MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: How Addressing a Specific Audience Can Enhance a Story

One of the trickiest challenges writers face when beginning a new project is figuring out the main character’s voice. Will the narrative be told in first person or third? Past or present? How will the narrative sound? What will the tone be?

One technique writers can use is giving their narrator an audience: thinking through who their narrator is “talking to” and how that audience can shape the narrative in interesting ways. Veera Hiranandani uses this technique beautifully in her Newbery Honor winning novel The Night Diary, our February Middle Grade at Heart pick.

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In The Night Diary, which is set in 1947, twelve-year-old Nisha, who is half-Hindu and half-Muslim, tells the story of what happens to her and her family after India splits in two, so that  Hindus have to live in India and Muslims have to live in what has become Pakistan. Each night, Nisha writes in her diary, addressing each entry to her mother, who died giving birth to her and her twin brother. The choice to frame Nisha’s story as nightly diary-letters to her mother is effective for many reasons, and we’ll look at a few of those reasons here.

1.) The narrative structure leads to a very intimate tone that draws readers right in. Take a look at this passage in which Nisha directly addresses her mother:

But here is the question that is most on my mind. I’m afraid to say it, even afraid to write it down. I don’t want to think about the answer, but my pencil needs to write it anyway: If you were alive, would we have to leave you because you are Muslim? Would they have drawn a line right through us, Mama? I don’t care what the answer is. We came from your body. We will always be a part of you, and this will always be my home even if it’s called something else.

Consider the vulnerability and urgency in this passage. It’s impossible not to love and understand Nisha because we get invited so deeply into her heart and mind. This intimate tone would be very difficult to achieve if Nisha’s mother were not her imagined audience. All of Nisha’s complicated, tender feelings toward her mother imbue the storytelling with such beautiful emotion.

2.) The narrative structure fits Nisha’s character and the novel’s themes. Nisha has a very hard time talking to most people. Her struggles with speaking up are an important element of her story. That means that the narrative structure doesn’t feel at all like a gimmick; it enhances the story’s plot and emotional arc, and it feels right. The fact that Nisha can be so articulate in her diary-letters makes it all the more devastating when she is unable to form the sentences she wants to say in the scenes she describes. We learn a lot about Nisha and what she needs when we see how relieved she is when she is able to write about her often traumatic experiences every night; we see how desperately she needs a certain type of connection and we long for her to get it.

3.) The diary format highlights the timeline of the book. Because Nisha is writing in dated entries, we see just how quickly huge changes are happening. Veera Hiranandani is also able to emphasize how traumatized Nisha is (but in a gentle way that is very appropriate for middle-grade readers) by showing that sometimes days pass and Nisha is unable to write because she needs time to begin to recover from horrific events.

We’d love to know what else you notice about the impact of this narrative structure as you read The Night Diary, and we’d love to know about any other books you love that use a diary or letter format effectively! Our newsletter about The Night Diary will go out on February 25th, so be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already, and our Twitter chat about the book will be on Tuesday, March 5th at 8pm EST. We hope you can join us.

MG at Heart Book List: Middle Grade and Picture Books for Grief, Loss, and Funeral Rites

THE LAND OF YESTERDAY is a beautiful, whimsical and fantastical journey through grief. Reynolds’ deftly weaves so many truths and emotions about the grieving and healing process into Cecilia’s journey. The book is truly a healing balm to  children and adults alike who have lost someone near and dear to them.

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If you loved THE LAND OF YESTERDAY and would like to read more children’s books about grief, or if you know a child who is grieving but perhaps is not ready for THE LAND OF YESTERDAY yet, we’ve put together this list of books around death, grieving, and funeral rites. Each one hits on a bit different part of the topic and is aimed at different audiences and age groups. So hopefully, you’ll find just what you’re looking for.

THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF CHARLIE PRICE by Jennifer Maschari

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The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price asks the question, “Would you be willing to give up memories of a lost loved one in exchange for the illusion of being with them again?” At once a bit dark and scary, like Coraline, but also incredibly heartfelt. It helps the reader to feel gratitude for what they have of the person they lost.

TIM’S GOODBYE by Steve Salerno

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When a young child has to say goodbye to a beloved pet, this may be the picture book for them. Gentle illustrations show a group of kids getting ready for something. It’s only at the end that you realize it is a send off for a dead pet turtle, which they release into the sky with balloons. Comforting without being preachy or instructive.

THE FUNERAL by Matt James

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This picture book shows a funeral for a semi-distant relative from a child’s point of view, which may not always be the most reverent. But it is a good way to open the conversation for any families who will be attending one soon with young kids.

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH by Ali Benjamin

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This was the book I needed as a child. My closes friend died when I was in 4th grade but my last interaction with her was me declining to go play at her house because I didn’t feel like it. That isn’t nearly so bad as the last interaction that haunts the main character of this book, but it spoke to my heart that still feels the prick of that. In the end, this is a book for anyone trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy, who has to come to the painful realization that sometimes bad things just happen and there’s no good explanation.

SOMETHING VERY SAD HAPPENED by Bonnie Zucker

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This picture book was a turning point in my 4yo son’s therapy after the death of his favorite uncle (the father of his dearest cousin.) About six months after the death, my son started having intense anxiety breakdowns about death and dying. We took him to a therapist who gave us this book. After reading it a few times, and inserting the name of his uncle into the words marked in red (allowing any reader to properly personalize the book) we were able to have a conversation about what happened and how it made us feel, without a breakdown. Very gentle and perfect for the very young.

I am also going to highly recommend all the other books on death and grieving from Magination Press (the children’s publishing arm of the APA). There is a picture book for losing a parent, losing a pet, losing a sibling, losing a friend, and even one for a child who finds out they are going to die. They may not be standard story time fare but are important to have on hand when someone in your community needs it.

https://www.apa.org/pubs/magination/browse.aspx?query=subject:Grief+and+Loss

As luck would have it, Corrina Allen asked for grief and loss recs and gave two of her own earlier this week. So we are also listing a few of those here.Screen Shot 2019-01-17 at 3.05.05 PM.png

The MG at Heart Book Club’s January Pick: THE LAND OF YESTERDAY by K. A. Reynolds!

It’s a new year, and we at MG @ Heart are excited to spend 2019 discovering fantastic new middle grade reads with you! We’ll be releasing our full January-June reading list later this month. But for now, we’ve got the scoop on our January pick—a dark, whimsical story of loss, adventure, and healing…

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THE LAND OF YESTERDAY by K. A. Reynolds!

A tender and fantastical adventure story perfect for fans of Coraline.

After Cecelia Dahl’s little brother, Celadon, dies tragically, his soul goes where all souls go: the Land of Yesterday—and Cecelia is left behind in a fractured world without him.

Her beloved house’s spirit is crumbling beyond repair, her father is imprisoned by sorrow, and worst of all, her grief-stricken mother abandons the land of the living to follow Celadon into Yesterday.

It’s up to Cecelia to put her family back together, even if that means venturing into the dark and forbidden Land of Yesterday on her own. But as Cecilia braves a hot-air balloon commanded by two gnomes, a sea of daisies, and the Planet of Nightmares, it’s clear that even if she finds her family, she might not be able to save them.

And if she’s not careful, she might just become a lost soul herself, trapped forever in Yesterday.

What people are saying about The Land of Yesterday:

“From its first words, The Land of Yesterday has the pure crystal ring of a classic, like The Little Prince or The Phantom Tollbooth–beautiful, unique, and shimmering with truth. It’s a balm for grief, and a bursting fantastical joy of a story.” — Laini Taylor, New York Times bestselling author of Strange the Dreamer

“Told with riveting language, this is a poignant tale that will resonate with readers of all ages and leave them reeling from such an emotional, gorgeous story.” — Roshani Chokshi, New York Times bestselling author of Aru Shah and the End of Time

“Richly imagined, creative, and entertaining.” — School Library Journal

“The novel is beautiful and often surprising, rich with images (like a purportedly magical pen, loaded with tears; a small door opening in Cecelia’s midsection, revealing “a miniature rusted lamppost inside a tarnished Victorian birdcage”; and people turning to paper as their life energy drains away) that serve both as fantastic elements and metaphors for grief and loss.” — Quill & Quire

The newsletter will go out on 1/28/19, and the Twitter chat will be held on 2/5/19. 

Happy reading!

 

 

MG at Heart Book Club Book Review: THE HOTEL BETWEEN, by Sean Easley

Middle Grade at Heart’s November book club pick was the magical adventure THE HOTEL BETWEEN by Sean Easley.

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THE HOTEL BETWEEN is one of those books that grabs you from the first page, where we meet our hero, Cam, from the hiding-place-come-prison of his middle school locker. But after the initial humor of Cam’s situation, we immediately get that there’s something much bigger afoot than the typical middle school hijinks.

“I throw my head back against the interior of the locker, tracing the page displaying my pencil sketch of a tree with a cramped, crooked finger. I can almost hear the leaves rustling, as they have been lately in my dreams. It’s the same tree that’s on the wooden coin hanging from my neck. Dad’s coin.” 

Because Cam and his twin sister, Cass, have been raised by their Oma–both of their parents are presumed dead. But Cam’s convinced his father is still alive. So when he meets Nico, a mysterious boy who holds a coin identical to the one Cam’s father gave him before he disappeared, he can’t let it go. He has to learn more.

The adventure that ensues introduces him to The Hotel Between, a hotel with magical doors that can transport hotel guests all over the world. One member of the hotel’s staff describes it as follows:

Those who stay within our walls may dive the deepest lagoons and climb the highest mountains in a single day. Here, one can enjoy arepas for breakfast in Venezuela, the most authentic Philly cheesesteak for lunch, and dine luxuriously on the Rhine for dinner.”

Cam and his new friends travel places like Russia, Hungary, and the Congo on a series of missions for the hotel. But when the hotel’s magic starts to malfunction, Cam realizes that something’s not right. And what he discovers might be even more important than finding his long-lost father.

Part fantasy adventure, part travelogue, part touching story of hope and family connection, THE HOTEL BETWEEN is sure to please readers aged 10+.

To learn more about Sean, or for printable drawing pages, activities, recipes, and discussion questions, check out our Middle Grade at Heart newsletter devoted to THE HOTEL BETWEEN here (https://mailchi.mp/1233feee0568/november-newsletter-the-hotel-between?e=96af0d8aff).  

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Next month, Middle Grade @ Heart will feature a round-up of our favorite graphic novels. And don’t miss our #mgbookclub Twitter chat about THE HOTEL BETWEEN on December 4 at 8pm EST!

MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Crafting Striking Visual Descriptions

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Okay, so we all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But have you seen the absolutely glorious cover of the Middle Grade at Heart November book club pick, The Hotel Between? Isn’t it stunning and intriguing?

The cover artist, Petur Antonsson, did an incredible job with the illustration, and the author, Sean Easley, gave Antonsson a whole lot to work with because this book features some truly masterful visual descriptions. Let’s take a look at a few passages to see how Sean Easley manages to evoke rich, specific images while also leaving just enough to the reader’s imagination and conveying a sense of his narrator’s personality.

First, here’s how the book’s narrator, Cam, describes the fantastic and mysterious Hotel the first time he sees it:

I turn back to the door and catch a glimpse of…something unbelievable. Thick, velvety maroon carpet stretches deep into an open foyer and up a twisty staircase. Warm light shines from old, Thomas Edison-style bulbs in intricate brass fixtures. A sparkly chandelier with long, dangly chains of crystals casts rainbows everywhere, flooding the enormous space with warm, smoky light. I can’t even see the ceiling, it’s so high. And I think I smell blueberries. 

There are so many vivid sensory details in this opening description. We get a sense of the vastness of this place, how old it seems, and how it’s too big and too complex for Cam to fully take in. There’s a sense of oddness, too, and a bit of unexpected humor with the ending sentence about blueberries. There are interesting verbs (stretches, casts, flooding), and we can see from the word choice and specificity that Cam is intelligent and perceptive, despite how self-deprecating he can often be.

The description also doesn’t go on too long; pretty soon, the door to the hotel closes and the action starts back up. Easley doesn’t take up so much space with his lush descriptions that the action drags. He leaves us wanting more and imagining what else Cam doesn’t see in his first glimpse of this intriguing place.

Soon, Cam visits lots of international locations through the Hotel’s magic, and the descriptions of these places are just as striking as the description of the Hotel itself. Here’s how Cam describes the scene he takes in when he walks out the “Budapest Door” into the city of Budapest:

All around us, tall glass-and-stone buildings drip with light. Carved granite arches glow as the sun sets beyond them. Warm, yellow strings of incandescent bulbs drape from the pop-up tents scattered throughout the square. Tree branches twist and curl, carrying the lights into the sky like the fiery breath of a dragon. 

Again, check out all those striking verbs (drape, twist, curl, carrying) and the way we get plenty of vivid details but not too many; we have space to imagine what else is going on in this scene and to feel its glowing warmth. The use of figurative language is also terrific. That simile about the “fiery breath of a dragon” is not only original and interesting, but it also reveals something about Cam, who is a very cautious character and sees this world he’s stepping into as something amazing…but also frightening.

And it’s not only places that Sean Easley describes effectively; he also has a knack for describing characters’ appearances. Here’s a passage from when Cam first meets a mysterious man named Agapios:

And at the desk in the center of the room sits a man who looks like Death on his way to the prom—flat, angular forehead with a receding hairline and slick black hair. His face is long—way longer than it should be—and his cheekbones look like someone surgically inserted dice into his face.

Isn’t that an outstanding paragraph? The simile about “Death on his way to the prom” reveals Cam’s sense of humor as well as his lingering fear. Plus, it leaves the reader space to imagine what this man is wearing and what might make his features look “deathly.” The humorous (but disturbing) line about dice being inserted into Agapios’s face also paints quite a visceral picture! Based on the way Agapios is described, the reader immediately wants to know more about who he is and what he’s up to.

Let us know on Twitter if there are other descriptions in the book that strike you as especially effective, and we hope you’ll enjoy our newsletter about The Hotel Between, which will go out on November 26th. And don’t mis our Twitter book club chat about the book, which will take place at 8pm EST on Tuesday, December 4th with the tag #mgbookclub!

MG at Heart Book Club’s November Pick: THE HOTEL BETWEEN, by Sean Easley

The Middle Grade at Heart selection for November is….
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The Hotel Between by Sean Easley!

A magical hotel, a mysterious tree, and a cryptic story about their missing father leads twins Cam and Cass on a worldly adventure in this enchanting debut novel that’s perfect for fans of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and Wildwood.

Twins Cam and Cass have never known their parents. They’ve been told their mother died, and Cass is certain their father abandoned them. Cam isn’t so sure. He wants to prove her wrong; he must.

Cam’s wish is soon granted in the form of a glistening, golden sign with elaborate flourishes that reads: The Hotel Between. With doors that open to countries all over the world, magical trollies, charmed corridors that can be altered on a whim, stone elephants that turn to life, sweets made from rocks; everything is possible in The Hotel. Cam has a hunch his father is somehow connected to this magical place, and may even be lost within its hidden halls.

Every journey has its risks, and The Hotel Between is full of dangerous secrets. If Cam’s not careful, his stay may be over before his vacation has even started.

“Easley’s first novel is a fantasy adventure brimming with action and anchored by familial love. Cam constantly worries about Cass, whose spina bifida confines her to a wheelchair, but he also must learn that she’s more capable than he gives her credit for. The story begs a sequel and will draw fans of A Wrinkle in Time.” – Booklist

“Magic and mystery draw you into The Hotel Between, and I couldn’t leave until I knew all its secrets. Can I make a reservation yet?” – James Riley, NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of the Half Upon a Time and Story Thieves series

“Danger, fun, and heartbreak abound in this rollicking magical adventure around the world.” – Lisa McMann, NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of The Unwanteds Quests series and many other books

The newsletter will go out November 26th, and the #MGBookClub Twitter chat will be held December 4th.

We can’t wait to share this book with all of you!