Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Makes Middle Grade?

Some time ago, I participated in a writing exercise. Now, I’m not too fond of writing exercises in general—I write much better by instinct, not on command—but this one was actually pretty easy and very interesting to boot. To help me better understand the genre, I was suppose to describe what I thought defined middle grade. Now we all know the technical definition of middle grade—stories for 8- to 12-year-old readers (or 9- to 12-year-old readers, or 9- to 13-year-old readers, depending on who you ask)—but this exercise went a little deeper than that. What qualities and characteristics, we were asked, make up this fun and fantastic genre? This turned out to be a very useful exercise—I still take my list into consideration when I need a reminder about exactly who my audience is and what I think they’re looking for in a middle-grade read. Obviously, this is very subjective, but here’s what I came up with:

1) Age of the protagonist – young readers like characters they can relate to, that they can perhaps see something of themselves in. For this reason, I think it’s most effective for kid lit novels to have a protagonist close in age to the target audience of the book, give or take a few years. Diary of a Wimpy Retired Accountant just wouldn’t have the same appeal as Diary of a Wimpy Kid (not to a middle-grade audience, anyway). Some kid books work with an adult main character (anybody else love Amelia Bedelia as a child?) but I think keeping your protagonist about the age of your target audience is generally a good rule of thumb.

2) External versus internal – my personal opinion is that most middle-grade books, unless you’re going for something very deep or literary, should probably focus more on external action and events than the internal thoughts/conflicts of the characters. Not that thoughts and conflicts are bad—they’re not, and they should be there—but personally I think most middle-grade readers will find the external more interesting and entertaining. (And again, it all depends what you’re going for. A more serious, emotional novel might have more of an internal focus, obviously.)

3) Pace – again, it’s my personal opinion that middle-grade novels should move a little faster than your average adult or YA. Remember, you’re dealing with an audience that may not have the same attention span as older individuals, and you might be dealing with some reluctant readers who aren’t particularly invested in your book, so you might lose them if things move too slowly.

4) Familiar, relatable situations – moving to a new town, wanting to fit in, dealing with pesky siblings. Middle-graders like to see themselves in books they read, to see characters dealing with the same challenges and struggles they often face in their own lives. This is true even for books that don’t have a real-world setting. My novel, Ivy’s Ever After, is about a princess locked in a tower guarded by a dragon; the prince who slays the dragon will win her hand in marriage. She hates the prince, she doesn’t want to be there, and she actually spends most of the novel trying to figure a way out of this terrible situation that her father, his court, and centuries of royal tradition decree must be. Can most middle-graders relate to being locked in a tower guarded by a dragon? Probably not. But can they empathize with the powerlessness of being young, of being at the mercy of the adult authority figures in their lives, even if it means being forced to do something they’d rather not or something that they actually think is unfair? You bet’cha.

5) Appropriate reading level – okay, this one is pretty self-explanatory. You’re writing for middle grade. Leave the SAT vocab words at home.

Any other thoughts? What do you think makes middle grade?

-Dawn Lairamore

Friday, September 24, 2010

Writing Like an Actor

I once saw an interview with Ian Holm (think Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring) where he described this approach to his film roles: for each take of a scene, he would adopt a fresh angle.

The lines were the same.

The setting was the same.

But he always tweaked his delivery, just to see how it could be different. The end result was that he thoroughly explored his character and gave the director a whole slew of different options for the final film.

Are you stuck on a scene? Do your characters feel wooden? Or maybe something’s just not right, but you can’t put your finger on it.

Try writing from a fresh angle. Play around with your characters. Give them a stance, a voice, or a motivation you haven’t seen before. Make adjustments to the setting. What would change if the scene took place in the middle of the night? During a busy workday? First thing in the morning?

Or pick a side character – maybe someone who merely passes through a scene – and explore her backstory. Tweak her delivery, just to see how it could be different. You may be surprised by the end result.

Some writing friends I know have done this as a group. Everyone hands off a chunk of a current work in progress to someone else in the group. Then they each write the next scene of their partner’s work. It’s a challenging exercise for a writer.

On the one hand, you must try to enter into another author’s world and continue the story. Writing in an unfamiliar voice, exploring a different genre, tackling the type of writing you might never do on your own – all of this is great practice.

And, on the receiving end, you get fresh insight into your own work. Perhaps your partner will take the story in an unpredictable and interesting direction. Perhaps these new ideas will reveal the weak spots in your plot or setting. If nothing else, the combined effort should get your creative juices flowing.

As writers, we can often be so motivated to print off that fat draft of our manuscript that we focus primarily on productivity. Of course, this is important, or we’d be stuck in endless cycles of revisions.

But sometimes it’s worth it to playfully rewrite our work in progress, even if it doesn’t seem very productive at the time. What are some things you do to bring new energy to a project? What has (or hasn't!) worked for you?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Every picture sells a story

"Reading Helps Me Figure Stuff Out: Part Two, How I Feel About Book Covers."

Many a great chef has stressed the importance of presentation on the basis that diners "eat with their eyes."

The great Irish middle grade writer Oscar Wilde once said, "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances."

I don't eat books (although I sometimes read them voraciously), but I can say I have an appetite for them, and, more often than not, it is the picture on the front that makes me want to pick one up in the bookstore or library.

Yes, I admit it. I do judge a book by its cover (among other things). And I side with Mr. Wilde, as he seems to think that makes me deep, not shallow!

A book cover I like makes me excited inside. (Outwardly, of course, I remain cool, calm, and collected at the bookstore/library.) Why? Because it hints at great things to come in the story on the inside. Whether it's shivers or laughs to be found on the pages, a successful cover will whet the appetite for them.

Here is one of my favorite covers, designed by artist Edward Gorey for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.

Headstrong Bonnie Willoughby and her delicate cousin Sylvia must ward off the winter chill, evil Miss Slighcarp, and a menacing pack of savage wolves in this ripping yarn. Edward Gorey sets the stage for thrills.

Here's another fave of mine: artist Kevin Hawkes's cover for The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron.

Best friends Chuck and David are on their way to the mysterious planet Basidium in their homemade rocket ship (built at the request of the even more mysterious Mr. Bass). Kevin Hawkes makes it clear that amazing adventures are in store for them!

Here's artist Jon Klassen's cover for The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood.

With this illustration, the artist has convinced me that I want nothing more than to read a humorously sinister story about a 19th Century governess and her mysterious charges, who dangle from tree limbs when they're not sitting on their haunches.

These are all middle grade books (my favorite genre), and this is one thing they all have in common: the artist who designed the cover has pictured the characters in a way that is NOT realistic.

Here's how I feel about book covers: I DO NOT like realistic depictions of characters. For me, a cartoony picture of a person can bring to mind many different people; a realistic illustration (or photograph) brings to mind only that one person.

Look at the cover of a book that, for me, is hallowed ground: Harriet the Spy, written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh:

In the cartoony way that Harriet is depicted here, I'm able to see traces of a bunch of different headstrong, independent kids I've known. I can spot her all over the place, not just in the book. She's bursting with personality!

Here is an alternate cover:

This illustration is so specific about a certain girl that I am unable to picture anyone other than her. Same with this one:

The audio version of the book is even worse (for me).

I didn't even try to find out who designed these covers because I can't stand picturing Harriet so exactly. I find it limits my imagination, and I don't like that. (Never mind that the girl pictured here is so different from Louise Fitzhugh's vision. Refer to the picture of Harriet at the top of this post. The author knew her character inside and out.)

Here's a book I picked up today:

My love for what I have already read from E. L. Konigsburg is what attracted me here. It is going to take some effort for me to ignore the photo of the kid on the cover. I know when I start reading this book I will not want to picture THIS kid as THE kid. How I wish the cover had featured a nice illustration instead! Oh, well. That's what I get for being so picky and such a grump. :)

Clearly, there are readers who prefer photographs to illustrations on book covers, or have no preference either way. I'm interested in everyone's point of view on the subject. What do you think? Can you help me see the brighter side of book-jacket realism?

Given my ways, I consider myself fortunate that the cover chosen by Bloomsbury Children's Books for my book was an illustration, not a photograph. (Needless to say, if it had been a photograph instead, I would have been thrilled no matter what. Publication has a distorting effect on stuff like that!) The illustrator is Victor Rivas, and I'm utterly thrilled with it.

It's pretty clear from this picture why the boy has howled, and in what way. And I've seen that mischievous grin on a thousand different kids!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Star Wars Lesson - Adding Humor When Writing Life or Death Stories

Just a reminder-right after this post is one announcing the winner of IVY'S EVER AFTER, Dawn Lairamore's fantasy adventure.

I’m a huge movie fan, and movies both influence and inspire my writing. Since I’m writing adventure stories where bad things happen, people and animals get hurt, and not everyone may make it out alive, I needed to find a way to keep readers from getting so depressed, they put the book down. I don’t like depressing books myself, and I’m sure most middle grade readers don’t either.
One of my main inspirations for WILDFIRE RUN are the original three Star Wars movies. I've watched them many times (what can I say, I’ve always been a geek), and I’ve tried to figure out all the reasons they worked so well. To me, one of the reasons comes from the bits of humor thrown in. The movies are just basically fun to watch. I saw another sci fi movie recently, called SERENITY, and while interesting, it was almost unrelentingly grim. I enjoyed, but I’m not going to watch it again.

The humor in STAR WARS comes partly from the secondary characters and partly from the dialogue of some of the main characters. The droid, C3PO, with his absurd British butler aspects instantly adds fun, but since it’s difficult to work an over-the-top sidekick character into most stories, I looked at other aspects.
One of those is not making the characters perfect heroes. I’ve heard the original draft of the Star Wars screenplay had the Han Solo character as a very serious, humorless man. I can’t even imagine that. Here’s just one example of how a touch of light-heartedness makes a scene memorable, and gets the viewer to root for the characters.
The scene is where Luke and Han Solo are trying to rescue Princess Leia on the Death Star. They’re in the control room. Han’s confusion over what to do adds some humor as he talks on the intercom trying to pretend he is an officer.
HAN(sounding official): Everything is under control. Situation normal.

INTERCOM VOICE: What happened?
HAN (getting nervous):Uh... had a slight weapons malfunction. But, uh, everything's perfectly all right now. We're fine. We're all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?
INTERCOM VOICE: We're sending a squad up.
HAN: Uh, uh, negative. We had a reactor leak here now. Give us a few minutes to lock it down. Large leak... very dangerous.

INTERCOM VOICE: Who is this? What's your operating number?

Han blasts the comlink and it explodes.

That scene could have been written to showcase the heroes, with Han been in complete control and able to sound like a perfect military man. It is a life or death situation, so it would make sense to write it that way, but if it had been, it probably wouldn’t be something that remained in anyone’s memory. The little addition of, “We're fine. We're all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?” is funny and makes the scene.

So adding in bits of lighter dialogue will keep a story something a reader may want to go back to or recommend to their friends. Adding in too much will dilute the tension and make the characters too unbelievable, but a little goes a long way. In WILDFIRE RUN I tried to incorporate some humor in a serious adventure. For example, there’s one scene where Luke, the President’s son, is trying to figure out how to capture a snake that’s blocking a door they need to open. He’s got a LEGO MIndstorms robot he’s planning to use. Callie, his always practical friend, is fed up with some of his crazier ideas. So instead of them just having a serious discussion of whether or not the plan will work, here’s how the dialogue goes:

Luke put the robot down about five feet from the snake. “Everyone back up in case the snake gets mad.”
“You can bet he’s going to get mad. If you had a plastic pincher toy making beeping noises and coming at you, you’d be mad too,” Callie said.

It’s just a very small addition to the story, but to me it lightens it up enough to keep the scene fun.

In honor of Star Wars, I’m giving away a choice of either the Yoda at the top of the post, or this odd R2D2 pepper grinder. You know you’ve always wanted one of these. All you have to do is leave a comment by September 21st. I’d love to hear about movies you all enjoy.
And because I love my book trailer, my own version of a mini-movie, I’m including it again.

Who Won the Signed Copy of Ivy's Ever After?? Drum roll, please!

korgott you are the lucky winner!!!! Please email us here, providing your name and address, so you can claim your signed copy of Dawn's IVY'S EVER AFTER!!! w00t!!!!

Korgott gets to take me home!!! Hooray!! ;)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Finding Your Niche

I used to think it was as easy as making the decision to write YA or MG. Maybe that’s why it took me six years until I landed an agent.

I used to read a book and love it so much, I would think, “that’s how I want to write. I want to write a heartbreaking tale that sucks readers in too.” I never wrote more than a few pages. The same thing happened when I tried to write a mystery, and so on. There were so many fabulous books out there and I wanted more than anything to write a fabulous book too.

I happily found (and embraced) my
niche & it will be released on 01-11-11.
 For some reason, every story I wrote turned out…funny. You know how they say write what you know? I took some pretty horrible situations from my life when I was a teen and based a story loosely on that. I thought for sure I would have a suspenseful, dramatic tale. And I was probably made to write YA, not MG afterall. After the first chapter I realized I did the one thing I didn’t want to do. I twisted the terrible situations into humourous, light hearted ones that the character learned from instead. No, it was all wrong. The character should be suffering, not laughing! Why were my fingers typing the opposite of what I was thinking?

More importantly, why was I fighting it?

I was pushing back the real voice that wanted to come out the entire time. And the voice was always younger than actual age I gave the character. It was as if I had my mind made up on who the character would be, not who the character should be. I did this many times, hardly noticing. Little by little, I let that side come out. Was it really funny or was it trying to destroy my good ideas? Was this the reason agents were signing me?

Then last year I had a great idea for story. I was more than excited about the concept. I was ecstatic! I had never in my life been so thrilled and I immediately began writing (by hand) and drawing little cartoons to go with it. Sure, I liked to draw when I was kid, but that was the extent of it. I finished the book in two weeks. I laughed the entire time writing it. It was so funny, to me anyways. But I couldn’t help wondering in the back of my mind, is it really funny or am I the only one who thinks so?

I immediately nabbed an agent with the first query, Rosemary Stimola, and about two months later Random House bought the book. And the best part, I’m an illustrator now too! I would’ve never in a million years have thought that door would’ve open for me as well. But here’s the thing. I love writing humor, I embrace it now. That’s what I do. But I love drawing illus with it. It makes the story much funnier. I’m working on a new project that has illus and it really adds to the humor. I found myself going backwards and saying, “but what if I can’t really write? What if I can only do MG books with text AND illus?”

Um, was J.K. Rowling complaining that she only wrote Harry Potter? Or Jeff Kinney complaining that he only Diary of Wimpy Kid, which BTW is only text and illus too?

It’s great to eventually branch out, push your boundries, and even writiing across genres at some point. But starting out, it’s best to find your footing, discover who you are and what your writing is. Find your niche and perfect it. Make it distinct and suitable to you. Whether it’s cutting-edge, warm and friendly, feminine, authoritive, or high-energy, find the best way to describe your writing style and own it.

To get info on more on Rose's upcoming books and to view her art and illustrations, visit her website at http://www.rose-cooper.com/.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Talking the Good Talk—My Tips on Dialogue

If you’re writing fiction, dialogue is most likely going to make up a good part of your book, so you want it to be topnotch. Dialogue is a major means by which any character’s voice is expressed, and dialogue was probably the most difficult challenge I faced as a new writer. My novel, Ivy’s Ever After, was my first serious attempt at writing fiction. My prior fiction history consisted of two short stories I eked out while taking a creative writing class in college (boy, did they stink!), and an abandoned attempt to write a children’s novel several years later (I made it as far as Chapter 4). I didn’t have much experience with dialogue, and it wasn’t really working out for me. I’d re-read chapters I’d spent hours writing, only to discover that all the characters sounded the same. Grrrrr—how boring! I wanted characters that came alive in the reader’s imagination, that jumped off the page, that exuded interesting and distinctive personalities. Don’t we all? And since this was something greatly on my mind while I was writing Ivy, I thought I’d use my Project Mayhem debut—and my very first blog post ever!!—to share some of the tips that helped me the most with dialogue.

I learn best through observation and examples, so I made a point of reading lots in the realm of middle-grade (which you should be doing anyway, duh). When I came across a book with particularly great dialogue, I’d read those sections over again. I’d try to pinpoint what about these characters’ voices made them so enticing, and how I could apply these methods to my own writing. I checked audio books out of the library and listened to them while I commuted to work, made long drives to visit friends out of town, and did boring stuff around the house like scrubbing the kitchen floor. There was something about hearing dialogue performed out loud that really helped the nuances sink in. (This is one of the reasons, by the way, that I always read everything I’ve written out loud. But I think it’s especially important for dialogue. You’ll be able to hear if it sounds unnatural or just doesn’t flow.) 

During this time, someone at a writing conference passed along her favorite tip for dialogue. You should, she told me, be able to take any line of dialogue out of context and be able to tell which character said it—their speech styles should be that distinctive. This was great advice, but not advice I agreed with in its entirety. I mean, come on, if your character says something like, “No,” or “I’d like a glass of water,” do you really need to go out of your way to make that super-duper distinctive (“Nay, forsooth, my friends,” “Gimme a glass of water or I’ll smash your face, punk.”)? I think if you get carried away with this, your dialogue can start sounding over-the-top, and you’ll just end up annoying your readers. But, in general, this has been a useful tip for me. I certainly think you should be able to identify large chucks of dialogue or any especially significant dialogue using this method. 

Most helpfully, I made a list of my major characters and what I thought their speech style should be like given their background and personality. Did they talk fast or slow? Were the thoughts expressed in a scattered or orderly fashion? Did they use a lot of expressions and if so, what kind? Did they have a speech impediment? Stutter or slur their words? 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ivy’s Ever After, it’s a fractured fairy tale about a princess and a dragon who team up against a (not-so-nice) handsome prince. (You can read Chapter 1 at my website, http://www.ivyseverafter.com/.) Here’s how I tried to distinguish the speech styles of several characters: 
  • Ivy, my princess, is far from a proper lady. She’s sassy, opinionated, bold—and her dialogue shows it. She doesn’t stand on formality, so she often uses colloquialisms or speaks in sentence fragments. She doesn’t hide emotion, as a proper princess would—when she gets angry or excited, the exclamation points start coming out! Sometimes she interrupts other characters if she doesn’t like what they have to say. (Oh, how I love this feisty princess—but no one said she had the best manners in the world.)
  • Elridge, my dragon, is not your typical dragon. He’s timid rather than ferocious. He stutters when he gets nervous. He uses the expression, “Dear me,” a lot, often uttered at faint-hearted moments, sort of the way Piglet was always muttering, “Oh d-d-dear,” in those Winnie the Pooh cartoons I loved when I was a kid.
  • Ivy’s father, the king, speaks formally, as you would expect of a royal monarch. He tends to use complete sentences and proper sentence structure, and his vocabulary is a little more sophisticated than that of the other characters.
  • Ivy’s fairy godmother, Drusilla, is overly excitable. She tends to get caught up in a single train of thought and ramble on and on. . . . Can you say run-on sentence?
  • The trolls in Ivy’s world live in large underground caverns. I wanted them to sound different than their human counterparts—they live a very different subterranean existence, after all—so I peppered their dialogue with a lot of rock- and cave-related insults and expressions: “Boulder-brain!” “Dripstone!” “Feldspar fungus!”
I hope some of these methods are as helpful to you as they were for me. And, even though Ivy’s Ever After was released back in May, other Project Mayhemers have been so great about giving away copies of their books that I’m not about to let them show me up! So, please follow and leave a comment to win a signed copy of Ivy’s Ever After. And thanks for stopping by :)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Bark," said the dog. Really?

"Don't sweat the small stuff" is great advice for life in general, but not so much for writers. When I'm reading in my favorite genre—middle grade—I pay attention to a lot of crazy little things. For my posts for Project MG Mayhem, I've decided to share some of the things I've figured out in my forays on the page. Most of it concerns small stuff that matters to me. I call it "Reading Helps Me Figure Stuff Out," and this is Part One, "How I Feel About Talking Animals."

Many of my favorite books feature talking animals. In C.S. Lewis's magical series, Narnia's talking beasts are considered akin to humankind, and it is sacrilege to eat them, though everyone gladly munches down on their non-speaking brethren in countless carnivorous feasts. Freddy the pig delights me to no end with his homespun banter in the books by Walter R. Brooks (the picture of Freddy above, by illustrator Kurt Wiese, is from Freddy's home pen...uh, page).

Freddy is a lazy pig at heart, and in Freddy and Simon the Dictator he wrote a bill to be brought up before the State Legislature, which would do away with all schools. But he's also a poet ("Hark/while I croon a verse/in praise/of the universe" is the start of an ode he composed in Freddy and the Spaceship), and so it is no surprise that he is able to speak his mind so well. He lives on Mr. Bean's farm, where all the animals talk up a storm except for the insects, yet Freddy still shows compassion for them (though, as in Narnia, the pesky impulse to devour the non-verbal is at play). When he was half-heartedly attempting a "grasshopper diet" in Freddy Rides Again (Freddy doesn't realize it's the exercise involved in trying to catch the grasshoppers that purportedly makes you thin), he says, "I did catch one. But when it came to eating him...well, you know he looked up at me with such a pathetic expression on his little face—well, I couldn't. Those big mournful eyes—"

This just melts my heart. It's so sweet! I love it whenever Freddy opens his yap.

So it's clear to me that, as a reader, I welcome animals with the gift of gab with open arms. Recently, however, I came across an example of animal "speech" that had me stumped. It came from author Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, and it went like this:

"Woof," he said sadly.

The animal "speaker" is Hound, the Penderwick's dog, and he is sad for reasons I will not get in to. But this was what confused me: did Hound say "Woof", or did he woof? Did he make a sound, or did he form a word? Could he say a sound? Can anyone?

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I yield to no one in my admiration for this book. Jeanne Birdsall writes like a dream, and the world she created is one I could happily live in forever. The Penderwick sisters are all super smart and quirky and fun, and their father talks in Latin, of all things, unlike anyone I've ever known. However, I am a relentless nitpicker about certain things and when Hound unexpectedly piped up in quotation marks on page 106, it made me pause and took me out of the story a bit. I couldn't help but wonder, why the quotation marks? Does a dog say "Bark", or does a dog bark? When a dog barks in quotation marks, is it saying something more than "bark"? If so, what? I'll never know if all I read is "Bark." I don't speak in dog, which makes me sad too. Hound, move over.

Would I have written the sentence "Hound woofed sadly" instead? I think so, if only to spare myself the mental agony of wondering how much exactly Hound had on his mind.

The pack of timber wolves that adopts Callum in the Wild in my book The Boy Who Howled are not talking animals. They do speak in quotation marks, but only in the sense that Callum imagines what they're saying, as determined by the way he interprets their body language. They speak because Callum gives them something to say.

"My poor little Pig Face," the wolf he calls Mom seems to say, nudging him gently with her freezing wet snout. "My poor little Salty Lollipop."

When Hound said "Woof" instead of woofed, it made me want to hear more from him, in English, not dog noises (or Latin!). And I think I felt that way entirely because of the author's use of quotation marks. Of course, Jeanne Birdsall is far too talented a writer not to convey the gist of Hound's meaning. I got what she intended him to say by the way he said it: sadly. He just meant "I am sad." But if Batty, the youngest Penderwick and Hound's closest ally, had interpreted for him a la Callum, I would have been grateful, because I'm sure she would have gotten more out of him. Hound's "Woof" was left to speak for itself, and so it said everything...and nothing...to me.

So here's how I feel about talking animals (finally!). If they're going to speak, having something to say is what I want and expect from them. In L. Frank Baum's Tik-Tok of Oz, it suddenly occurs to Dorothy that every animal is able to talk once it gets to Oz, but Toto hasn't said a single word so far, and it puzzles her. She thinks it's because he's a Kansas dog and not like fairy animals. The princess Ozma informs her that Toto is a wise little dog and while he knows everything that is said to him he prefers not to talk.

Perhaps the reason he doesn't pipe up is that he has nothing to say. If so, Toto proves once again that he is more than a wise little dog. Toto is godhead!

by Timothy Power. The Boy Who Howled, a Fall 2010 Junior Library Guild selection, will be released October 26, 2010 by Bloomsbury USA Children's Books.

Friday, September 3, 2010

When Good Books Go Very, VERY BAD!

You might think this post is about a story that suddenly takes a turn for the worst, morphing from something brilliant into a train wreck of clich├ęd storytelling. But no, given that Halloween (my favorite holiday) is next month, I thought it would be a treat to have an early talk about our favorite villains of all time!

I think I worked for her at some point...

I'm one of those people who always veers toward the scoundrels of my favorite stories, finding something redeeming about them OR something so deliciously horrible, I'm driven to cheer them on.

As a writer, villains are one of my favorite characters to create and when my editor told me I had a knack for the bad guys, I got goose bumps for weeks! Is there something wrong with me? Probably, but that's another post and lots of dollars towards therapy! In Nightshade City, Billycan is the wicked of wickedest rats, maybe that's why he's my favorite character to write about. He's cunning and duplicitous and looks as rotten on the outside, as he is on the inside! Tall and bony, with shifting red eyes and a thick black scar running across his muzzle! Oh, and he has a penchant for collecting tongues! Grrr! Okay, sorry, going way overboard--but I LOVE the bad guys! I'm sure many of you have a thing for them too.

Oh, but he looks so cuddly...
As rabid readers of middle-grade books, we all know villains can be rats or cats, witches or grinches and without a doubt--people! Who are your favorite villains in children's literature?

Here is my top five most villainous of villains in order of villainy!

5. Miss Trunchbull from Matilda

4. Goth from the Silverwing Series

3. Shere Khan from the The Jungle Book

2. The White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

1. The Grand High Witch from The Witches

What is in that there pot...errr...ladies?

Oh, and if we want to talk villains of the newer variety, as in newer books, I simply have to mention The Man Jack from The Graveyard Book, undeniably chilling!

So, who tops your list? Who sends shivers up and down your quivering spine?

By Hilary Wagner
Author of Nightshade City, in stores now & Kings of Trillium (Oct. 2011, Holiday House)