Powerful Stories

When I read, I read not only as a lover of story, but also as a writer and a teacher.  Some books really speak to the writer in me…the one who loves a beautifully turned phrase, a well-placed detail.  Some books speak to the teacher…the one who loves the historical details, believes in “the truth inside the lie,” as Stephen King described fiction, and takes frequent breaks from reading to fantasize about how much fun it will be to share the text with students.  And some books…well…some books speak to the story lover and carry her away on wings of words.

Once in a while, I read a truly unique book that speaks powerfully to all three.  In the past few weeks, I’ve read advance reader copies of two of those amazing books, both by writers named Anderson, coincidentally, and both about the choices faced by slaves during the American Revolution.

CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of Isabel, a slave trapped in New York City in the early days of the Revolution.  Sold to Loyalists when her former owner dies, she’s offered the chance to spy for the Patriots.  But does their talk of liberty really include her?  What about the British, who promise freedom to slaves who join their fight against the rebels? 

This book is impeccably researched in a way that not only convinced me I was getting “the real deal” as far as the historical details are concerned but also transported me straight back into the 18th century.  Some historical novels that have tackled this issue in the past  have made it overly simple, but CHAINS is different.  The historical context isn’t simplified, the Patriot cause isn’t glorified, and the characters are flawed, complex, and rich.  As a reader and as a teacher, I am in serious book-love, and I already have plans to use this novel in my 7th grade classroom next year.  CHAINS is a well-researched look at choices made by individuals during the Revolution, a coming-of-age story for a girl and a nation, and an absolute page-turner.  It’s everything that historical fiction ought to be.

While I read CHAINS in two days, it took me several weeks to get through M.T. Anderson’s THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME II: THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES.  Not because it wasn’t good.  It was amazing.  But it was a difficult book to read on a few levels.  M.T. Anderson is right up near the top on the list of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered, and his prose is dense.  The 18th century language of this series occasionally requires a dictionary.  More than that, though, Octavian’s story is difficult to read because it feels so, so raw. 

Like CHAINS, this book looks at the experience of slaves in the American Revolution through the eyes of an individual – in this case, Octavian Nothing, who grew up as the subject of scientific and philosophical experiments by a group of elite Boston men and in this latest volume, joins Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment to fight the Rebels.  Octavian’s life and his choices are based on the experiences of many slaves during this time period.  Anderson tells his story with a detachment that is somehow analytical and yet deeply personal and emotional all at once.  It’s an amazing, amazing book.   And I especially love the way it ends – with an author’s note that challenges us to consider not only the past but the present.

If you have any interest at all in American history, read both of these books when they come out this fall.  You’ll be transported by the masterful storytelling.  You’ll come away with a deeper sense of our history as a nation — for better or for worse. And you’ll be thinking abut Isabel and Octavian for a long, long time.

Children’s Literature New England

My Mother’s Day weekend started off in a room full of readers and writers.  I got to say hello to LJ friends



, and I heard two amazing lectures at the Children’s Literature New England Colloquy. 

First came M.T. Anderson, discussing “Experimental” opening pages.  If you’ve never heard Tobin Anderson speak, you should do everything you possibly can to find an event where he’s featured. He’s simply brilliant and speaks so eloquently that I’d drive a couple hours just to hear him read the phone book, because he’d probably make such smart, funny comments about the names after he read them.  (I was too enthralled to take a picture on Friday, but here’s a photo my friend Stephanie took after we heard him speak at Vermont College’s Special Event Day last summer.)

And look what Candlewick handed out after Anderson’s presentation…

I’ve already started reading my ARC of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves and will be sure to post a review before the book comes out in October.

I had remembered my digital camera by the time Gregory McGuire (the one at the podium)  introduced the Friday afternoon speaker, Arthur Levine of Scholastic (the one smiling even though he has a broken hand). 

Arthur wouldn’t tell us how he broke his fingers (

, do you know?), but he did tell lots of fascinating, funny stories about his own “first pages” that led him to be the über-editor that he is today.

I was surprised — but thrilled — when I ran into Brian Selznick, who wasn’t speaking until later in the conference.  I couldn’t stay to hear his presentation, but I did get to chat with him about how The Invention of Hugo Cabret started out as a fairly traditional middle grade novel and evolved into the incredible book that won the Caldecott Medal. 

Brian signed this copy of Hugo as  a Mother’s Day gift for my mom who arrived at my house for the weekend with my sister right after I returned from the conference. 

Mom (

) loved the artwork in Hugo; she’s the artist who created the cover art for Spitfire.  The publisher of my regional historical novels, North Country Books, has also asked her to do the cover for Champlain & the Silent One, which comes out this fall.  It’s almost finished, but not quite.  I got to see the current version this weekend, and I’m so excited.   I’ll be sure to share the final painting when it’s done!

As for the rest of my weekend…the sun is shining, and the bike path is calling.  Have a terrific Mother’s Day!

“…all these books that were for me…”

If you write for young people, consider this LJ post a big, fat thank you note (virtual chocolates and ice cream, too). I just finished reading my 7th graders’ final exams. I ask them to write an essay reflecting on how they’ve grown as readers, writers, and human beings this year. Here’s a quote from K…

“In the beginning of the year, I didn’t like to read at all. But then my teacher showed me all these books that were for me, and I couldn’t stop reading.”

Books that were for her.  Written just for her.  Or at least it felt that way.  She went on to talk about Sonya Sones, Sarah Dessen, Deb Caletti, and Nancy Werlin — voices that spoke to her over the past ten months. 

And K wasn’t the only one who named names as she reflected on books that made a difference this year.  My kids talked about finding themselves in the characters of Pete Hautman, Janet Tashjian, Jack Gantos, Laurie Halse Anderson, Lisa Yee, Sharon Creech, Jerry Spinelli, Wendelin Van Draanen, David Lubar, Cynthia Kadohata, Mal Peet, and Walter Dean Myers.  They wrote about being challenged by M.T. Anderson, Richard Preston, and Markus Zusak.  They wrote fondly about escaping into the worlds of Margaret Peterson Haddix, Christopher Paolini, and JK Rowling.  And they reflected on walking a mile in someone else’s shoes as they read Gene Luen Yang, Cynthia Lord, Will Hobbs, Jennifer Roy, and Joseph Bruchac.

I write for kids.  I know that some days, it feels like you’re alone with your computer, and even your computer doesn’t  like you very much. So I thought I’d share K’s reflection on her year of reading.  We all need to realize when we write, we’re writing for someone important.  Someone like K, who’s waiting for a book that’s just for her, just for him.  

If you write for kids, that’s the work you’re doing every day.  You may never get to read the end-of-the-year essays, but you should know that you make a difference, and you’re appreciated.