Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Writing Prompts

George Harrison was once fishing around for an idea for a new song.  While visiting his mother, he pulled a book off a shelf, opened it, and pointed to a random phrase:  gently weeps.  The resulting song, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," is probably the best song on The Beatles, commonly known as the "White Album."

Choosing random words or sentences is a fantastic way to begin writing when you're stuck for ideas.  I once took a playwriting class that had us employ this technique to start a play.  The teacher had us all write a page describing a place.  When we were finished, we passed the description over to the person on our left.  Next our teacher had us call out a series of objects, which he wrote on the chalkboard.  When he'd compiled twenty or so items, he told us to pick two.  Finally, he had us write on three slips of paper three things: a birthplace, a talent, and a physical characteristic.  For each item he passed around a hat for us to put our slips in, and then passed the hat around again for us to take out a slip of paper, so that we each ended up with a birthplace, a talent, and a physical characteristic.

Our assignment was to write a two-character scene set in the place written for us by our classmate.  One of the characters was to possess the three characteristics on those three slips of paper.  Of the two objects we'd chosen from the board, one was to be the goal and one the obstacle of the scene.  Our teacher supplied us with the opening and closing sentences.

I had a description of Bourbon Street in New Orleans; a good speller from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico who had big hands; a record player as the goal with the obstacle being an orange; the opening sentence "They were trying to make us think we'd met at some point," and the closing sentence "It's tragic to think that anyone reaches their potential at 35."

We had two weeks to write the scene.  I put the assignment aside and continued work on a play already in progress.  About four days later I woke up with the entire scene in my head.  I'd never had that kind of experience--and haven't since--and I used the two object technique for the goals and obstacles for each scene of that play, Bourbon Street Spell, which went on to win first place in the 2005 Firehouse Theatre Festival in Richmond, Virginia.

Sometimes when I'm stuck on a piece of writing, I still employ writing prompts.  I have an Apples to Apples Gamein my office that I sometimes pull three or four cards from in an attempt to get the ball rolling.  If any of you have a creative writing prompt that you'd like to share, I'd love to hear about it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

To the Moon!

Okay for Now
by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books
368 pages
ISBN:  0547152608

Earlier in the month I wrote about Holling Hoodhood in The Wednesday Wars.  With Okay for Now  Schmidt has written a sequel of sorts.  The novel begins in the summer of '68 when Apollo missions and the Vietnam War dominate the news.  Holling's classmate Doug Swieteck is moving with his family to upstate New York.  His father has lost his job at Culross Lumber and has taken a new one at Ballard Paper Mill in Marysville, where his old pal Ernie Eco works.

Doug's father, who is angry, resentful, and abusive, spends all his time after work drinking and carousing with Ernie.  Doug himself needs to get out, so he takes a job delivering groceries at Spicer's Deli, but not long after he starts working there the store is robbed and all fingers point to Doug's brother Christopher.  By association, everyone treats Doug as if he were guilty.  To complicate matters, Doug's oldest brother Lucas comes home wounded from Vietnam.  Doug refers to his new house as "the dump."  Indeed the house isn't much of a home; it isn't big enough to hold all the emotions and contentions of its occupants, who are less like a family and more like hostages in a cage.

There are a few bright spots in Doug's life:  his mother at home, Lil Spicer at the deli, and librarian Mr. Powell at the Marysville Public Library where Doug discovers Audubon's birds.  Mr. Powell teaches the artistically gifted Doug how to draw the birds, and Doug discovers the healing power of art:  "sometimes art can make you forget everything else all around you.  That's what art can do."

As an homage to Jane Eyre, the novel Doug must read for English class, Doug, the narrator of Okay for Now, directly addresses his readers, occasionally asking them questions:  "You remember who is sitting in the audience?"  "You remember the Snowy Heron, right?"  "And I know you think you know why I don't want to read Jane Eyre, but it's not really any of your business, is it?"

Okay for Now is a story of hurt and loss, of coping and creating, of healing and thriving and, and finally of redemption and love.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Looking for My Life

I love Joan Bauer's books.  Her characters are diverting and dedicated to a pursuit.  They usually have lost a parent, live in small towns or rural areas, and lead lives that revolve around food.  They are either growing it, serving it, or cooking it.  Last week I reviewed Squashed; this week I'm writing about two:  Hope Was Here,a Newbery Honor, and Peeled.

Hope Was Here
by Joan Bauer
186 pages
ISBN:  0142404249

Hope Was Here  is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl looking for her place in the world.  Hope lives and works with her Aunt Addie, her "number-one constant."  Aunt Addie and Hope are serial diner workers:  Addie cooks and Hope waits tables.  They've worked in restaurants all over the country, and Hope really hates the transient life, though she took to waiting tables "like a hungry trucker tackles a T-bone."  The "gift of waitressing" is from Hope's mother, whom she's only seen three times since being abandoned at birth.  Hope has no idea who her father is, but she desperately wants to find him.

At the end of her sophomore year, they're on the move again.  Because her business partner has taken all of their money and run off with the night waitress, Addie must shut down their Brooklyn restaurant.  Cabbie Morty, a regular at their Brooklyn diner, tells Hope, "Wherever you go, you'll do okay.  You've got heart."  Where they're going is Mulhoney, Wisconsin, where they have lined up jobs working for G. T. Stoop, a man plagued with leukemia and running for mayor.  Hope doesn't expect much from Wisconsin, certainly not to get caught up in small-town politics and corruption.  Nor does she expect to fall in love or to finally find the father she's always wanted.

by Joan Bauer
256 pages
ISBN:  0142414309                                                          

Peeled  concerns Hildy Biddle, who lives on her family's apple orchard in upstate New York.  When she's not picking apples, making apple sauce and cider, or selling apples and apple products at the local farmer's market, Hildy is a reporter for her high school paper, The Core.  Hildy's father, who died of a heart attack when she was in eighth grade, was also a reporter.  From her father, Hildy has acquired a "fierce desire to find the truth and help others find it, too."

The story Hildy is following centers on a ghost.  Old man Ludlow died in the grove of apple trees on his property and is thought to haunt his old house.  Now an out of towner is found dead in the same grove of trees where old man Ludlow died.  While the local paper is sensationalizing the story and playing on people's fears, Hildy is trying to uncover the truth.  She doesn't want to entertain or scare her readers; she wants to inform them, an approach to journalism that she fears may be completely outdated.  Her inquiries have rattled some chains:  The mayor, the editor of The Bee, and an out-of-state realtor don't like Hildy asking so many questions and are determined to silence her.  She's equally determined to stick with her story until her story is done.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Free Ride

I am so bored with walking, that I decided to ride a bike instead.  I don't think I've ridden a bike since my daughter was a baby.  Back then I had a baby seat attached to the back of my bike, and we journeyed far and wide.  This morning I rode around the neighborhood for twenty minutes and felt like I was 13 again.  The temperature was in the low seventies; the sun was shining; my hair was blowing in the wind; the trees were rustling, and the houses were rushing by.  My thigh muscles definitely got a work out, but it was a lot of fun.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pumpkin Love

by Joan Bauer
194 pages
ISBN:  0142404268

So much did I enjoy Joan Bauer's  Squashedthat I now have a trio of her books on my reading pile:  Backwater, Peeled, and the Newbery honor Hope Was Here.  What all her books seem to have in common are strong teens with consuming passions.  In Squashed there is Wes, the new boy, who raises corn; Richard, the high school's center fielder, who lives for baseball; and Ellie, our hero, who grows pumpkins as large as she can.

Ellie has been enamored of large squashes since she was five and first saw Cinderella.  Her number one goal is for her pumpkin, Max, to be the Winner of the Rock River Harvest Fair and Pumpkin Weigh-In.  But the path to success is strewn with many obstacles:  Cyril, whose pumpkins have taken first place in the Rock River Harvest Fair for four years running; her father, who finds her passionate pursuit pointless;  pumpkin smashers on the loose, who are destroying all the large pumpkins in the area; the absence of her mother, who died when Ellie was eight; her crush on Wes, who she's sure will want to go out with Sharrell, who is almost certain to be crowned the next Sweet Corn Coquette, and finally the weather, both cold and hail trying to halt Max's weight gain.

But while Ellie is determined to pack the pounds on Max, she's equally committed to taking twenty pounds off her own body, a goal that's thwarted by her love of cooking and eating.  I think middle school students will really enjoy reading about these motivated teens, motivated by their own desires rather than those of their parents'.  As cousin Richard says, it's "typical of parents--wanting Willie Mays to also take piano lessons."  But Bauer's teens, while they don't necessarily love what their parents want them to love, also don't need their parents to drive them to succeed; they've got goals and work hard to achieve them.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Boys from Behala

by Andy Mulligan
David Fickling Books
240 pages
ISBN:  0385752145

Part murder mystery and part detective story, Trashis an adventurous, suspenseful tale of political corruption in a police state in the not-too-distant future where most of the people live in extreme poverty with little hope of rising above the trash.  Raphael and Gardo, two orphaned fourteen-year-old dump-site boys, make their living amidst the throng of humanity picking through the mountains of trash of Behala, a rubbish town on the outskirts of a large tourist city in a Third-World country.

Raphael says he never finds anything special, and "then one day I did."  Raphael's find is a mysterious bag, the contents of which are so important that the police descend on Behala and offer a large reward to anyone who turns over the bag.  Distrustful of the police, Raphael denies possession of the bag, and with the help of Gardo and young Rat he sets out to solve the mystery of the bag.  The boys have no idea what they're in for.  "All we were sure of was that we were in something deep, getting deeper."  The reader can't help but root for these three urchins as they outmaneuver their "betters."

As the boys set out from Behala and see more of the city, they discover the unjust inequality between their squalid lives and those affluent lives of other "more important" people.  They learn firsthand that "you pay for being poor."  At one point, Raphael is told by a man in a suit that he is nothing but garbage, "that's all you are, that's what all of you are.  You are a piece of garbage."  What is particularly disturbing about this view of the poor is that more and more I see the seeds of this attitude in our world.  In the last thirty years qualities like kindness and charity have been devalued to the point where the poor are now resented and viewed as lazy and deserving of their fate, even by "Christians."  With so many homeless and so many without jobs, Trash's world of garbage dwellers doesn't seem so farfetched.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Shakespeare and Love in a Time of Turmoil

The Wednesday Wars
by Gary D. Schmidt
Sandpiper, Reprint Ed.
272 pages
ISBN:  0547237602

The Wednesday Wars,a Newbery Honor book of 2008, takes place at Camillo Junior High on Long Island, New York during the 1967-68 school year, the height of the Vietnam War.  Holling Hoodhood--yes, that's his name--is a seventh grader, who thinks that his teacher, Mrs. Baker, hates him.  On Wednesday afternoons, when half of his class goes to Hebrew school and the other half to Catechism, Holling, the lone Presbyterian, finds himself alone with Mrs. Baker, who takes the opportunity to expose Holling to Shakespeare.  Now he's convinced she hates him.

His father, the Chamber of Commerce Business Man of 1967, tells him not to make waves at school because he thinks anything anyone in the family does reflects on his architecture business.  His sister, who likes making waves, wants to be a flower child, loves the Beatles, the Monkeys, and Pete Seger, and thinks that Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. are the only ones who can save the country.  His mother doesn't say much of anything.  In the background, always reporting on the news from Vietnam and the home front is Walter Cronkite.

The world around Holling is full of turmoil with Vietnam and political assassinations, his house is full of conflict, and his own adolescent existence is pretty tumultuous what with everyone he knows wanting to kill him.  As he continues reading Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice, MacBeth, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and finally Hamlet), Holling begins seeing parallels in his own life and the world around him to Shakespeare's plays, including he and his girlfriend as star-crossed lovers, his father as Shylock, and the gym teacher/cross country coach as Caliban.  Mrs. Baker, whose husband is fighting in Vietnam, tells him that Shakespeare "is about the abundance of love.  It is about the weakness of armies and battles and guns and...the endurance of love."  Shakespeare, in sixties lingo, is saying "Make love, not war."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Blog Stats

I'm having a little trouble finding the next middle school book to review.  (It's times like this I wished I signed up to review picture books; at the very least I could read through a stack of them a lot quicker.)  Yesterday, I read The Westing Game, a 1979 Newbery winner.  It was o.k., but hardly worthy of a Newbery.  I'm sure it was awarded this prestigious medal based on its concept more than its execution.  I certainly don't see too many middle-school students lining up for this one.

So while I hunt around for a new book, let me talk about stats.  No matter how much I say I'm not going to look, one of the things I do every day  is track the stats of my blog:  how many people are reading each day, how many over the course of the month and how many for all time; what are the referring sites and what are the search keywords that lead them to the fruitcake files; which posts are visited most often (A Christmas Movie is the most visited of all-time, RIP Michael Sarrazin is the most visited this past month, The Mod Squad is the most frequented tv post, and Countdown the most frequented book post, followed by Harris and Me, The Outsiders, The Tough Winter, and Moon Over Manifest); and, finally, from which countries do my readers hail.  This morning when I checked my blog's stats I found that someone from Trinidad and Tobago was reading.  How cool is that?  I've had readers from all over the world; my top three countries are all English-speaking countries: the U.S., of course, the U.K., and Canada.  But I've also had visitors from Singapore, Germany, Brazil, Croatia, Israel, India, Pakistan, Australia, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Hungary, Spain, Japan, China, Thailand, and, yesterday, Russia.  No readers from Africa or Antarctica yet, but the rest of the world is pretty well represented.  One thing my blog stats don't tell me is how many of my readers are repeat readers and how many are one-time readers.  I certainly hope most of them visit from time to time.

To my new followers, I welcome you, and to those of you who are reading my blog regularly (whether or not you've signed on as a follower), I thank you, and from all of you I welcome any suggestions on which books you think would lure middle school students away from their video games.