Friends, The Scop is about to get a LOT more busy in 2018! In the meantime, here's a video of me talking about an upcoming event I'm doing at the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival on March 4. If you've ever wanted to see my school visit presentation -- here's your chance. Bonus: I do a fancy yoyo trick at the end!
This month I was able to travel back to my Home and Native Land for an Alumni Awards Gala at my alma matter. It was an interesting chance to reflect back on who I was as a young student and how my life has changed since. My main takeaway from revisiting the campus was that the trees had all gotten a lot bigger! They also made this nifty little introductory video. If you've ever wanted to catch a glimpse of my workspace or home, this is your chance:
This weekend, we had an impromptu Last Unicorn party with my daughters and their similarly-unicorn-obsessed friend. We watched the movie, of course, but there was also dress-up and a tabletop RPG session, which I ran for them. My kids are 3 and 5 years old, and it can be challenging to teach certain board game mechanics to kids so young (especially when they can't yet read). Over the last year, I've come up with a few rules that have helped games with young players. We've been using the fantastic Mice and Mystics as our base game. I love it because it looks like Redwall and has pretty child-friendly theming: the scariest monsters they will encounter are giant spiders and centipedes.
Along the way, we've developed a few house rules that keep things moving for young kids. I thought they were worth passing along:
- Use a Dice Arena -- kids are sloppy with dice, and this keeps things from knocking over board pieces. We use shallow Tupperware container, nothing fancy.
- Kids Get Unlimited Movement -- Turns out it's hard to explain to a three year old that her character can't get far enough away from a Warrior Rat to stay alive. So now I let them move as far as they want. The monsters that I control have speed determined by dice.
- No Defense Rolls -- Defense rolls are sort of counterintuitive because they're passive -- all it does is augment the aggressor's damage. The game moves much faster if you just roll and apply damage without worrying about defense. (To simulate armor, just give more HP.)
- Re-Rolls and Healing -- In Mice & Mystics, each die has a piece of "cheese," which they can spend to use special powers. My kids can't read the special power cards, so I just made a rule that they can always spend cheese to re-roll. This helps the kid with bad rolls to not get too discouraged. I would also let them spend the cheese to heal damage, which was essential because rule #3 meant monsters deal a LOT of damage!
- Add Candy -- A recent change that was a BIG hit was to replace the little "cheese" tokens with mini-marshmallows, which they have to eat when they spend them. It actually created some serious "marshmallow test" drama wherein they had to decide between eating and saving this valuable resource.
- Stabilize Between Encounters -- After each skirmish, I make the kids explore the room and always ensure that they discover a cache of marshmallows to heal themselves. This was also a way to make sure the player who was a little more harassed or left out had a chance to have a big win: they were the one who managed to find the hidden stash.
- Keep it Short -- Tabletop RPGs often skew long, but I've found that a 30-40 minute session works best. Really, this is all about seeding a board game addiction, and the best way to do that is to leave them wanting more.
Hi all! Just wanted to put up a quick post to share that I recently wrote a book review for the New York Times! I was asked to review two British fantasy imports, The Song from Somewhere Else by AF Harrold and The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol. The two books were very different from one another, and it was a real challenge to find a way to tie them together with a single idea. Here's how I opened the piece:
The landscape of fantasy storytelling is changing rapidly. “World-building,” once the exclusive domain of fantasy novelists, is now a term more closely associated with movie and video game franchises. Special effects now rival anything we could imagine while reading on our own. And so perhaps fantasy literature will be forced to do what every medium must when challenged by something new: adapt. Just as the still camera set painting on a path toward abstraction, fantasy literature seems poised to move away from virtuosic world-building toward more interior and language-based storytelling — the sorts of things books do best.
To hear what I thought of the two books, I invite you to click the link to read the entire review. It was incredibly fun and far more challenging than I anticipated. I hope to do it again some time!
I had a young writer ask me for advice on how to weave exposition into her fantasy story. The "infodump" is a hurdle for every worldbuilding storyteller. Readers need to know certain things about the world, but they don't want to be bogged down with endless exposition. I figured my answer might be worth posting here ...
This month, a remarkable children's book was released into the world. I've been a fan or Laurel Snyder's writing for many years, but her latest book Orphan Island is on a different level. This is the sort of book that keeps other authors up at night. It's THAT GOOD.
A summary from Goodreads:
On the island, everything is perfect. The sun rises in a sky filled with dancing shapes; the wind, water, and trees shelter and protect those who live there; when the nine children go to sleep in their cabins, it is with full stomachs and joy in their hearts. And only one thing ever changes: on that day, each year, when a boat appears from the mist upon the ocean carrying one young child to join them—and taking the eldest one away, never to be seen again.
I was asked to provide a blurb for the back cover of the book. Here's what I said: "Orphan Island is a masterpiece—both timeless and immediate. Snyder’s book, like the island within it, contains all of the joys, wonders, and terrors of childhood. Every young reader needs this book; every grown reader needs it even more."
GO READ IT!
I get a fair number of letters from readers wanting to know when the next Peter Nimble adventure will be coming out. I don't have any immediate plans to write another Peter story, so in the meantime, here are some books I *strongly* recommend to people who liked Peter Nimble. All three of these titles are packed with adventure, danger, wordplay, and just the right amount of silliness. Check them out! MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT - by Caroline Carlson
From Goodreads: Pirates! Magic! Treasure! A gargoyle? Caroline Carlson's hilarious novel is perfect for fans of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events and Trenton Lee Stewart's Mysterious Benedict Society. Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors, and she already owns a rather pointy sword. There's only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable Leage of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags. But Hilary is not the kind of girl to take no for answer. To escape a life of petticoats and politeness at her stuffy finishing school, Hilary sets out in search of her own seaworthy adventure, where she gets swept up in a madcap quest involving a map without an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn't exist, a talking gargoyle, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas. Written with uproarious wit and an inviting storyteller tone, the first book in Caroline Carlson's quirky seafaring series is a piratical tale like no other
THE GOBLIN'S PUZZLE - by Andrew Chilton
Brimming with dragons, goblins, and logic puzzles, this middle-grade fantasy adventure is perfect for readers who enjoyed The Princess Bride or Rump.
THE BOY is a nameless slave on a mission to uncover his true destiny. THE GOBLIN holds all the answers, but he’s too tricky to be trusted. PLAIN ALICE is a bookish peasant girl carried off by a confused dragon. And PRINCESS ALICE is the lucky girl who wasn’t kidnapped.
All four are tangled up in a sinister plot to take over the kingdom, and together they must face kind monsters, a cruel magician, and dozens of deathly boring palace bureaucrats. They’re a ragtag bunch, but with strength, courage, and plenty of deductive reasoning, they just might outwit the villains and crack the goblin’s puzzle.
THE LUCK UGLIES - by Paul Durham
The Luck Uglies is the first in a tween fantasy-adventure trilogy brimming with legends come to life, a charming wit, and a fantastic cast of characters-and is imbued throughout with the magic of storytelling.
Strange things are happening in Village Drowning, and a terrifying encounter has Rye O'Chanter convinced that the monstrous, supposedly extinct Bog Noblins have returned. Now Rye's only hope is an exiled secret society so notorious its name can't be spoken aloud: the Luck Uglies. As Rye dives into Village Drowning's maze of secrets, rules, and lies, she'll discover the truth behind the village's legends of outlaws and beasts...and that it may take a villain to save them from the monsters.
The first in a series, The Luck Uglies is an altogether irresistible cross of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, Stefan Bachmann's The Peculiar, and Chris Healy's The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, overflowing with adventure, secrets, friendship, and magic.
This season has been one of re-reading books from my past. This was not deliberate; it just seemed that every time I reached for a new book, the closest at hand was one I had read before. I do not generally re-read books that often. Every five years or so, I find something that impresses me so much that I read it twice over. (Hokey Pokey would be the most recent example.) But beyond that, all my re-reading is the result of research or teaching. My typical attitude is breadth over depth. I tend to read one book from an author and then move on to the next thing.
However, this recent sprint of re-reads has forced me to reflect on what a pleasure it is to come back to a book after time off. To live inside a story more than is absolutely necessary. When I was younger, I re-read books all the time. At around 10 years old, I fell deeply in love with Through The Looking-Glass. (It actually began when I saw a staged musical version of the story.) I proceeded to read chapters from Looking-Glass every night before bed for the next 10 years. Now, when I look back that same book, I struggle to understand why it had so grabbed me. But I do feel a deep appreciation for the book and how it shaped my imagination.
When I think of re-reading, I am reminded of something Jacqueline Woodson once said in an NPR interview. Woodson was being asked to remark about the fact that her older sister was actually the serious reader in the family--and how strange it was that Woodson ended up being the one to devote her life to literature. I don't have the transcript, but I recall her saying something about the fact that even though she did not read many books growing up, when she did read, she went deep. That's something I can identify with. And it's something I had forgotten about as of late.
This week I found myself briefly stranded without a book, and so I to re-read Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath. The book was published in 2013 to largely negative reviews. Reviewers seemed to have tired of his charmingly counterintuitive self-help busines-speak. Many rightly criticized the book for feeling disjointed ... what begins as a motivational talk about entrepreneurs overcoming dyslexia soon migrates to much heavier topics, including child leukemia, civil rights, religious war in Northern Ireland, child abduction/murder, and even the Holocaust. The overall response from readers seemed to be that Gladwell was getting too lofty: better to stick with what you know. Reading the book in 2017, however, I had a different reaction: the weakness of David and Goliath isn't the heavy stuff, it's the fluff at the beginning. (I would include the title among the fluff.) In 2017, the second half of the book is chilling. Nearly every example has profound resonance with the current state of the world. And it seems to go a long way toward explaining why many of the conflicts we find ourselves in are simply unwinnable. It is also a more personal book; Gladwell experienced a sort of personal religious conversion while writing it. Reading it this week, I was struck by how much more human and vulnerable the stories were. The question that rang through the final chapters was, for me, clear: Would you be willing to suffer the way these people have suffered?
Unlike Gladwell's previous books, David and Goliath is unable to offer up a glib "takaway" that readers can apply at their next board meeting. I suspect a message as bleak as this had no real place in the (comparatively) optimistic world of 2013. But in 2017 the book feels almost therapeutic. It recognizes that there's no easy hack to fixing certain kinds of conflicts. Instead it offers a different kind of message: it asserts that suffering creates people able to truly risk themselves in order to do what is right. In a world full of so much wrong, we need people like that. Those are what history will call heroes.
I have a lot of readers ask my why I write about characters with missing or dead parents. My jokey answer is "because then no one can ground them." But the real answer is much more complicated. It has to do with how extreme loss conditions a person--preparing them to endure extreme pain in the future. My characters suffer over the course of their stories, and to me it seems more cruel to put an unscarred and unprepared person into such dire circumstances.
I'm grateful for this book because the next time someone asks the "Why Orphans?" question, I will have a better answer.
UNRELATED: Those who like Gladwell might enjoy his very excellent podcast series, Revisionist History. I especially enjoyed his episodes about the evolution of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and his exploration of Generous Orthodoxy.
I've just finished reading AS Byatt's The Children's Book, which is not a book for children. It is a sprawling, virtuosic chronicle about idealistic artists at the turn of the 20th century. The "main" character is based on real-life children's author E Nesbit (named Olive Wellwood) and the book primarily concerns itself with Olive and her family. I'm a big Nesbit fan, so this book was fascinating.
The thing that most struck me in the book was the fate of Olive's oldest and most beloved son, Tom. Tom is beautiful and smart and kind and innocent: he is presented as a character from a book caught in a harsh world. The novel shows Tom's tragic decline as the victim of betrayal: abuse, cruelty, deception, parental infidelity, and (implied) addiction. But none of these are what kills Tom. Instead, it is his mother's writing that drives him to suicide at the end of the book. Since he was a small child, Tom's mother has been writing him a special storybook ("Tom Underground") that was written just for him. As Tom grows up and becomes more and more troubled, these stories serve as a sort of life-line for him. But then his mother mines these private childhood stories in order to create a beautiful and successful stage play. Tom only discovers this on opening night, when he's watching from the audience. Shortly after, he drowns himself.
The book has many disturbing elements, but this was the most disturbing by far: that the selfishness of Olive Wellwood in her writing harmed her son more than anything else. This mirrors a real-life tradition of authors publishing private stories originally created for/with children: Christopher Robin, Alice Liddell, the Davies Boys, etc. None of those children fared well in adulthood. I've never quite understood the nature of such trauma. Like many others, I have always assumed that there must be some other explanation for why the children grew up to be bitter and miserable. (There is no shortage of speculation about abuse.) But Byatt argues in The Children's Book that commodifying and publicizing the private worlds of a child's imagination is trauma enough.
Byatt forces readers to ask if the cost is too high. Yes, we have Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, but those masterworks came at the expense of real people's happiness. I consider myself a loving father and husband, and I certainly do no conscious harm to my children. But I have always been unapologetic about using details from real life in my books--it's all fair game if it serves the story. Byatt's novel made me reconsider this long-held stance, which is no small thing.
Every author loves getting fan art of characters from their books! At some point, I plan to put up a few gallery posts. In the meantime, I recently saw these amazing Night Gardener concept drawings by a Thai art student named Thithipun Supampon. "Fan art" isn't quite the right word for this--Thithipun is a freelance illustrator and these drawings are part of a thesis project. You can see more of their work here
This has been a painful and frightening week for a lot of people. At a time like this -- when there such immediate need for change in the world -- it feels hard to justify the work of writing children's stories. What could be more frivolous? In many ways, my book Sophie Quire was about this very question. But in the time since I finished Sophie, the question has only plagued me more. What is the point of a children's story? It's a good time to remember GK Chesterton's words:
I might add something to this, which is that it's important to write children's stories so that the next generation can know a monster when they see it.
This last week for my Children's Literature course, we read Treasure Island. This is a book I have loved for a long time -- the character of Old Pew was a major influence on Peter Nimble. Recently, I had students watch a lecture by Mike Hill about the subtextual themes of Jurassic Park. Hill does a great job explaining how great stories contain a primal/Jungian undercurrent that runs beneath the surface plot -- in the case of JP it was about the anxiety of creating a family.
The lecture paid off nicely while discussing Treasure Island this week. When we look at Jim Hawkins' journey through Hill's lens, it becomes clear that Treasure Island is the story of a boy who has lost his father and refuses to accept that reality. And so he searches for replacement father figures, all of whom disappoint him in different ways until he can finally accept the truth: he is no longer a child.
I have long thought that the true climax of Treasure Island comes not when they find the treasure, but in a scene right before that, where Jim defies the advice of the morally-upright Dr. Livesey to break his promise to Long John Silver and escape:
"Jim," the doctor interrupted, and his voice was quite changed, "Jim, I can't have this. Whip over, and we'll run for it."
"Doctor," said I, "I passed my word."
"I know, I know," he cried. "We can't help that, Jim, now. I'll take it on my shoulders, holus bolus, blame and shame, my boy; but stay here, I cannot let you. Jump! One jump, and you're out, and we'll run for it like antelopes."
"No," I replied; "you know right well you wouldn't do the thing yourself--neither you nor squire nor captain; and no more will I. Silver trusted me; I passed my word, and back I go."
This is the defining test of Jim's character -- a moment where he places the integrity of his word as an English Gentleman over even his life.
It calls to mind the values of the age so well captured in Kipling's poem "If ...?", another text we read for this class. A daunting list to be sure, but one I think this book strives for:
For those interested, you can see the Hill lecture pasted below. It's worth checking out!
Earlier this year, I took a break from my own novels to play in someone else's sandbox: The Burning Tide is the heartstopping conclusion to the blockbuster Spirit Animals series.
These books are all written by different authors--including names like Shanon Hale, Garth Nix, Brandon Mull, and Marie Lu. Fans of the books are also encouraged to log onto Scholastic's site, where there's a pretty impressive video-game world that fills out the experience. Click here to read an excerpt of the first three chapters. It was great diving into the world of Spirit Animals ... hope you enjoy!
When I teach my Children's Literature course, I always start with a lecture on the "Golden Age" of children's literature--starting with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and ending (to my thinking) with Peter & Wendy. I wrap up the lecture by identifying six Golden Age children's authors who set the template for what the genre would become in the century to follow. On the list is L Frank Baum, who I credit with creating something that has perhaps had the greatest impact on contemporary storytelling: platform worldbuilding.
The 1939 movie has made such a cultural impact that it's hard to remember the Oz books for what they really are. Baum's books weren't just about Dorothy and Toto. There were dozens of Oz stories containing hundreds of characters. The books continued even after his death. Baum himself wrote 18. They were published around the holidays and it was a tradition among children to get the new Oz book for Christmas. He wasn't just telling a single story, Baum was building a WORLD.
Storytelling utilizes three main tools: character, setting, and action. At various points in history, popular stories have emphasized one or another of these elements. Presently, we are entering an age that celebrates setting above all. Today we value not just compelling narratives (Shakespeare) or characters (Dickens), but settings rich enough to contain a multitude of characters and plots. Think of visionaries like Tolkien, Gygax, Lucas, Roddenberry, Jack Kirby -- their legacies are not single narratives so much as entire universes. Part of the reason this brand of storytelling has ascended is because it allows the creation of franchises--which are very valuable. Another bigger reason is because it fits more seamlessly into interactive storytelling (video games); what is World of Warcraft if not an ever-expanding narrative landscape?
One might argue that Scott or Homer worked within this tradition, but I think the real innovator was Baum. In Oz, Baum created a place that could contain infinite stories ... which was a pretty radical concept at the time. So the next time you see yet another Star Wars movie in the cineplex, or yet another version of Zelda at Gamestop, thank Baum. or curse him.
Every fall I teach a class at
Hogwarts Chatham University's MFA program. It's a great opportunity to spend time with young writers and talk about children's literature! This year, I'm shaking up my standard reading list, and I thought I'd share it for those who want to play at home:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Peter & Wendy by JM Barrie
Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
Charlotte’s Web by EB White
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
A Monster Calls (movie) dir. JA Bayona
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird
A lot of thought goes into the selection of a reading list. Even the best books can get stale over time, and it's important to strike a balance between books that teach well (Peter Pan, Charlotte's Web) and books that excite me (A Monster Calls, Crenshaw). This year, I decided to multitask and include a number of books that tie into my own current work in progress ... which is to say that there are CLUES about my next novel buried in this list!
Last week I flew to DC to sit down with Raymond Arroyo on his show The World Over. I met Raymond at the LA Times Festival of Books last spring, and he's a great guy who asks good questions ... a few of which caught me off guard! Check it out! [embed]http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cENyy1_X_w4[/embed]
Woke up this morning to find that The Night Gardener had made the NYT Bestseller list!!!
I had a great chat with Rege Behe from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about Sophie Quire and the power of stories--including this bit about the inspiration behind the whole book:
Jonathan Auxier's mother, Doris Hutton, was raised on a wheat farm in a remote part of North Dakota. Hutton grew up in a strict and hard-working Catholic family where books and education were not the top priorities.
Somehow, Hutton became an avid reader, even though she had limited access to books and no one with whom to share her love of reading. By the time she was 15, she had read every book in the area's tiny library.
There was literally nothing left for her to read.
“Every time she would tell me about that, I would always add a ‘what if' to it,” says Auxier, the author the new young-adult novel “Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard” (Amulet Books, $18.95). “I literally imagined, what if she found one last book and if it was more than just a story.
So ... I have another book coming out this year! It's an installment in the juggernaut Spirit Animals series, created by Brandon Mull. It's a fantasy series about a band of kids who each have magical animal companions. It was really fun taking a break from my own characters to spend a little time in another author's world--I even got to kill off a main character! (True story: freedom to kill a character was a requirement for my taking the job.) Here's a summary from the astonishingly comprehensive Spirit Animals fan wiki, which I used quite a bit while writing the book:
Conor, Abeke, Meilin, and Rollan are four heroes who are split between worlds, braving separate paths in order to stop this evil. With a strange and unlikely new group of allies behind them, the young guardians have a real chance at saving their home—but they will have to move fast.
An ancient trap exists, hidden within the folds of Erdas itself. Though it has the power to end this war for good, the means of starting the trap have been lost. The young heroes only have one shot. They must work with their spirit animals to uncover a secret older than time. If they can’t, then everything will be consumed.
Find out more over here!