owl enthusiast, avid outdoors-person, and a writer of middle grade wilderness adventure stories, I jumped at the opportunity for an Advance
Reading Copy of Melissa Hart’s new book, Avenging the Owl.
published multiple articles and essays and two nonfiction books:
old Solo Hahn boasts a big-screen TV, a room full of surfing trophies, and a
beach house in Southern California. Then his father, worn down by a Hollywood
career, attempts suicide, and his mother moves the family to a trailer in
Oregon where a Great-horned owl attacks the only thing that matters to him.
When Solo tries to shoot the bird and injures a neighbor boy with Down syndrome,
he’s forced to do community service at a raptor rescue center with his
newly-sworn enemies . . . owls.
Without giving anything away, i.e. no spoilers, I enjoyed the complex
relationships Solo has with his parents, his neighbors, and the people he works
with at the raptor rescue center. When you combine this character-driven story
with a setting that shines, you get a page-turning tale.
One aspect of the main
character, Solo, that I loved was that he is a budding screen-writer and would
use his scene-writing to process things going on around him. The scene-writing
in script form also provided variety in the narrative and kept the story moving
forward at the same time.
As a mother, nothing comes close to my primitive urge as a
mom to protect my child. So, I thought it ironic to visit a playground in North
Carolina with a warning sign of alligators nearby.
This sign hit me with the realization that while we can
provide our children with the resources to defend themselves and make good
choices, ultimately we have to let them go out there to frolic amongst the good
guys and the gators. This includes opening their eyes through media and books
to not-so-nice things that go on in the world.
Especially books. They can open up our child’s eyes to events
in history, just and unjust. Books have opened up many dialogues with my son about
slavery, civil rights, oppressive religions, women earning the right to vote,
the Holocaust, bullying, and terrorism.
When my son was six we got a wonderful book called The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by
Mordicai Gerstein (since made into a movie). In 1974, French aerialist
Philippe Petit threw a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade
Center and spent an hour walking, dancing, and performing high-wire tricks a
quarter mile in the sky. This book paved the way for us to talk in depth about
the twin towers and terrorism. My son said at the time he hoped that bad man
would be caught and the towers would be rebuilt.
One out of two so far. I was able to report to my son not
long after that the bad man had been caught and killed. My son wanted to know
how he was found and killed, what happened to his children, his wives, and if
his being caught meant this kind of thing would never happen again. I wish.
But, I hope in having these discussions (as I hope parents are having everywhere)
that we are changing the world for the better – one discussion at a time.
As my son got older, middle grade books opened up discussion
for us. Here are some of them:
Wonder by R.J.
Palacio: about being a disfigured kid in a “normal” world. Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper: what it could be like to have a voice but not
be able to communicate. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice
Burroughs: the difficult decision of choosing where you belong. Rules by Cynthia Lord:on autism and asking “what is normal?” Holes by Louis Sachar: about
friendship and believing in yourself. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen: being
separated from your family and having to survive in a strange place. Hoot by Carl Hiaasen: on endangered
animals and ecology. Duck by Richard S. Ziegler: about standing
up for yourself when the one person who protects you is gone. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: fearing middle
school and then finding out how cool it really is.
Books. They open us up to new worlds and help us as parents
relate the good and bad of the world to our children. They reveal the beauty
and the darkness that co-exist in our world - and within us. They inspire feelings of sadness,
joy, compassion, or outrage.
Books. They open up conversations with my son about life and
death and right and wrong. I watch him as he struggles with these issues and
tries to figure out his place in the world.
And while I empower my son with information and send him out
there to navigate the battle field of life with as much armor as possible, I
hope the good guys outnumber the gators. I hope he witnesses more glory than
gore. And even if the gators in disguise try and get him, I hope it's “just a
Are there books you've read with your children that opened up discussions about the world around them?
The middle-grade years are a braid of contrasts: burgeoning independence and
adventure combined with the complications of friendships, family troubles, and a
growing shadowy awareness of “out there.”
A character in the middle-grade novel THE APPLE TART OF HOPE by Sarah Moore
Fitzgerald (Holiday House) expresses this contrast beautifully:
"There's this one moment as you're growing up when the world
suddenly feels more or less pointless--when the terrible reality lands on you,
like something falling from the sky...And when that happens, there's no going
back to the time when it hadn't landed on you."
Set in Ireland, THE APPLE TART OF HOPE is told in alternating voices of
main characters and best friends Oscar and Meg (both age 14); it is a story of
a missing boy, and so much more. But don’t let me mislead you into thinking this
is a dark, dreary story; it is leavened with humor, magic, and tenderness. Oscar,
who loves making the world’s most perfect apple tarts for anyone in crisis,
goes missing—and is presumed dead. Meg refuses to believe it, and she teams up
with Oscar’s brother to get to the truth. In reality, Oscar has gone into
hiding. He’s bereft and hopeless due to a toxic mix of bullying, family trouble
and feeling forsaken by Meg. A perceptive fellow, Oscar articulates these
contradictions in this passage:
“As the days passed, I learned that there’s not much difference between
pretending to be dead and really being dead. As far as I can see, both seem to
amount to the same thing.
I learned that if someone you know disappears you shouldn’t
automatically jump to conclusions. You should ask questions, and look, and
search until you know for sure…Keep hope in your heart.”
Elements of dark and light are perfectly balanced in THE APPLE TART
OF HOPE, which makes it a potent yet perfect choice for middle-grade readers.
As I read it, I heard echoes of Maurice Sendak and his 1964 Caldecott speech
(meaningful for middle grade writers!):
“…from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with
disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their
everyday lives, that they can continually cope with frustration as best they
can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best
means they have for taming Wild Things.”
Despite his fears and shadows, Oscar is a kind-hearted sensitive soul
whose apple tarts have an almost magical effect on others, an effect in which
he has ultimate faith:
“It’s not an ordinary apple tart. It’s magic. It’s the apple tart of
hope. After you’ve taken a bite, the whole world will look almost completely
different. Things will start to change and by the time you’ve had a whole slice
you’ll realize that everything is going to be o.k.”
There are so many things I love about this novel. Its depiction of contemporary
Ireland, small town life, and engaging dialog is balm to the soul of anyone
who is weary of a recent media overloads of green beer and leprechauns.
Fitzgerald expertly balances dark and light—feelings of hopelessness are not skimmed
over, but hope and the importance of friendship prevails. The skillfulness of
the dual points of view highlights the missed signals and misunderstood
motivations that are characteristic of so many middle grade friendships. And
Fitzgerald’s language, her way with words? Beautiful, lyrical, fresh—but in a manner
that serves and does not distract from the rich story.
In an interview in the Irish Times, Fitzgerald stated, “Most of all
though, The Apple Tart of Hope is a love story and in it, I’ve tried to
show how love can weather all manner of storms and struggles, and how kindness
can make us strong and resilient in this unpredictable world.”
Reading this novel left me feeling as secure and grounded as when I am
sitting in the kitchen of my family in County Cork, Ireland, polishing off a
slice of apple tart (a less-overstuffed version of American apple pie, with
components of crust and filling in perfect balance). It fed me, it satisfied my
soul, and it left me with more than a crumb of hope.
bonus interview questions with author Sarah Moore Fitzgerald:
Sarah, how did you deliver such a balance of dark
and light in THE APPLE TART OF HOPE? There's no denying the weightiness of
these realizations that middle-grade characters (and kids) are wrestling with,
yet the book delivers such a message of hope. How did you approach braiding
this dark and light together so well?
I know that the books I loved as a young adult
were those that didn't try to sugar coat the challenges of life and the
difficult, dark times that every human being has to face, -- but you're so
right, you can't survive if you only see the darkness, if you cannot laugh and
love and if you don't have hope in your heart. And I guess it is those
reflections that made me want to strike the right balance in THE APPLE TART OF
HOPE. I'm so glad to see that readers have picked up on that.
And second, how have your young readers responded
to this balance of dark and light?
I have had such lovely reactions
from readers since the book was published, and almost all of those reactions
talk about some personal experiences with grief or bullying or both. Some
of my readers wish that Paloma (the novel's villain) had experienced more
retribution at the end, or at least got her comeuppance - but others recognise
that she has her own story of sadness and loss too, which might explain some of
I had the good fortune to attend the SCBWI Conference in New York City last month. This list is a quickie, shorthand review of my favorite moments.
1. Gary Schmidt's Keynote – He speaks like he writes. Heartfelt, honest, and spare with emotional truths that strike like a punch in the gut. I wish you could've heard it too. It was kind of life-changing. For the next best thing, check out his appearance on the Yarn podcast.
2. Connecting In Person – Conferences are where the internet comes alive. All of those little avatars you chat with on Facebook and Twitter have actual human beings behind them. It's true! And you can meet them in real life! Amazing.
3. Cheryl Klein's Revision Session – If you've read Second Sight or listen to the Narrative Breakdown podcast, you know of Cheryl's insightfulness. This workshop was exactly what I needed as I was in the middle of revisions on my novel (and maybe, just maybe stumbling through said revisions like a bear drunk on fermented berries). She offered a concrete approach toward revision that I will carry with me forever. Her new book, The Magic Words comes out in September. Read it and become a better writer.
4. Funky Downtown Dining – The food was cheap and delicious. And then there was this.
5. DIY Writing Intensive – Friday was the intensive day at the conference, and there were many outstanding workshops to be had. Was I registered for any of them? No. Instead, I met classmate Bonnie Pipkin at Grounded for a self-made writing intensive (1.3K words, thank you very much) followed by drinks at the White Horse Tavern to soak up the literary mojo. And book deal celebration. Hers, not mine.
Not the Whitehorse Tavern, but this a better photo than the one I took of my meal there.
6. VCFA Reunions – Vermont College of Fine Arts has a vibrant community of writers *cough* cult-like *cough* who love to get together at conferences, book launches, and the occasional bar fight (just kidding, Tom Greene). Ann Cardinal, Chief Herder of Cats, knows how to bring us together for casual chat, industry talk, and craft discussions. She's basically a floating cocktail party wearing an "Ask Me About VCFA" pin. Even when there aren't any cocktails to be had.
7. Double Rainbow – Not one, but two interview sessions with Rainbow Rowell! You guys, at one point I was close enough that I could have touched her hair! (To be clear, I didn't because that would be creepy and wrong.) These were both excellent Q&A sessions. Rainbow comes across like you think she would if you've read her books: intelligent, funny, charming, and slyly subversive. If you haven't read her work, do yourself a favor and rectify that mistake. Read her for the dialogue, the graceful character descriptions, and read her for the stories themselves. Not quite like being there in person, but this interview on the aforementioned Narrative Breakdown is worth a listen.
8. Mentoring/Being Mentored – Conferences give you ample opportunities for one of my core beliefs: wherever you are in your publishing journey, you can help someone else with theirs. There will always be someone ahead of you (however you define that), and there will always be people working through things you have experienced. Reach out. Lift up. Repeat.
My thanks to Carrie Firestone for doing her part to lift me up. We share an agent, and Carrie took me under her wing to talk through some of the expectations invloved with the whirlwind-publishing-machine. Her book, The Loose Ends List, drops on June 7th. Look for it; it sounds great.
9. The Publisher's Panel – We often hear that houses have a voice, and this panel did a nice job of embodying that idea. It was fascinating to listen to the publishers talk about the strengths and motivations of their lists. There were two takeaways of note for me. One, the children's arms of the large publishing houses are now given a lot more respect as the financial models point to stability within our market. That opens a lot of opportunities, and clears some of the clouds away from the doom-and-gloom prognostications we hear so often.
The second, a point made by moderator Ruben Pfeffer was a huge relief to my anxious artist brain. He assured us that if a manuscript makes it to an acquisition meeting but gets turned down, it's not because the writing was flawed, it's because the business case for that particular book couldn't be made at the time.
Why is this relief? Well, I can't control business decisions, but I can control the quality of my writing, so this lets me off the hook as an artist. Right? Now, I'm far from an acquisition meeting, but I have my hopes, and I know from my colleagues experiences that not every book gets picked up even when it makes it that far. I'm sure if/when that day comes it will hurt like hell, but at least now I know it won't be because I'm a bad writer. I'm just bad business!
10. Autographs – Maybe I'm a fanboy at heart, but I love the autograph sessions. Sure, the lines are long, but the conversations in those lines can be fun. And you get to have your favorite authors sign books to YOU. Or someone you love. Or maybe a frenemy. You do you. All I know is that I am super excited to have autograph copies of The Game of Love and Death, Last Stop on Market Place, and Whatever-Book-I-Bought-So-William-Joyce-Could-Sign-It-Alas-I-Had-To-Leave-But-Linda-Camacho-Is-Holding-It-For-Me-Right-Linda?
As today we think everything
should be green as the grass is green. Why? And for whom? For none other than
St Patrick. Many green-wearing fans think of him as the little buckle-shoed
ginger leprechaun with pointy ears and a twinkle in his eye. Sorry folks. That’s
not the story.
When we were young,
my husband and I were in a band that toured and made albums and did it all with
a baby in tow (he took two years off grad school!) One of our songs was
inspired by a comment by a friend in the music business. He said, ‘This song
reminds me of St Paddy’s Snake Bite Remedy’ and, thus, it was dubbed.
What feels like a
hundred years later, I look back and wonder why I never investigated the story.
Me? A lover of stories? A teller of stories? And, so, I shall do so today.
St Paddy was not
Irish and, in fact, wasn’t even Christian. He never planned to go to Ireland. He
was a wealthy young boy in Britain and was kidnapped. St Paddy’s move from the
lap of luxury to tending sheep on a rainy Irish hillside was not by choice. But,
as he sat shivering while tending his flock, he had a conversion. He heard a
voice that told him what must happen. He returned to Britain, became a priest,
then went back to Ireland where he lived out his days trying to bring
Christianity to the natives. But what about snakes?
Well, the story
goes that St. Paddy snake bite remedy was to banish snakes from the island.
And, as it stands, there are no snakes in Ireland. Were there ever snakes in
Ireland, you ask? Why do you want to trample upon a fabulous tale that has
survived the centuries?
We are spinners of
stories ourselves, are we not? And we all love a good yarn. Let’s enjoy the
magic brought to us on this day. We celebrate in big or small ways- a green
scarf or green socks, or bright green-died hair, pick your pleasure- let’s send
a cheer to Ireland as we remember the passing of Irish patron and give a nod to
St. Paddy’s snake bite remedy.