Get Off Your Butt and WRITE!!!!

It’s been awhile since we’ve seen each other. I’ve been a bit busy with the winding down the school year, my son’s high school  graduation, school events, etc. School is now out for me, so the spinning of my head has slown down a bit.  Here’s what’s on my mind right now, so let’s get to it. Shall we?

I was reading my new Twitter/Facebook friend Gae Polisner’s blog today when a realization whompped me upside the head: I dream of the day when I get invited to be a part of a book festival! Oh, wait! That will require me to finish my book and find an agent and get published and… *cue the Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away voice saying, ARRRGGGG!!!!*

Sheesh! That’s not a tall order or anything. It just means I’ll have to get off my butt (actually it means I’ll have to get off the Interwebs and TV) and focus, focus, FOCUS on FINISHING my book!

Here’s the deal: I started off really strong last summer and pounded out a good 12,000 or so words over the course of 2-3 weeks. That might sound impressive, and I guess it kinda is, but since then, I’ve only added another 3,000-4,000 words or so. You do the math. No matter how you add those words together, they don’t add up to a finished draft, much less a finished novel.

In my defense, I do have four kids, all of whom have been in school, I’m a teacher, wife, mother to two dogs, and a student. I am a very busy person. But still… I lament a great deal about not having enough hours in the day to do all the things I need to get done, when the truth is you make time for what’s important to you. I manage to find time to plan and grade my students’ work,  read all the amazing YA books I love (although that is truly a part of what writers do), and I ALWAYS find time to watch NCIS.  ALWAYS.  So…why can’t I find time to write? Why can’t I find time to finish this manuscript (wow! I’ve never referred to my novel as a manuscript before), which is very important to me?

Why indeed? What IS stopping me? I’m pretty sure it isn’t one single thing. No, I’m pretty sure it’s more like seventy-two  things. Mostly, though, I think it’s fear. Fear of success and fear of failure. Fear that I won’t be able to piece it all together because I’ll run out of words or I won’t be able to connect with the right agent/publisher/audience. I mean, who’s going to want to take  a risk on this Kansas girl no one has heard of?

Then I wonder if my YA writing idol Laurie Halse Anderson ever had similar worries. Or Neal Shusterman? Jay Asher? Gae Polisner? Suzanne Collins? You know her. She wrote those Hunger Games books. You know, the WILDLY successful Hunger Games books!! So. I guess it’s really possible that someone out there will someday be willing to take a chance on me and my manuscript. Once it’s finished, that is…

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A Double Dose of Pam

I have read two books recently that were written by Pam Bachorz: Drought and Candor. Both books received a four star rating from me on Goodreads (goodreads.com), and I am reviewing Drought for you here.

     Ruby Prosser dreams of escaping the Congregation and the early-nineteenth century lifestyle that’s been practiced since the community was first enslaved.
She plots to escape the vicious Darwin West, his cruel Overseers, and the daily struggle to gather the life-prolonging Water that keeps the Congregants alive and gives Darwin his wealth and power. But if Ruby leaves, the Congregation will die without the secret ingredient that makes the Water special: her blood.
So she stays.
But when Ruby meets Ford, the new Overseer who seems barely older than herself, her desire for freedom is too strong. He’s sympathetic, irresistible, forbidden—and her only access to the modern world. Escape with Ford would be so simple, but can Ruby risk the terrible price, dooming the only world she’s ever known?

I finished Drought yesterday and decided to take a day to process my thoughts about the book before rating it and writing a review. I’ve read a lot of less than favorable reviews for Drought, and although I get what most of these reviewers are saying, I don’t completely agree with them. Are there parts of the plot that require you to suspend belief? Yes. Are there some holes in the plot that could have been knitted together better? Absolutely. However, for me at least, I think the strengths of Pam Bachorz’s novel outweigh its weaknesses.

Bachorz has written a strong heroine, Ruby, who is easy to identify with and who seems quite real. While Ruby’s plight is far from typical and is infuriating, she experiences many things a teenager would: young love, mother/daughter conflicts, loss of loved ones, unwanted affections from a boy, and the persistent need to think for herself and to be free. Ruby longs for a better life, which is something most of us can relate to.

I also like what Bachorz does with the character of Ford—how she effectively shows the internal conflict he has between what he feels he must do for his family and what he must do to Ruby’s family because it’s his “job.” In doing so, Bachorz also explores the dichotomy of doing what’s necessary for survival vs. what’s right as she explores this age-old argument.

The relationship between Ruby and Ford is not only forbidden, it is what holds this story together and makes it easier to overlook the flaws of the plot. Although I think the meat of the story is in the relationship between Ruby and Ford, I do wish more backstory regarding Otto and the history of the Congregation had been woven into the story. There are a lot of unanswered questions that may not be necessary to the Ruby/Ford plotline, but would have definitely tightened up the other veins of the story and filled in some of the holes.

While I’m not reviewing Candor, I did want to give you a little tidbit about this novel that will leave you with chills at the end:

 In the model community of Candor, Florida, every teen wants to be like Oscar Banks. The son of the town’s founder, Oscar earns straight A’s, is student-body president, and is in demand for every club and cause. But Oscar has a secret. He knows that parents bring their teens to Candor to make them respectful, compliant–perfect–through subliminal Messages that carefully correct and control their behavior. And Oscar’ s built a business sabotaging his father’s scheme with Messages of his own, getting his clients out before they’re turned. After all, who would ever suspect the perfect Oscar Banks? Then he meets Nia, the girl he can’t stand to see changed. Saving Nia means losing her forever. Keeping her in Candor, Oscar risks exposure . . . and more.

Happy reading!

How I Became a Reader

My love for reading began with Max and his line, “Let the wild rumpus start!” I remember listening to my favorite story Where the Wild Things Are and classic Dr. Seuss: “I will not eat them, Sam I am. I do not like green eggs and ham!” and Horton Hears a Who. I only hear faint whispers of the childhood voices who read to me now as they have been replaced by my own as I read to my own children and to my students.

Growing up though, we never had book cases in our house.  Well, that’s not true.  We had them, they were just called knick-knack shelves, but there were always books in the house.  They were in stacks, though, and didn’t seem to warrant enough importance to be prominently displayed like the knick-knacks.  My mom was usually reading what she referred to as “trashy” Harlequin Romance or a novel by Stephen King. I read Salem’s Lot when I was twelve and had nightmares for weeks, but I loved scary stories. After Salem, I met It, and he scared the hell out of me. Now that I think about it, that super creepy clown is probably why clowns still creep me out today. But Cujo didn’t make me hate dogs. Huh. I may have to ponder that for a moment…

I loved reading—it was my refuge, it helped me escape a home-life that was not always pleasant. Truth be told, my home-life absolutely sucked much of the time. Reading, and later writing, probably saved my life; I was able to delve into other people’s lives and escape my own. Through books I was able to see that things would get better—eventually. This is precisely why I am such an advocate for the active use of YA lit in the classroom.

In my early adulthood, I didn’t do much reading beyond Glamour magazine, Sunday funnies, or my daily horoscope (I’m a Scorpio in case you were wondering). When I started college, my reading was basically limited to required college texts. I did, however, LOVE the Intro to Literature class I took at Emporia State when I was still an Elementary Education major in the early 90s. I didn’t start reading again on a regular basis until my first child was born, and then it was limited to baby books and parenting magazines.

As my family grew and my kids grew, I exposed them (and me) to books that matched their various stages of reading readiness. Even though I was reading these wonderful books with my kids, I still wasn’t reading for the sake of reading. Before I started teaching, I spent about eight years working in the mental health field. I was working with adolescents, and in an effort to connect with them, I started reading what they were reading—young adult fiction. During this time, I met Harry Potter and fell in love with books all over again, because these were books that appealed to me. Since that time, I have built quite an extensive library at home and in my classroom. Books surround my children and have an impressive presence in their lives and mine.

I have taken a stab at books written for adults and have found Jodi Picoult to be a skilled writer, but many of the books I read seemed fairly repetitious, so I moved on. I did really like The Pact (which I would argue is YA), and I do intend to read My Sister’s Keeper, The Tenth Circle, and Ninteen Minutes someday. For now, my focus remains on young adult fiction. Some of my favorite “modern” YA authors are Laurie Halse Anderson, Neal Shusterman, and Chris Crutcher. These seasoned authors write novels that resonate with me in ways that adult novels can’t.

In the past couple of years, I have read some remarkable and not so remarkable YA lit. I loved The Hunger Games trilogy and consumed them in about a week and a half. I read the Twilight Saga and proudly pledge my allegiance to Team Edward (no judgments, please). I have discovered that I like Science Fiction, as long as it’s not of the Star Wars variety. I read Crank by Ellen Hopkins, and she just may be a new favorite. I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. EVER. Wonder by R.J. Palacio and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green moved me to tears. I am currently reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.

My “to read” list is VERY long, and I fear I may never reach the end. But that’s okay. I’ll just keep reading until I can’t read anymore.

Why YA? The Fault in Our Stars, that’s why.

The Fault in Our Stars

Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs… for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

This book makes me want to hug my children more and thank God seventy-two times a day that all four of my children are healthy and happy (most of the time). It makes me appreciate my husband more (please don’t tell him I said that…on the Interwebs).

You see, my husband was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer nine years ago, at the age of 32. Stage III means the cancer is treatable, but it has invaded the lymph nodes, thereby entering the bloodstream, making for a poorer prognosis. My husband was lucky. He had surgery and underwent nearly five months of chemo and has been cancer free for nearly nine years now. This is a miracle and a blessing for our family.

But I digress. This is a book review about a girl with terminal cancer, and given my life experience it’s no wonder I crawled right inside Hazel’s world.

It took me about ten days to read this book because life kept getting in the way of my reading. I stayed up way past my bedtime two nights in a row to finish it, which was difficult to do at times due to the steady flow of tears. It was worth feeling tired and a little cranky so I could finally finish this book.

Hazel is not someone you feel sorry for. She simply will not allow you to. What she will do, however, is give you a honest picture of what life with cancer looks like, feels like, sounds like, and on occasion, smells like. Hazel is bad ass, and someone you want to know. She’s smart and understands things about life most of us never will. She sees things we miss because she pays attention. Hazel worries about those she will leave behind and is fully aware of the devastation that will follow her death, referring to herself as a “grenade.”

But don’t despair. Hazel has a wicked sense of humor and although she is painfully aware of the graveness of her situation, she often comments on the irony of things and sees humor in even the most serious situations.

Meeting Augustus at a cancer support group is serendipitous, cathartic, and just what Hazel needs, despite her prolonged resistance. She eventually learns that resistance is futile, and embraces the gift Augustus becomes in her life. Augustus is bad ass in his own right, and you can’t help rooting for the two of them.

The Wonder of Wonder

I came to hear about Wonder via Twitter through the flurry of discussion my various Twitter teacher and librarian friends were having. I have to admit, I felt a little out of the loop. Well…I’m still fairly new to Twitter and most of my Twitter friends are newly established contacts, so I guess it makes sense I felt out of the loop. I started paying attention to what was being said, and one well established Twitter/Facebook friend, the amazing Paul W. Hankins, couldn’t say enough about this book.

When I finished reading Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper a couple of weeks ago and casually asked on Facebook, “What to read next?” Paul immediately responded with: “Wonder by R. J. Palacio.” I had ordered the book the week before and was anxiously awaiting its arrival. When it finally showed up on my doorstep, I began reading it that evening and was immediately drawn in.

Here’s a little bit about the book:       Wonder

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.

Much of Auggie’s  story is told from his perspective, but the true depth of the story (and characters) materializes as other significant characters come forward to share their perspectives regarding their lives with Auggie. They bare their souls and allow us as readers to share in their joy and pain and blindingly honest truths.

Wonder is not a “woe-is-me” book. It is not a copy-cat book. It is not a book you’ll read and then shake your head thinking that you’ve read this story somewhere else before.

Wonder is full of rich, well fleshed out characters that will make you laugh, cry, sympathize, feel outrage, and ultimately feel blessed. The tears you shed will be both heartbreaking and of joyful triumphs.

Auggie is a character you will not soon forget.

Join the conversation about Wonder on Twitter: #thewonderofwonder

You can follow me on Twitter @MickiFryhover and R.J. Palacio @RJPalacio

When Established Writers Venture A Little Too Far…

Okay, it’s been a little while since we’ve hung out together. I’ve been a bit busy trying to keep life from getting the best of me. Right now I’ve got too many irons in the fire as they say, but that’s a story for a different time.

Here’s what’s currently on my mind: I finished a YA (young adult, in case you’ve forgotten) book earlier this evening, and I just have to write about it. And, no, I’m not fired up in a good way, in case you’re wondering. The book I’m referring to is a fairly recent work by James Patterson of Alex Cross fame. You know: Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider, Women’s Murder Club, and most recently Kill Alex Cross. I mean, surely that last title rings a bell; you’ve probably seen his commercials for it a few hundred times by now.

I’ve not read these books, but I did see the movies made from the first two titles, and I thought they were pretty good. My husband recently read Kill Alex Cross and LOVED it. My husband doesn’t read for fun very often, so for him to say he LOVED a book, well, that’s saying something. Even as an adult he’s a reluctant reader, so this is a BIG DEAL!!

Oh my, how I’ve digressed. Thanks for sticking with me. The book I’m talking about is Witch and Wizard. While I’m not  wild about the inside of the book, I think the cover art is AMAZING!

EVERYTHING. CHANGES. NOW.

You are holding an urgent and vital narrative that reveals the forbidden truth about our perilous times….

This is the astonishing testimonial of Wisty and Whit Allgood, a sister and brother who were torn from their family in the middle of the night, slammed into prison, and accused of being a witch and a wizard. Thousands of young people have been kidnapped; some have been accused; many others remain missing. Their fate is unknown, and the worst is feared—for the ruling regime will stop at nothing to suppress life and liberty, music and books, art and magic…and the pursuit of being a normal teenager

http://www.jamespatterson.com/books_witchAndWizard.php

When I first read the synopsis for this book, I thought it sounded pretty good. I like a good dystopian novel and thought this one had great potential based on this synopis and the reputation of James Patterson. I was disappointed.

I think for a middle school student who hasn’t quite figured out what really good writing looks like, this would be a good little book to read. Don’t get me wrong, the book was okay, and I would recommend it to my middle school students. I’ll probably even read the other books in the series (maybe) so I can answer questions or talk about these books with students who show any interest.

BUT, it seems to me that Patterson has chosen to stick his fingers in the YA pot without having fully developed his YA chops. As a writer of YA fiction, and as an adult who really enjoys reading a well written YA book, this is both disappointing and, well, not acceptable for a writer of Patterson’s caliber. I don’t think he realizes that teens expect to read well written books and can spot a stinker when they see one. I think Patterson has severely underestimated his audience here and should maybe stick to writing for adults. Or, if he is going to continue writing for a young adult audience, he may want to do  some research and read some of the outstanding YA lit that is currently already out there. (Hint, hint)

To be fair, the book is co-authored by Gabrielle Charbonnet (who writes for younger readers), so Patterson only bears part of the responsibility here.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the book: while the plot was fast paced, it was only because the chapters are short and Patterson used that neat little trick of ending a short chapter in the middle of the action, creating mini-cliffhangers. I don’t really like this trick, as it tries to hide mediocre writing. I also found the book to be full of cliches and cookie-cutter characters who weren’t very well developed and who were just too predictable. I really hope the subsequent books improve.

A Little YA Love

I have finished reading some really good young adult books in the last several weeks, so today I’m gonna show those books, and their authors, a little love.

Second Hand Heart         Deadline

The Book Thief   Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories

I most recently finished Chris Crutcher’s Deadline,  so we’ll start there. I was introduced to Chris Crutcher this summer by my professor-turned-friend Dr. Katie Mason during an adolescent lit class I took with her at Wichita State University.

Deadline is about Ben Wolf, an 18 year old high school senior who finds out he has a terminal blood disease and he will be lucky to survive long enough to graduate. Ben decides not only to forgo treatment, but also not to tell anyone he is dying in hopes of living the rest of his life “normally.”  What he doesn’t realize is this decision will cut him off from vital support down the road and leave the one person he doesn’t want to hurt feeling betrayed and alone.  While this book is about a young man facing death, it is also about life and the relationships we all need to help us navigate life and everything in between.

Next up is Second Hand Heart by Catherine Ryan Hyde, who is also the author of the fabulous Pay it Forward (yes, the movie was based on this book).  Now it’s possible that Catherine might not classify this novel as young adult, but it meets the general criteria for YA, so for me, it’s YA. This book came out in the UK before it hit the US this summer. I am lucky enough to have a online friendship with Catherine and she gave me an ebook version to read and review.

I was initially intrigued by the title and was wondering how this heart would be “second hand.”  It turns out 19 year old female protagonist, Vida, needs a heart transplant and is lucky enough to get one in the opening chapter. But the “new” heart comes with feelings and memories that are not Vida’s, prompting her to embark on a journey that is driven by these memories.  One thing I really liked about this book is the narrative is shared by Vida and Richard, who is the husband of the woman whose heart now beats within Vida’s chest. This shared narrative lets the reader explore both sides of the gift of life that is organ donation.

The third book on the list is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This book is set in Nazi Germany during Hitler’s reign.  I first learned of this book this summer when I read a list of 20 “Must Read” YA titles. I was immediately intrigued by the synopsis and quickly got my hands on a copy. I wasn’t actually able to give it my full attention until a few of weeks ago, but there is no doubt in my mind that this book belongs on a list of 20 “Must Read” YA titles. I have read a lot of books over the years that have impacted me in significant ways and left me in awe of the amazing talent of their authors. The Book Thief is one of the most amazing books I have read. The writing style, while unique, is outstanding, and Zusak’s use of figurative language is stunning. I can easily see this book as a staple in High School English classes, replacing outdated canonical works. I look forward to reading more from this author, and I will be reading I Am the Messenger in the future.

Last but not least, we have Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones. This book is a must read for teachers, parents, teens, and anyone else who wants to put an end to bullying. I heard about this book through a couple of Facebook connections, and I immediately knew I had to get my hands on this book as soon as it came out. I am VERY glad that I did.

As a middle school teacher, I see behavior that is clearly bullying, but most of what I see is “friendly fire” between students. It is sometimes difficult to see the line between playful banter among friends and hurtful remarks that really sting. And, sadly, many students will not say anything to anyone about these remarks and will instead hold their hurt inside.  This book helps us see some of those blurred lines more clearly. This book shows bullying in its various stages and in its various disguises. I have shared many of the stories in this book with my students as a read aloud, and it has sparked some good conversation.

I think it has been helpful for them to see themselves in these stories, because sometimes they’re the victim, sometimes they’re the bystander, and sometimes they’re the perpetrator.  Bullying has gotten so out of control, and unfortunately, is deeply ingrained into the culture of our schools. It’s time we stand up and speak up to end bullying, and this book is a good place to start

Other good reads by these featured authors:

Whale Talk and The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher

Jumpstart the World and Becoming Chloe by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Sisters of Misery by Megan Kelley Hall

The Need series by Carrie Jones

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