Alan Gratz’ BAN THIS BOOK: The Journey of a Quiet Hero

Before I plunged myself so deeply into picture books, I was struggling with a middle grade book in which the hero was too quiet, too passive. There was a big disconnect between the “flavor” of the boy in my mind and the actions I was trying to make him do on the page. In part, this was definitely my difficulty with writing character-driven plots, but it was also that I could never figure out what this quiet, gentle boy would actually do to make trouble.

Recently, I read Alan Gratz’ Ban This Book. The hero in Ban This Book, Amy Anne Ollinger, wants nothing more than to curl up with a book whenever and wherever she possibly can. She speaks, but never the words (the truth) that she is thinking. That is, not until she finds out that her favorite book has been “removed from” the school library.

Three you have it: The inciting incident. Does Amy Anne jump right over the threshold, leaving the ordinary world behind her without a thought? Of course not. There has to be a push-pull at the threshold and, for Amy Anne, there is no question that her first answer to the call will be to refuse it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself (and of Amy Anne). Ban This Book is the perfect journey for a quiet, passive hero. I spent three hours last weekend breaking down that journey (and, frankly, the whole plot). I’ve got the chart stashed for when I head back to my own book, but I want to do a blog post that identifies and describes the fundamental steps Amy Anne takes on her hero’s journey. (Or that does this as well as I could!)

Heads up: the post is going to be a REALLY long one, so I’m not going to put in examples—but, hey, you can go get the book and read it for yourself! Oh, also, there will be spoilers, so you may actually want to read the book first, then come back here. (Or, you know, just read the book and enjoy it!)

Anyway, for those of you who might actually want several pages of craft analysis, here we go.

The Ordinary World (1): As I said above, Amy Anne’s ordinary world is one in which she thinks one thing and speaks another. And the words she does speak are never the truth.

Gratz starts by showing us this world at Amy Anne’s school. We see Amy Anne hide what she is thinking right in Chapter 1, rather than tell her friend, Rebecca, that she isn’t interested in the story of Morgan Freeman law suit over a domain name. She lies that she has to return her library books and escapes.

The Inciting Incident: Mrs. Spencer, one of the mothers at the school, complains about some books, including Amy Anne’s favorite, and the school board tells the librarian, Mrs. Jones, that she has to take them off the shelves. One of the books is From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Amy Anne’s favorite.

The Call to Adventure: Mrs. Jones asks Amy Anne to come to the school board meeting and speak about why she loves The Mixed-up Files. Obviously, Amy Anne doesn’t want to stand up in front of a bunch of people and talk. But she can’t explain why to Mrs. Jones. All she can get out is, “Okay.”

The Ordinary World (2): Up until the book banning, it’s relatively easy for Amy Anne to stay quiet at school. Rebecca is her only friend, and Rebecca likes to hear herself talk. In Amy Anne’s home, though, things are different. And harder. Her parents are both busy people, and Amy Anne has two younger sisters who are really good at saying what they want—loudly and with tantrums. She has pretty much given up speaking truth at home—other than some under-her-breath muttering and the occasional explosion. As the story progresses, the muttering gets louder and the explosions more frequent.

Refusing the Call: In a beautiful one-step forward, two steps back pattern, Amy Anne manages to say that she needs a ride to the board meeting and to push hard enough that her dad makes time to take her. But Amy Anne can’t make herself stand up at the meeting, let alone say a single world. And on the way home, when her dad’s irritation at the “wasted” time upsets her, he stops at the bookstore and buys Amy Anne her own copy of The Mixed-up Files. She can now back even further away from speaking—she can bury herself in her book and bury the truth (from herself) that the library copy is still banned.

Threshold: Amy Anne’s crossing of the threshold is about as far as is possible from Dorothy’s tornado or even Bilbo’s running out of the house without a handkerchief. The crossing happens at school, because—sadly, but very realistically—allies come to her side more quickly there than they do at home. And she crosses so gently, so quietly, that nobody—least of all Amy Anne—recognizes the step she has taken. She tells Rebecca about The Mixed-up Files, and Rebecca asks if she can read it. Again, Amy Anne gets out only a single word—another, “Okay.” This okay, though, sets off a chain of book loans and book borrowings that gradually and eventually builds up as much force as that boulder in the first Indiana Jones movie—the one that pretty much destroys the temple. Watch out school board. Watch out, Mrs. Spencer.

Allies and Enemies: As we step into the middle of the book, the beauty of what Alan Gratz is doing becomes clear. As the kids in the school find out about the books being banned and the books being shared around, they want in. Through a combination of friendship and pure book love, Amy Anne becomes the surprised leader of an underground library—she keeps stacks of books in her locker, tracks who checks out each book and who is waiting for it, and posts secret signs so the other kids can see what’s available.

An Underground Library.

Could there be a better way for a quiet, passive hero to come into her power? Book requests are made through notes passed in class, and book exchanges are made in whispers at Amy Anne’s locker. Her words have to stay few to keep hidden what she is doing, but they have to speak truth—otherwise, nobody will be able to check out the books. And what Amy Anne is learning is that not only does she love books, but she wants others to have the opportunity to love them. The board is still controlling Mrs. Jones, but they can’t control Amy Anne.

Well, not for a while. Amy Anne doesn’t just have allies, of course; she also has enemies—Mrs. Spencer, the Board, and Principal Banazewski. Amy Anne takes bigger and bigger risks (The Approach to the Innermost Cave, she gets caught, and she is suspended (The Crisis). Amy Anne, the girl who has always been so quiet that she was barely seen, has to leave school for three days.

The Innermost Cave: Amy Anne has probably spoken to more kids in the past weeks than she has in her entire school career. She has spoken out to the principal and, more than usual, to her parents. And she has been making a pretty loud statement with her library. However, during the suspension, she retreats back into silence. She thinks plenty, probably more than at the start of the book, but she says none of it out loud. Despite her parents (finally!) being ready to listen, Amy Anne can barely get any words out, let alone the ones she needs to express the injustice, anger, and fear she is feeling. And then, just before she heads back to school, she finds out that that Mrs. Jones has been fired. That innermost cave is dark.

Reward: What’s waiting for Amy-Anne when she comes back? A locker that isn’t empty (as she expected), but is instead filled with notes from the other students. Amy Anne’s words have built the friendships that will support her through the last pieces of her journey. These friendships are the talisman that she can now carry with her to fix the world.

Refusal of the Return: But not yet. The kids welcome her back, with the expectation that she will once again step into her leadership role—that she will have a plan to get Mrs. Jones re-hired and to get all the books back on the library shelves. She wants to tell them that’s not possible and to demand why they think she knows how to do this. But she only says, “I—I don’t know.” Back to quiet, back to the opposite of action. But, now, the words she does manage to speak are the truth.

The Road Back: With help from her friends, and from the two boys who were “enemies,” Amy Anne figures out what to do. Mrs. Spencer has bypassed the process for determining whether a book should be removed from the shelves—she has not completed a single Request for Reconsideration form. Amy Anne and her friends decide to fill out a form for every book in the library and to take the forms to the next board meeting. By requesting that every book in the library be banned, they will show how arbitrary and unfair Mrs. Spencer’s demands have been. They fill out 500 forms. In secret, of course.

Climax: And then Amy Anne’s littlest sister shreds every one of those forms. (She is playing at being a pony, and she needs fresh hay.) The forms are gone, all the kids’ works is destroyed, and the board meeting is the next evening.

Resurrection:Finally (after the biggest explosion of all), Amy Anne talks to her parents. She explains enough that her mom prints out 1,000 more forms. And then Amy Anne (in homage to her hero, Claudia, in The Mixed-up Files) runs away. All the way to the girls’ bathroom at school. She and Rebecca hide out in the bathroom all the next day, while student after student comes in to get forms to fill out. The first forms were filled out by Amy Anne and her friends. Now the whole school gets in on it—the underground movement has spread to every grade. More forms are copied; more forms are completed. Rebecca even gets to use her legal skills on Principal Banazewski. and by the end of the day, Amy Anne’s team has thousands of forms to take to the board meeting.

Return with the Elixir: The forms are the elixir, right? No, they aren’t. The elixir is the self-confidence that Amy Anne has built over the whole story—the self-confidence that lets her talk at the second board meeting. All the eloquence we have seen in her thoughts come out in the speech she gives. And, because she has always known how to read deeply, Amy Anne has the weapon she needs to stop any last arguments Mrs. Spencer might have. That weapon is a piece of truth (NOT spoiling this one) that Amy Anne has kept completely to herself, even hiding it from the reader. She mixes it with a bit of kindness, and Mrs. Spencer’s banning is done.

This is Amy Anne fixing the ordinary world of her school. Gratz’ circles back to the ordinary world of her home, as well, but—again—this is a spoiler I’m not sharing. You still have to read the book!

Lucky you. From another author, this book could have been a simple paean to reading and an argument against book banning. And I would have read it and liked it, because, hey: me + books = <3. But with Alan Gratz’ craft¸ it is the story of a girl who comes out of the tight, little box of a world she has been living in and finds the strength and skills to build herself a world that is expansive and happy. And she does it all with tiny, tentative steps and a quiet determination that surprises everyone—herself most of all.

Advertisements

What Feels Different about StoryStorm this Year

Well, first of all, the name is different. The last time I participated and went for my 30 ideas in 30 days, it was called PiBoIdMo. It was in November, too, which is a crazy month to try and get ANYTHING done–so happy Tara Lazar moved us all over to January.

Other things feel different this year. I know we are only on Day 3, and I know by the end of the month, I will be scrabbling for and accepting ANY “idea” to add to my notebook. Still, here’s what’s going on for me so far:

  • I’m committing morning time to actually thinking about ideas. I wake up pretty early, and instead of playing around online or giving myself some extra reading time, I’m idea-hunting.
  • I’m not just reading the blog posts and commenting; I’m USING the suggestions in the blog posts. And they are working. Not instantly, not without some stick-to-it effort, but by the time I head off to the day job, I’ve had at least one idea.
  • My ideas are better. Not better like, oh, wow, THIS will get me an agent or better like, THIS will get me past every craft challenge I have ever had. Better in the sense that I can see an actual story…I can see a want, I can imagine a basic structure of threes, and I have a glimpse of the first (of many, I know) ending and premise to try out. I have five ideas so far. Three of those are stories I actually want to write. One of them I already turned into a first draft. (Another one terrifies me–so, you know, balance.)

Some of you are saying right now, well, duh. Of course the first two differences are adding up to the third difference. And, in part, you’re right.

But I think it’s also the work I have done since I last participated–the writing and revising and reading and learning. If we talk about having a bucket for each idea to fall into, a bucket with some size and shape and functionality to it, then I have built myself a much stronger, much more sturdily made bucket.

Like I said, if course it’s going to get harder. Of course, at the end of the month, I won’t be excited about writing 3/5 of all my ideas. But…it still feels like a huge difference. And it feels like another reminder of where we can go if we keep putting in the time–baby steps or giant steps, I don’t think it really matters. We just need to take steps.

And if you needed another reminder of what we can accomplish, look what is happening today. THIS is where our steps together have taken the country.

Welcome to 2019.

My Word for 2019 is “Stretch”

Ever since I started doing this–thanks to Jo Knowles and Erin Dionne, I’ve liked the idea of picking a word for the coming year (as opposed to making resolutions, which I never liked and never kept). I skipped last year–not sure why; maybe the world was too wobbly, maybe I was foggy on where I wanted to put my focus, maybe my own life was too chaotic. This year, for whatever reason, I feel like I’m standing on a stronger foundation, and I can look ahead and think about who and how I might want to “be” in the next set of months.

So I’m picking “stretch.” I wasn’t sure at first, and I’ve played with various synonyms in my head, but this one kept coming back and saying, “Yes. Me.” Now that my feet feel more solidly planted (and not JUST because my tree pose is getting better), I am looking around and saying, okay…what are you going to build on top of that solidity? And I’m coming up with some responses.

Writing

Last year, at this time, I was drowning in yet another tangled MG manuscript and looking at my picture-book writing as a break or a distraction from the mess. This year, I am happily putting aside the MG work and coming down hard on the side of picture books. I’ll be querying agents, tentatively on my schedule for the second quarter of 2019. I’m shooting to write four new picture books as well–my goal is to go back to Big Sur next December with all new manuscripts for critique. I just registered for Tara Lazar’s 2019 StoryStorm. I’ve signed up for a four-series webinar on picture books, hosted by SCBWI Inland Northwest. All my craft work this year will be focused on improving my writing in this genre.

Health

Over the last few years, I have felt like I had zero control over my health, my fitness, and–frankly–my clothing size. In 2018, to save my mental health, I essentially took a year off on thinking about or trying to change my physical condition. It was probably the best thing I could have done for myself–nothing much changed physically (not for the better, but also not for the worse), and I cleared my head of a lot of psychological crud. This year, I feel like maybe I can stretch into a safer, saner way of getting healthier. I am going to keep up with the simple, baby-steps strengthening and flexibility work I’ve been doing at home–I’m not adding time, I’m not adding exercises, and I am for sure not adding a gym.

The stretch for me here is that I’m going to do my best to eat (rationally) low-carb, look into what it means to also eat low/anti-histamine, and reduce my portion sizes. I am going nowhere near a scale; in fact, I’m telling nurses and doctors not to say my weight out loud when I’m in their office. I do have a goal; I’d like to lose a clothing size by the end of the year. Whether this is, for me, at this time in my life, a possibility, I don’t know. But, again, I’m ready to try.

Structure & Scheduling

Years ago, when I was working at home, I tried to set up a regular pattern of hours and days. I experimented with a bunch of things–X first in the morning, then Y before X. Leave chores until the end of the day, get them out of the way at the start. Writing before anything else, writing when I had time. Monday, Wednesday, Friday tasks; Tuesday, Thursday tasks. It didn’t work. Not only did I never discover the magical system that made everything come together, I never managed to stick to whatever scheduling path I was on that week. All I did was stress myself out and bring myself to any given task in an unhappy, unpleasant mood.

Because I’m not quick to learn, I headed into this December break by mentally stepping back on the structure treadmill–figuring I would put in hours and hours of scheduled writing time. But I wanted to sleep in. I wanted to build character charts and learn to play D&D with my son. I wanted to practice my drumming and jam with my son and his guitar on Otis Redding’s Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay. I wanted to do a little cooking. I wanted to go to Ikea with my husband. I wanted to get back into my knitting. I wanted to sit and read a book for more than 15 minutes while I had lunch. And I found out that, at least for the past 10-days, my best pattern was no pattern. And the writing time I spent was good–brainstorming to a new direction in one picture book and getting close to that for another. So in 2019, I’m going to try listening to myself. Trying to keep family and writing as my primary priorities, I’m going to stay in touch with my brain and my inclination. I’m going to make choices on a here-I-am-at-this-moment basis.  That’s something I can stretch toward.

Politics

I am not actually planning to stretch much here, but it has become such a big part of my world in the past two years, that I want to acknowledge its presence. At times, like so many of us, I feel like I am not doing and will never be able to do enough to fight and resist the current administration. But there be dragons down that path. Realistically, I am okay with the time and energy I am putting into resistance, and I hope to maintain a relatively healthy balance in this area. The one change that I can see happening is that, if Kamala Harris does run for President, I will shift some political effort and time to volunteering for her campaign. Since I have done that for nobody before, this will be plenty of stretching.

Do you have a word or a wish or even a goal for 2019?

Picture Books & Me

I had a couple of thoughts this morning. First:

“Writing a picture book goes really fast at the start, then you get to revision and it goes really slowly. It’s hard, but amazing, because it’s when the story really comes together.”

Followed by:

“Oh! Maybe that’s what writing novels is like for other people!”

When I first met my now-husband, I was “working” on a mystery for grown-ups. I had been “working” on it for some time. I hadn’t done much craft learning at that time, so the book was going more in circles than in any actual forward direction. Then, a few years later, I had an idea for a middle-grade mystery. An idea I fell in love with and did learn a lot of craft on. I finished it, revised and revised, and subbed–no takers, but it got enough supportive comments that I felt like I’d found my writing home: novels for children. To paraphrase my husband as he looked at my bookshelves–90% children’s novels–“Why were you writing for grown-ups?”

I tried: I worked for several years on a book that couldn’t decide between MG & YA, or maybe I couldn’t decide. I put that away in a drawer, because it just wasn’t happening. Not to mention it was making me unhappy every time I sat down with it. I Started another definitely MG book. I struggled. And struggled some more. I finally figured out what my big challenge was: writing a character-driven plot. With that knowledge, I kept trying. Kept struggling.

Life came along, and I had unscheduled time when I thought my MG would be with a reader for a while. I went back to a few picture books I had been playing with off and on. That was a year ago. I submitted one for an agent query at this year’s SCBWI Spring Spirit conference, and when I got it back, I thought, “Oh, this is what a positive rejection reads like.” I took four picture books to Big Sur this month and, no, of course they weren’t as ready as I had been dreaming. They were, however, so so much closer than I had gotten in any novel attempt since the mystery. I’ll be doing one more strong revision pass on all of them, and then be querying agents. I am as certain as I can be that I have reached what I call the “I won’t be burning any bridges by sending these out” stage. And it’s the only way I’ll find out if my work is ready to cross the next bridge. (I know, I know, acceptance and rejections are subjective; I will not find out anything by keeping the manuscripts “safe” on my computer.”)

Have I found my writing  home? If your definition of that is the genre that I will absolutely, certainly get published in? Who knows? But if your definition is the genre in which I can draft and revise and pull the story together, instead of feeling like I have cat’s-cradled myself into a knot I can’t get out of, then, yes. For today, at least, I’m home.

The 2018 Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop…Wow.

Last Friday, I drove down the coast with a writing friend to attend this 3-day workshop put on by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc. I had four picture books ready to share in critique and a new idea to work on. The two groups I was in were really wonderful, both because of the mentors who led them and because of the other writers who shared their feedback. The atmosphere was warm & friendly, but there was a layer of commitment and professionalism that–at least in my experience–isn’t as pervasive at other conferences. I’m not sure why. It could be the not-low but, for me, absolutely worth it cost. It could be the actual work–you need to be ready to participate in eight hours of critique, and it is strongly recommended that you use open hours to revise or write.

For me, I have been determined that I wouldn’t attend until I was at my own definition of ready–a combination of spending steady and regular hours on my craft this past year, being equipped with several manuscripts, and having a very strong sense that writing picture books is what I should be doing. The workshop more than met my expectations–I walked away with a new understanding and new revision ideas on all my stories. We had four hours to work on projects and, since I don’t revise fast enough to do a quick turn-around, I started drafting a new idea I’d been playing with. And I think it’s a good one. Somehow, the weekend was at once relaxing and energizing, cozy and effective, welcoming and empowering. Five out of five stars.

I’m going back next year. Which means 2019 is going to be busy. I’ll be:

  • Revising the four picture books I took down this year.
  • Writing and revising four new picture books to take down next year.
  • Querying agents with some combination of the above.

Last January, I didn’t choose a word for the year. I remember feeling so deep into the mess the outside world has become–all the hate, selfishness, and cruelty–that it was too hard to think of a positive word, let alone a positive word connected to my own dreams. And yet, as we’ve seen, creativity has become a refuge. So many times, a blech of a person would fill me with fury or grief, and I’d be on the phone to my reps or online to send money. And then–not every time, but enough times–I would remember how delighted all the blechs would be if their words and actions brought me down. And I would pick up a manuscript. The happiness this work has brought me, the absolute joy I feel when I look at stories that did not exist in the world until I wrote them, has been the balance and sanity I needed.

I don’t know yet what my word will be in 2019, but I am pretty sure it’s going to have to do with writing. I’ll be thinking on it.

Book Moods (with Examples)

I don’t think I’ve ever been what I would call an “adventurous” reader: someone who reads widely in genre, age, length, era–mixing it up with every new book they choose. I tend to go in waves–a pile of MG books, a stack of fantasy, a single author for as many weeks as they have books for me. When I go to the library or a bookstore, I’m looking for more of the same, and I can be disappointed and frustrated when I can’t find the book that will keep my current wave going.

This happened yesterday. I’ve been reading a ton of YA fantasy, and I wanted more. I went to the bookstore and pulled book after book off the YA shelves, reading a page or two in each, putting them back. Nothing caught me; nothing looked as good. I ended up getting two books off the grown-up shelves that have some potential: Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling and Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library.

Then I came home and, of course, started in on the ebook sample of a history book, zero fantasy involved–The Romanov Sisters  by Helen Rappaport. Because book moods are, if anything, random and unpredictable.

Still, I think they come in various types–here are some I’m very familiar with:

Any moods (and examples) I’ve missed? Feel free to drop them in a comment.

Fall Writing Plans

For a while now, I haven’t put any real schedules on my writing. I had been in a bit of a slump for a year or so, and I was changing jobs, and…well, life. But the slump seems to have shifted away for now, and the new job came with new hours, which unexpectedly got me writing in the morning again. I feel as though I’ve landed in a good grove.

I still don’t want to squeeze myself too tightly into must-do goals, but there are a couple of things coming up that seemed worth planning around.

In December, I’m going to the Big Sur Writing Workshop for the first time. I’m really excited about getting to get critiques on some of the picture books I’ve been revising. If I had to set a goal for outcomes, it would be that the feedback and ideas I get there will help me get to the next stop on the writing path–querying agents for these manuscripts. I want to have some flexibility about what I decide to share in the critique groups, depending on how each session goes. I have one absolutely ready to share, two that I want to run through one more time, and a fourth that was a picture book, but that I have taken down to one or two bones and am building back up. I will have at least the first three ready by Big Sur, and I want to have the fourth at least to a draft I’m not embarrassed to put out there. Assuming no creeks rise, this all seems doable.

The second thing coming up is a vacation to Sedona. Of all the places we vacationed when I was growing up, this was one of my favorites, and my husband has never been. He loved Moab, and I feel like Sedona is Moab, but with a bit more up and down geology, cooler temps, and actual trees. We’re driving (Vanagon road trip!), so I’ll have a couple of days each direction to think about some project, talk out loud about it (lucky husband!), and jot down any ideas. Then, in Sedona, we’ll do our usual–split up for a few hours each day; my husband gets out on his bike, and I get into my writing.

I could save this for more revision, or for making big progress on the fourth picture book, but I think I want something looser, with more room for play. So I’ll be working on an idea for a chapter book. If you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I’ve been inspired by reading Debbi Michiko Florence’s Jasmine Toguchi books. One of the things I absolutely love about picture books is how the short form and the young audience create constraints for me to work within, and it seems like chapter books have their own set of “specs.” I have one idea that’s been tickling my brain a bit, so the Arizona trip is for that. I may play with an opening scene; I may take a stab at an outline; I may decide the idea is not workable and brainstorm a few others. I may find out that I am totally wrong about chapter books and that it is not a genre I want to get into. But I don’t think so.

It feels so good to be solidly back on the writing path, even if I still (and always!) don’t know where it’s going to lead. Writing steadily and seeing my manuscripts and my crafts get stronger, having the energy and courage to dig into something new…this is my happy place. Fall is always my favorite season and, this year, I think it’s definitely going to be a good one.