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Feeding the Monster in Your Story

Our writing group just completed a read through of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (get more thoughts here In this award-winning upper middle grade novel, a monster visits a boy in his dreams (or is it?) to deal with a profound problem. Whether a novel features real monsters (aka…the villain) or a conflict that functions as a monster to the protagonist, it’s important to understand some of the most complex monsters in literature, and how your own writing or reading group can benefit from understanding what drives them. Dracula – The sophisticated monster We all have enjoyed a good James Bond villain. No matter how evil, how sociopathic, there is always something just a little bit charming and erudite that makes this type of “monster” worthy of our heroic opponent. In children and young adult literature, this might qualify as the President Snow (Hunger Games) or other such villains who stay one step of the protagonist, forcing our hero to move out of his or her comfort zone and rise to a higher level. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – The misunderstood monster Some of the best villains are those for whom we feel a certain empathy. People in bad circumstances can either become better versions of themselves, or react to the unfair situation and let it eat away their soul. In Frankenstein, the monster is rejected by its maker and ostracized for its ugliness. This leads to violence and the murder of innocents. We abhor the monster, even as a sort of forced empathy grows from his struggle. A misunderstood monster who changes for the better might be thought of as Beast in Beauty and the Beast. An excellent YA spinoff for that particular story is Alex Finn’s Beastly. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde –The insidious monster Sometimes, you just really want a bad guy. An evil-to-the-bone, maniacal-laughing type of bad guy. Sure, in some cases it might feel a bit “Scooby Doo,” but when you want the audience to really hate someone, then bring on the full out, shameless, laugh-in-your-face-as-he-wields-an-ax bad dude. Timeless villains like Voldemort and Batman’s Joker seem to do the trick here. Sometimes we get a little bit of a melancholy backstory, but usually nothing so significant as to merit the actions of this type of brazen villain. Of course, these three aren’t the only types of successful villains. So next time you’re reading or working on a manuscript, spend some... read more

A Monster Calls: Fairytale or Truth

A Monster Calls cover was a little misleading. It wasn’t the typical fantasy or horror I had expected to read. Instead, it was an unexpected fairytale, that was also not a fairytale. An original for its time, I wanted to explore its elements of folklore. Many say that fairytales use groups of three. Three objects, events, characters. I attended an SCBWI conference in Birmingham this past fall. Bruce Coville, the keynote speaker, said that wasn’t exactly true.  He claimed there was groups of four: three things and a twist. Like three bears and goldilocks or three pigs and a wolf. In A Monster Calls, the monster comes to Connor. He promises to tell 3 stories and then Connor must tell his own. In true fairytale fashion, there are lessons to each of the Monster Yew’s stories. The values of action over thoughts are highlighted. But they are also atypical. Usually in fairy tales there are clear good and evil characters. In the monster’s stories, there is an evil witch worth saving and a prince that is both a murder and a savior (witches/royalty/monsters/mentors are all motifs of fairy tales). I appreciated the contradictions in the Monster’s stories’ characters. It made it feel less far, far away and more here and now. It felt true.  Even the actual characters not within the fables, like the main character and his grandma contradicted themselves. In typical folklore, human truths are revealed. These truths are consistent throughout time. We all wish to end our own pain and isolation. We punish ourselves for the painful truths we know and also the comforting lies we tell. Humans are complicated, not all good, not all bad. So, it isn’t who the character is on the inside that determines the bad or the good. It is their actions. Other human truths include that time is ticking away and that we must face ourselves to heal. Recurring patterns (another element of fairy tales) such as clocks and yew tree’s healing properties reiterate these truths. A Monster Calls was set in the past with supernatural elements. Special beginning words symbolized that it has happened before and it will happen again: “The monster showed up at midnight. As they do.” There was even a happily ever after ending (I won’t ruin). It was uncommon, yet it was full of hope and love. Inspired by folklore, A Monster Calls is an original tale that puts a spin on the plot structure,... read more

What Hooked Me–A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness Story inspired by Siobhan Dowd who passed before the completion of the book)

  Megan: Loss is such a difficult subject. It’s hard to handle it in a book in a way that doesn’t make it feel too light, but also doesn’t destroy the experience for the reader or the sense of hope we need from stories. That’s why The Monster Calls drew me right in. For those who’ve lost family, it deals with loss in a very specific, expert way. By using an metaphor larger than life. That’s why I love metaphors in stories, especially in this instance. I love books that know how to use them, how to grow them into something so monstrous and wonderful, that we can’t barely deal with the emotions that come from being exposed to them. I think sometimes, it’s really hard to use metaphor in a way that’s compelling for a young reader. But in dealing with the loss of someone you love, this book showed us that monsters have all sorts of names. John: When the Monster comes calling, young Connor O’Malley expects a nightmare, instead he gets stories. The Monster plans to tell Connor three of them, and not unlike Scrooge’s ghosts, they will be delivered on three separate visits. Hearing that his intentions do not frighten or even impress Connor, the Monster then tells him: “Stories are the wildest things of all…Stories chase and bite and hunt.” Of course, all writers know this truth as we are often told: Let your characters lead you. That, however, is much easier said than done. What hooked me was Ness’ ability to let his story appear to the world as wild and unpredictable while secretly keeping it on a well-concealed leash. While we all love a good twist, stories or parables that contain a life-message certainly aren’t that. They are common and even cliche in many tales as they serve the somewhat predictable purpose of leading a protagonist to a much needed catharsis. Had Ness followed this predictable path, the reader would have reached an equally unsatisfying conclusion. However, it is a twist in each tale that gives ultimate meaning to the struggling young boy. Megan pointed out the beauty of the use of metaphor, but the symbolism in the Monster tree’s tales stands equally strong. The best stories are wild–as wild and unpredictable as the life of a young boy facing the frightening unknown of life with a dying mother. But it’s in the stories’ twists that we find truth, the same uncaged... read more

Falling in love (again) with anthropomorphism

One of the things I like best about the One and Only Ivan  was the animal perspective, as I’ve expressed in a previous blog. Each and every one of us grew up with children’s books that connected us to animals, either through anthropomorphism (quick vocab lesson: animals with human feelings) or through a child’s relationship with a pet or farm animal. Having worked with veterinarians and vet techs over the last couple years in the publishing biz, I realize that this connection never changes for them, and that for some of us, our humanity is connected and clarified through our relationships with animals and our conception of their feelings. Disney is one of the best purveyors of anthropomorphism. Movies like Bambi made certain I’ll never go hunting. Dumbo made me suspicious of circus animal treatment. Dozens of Disney sidekicks (Flounder, Abu, Pascal, Mushu, etc.) have me pondering what talking-animal sidekick might work best for my life. But of course, children’s literature is where it all started. Three favorite classics utilizing anthropomorphism include The Jungle Book, Charlotte’s Web, and Stuart Little. You’ve probably heard of them all (or at least watched the movies), but when you really start digging, anthropomorphism in kid lit isn’t quite as extensive as you might think beyond picture books. I think that’s why I really enjoyed Katherine Applegate’s One and Only Ivan, because it took me back to a place that included the “Bare Necessities” and “Zukerman’s Famous Pig.” It made me remember falling in love with a sweet, curious mouse named Stuart, one of my first encounters with magical realism. So, quiz-lover that I am, that only begged the question…which anthropomorphic character am I most like? Well, now we can all find out in the exclusive WWAT quiz on Buzzfeed! Good... read more

The Newbery Medal

  In the same month I read the 2017 Newbery Medal recipient: The Girl Who Drank the Moon along with the 2013 Newbery Medal winner: The One and Only Ivan. And I couldn’t wait to share these great books.   Newbery Medal winners are considered the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. That means that kids have to actually enjoy these books and they do. I was a fourth grader who fell in love with Katherine Patterson’s The Bridge to Terabithia.  I believe young readers enjoy them because the powerful messages these books have are not preached. The authors tend to present difficult issues, but never talk down (The Bridge to Terabithia deals with death). Readers are allowed to think their own big questions as they escape into the words of the pages. Katherine Applegate captures her readers’ imaginations with Ivan’s unique gorilla voice.  She shows differences in the way he thinks and how humans think. His thoughts come at their own pace. She uses appropriate descriptions and verse to allow the reader to imagine a gorilla’s world view. This allows kids a chance to think about the way they look at animals and reflect inward. It gives them experience in a world unfamiliar to them. As for The Girl Who Drank the Moon, readers are drawn in by the magic, the promise of story, and a dragon that fits inside a pocket. Barnhill said she wrote the story for herself and didn’t expect many to like it because she thought it was a bit weird. Instead, she found that kids related deeply to the themes. The idea that even when we are genuine and true, sometimes we still make mistakes. And the notions of rumors and getting the wrong idea about a person are issues kids deal with. The seeds of wonder are planted on the back covers in simple phrases. “I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It’s not as easy as it looks…” And, “There is magic in starlight, of course. This is well known. Moonlight, however. That is a different story. Moonlight is magic. Ask anyone you like.” But the stories themselves are not simple and are filled with thought-provoking insight. Both novels are quite different, yet both include similar themes of sorrow, hope, humor, and friendship. I have fallen for many Newberry Medals and honors. Kelly Barnhill’s is definitely my newest favorite. If I hadn’t read it, I would’ve said The Graveyard Book.... read more

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