Maple Title; Night Runner

I just finished reading Night Runner by Max Turner. For those who are into Vampire books, this is definitely one. I don't know much about them, except Dracula the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker, so I can't compare to any others. I find it well written and descriptive. Lots of blood.
It is set in this local area. Turner uses Peterborough and Stoney Lake and places I've actually been to, so that is fun.
One of the best lines comes in the second last chapter; the main character, Zack, has just woken up in the hospital after being killed (he thinks) by the dreaded Baron Vrolok. He says;
"Am I in Heaven?"
"Close," said Charlie. "You're in Peterborough."
Great line.
I wish good luck to Max Turner in his writing.

Monday, March 1, 2010

review of 'Submarine Outlaw' and 'Night Runner'

What are those other books like?
When I can get a hold of them, which isn't as easy as it sounds, I am going to try to read all the Red Maple nominated books. The first I started was Night Runner by Max Turner. I like how he does dialogue and he writes some really funny lines. It is about vampires. He includes a motorcycle early on and that always makes me happy. I haven't finished it yet, but I will soon and post a comment.

The second one I read is Submarine Outlaw. Hey, I really like this book. The main character, Alfred, befriends Ziegfried who has a junk yard. Alfred, being raised by grandparents (of the Charlie & the Chocolate Factory variety) and wants to be an explorer rather than a fisherman and Ziegfried is about the only person who seems to understands this. The plot moves along as they build the submarine and he sets off on an adventure. Alfred makes a number of rescues, but I won't spoil it for you. It is a fun read. What I especially like is that Philip Roy, the author, writes realistically about ships, engines and submarines, but he doesn't go into so much detail that he bores the reader.