Tag Archive for J.K. Rowling

Summer Reading List

Over at the Semicolon blog, Sherry offers up a diverse and deep list for Summer Reading. In her words, “52 Picks for the Hols.”

As Sherry explains:

I used to love to read the British slang in books by C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, P.G. Wodehouse, and others. It took me a long time to figure out that those kids weren’t carrying actual torches in their pockets (how?), but rather normal old flashlights. And “hols” were holidays, any break from school.

Typical, Standard Englishman.

As for the point above, I believe that English charm was an aspect — just a small part overall, of course — of the appeal of Harry Potter to American readers. The unfamiliar words and expressions helped give the books an otherness that fit seamlessly with the content. I recall that when it came time for Scholastic to publish the American edition, there was some brief conversation about those nettlesome English words and phrases, concern that they might slow down (and thus, turn off) American children. The decision, correctly, was to keep the manuscript as it was on the page. I may have that wrong, and it could well be that Ms. Rowling would have insisted upon it, but there was a least a passing thought about Americanizing the manuscript, which often happens when books are taken across the pond.

It is hard to recall today, but there was a brief flickering moment when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was simply a good book, not a publishing sensation. I remember Barbara Marcus confessing to me, “We originally hoped we could sell 20,000 in the library market.”

Anyway, Sherry selects books from these categories: Picture Books, Younger Readers, Middle Grade Readers, Young Adult, Young Adult, and Adult Fiction and Nonfiction.

I was glad to see Six Innings make the list, along with these books in the Middle Grade Readers category:

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and A Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall

Six Innings by James Preller

Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson

The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mich Cochrane

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

Henry Reed, Inc. by Keith Robertson

Umbrella Summer by Lisa Graff

Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze by Elizabeth Enright

Galveston’s Summer of the Storm by Julie Lake

It is always a happy surprise and a great tribute to be included in these recommended lists, along with such respected company. I’ll have to go wash up, put on something nice. Maybe a sweater vest or something. Thank you, Sherry, whoever you are!

Bring Change 2 Mind: “Words Have Power Over Us.”

I was impressed and pleased to find this full-page advertisement, featuring actress Glenn Close, that addressed the stigma of mental illness:

Here’s the body copy of the advertisement:

Glenn Close’s sister Jessie and Jessie’s son Calen have a disease. And even though their story is their own, it’s far from unusual. The fact is, one in six adults has a mental illness. The harder reality is that the ignorance that fuels the stigma associated with mental illness can often be the most painful part of managing the disease.

Glenn and her family chose to be national voices for the first campaign dedicated to fighting the stigma that accompanies mental illness. Because having a disease is difficult enough. Being blamed, or ostracized for having it, well that’s just crazy.

Readers of Bystander may suspect that I have some personal experience with schizophrenia. And it’s true: my brother John suffered from schizophrenia. I touched upon  John’s experiences in a fictionalized way in that book, and also blogged about it more directly here.

Clicking around cyberspace, I found this insightful, deeply-felt piece written by Glenn Close for O, The Oprah Magazine, titled “Glenn Close’s Aha Moment.” It begins:

As an actress, I have always loved words. I believe in their power. But certain words have power over us — until we destigmatize them and learn to speak them out loud, without fear or shame.

By the way, since I was mildly critical of J.K. Rowling last week, let’s recognize how brilliant and accurate she was to make the characters in the Harry Potter books fear the word “Voldemort.” They were afraid to say it out loud. And to that extent, he held dominion over them, for he had stolen a piece of their language. Ms. Close continues:

My aha moment hit me several years ago, when I realized that three deeply frightening words had power over me: schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar. There is mental illness in my family. And I knew that if I really wanted to help, I would have to learn to say those words fearlessly, out loud. That’s the beginning . . .

<snip>

And my aha moment is beginning to have repercussions. A group of us, along with Fountain House, are launching a campaign called Bring Change 2 Mind. In June we went to Washington and presented our idea to the major mental health organizations. With their enthusiastic blessing and support, we shot our first public service announcement— in Grand Central Station — directed by Ron Howard. Jessie and I and our children are in it. And John Mayer gave us use of his exquisite song “Say.” Bringchange2mind.org has links to all the major mental health groups. It will connect people to whatever they need: help, community, education, or a chance to join one of the organizations.

It is just the beginning, but I hope it will give people the courage to talk about mental illness, to lose their fear of the words, to conquer shame and stigma. Jessie and I felt a huge sense of relief when we decided to speak out. There is nothing to hide. Schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder. Depression. I have no fear. We are all connected, and none of us should ever feel marginalized, stigmatized, and alone. — As told to Johanna Schneller

I congratulate Ms. Close on the courage of her convictions, and the bright shining power of her insight. This is good work; I believe she’s right. We need to talk about this stuff, not hide from it, because there is a power in words — a power to do harm, and a power to make positive change.

“Change a mind about mental illness, and you can change a life.”

Here’s the PSA as directed by Ron Howard:

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Asking “What If” Questions & Pulling on Threads: A Short Sample from “Justin Fisher Declares War!”

I’ve always loved the writing process, how a jumbled ball of yarn becomes an actual sweater. Conversely, it’s amazing to me — pulling on that thread and watching how the fabric unravels.

Back in September, 2008, I wrote this on my blog:

I have an idea for a character who gets into trouble at school. The book is about this kid, and, in part, the surprising relationship he builds with the school principal. But how and why does this boy get into trouble? What does he do? What kind of hilarious escapades can I conjure? Then one notion hit me over the weekend: He smuggles a goldfish into school!

I love that idea. I can WORK with that idea. That is: There are possibilities that appeal to my sensibilities. So then begins the series of questions: How does he do it? Why? What goes wrong (because something must go wrong)? I’ve already daydreamed over a host of options — involving a thermos, soup broth, and a swallowed goldfish — but I know I’m not there yet.

Below, please find a brief scene from my upcoming middle-grade book, Justin Fisher Declares War! (Scholastic, August 2010). The scene represents the realization of those bloggy wonderings. Yesterday I read this passage aloud to a group of foruth-graders. We’d been talking about the importance of asking “what if” questions. In this case, what if a boy wanted to smuggle a goldfish into school. How might he do it? The answer to that question is the scene you write.

If writing fiction is anything, it is asking “what if” questions, following the logic and playing with those possibilities — thinking it through. After all, “what if” questions are at the core of what’s now called “Speculative Fiction” and, I hasten to ask, what brand of fiction is not speculative? We’re all daydreamers here.

Here’s the scene:

Justin understood that he’d never get past the front door carrying his sister’s goldfish bowl. She’d freak out and wail like a siren, and his mother would end up yelling. No, Justin needed to come up with a foolproof plan. And after a few minutes of heavy-duty thinking, he did.

The next morning, he asked his mother for tomato soup for lunch.

“You never eat it when I give it to you,” she said.

“This is different,” Justin assured her. “I really need soup today, Mom. It’s like . . . Soup Day in school and . . . all the kids are bringing in different kinds of soups and –“

“Soup Day?” His mother raised an eyebrow.

“It’s a guy thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Okay, okay.” His mother relented. She opened the cupboard, shifted a few cans around, and said, “Sorry, we’re all out of tomato. How about chicken noodle?”

“Perfect,” Justin clucked.

Operation Goldfish was in effect.

At the next opportunity, Justin snuck into the bathroom, dumped out the soup, and rinsed the thermos clean. Then, on tip-toe, he entered the forbidden zone — his sister’s room. The room itself was hideous, a monstrosity of purple and pink, with Disney posters and stuffed animals. Justin couldn’t imagine how his sister managed to sleep in there.

Justin paused by the door, listening. Lily was downstairs, eating Pop-Tarts. Justin poured water from the goldfish bowl into the thermos, spilling only a small puddle on the rug. With a net, he fished out the goldfish and dropped it into the thermos.

What about air? Justin wondered, as he screwed the cap on. I can’t suffocate my sister’s fish.

He thought about trying to find a hammer and nail. Maybe he could drive small holes into the screw top.

“Justin? What are you doing up there?” his mother called. “You better get moving if you want to make it to school on time!”

“Coming!” Justin hollered. He placed the thermos back into his lunch box, stuffed that into his backpack, and hustled down the stairs. He figured he’d open and close the cap every hour or so, just to make sure the goldfish got enough air. He might have been a little mischievous, but he wasn’t a cold-blooded fish murderer.

I’ve called this “my rebound book,” since it comes after the more serious, precise Bystander. This one is loose, light, short, funny. Rereading my early notes from the blog, I realize that I changed Justin’s relationship from the principal to his classroom teacher, Mr. Tripp. That struck me as more immediate, more natural, and allowed me to make his teacher more sympathetic. Originally, I conceived of the teacher as sort of a one-dimensional uptight obstacle, but it got much more interesting when he became a well-rounded person — a first-year teacher, nervous and well-intentioned, who makes some mistakes in handling an attention-seeking student.

Aside: I think the single worst character in the Harry Potter series — the character I consider a major failure — is the one-dimensional Dolores Umbridge, appointed High Inquisitor of Hogwarts in the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Lacking all shade and substance, she ruined much of the book for me.

I hated her, but not in the way J.K. Rowling wanted me to hate her.

Opening Sentences: Great Beginnings

There’s nothing quite like the first sentence in a book. After all, it’s the first. Numero Uno. Isn’t that what we all do, in bookstores and libraries? We scan the cover, read the flap, crack it open and read the first few lines, maybe a paragraph or two, and . . . DECIDE.

My all-time favorite opening sentence comes from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and I know it (almost) by heart:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

How do you NOT read the next sentence? An ax! Daddy? I’m alarmed, almost as much as Fern. Where IS he going with that ax?

Here’s some other first lines, taken almost at random. The list is not exhaustive or well-researched. I’d love to see more contributions in the comments section:

The day Shiloh come, we’re having us a big Sunday dinner. (Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor)

Again, wow. Those words, “come” (not “came”) and “us” signaling a rural voice and setting, a voice we’ll grow to love, to root for, a voice that will pull us all the way through.

Brian Robeson stared out the window of the small plane at the endless green nothern wilderness below. (Hatchet, Gary Paulsen)

Nothing fancy here. But again: setting, character, and foreshadowing in one simple sentence. A grammatical aside: I love the lack of commas in that description of the endless green nothern wilderness.

Here’s some more I like. I’ll save my writerly observations for, I hope, a later discussion:

Under a chill, gray sky, two riders jogged across the turf. (The High King, Lloyd Alexander)

Miyax pushed back the hood of her sealskin parka and looked at the Arctic sun. (Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George)

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. (The Giver, Lois Lowry)

Bradley Chalkers sat at his desk in the back of the room — last seat, last row. (There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, Louis Sacher)

On a warm October night in Chicago, three deliveries were made in the same neighborhood. (Chasing Vermeer, Blue Balliett)

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog. (Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo)

A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. (Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling — ever heard of it?)

Personally, I’ve never written a great first line — too hard, I guess — though I like the one that began Ghost Cat and Other Spooky Tales:

“Aaaaaaccck!” Mother screamed.

The book I’m revising now, Bystander (Feiwel & Friends, Fall, 2009), begins — as of now — this way:

The first time Eric Hayes ever saw him, David Hallenback was running, if you could call it that, running in a halting, choppy-stepped, stumpy-legged shamble, slowing down to look back over his shoulder, stumbling forward, pausing to catch his breath, then lurching forward again.

It is my hope that this post leads to some kind of discussion, responses, comments. So please — readers, teachers, students, librarians, dogs who can type — what’s your favorite opening sentence? Maybe we can grow this into something. Create a list. Vote. Any students out there?

What makes a great first sentence, anyway?