Monday, March 30, 2015

Newbery Review: Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi (2003 Medal Winner)

Crispin was a fascinating read. I often got frustrated with other medieval kidlit because the main characters and their ideals would fit better in a public school classroom than in the world they were supposed to be a part of, but not Crispin. He is through and through a child of the middle ages in his thinking, and the world in which his story unravels is so realistic, it rejuvenates one's interest in the exhausted setting of medieval England. In fact, Avi almost makes medieval England a new world, one entirely different from the medieval England in your typical MG knights-in-armor story.

Crispin is an illegitimate teenage serf in Edward I's plague-ridden kingdom. He soon finds himself inexplicably wanted by his lord, and has to run. He is taken as a serf by Bear, a colorful, gruff, and oversized street entertainer. But while working with slavish loyalty for Bear, Crispin discovers his master has dark connections to the undercurrents of rebellion whispering beneath relative, dictatorial-held peace.

Like I said, the thing that drew me most to this book was Crispin's realistic voice and character development. At first, he is timid, terrified of crossing anyone in authority or breaking his caste, and is full of Catholic superstition. To him, to rebel would be to turn the world on its head. And this world he lives in is gritty and grim. The streets are full of garbage, the rickety buildings are full of disguised debauchery, and the land is full of sickness.

This isn't to say the book is hopeless in its outlook. Quite the reverse. Rather, it paints a much more realistic picture of the era than your typical Disney-fied medievalism.

That being the case, the book is really more of a Young Adult book (13-18) than a Middle Grade (8-12). In fact, its sequel is shelved in the Upper Young Adult section at my library, and I agree. The sequel is even darker and bleaker (I have not read the third book because I cannot find it), so while I would feel comfortable recommending Crispin: The Cross of Lead to a middle grade reader who can handle the same variety of despair and suffering found in MG novels such as Where the Red Fern Grows or The Long Winter, I would hold back on the sequel for those under 13, and even on Crispin for sensitive young readers. Think of the mood as slightly lighter than The Book Thief, but with more external hope juxtaposed with a pessimistic main character.

Crispin does grow and develop talents, talents other than just the stereotypical reading ability, and learns to love life despite suffering in an almost Victor Hugo/Leo Tolstoy-type epiphany.

All this to say, this book left me darkly wowed and thoughtful. Anyone who rolls their eyes at "another medieval Europe story" should look twice and read this. Like I said earlier, it's like a new Medieval England, and yet it's the real one.

Favorite Character: Crispin

Recommended age: 13+

Content level for parents: Crispin sees a hanged man, someone's throat is slit, an animal is tortured, another person is impaled, historic use of the b-word in reference to Crispin.

For more Marvelous Middle Grade reviews, visit Shannon's blog here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Need More Femininity! Thoughts on Heroines After Watching Cinderella

This past week I watched Cinderella in the theater. I had heard only good things about it, but still went in skeptical. How would our mouthy 21st century film industry recreate a 1950s ideal that was little more than a shell of a character?

I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was shocked.

Here was a sweethearted, feminine, forgiving heroine like someone out of a Jane Austen novel. Mannerly, patient, and emotionally strong. They credited her for being domestic, without chauvinism or with rabid feminism. I haven't heard that off a screen post-60s except maybe in cheesy, poorly-done "Christian" movies.

And this led to a resurrection of one of my personal pet peeves. The modern entertainment world lacks badly in this sort of heroine. Leading ladies with class and kindness and emotional strength that know to make the right choices and don't swing the pendulum into helplessness, nor into the sassy/clumsy/cutesy/obnoxious Princess Anna type.

Immediately after the movie, I tweeted:

It's interesting to me how Elizabeth Bennett is considered the epitome of the developed female character, and yet there are so few leading ladies in the current market that follow her footsteps.

In a world full of Elsa and Katniss and Tris and general kickbutt eyecandy (interesting how these "empowered" women usually end up emotionally crashing or going insane... so much for empowered *ducks things thrown at her by fans*), we need more Cinderellas. More fictional girls and women who model grace in both senses of the word, who have an open hand, an open heart, and a smile on their face despite circumstances. Not the idealism of the old Disney Cinderella or Cosette, or the helpless boyfriend hanging of Bella Swann, nor the muscles but no inward stability of action heroines. Like I said in my most popular article (update, this article is now my most popular!), The Rise of the Dude in Distress,  write real people, because that is reality. And that includes all sorts of people, but there is a shortage of Lizzie Bennetts and Lucie Manettes and Sabrina Fairchilds. We need more of Cinderella's mantra: have courage, and be kind.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Newbery Reviews: M.C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton (1975 Medal Winner)

M.C. is a precocious 13-year-old boy living on his family's land, Sarah's Mountain, in Ohio, where he sits atop a footy-foot pole and dreams of the day his singing mother will become famous and take them away from his father's crumbling property. As strip miners shred away the beauty of the land, M.C. runs in the woods, secretly befriending a white boy from a strange, nearby commune, and a mysterious girl with a bizarre name and a face that steals M.C.'s heart.

This is one of the Newbery's that people seem to be divided on. I haven't read any of Ms. Hamilton's other books, so I would not know if this one isn't as good as they are, as I have read in other reviews.

Personally, I liked it. The voice was strong. It felt like I was running along M.C., jumping over roots and dodging branches while he told me his thoughts. I understood his divided wishes to stay at Sarah's Mountain and to leave forever. I loved his younger siblings and his human family. They were flawed but loving, and they learned to work out their differences. And just like M.C., I couldn't wait for his mother to come home, yodeling her way up the mountain.

At the same time, the book is very literary. I don't have a problem with that, but younger readers might. Without spoiling anything, the book has a long, place-setting beginning, and an abrupt and loose ending. Negative reviewers of the book say this was a turn-off. However, I really think the point of the novel was not so much what was going on around M.C. as much as his personal development. This may make M.C. Higgins, the Great more of a YA novel as opposed to its intended MG audience.

What I didn't care for was M.C.'s relationship with Lurhetta. I found her irritating and found his crush on her even more irritating. And again, I would have preferred a tidier ending, and more of his family's backstory. The whole book is rather scrambled and plotless. I think whether not a reader likes the book comes down to whether or not the reader likes M.C. as a character and the narration.

Rating: Three stars

Favorite character: M.C.'s mother

Recommended age: 12+

Content level for parents: A character nearly drowns. Someone forces someone to kiss them (but it's playground-type behavior). A man suggests the members of the commune are interbred. Members of the commune are referred to as "witchy."

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays, check out Shannon's post here.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dialogue 101: Secrets to Writing Accents, Part One

I am one of those people who picks up accents easily. Whenever I travel to the southeast, my Oklahoma friends at home grin at my twang, and when I go up north, my words gallop a mile a minute like the rest of my Philadelphian circles. When I was in a stage period drama, I helped some of my fellow cast members drop their r's and drag their vowels into Cockney. It's hard enough trying to pinpoint and act out an accent, let alone write one accurately without bogging down the dialogue with the deliberate misspelling we authors use to try and capture these accents.

Accents can easily become iconic on the screen. They can help define a character. Everyone likes to say, "'Ello, my name iz Ineego Montoyah. You keelt my fathah, prepare to die."
Friends of mine who are less than purist when it comes to Lord of the Rings remember Pippin as the "hobbit with the Scottish accent." But I'm sure all  of us try to imitate his brogue when we quote, "Wha aboout seckind brakefest."

Well, on the page, those quotes look horrendous. If all of Pippin's dialogue in Lord of the Rings was written that way, our eyes would be rolling in the back of our heads. As I said before, there are two keys to writing accents: 1. Finding the right way to portray the accent, and 2. Finding how much to write in.

This was all fresh on my mind when writing my Celtic Urban Fantasy trilogy. The main characters, all from the southeastern US, travel to Ireland. That's get difficult fast. Why? See below:

Besides the Irish, there are Scottish characters and then there are variations of Irish and Scottish lilts and brogues. I had to decide early on how to balance all of this out. Here's what worked for me, and when talking to other authors, I find that these methods are tried and true. But I'll split this post into two parts. First we'll look at finding how to accurately portray an accent.

The truth is, it's all in the research.

This seems obvious, but sometimes deciding where to research is difficult. Accents involve colloquialisms and terms and phrases that your region or country may not use. Just look at the fifty hundred names for soda. But what are the best ways to research an accent?

1. Talk to face to face with people from that region

Another reason why writers should not hole up in their caves of introversion :) But in all seriousness, this is the easiest way to discern pronunciation and colloquialism. It was the only way the authors of the classics, such as Tolstoy, Dickens, and Twain, could research accents. However, if that's too awkward for you because you don't want to be that person with the cocked head analyzing the way someone sounds, try...

2. Watching YouTube videos from the region/country your accent originates

There's a plethora of these, and it doesn't matter if the person speaking is a tour guide, reporter, or simply being interviewed. This is better than depending on films, because accents in films are rarely accurate, due to romanticization, or worse, poor voice coaching (of which Dick van Dyke was famously a victim, in Mary Poppins).

3. Read books set in the region

This may or may not be helpful, actually, but it will give you an idea of how to write out the accent (or even how not to do it, unfortunately).

4. Talk to a linguist or similar expert

I have actually never done this, though I watched a couple videos on Youtube on accents in the British Isles. However, different author friends of mine have talked to people who understand all the tongue positions and vowel differences, etc, and said it was beneficial.

These are all easy ways to get a handle on a accent before putting it down on the page in the right increments, which we will discuss next week. In the meantime, what are some ways you research accents and colloquialisms?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Newbery Reviews: The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds (1942 Medal Winner) and Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (1941 Medal Winner)

This week I will be reviewing two short consecutive Medal winners from the 40s. In some ways they are similar, and in others, not at all.

The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds (1942 Medal Winner)

In 1756 New York, the French and Indian War is raging, and ten-year-old Edward Alstyne feels the weight of responsibility when his father leaves with the militia. He and his young mother Gertrude must protect their homestead and his younger sister from "French" Indians, should they attack. Wary of smoke on the horizon, Gertrude constructs a homemade defense system with an old matchlock Palatine gun, propped on bits of firewood in front of the door. And together they wait in the night, as the ruthless Indians approach.

The Matchlock Gun is, according to the book's foreword, based on a true story. It's also very short, at about 80 pages, but within those 80 pages the narrative, though dated, sucks you into the terror of the times. It is one of many stories of do-what-you-have-to survival, and I soon appreciated the author's notice of Gertrude's bravery and ingenuity. In some ways, it is really her story, but then in other ways, it's the story of each individual family member.

Considering its short length, the book is good for all ages who don't mind fear in the dark and some brief, nondescript violence. On a side note, there are some slight references to the Indians that are not politically correct.

Rating: Four stars
Favorite character: Gertrude
Recommended age: 8+
Content level for parents: The Indians chase a character and throw a hatchet at her. Houses are burnt, and people are killed, but little description is given except that they are dead.

Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (1941 Medal Winner)

At about 118 pages, Call It Courage is not much longer than The Matchlock Gun. A traditional folk story from the Polynesian Islands, Call It Courage is the story of a terrified boy named Mafatu. When he was a child, his mother sacrificed herself to save him from the ocean. In order to gain his place again in society, where bravery is the greatest virtue, he sets out alone to face his greatest fear: the sea.

I think it'd be better to call Call It Courage a fairy tale as opposed to a book, because it works better as a fairy tale and has all the elements of one. The author fully immerses you in the boy's superstitious mentality, which on one side is genius and another sometimes not relatable. However, some of the prose is fantastic, and brings the unusual setting to life.

Rating: Three stars
Favorite character: Uri
Recommended age: 10+
Content level for parents: Mafatu kills different animals, his mother's sacrificial rescue of her son is described, the cannibals are spotted with bones and and chase Mafatu around the island, Mafatu is bullied around by his peers.

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Reviews, view Shannon's post here