Saturday, September 21, 2013

MG novels

The best way to improve your writing is to read so I’ve been consuming stories for the last few weeks.

I’ve taken them electronically, on paper, and I’ve listened to a few audiobooks. A dog narrates my MG story, so I’ve sought out talking animal stories – Bunnicula, and others. I’m going for humor so I checked out Barbara Parks and The Origami Yoda and Bruce Corville’s My Teacher is an Alien. I packed a bunch of books and took on vacation. When I and ran out, I went to the Salt Lake city and county library systems and loaded up online.

What amazing times we live in. Not only are there things like libraries, but from thousands of miles away, you can check things out. All you need is a library card and an app called Overdrive and it will get you into numerous library systems around the country. The county seems to have more kid’s lit available than the city. You can’t always find what you’re looking for, but they have plenty of other titles.

Available was Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy. I liked her last book so went with this one. At WYFIR last summer the importance of antagonists was stressed. Stead gives us the typical school bullies and adds the in-your-head kind. The MC had several things going on and Stead brought everything to a close in a feel-good kind of way. Makes me wish I could write like that. I fell into the story to the point I forgot to look at it with my writer’s critical eye. Another wonderful thing Stead does is her use of metaphor. She uses Seurat's pointillism style of art in which numerous insignificant dots combine to make a big picture. Also at WIFYR, Martine Leavitt's had a session on metaphors. This is a great book. 

Another great author, another I-want-to-write-like-that is Tom Angleberger. In The Strange Case of Origami Yoda Angleberger wastes no time getting to the heart of the MC’s desire. This happens the very first sentence. He builds from there, and saves the final reveal to the very last sentence. He has the upper MG kids pegged and his story is engaging. It is so well crafted.

Other finds: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict. Trenton Lee Stewart’s prequel to the Mysterious Benedict Society seems to break the rules for fiction and does the opposite of Angleberger’s approach. Published last year, this feels like an old fashioned book in which the writer takes time to lay down the setting and build the character. The book is long - 480 pages – and it takes a good hundred pages in before we get a sense of MC’s goal and the story gets off the ground, but. I liked it.

In looking at humor, Barbara Parks is good. I reread Skinnybones, one I read aloud numerous times to students. Parks is one of the best. Also read her My Mother Got Married (and other disasters). They were written in the 80s when it was more acceptable to set the humor before pushing a story. She addressed kids of divorced parents dealing with a remarriage in the one and seems to have nailed the voice for that audience.

I looked at two of the Bunnicula series, narrated by a dog. Written in the 70s, the thing that impressed me most was audience. The Bunnicula books do not feel like they were written for kids. They feel like a Broadway play storyline and I kept thinking that they missed the kid voice. Don’t know why these books were so popular. The family in this story seemed too successful and Leave-it-to-Beaver clean, unlike the more street smart, families-working-to-make-ends-meet people I’ve taught. They have helped me hone in on my target MG boy audience.

So I’ve been going through some children’s literature.

(This article also posted at


  1. Thanks for the ideas for good books. I really liked Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, and I've been considering Liar and Spy. I'll have to go get it, since you liked it so much.

  2. There's several people I want to write like and Stead is one of them. And Matt Kirby and Carol.