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.


Guest Post: Constance Lombardo on Growing a Critique Group Over Time

I hear a lot about groups that didn’t make it–where meetings trickled away, or people weren’t submitting, or the group was just the wrong fit for too many members. That’s why, when Constance Lombardo sent me this guest post about her group that DID make it–with all the ups and downs and persistence it took to get there, I was thrilled. Read on to see the work that Constance and her critique partners put into keeping this group alive and, ultimately, a strong, supportive place.


Four years ago, I moved to Asheville, joined SCBWI and decided to form a critique group. I found another writer/illustrator with the same goal. We scheduled and advertised our first meeting. Asheville is full of artists and writers, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the amount of people who showed up– ten, I think. A mix of picture book to YA writers and illustrators. Wow, I thought, this is going to be easy!

We worked out some logistics: we’d meet twice a month at our favorite local bookstore, Malaprops, we’d read our work and offer feedback at meetings, leaving the first 20 minutes for chatting (hopefully on book-related subjects!) And we would use the ‘sandwich’ rule – a positive statement about the writing first, then discuss what might need work, close with another positive statement.

Four years later, the last survivor from that first group to our current configuration is me.

People moved away. One of us had twins. Someone else had surgery. Others decided they didn’t have time for the group. Change is part of life, right?

Over the years, we’ve had people show up once, after being told that a commitment was required to share work for feedback, and then never return. (We now have a rule that you must attend at least one meeting before you can share.)

We’ve had people show up only when they wanted to share their own work. (New rule: you must attend at least one of our twice a month meetings regularly to remain in the group.)

We had one woman who left the group, saying we were all mean. (More conversation on keeping things positive.)

We’ve had some intense chatters. (I’ve been guilty of this at times. Reminders about staying on-topic.)

And we’ve had some serious personality clashes. New York personalities (myself and others) vs. Southern personalities. We’re still working on that one.

What have we done best over the years?

About a year ago, when our group hit nine committed writers and illustrators who attend and share regularly, we decided to close the group. Most of us are SCBWI members and it’s a requirement for any new members, when we do have an opening. We wrote down a list of Intentions and Rules, including some previously mentioned. We now post our work (especially longer YA or MG chapters) the week before we meet.

We’ve had local authors (Allan Wolf, Alan Gratz) and a local illustrator (Laura Bryant) speak to us about their journeys. A local editor (Joy Neaves) also spoke to our group. We’ve learned a lot from these meetings.

And we picked a name. That was interesting. As we threw out ideas, I realized that I am attached to my concept of the group and that some of the names were just not acceptable to me. (New rule: any major change had to be ok’d by all members.) We made a list of potential names:

  • Monkeys with Typewriters
  • Make Way for Madeline
  • Wonderlanders
  • The Inksters
  • The Secret Gardeners

We all voted and happily agreed. We are now The Secret Gardeners.

An illustrator from our group (Holly McGee) was pulled from the slush pile to illustrate her first picture book from Kane/Miller, Hush Little Beachcomber by Dianne Moritz. (Hooray!) Author/illustrator Kit Grady has a new book out, A Necklace for Jiggsy (Hooray!) Megan Shepherd’s articles have been in Faces, Calliope and Appleseeds magazines (You go, girl!) And we recently had another published author join us, Karen Miller (Monsters and Water Beasts: Creatures of Fact or Fiction?)

And the rest of us have made great strides in our writing and/or illustrating. We are:

We’ve been published in our Carolinas chapter newsletter, The Pen & Palette, and in the SCBWI Bulletin, cheering each other on all the way. We celebrate each other through our successes and commiserate over our (numerous!) rejection letters. We share knowledge (agent lists) and ask questions (how to write an effective query?) We attend conferences together and hang out in the hotel bar talking late into the night.

We’ve come to know each other, our work, our writing/illustrating styles, our strengths and weaknesses, and our dreams. We’ve come to appreciate each other, to understand what we’re each trying to accomplish, to be encouraging, and to offer the kind of feedback that makes us all work harder to deliver our best.

And we have fun! We went to see Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. And we’re planning to see HP and the Deathly Hallows together. This year, one of our scheduled meetings fell on my birthday, so I requested that we meet at The Chocolate Lounge (which is as wonderful as it sounds!) We ate chocolate, drank dessert wine, and talked about books. Then I knew, this isn’t just a great critique group, these are my friends.