Middle Grade Fantasy: A Roundup of Modern Classics

Part of the fun of writing fiction is that you never know exactly what’s going to happen when you sit down at your desk. Still, I have generally leaned toward writing realistic, contemporary stories, and that’s what I’ve read for the last several years (to the exclusion of nearly everything else).

So when I started on my current work-in-progress, the last thing I expected was for it to be a fantasy, much less a fairy tale. But when my protagonist pricked her finger on a thorn from the stem of a rose (while sitting in a castle tower) on the very first page of my very first draft, I knew right away that I didn’t have a choice––I was about to plunge head first into a world of my own creation.

As I started to explore the genre, I realized the landscape had changed quite a bit since the days of THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN, HARRY POTTER, and NARNIA. Needless to say, I had my reading cut out for me.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I’d been missing out on a whole slew of amazing stories and gorgeous writing. From THE PRINCESS ACADEMY to THE GRAVEYARD BOOK (and everything in between), the genre quickly captured my heart.

I figure I can’t be the only one who has neglected the fantasy realm as an adult, so I thought I’d share some of the books I’ve been exploring. Whether you are new to the genre or you are searching for holiday gifts, here is a sample of some of the “modern classics” I think you (and the kids in your life) will find well worth your time:

Happy Reading! (And if you have more fantastic MG fantasy to suggest, please share in the comments below.)

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

Jessica Vitalis is a middle grade author represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch. An active member of the literary community, Jessica volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor and with the We Need Diverse Books campaign. When she’s not pursuing her literary interests, Jessica can be found chasing her two precocious daughters around Ontario or eating copious amounts of chocolate.

The Unicorn in the Barn: Review/Author Interview with Jacqueline Ogburn

Today we welcome to The Winged Pen the author of one of my all-time favorite picture books, THE MAGIC NESTING DOLLS. Jacqueline Ogburn is the author of ten picture books and, in just a few short days, the world will be able to read her beautiful debut middle-grade novel, THE UNICORN IN THE BARN.

 

… the presence of the unicorn and other magical creatures adding just a touch of whimsy to a story about very real emotions. A sensitive, moving debut.-Kirkus reviews

Eleven-year-old Eric Harper lives on his family’s farm in Chinaberry Creek. Due to his grandmother’s illness, they’ve sold her home to a new veterinarian in town to help pay bills. The veterinarian takes care of the many wild and unusual animals that live in the area around the Harper’s land. One day, Eric spots a lame unicorn and the veterinarian invites him to work with her and her young daughter to treat the animals. As Eric learns there are magical creatures that live in their woods, he also discovers family secrets that will change his life forever.

THE UNICORN IN THE BARN is both deeply imaginative and real at the same time. It deals with family death in a tender way for young readers. It is a coming-of-age story fully of whimsy, appropriate for ages 9-12 and would make a great read-together book. Rebecca Green’s black-and-white illustrations beautifully compliment the simple and heartfelt prose.

 

THE UNICORN IN THE BARN goes on sale on July 4th, 2017  at your local indie or here:

Goodreads

Amazon 

Barnes and Noble  

IndieBound

 

Welcome to The Winged Pen, Jackie! Reading THE UNICORN IN THE BARN was like a walk down memory lane for me, hanging out on the farm and playing the mysterious woods near my home. Does the fictional Chinaberry Creek represent an actual place from your childhood?

JO: Yes, the setting is based on my grandparents’ farm in Cabarrus County, in-between Concord and Albemarle. I would spend at least week there every summer.  When I was little, they still had cows, chickens, barn cats and for while goats, as well as several Chihuahuas that were house pets. Several of my cousins lived in houses and land that used to be part of the original farm. The house is a rambling two story and there are lots of smaller buildings clustered around it—the tractor shed, a couple of chicken houses, a potato house, corn crib, and of course, a barn.  I moved things around a bit, as the barn was in a pasture down the hill, not next to the house. There are still a lot of woods around and a creek and a pond in the pasture.  I named the nearby town Chinaberry Creek, because my mother loved Chinaberry trees. 

 

It’s interesting how the story seems so simple and innocent, yet deep and moving. I think this may be related to your experience as a picture book writer. How was the process different for writing a middle-grade novel different from writing a picture book?

Novels have so much middle!  A picture book I could figure out the structure and characters in my head, then write a draft that would be very close to that.  I tried outlining this, but as I wrote, the number of scenes and chapters kept expanding.  I knew the beginning and the end, but the rest of the novel, all the middle, kept growing, as I realized more things had to happen to get to the end.  Novels also require a lot more description of the setting and action.  Even though this book ended up with a lot of illustrations, I couldn’t count on the art expressing those things.

While I love fantasy, I wanted this story to be a contemporary fantasy, for it to be as realistic and matter-of-fact as possible.  Moonpearl isn’t a rainbow sparkle unicorn, she needs someone to muck out her stall and pick the burrs out of her mane.

 To achieve that, I did some interesting hands-on research. For six months, I was a volunteer at the Piedmont Wildlife Center, and did most of the same chores Eric did – sweeping, mopping, cleaning out cages, washing dishes, fixing food and water.  That’s how I met Bobby Schopler, the vet who read the manuscript for me and now works at the Duke Lemur Center. I read dozens of books by vets and visited a couple of horse barns to make sure the physical details were well grounded.

 I knew early on that if I was going to have a story about healing, that there also had to be loss. At one point, I called a writer friend nearly in tears because I realized that I had to include the death of an animal for the story to be properly grounded.

 

From the story, it’s obvious that you care deeply for animals. Can you tell us about your how your real-life experiences turned into this beautiful story that is partly a love letter to animals?

The book is a lot of wish fulfillment for me. I did love animals as a kid and read tons of books about them, especially horse stories. We only had one dog, Rusty, when I was growing up. He was a sweet red-brown Chihuahua. I also kept lots of caterpillars and grasshoppers in jars, and had goldfish and guppies. Fish are nice to watch, but not very cuddly. My mother had enough to do with raising five kids, and as a farm girl, she was less sentimental about animals.  Her brother, my Uncle Jackie, adored them, and there is a lot of him in Eric.

Now I am a cat person. Our tuxedo cat, Java, likes to sit on my chest, just under my chin while I read in bed.  I spent about a year in between cats while working on the book and it made me realize how much I like having a nonhuman companion. They deserve attention, affection and respect as much as people do.   

 

What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

I have a few chapters on a sequel, where Allegra is the main character. She’s more complicated and prickly than Eric. Timothy the Cheshire cat and Prissy the goose are still around, but there will be other magical creatures as well.

 

Lightning round (hands Jackie a cookie, for strength)!

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Flying

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Wooden

Coffee or tea? Hot coffee, but ice tea

Sweet or salty?  Salty

Dog, cat, or other?  Cat

Plotter or pantser?  Both. Even when it’s tightly plotted, like a picture book, there are surprises and detours along the way.

 

Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?

Read widely, not just in the genre that you love, but other things, including nonfiction. Curiosity is an important trait for a writer, to wonder “what if” and then to be driven to find out the things that could and would happen after that. 

 

Excellent advice and thanks so much to Jackie for stopping by to talk with us! Want to see unicorns in the real world?. Follow Jacqueline Ogburn on Instagram, and you can also find out more about her here!   

And click here for a special limited-time Instagram giveaway!!!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

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MYC – Two Approaches to Fantasy World Building

  Master Your CraftWelcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Welcome to World Building. Today we continue to examine the humongous topic by looking at two approaches to fantasy world building.

When Gabby & I started talking fantasy world building, we figured out quickly that, while we agreed that character is central to world building, we approached the actual process very differently. Instead of trying to come up with *the* way to build fantasy worlds, we decided to share our different approaches in hopes that you can use some of our techniques in your own writing.

Julie’s Approach:

The first thing I do after I get an idea for a new world is read every comp title I can get my hands on so I know what the tropes are and can either avoid or subvert. Our Writing Cross-Culturally workshop round-up is a mini-course in how to avoid harmful tropes in world building. But I also check the genre tropes section of the TV Tropes Wiki to make sure I’m going into my world building with a good idea of what’s already out there.

Then comes the fun part–brainstorming. I brainstorm both how my story is different from what’s out there AND how it’s the same. This step often happens as part of my messy synopsis so that I can get feedback on the world from my amazing critique partners.

“Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. –Anna Quindlen, Commencement Speech; Mount Holyoke College, May 23, 1999

Then I dive in to primary research. For a mythology-based world (which many of mine are), I read the original epic poems or stories looking for themes. I often take something from the original that I find sexist or racist or otherwise irritating and subvert it in my story. China Mieville’s brilliant UnLunDun is a great example of subverting the typical Chosen One trope, for example, because the Chosen One doesn’t actually end up saving the day.

I also love fantasy world building that includes unexpected mash-ups. Finnish epic poems meet Star Wars. Ugly Duckling plus dragons. Goonies plus sea turtles. Building a world at the intersection of two things you love can give lots of room for creativity and help you bring that something special that Anna Quindlen is talking about in the quote above.

But that’s all pre-writing. What does the actual writing look like? You already learned last week that the ten-page info dump is a no-no and that it’s best to weave in details during scenes with forward action. Probably my most-used world building comment to my clients is: BE SPECIFIC. A platter of meat on the table is so much less evocative then roasted hell-boar basted with clarion berry jam. Even better if the main character’s father was gravely injured on a hell-boar hunt years ago or if the seeking out the clarion berries is a right-of-passage that the main character hopes to participate in soon. Then the details become a way to build character, foreshadowing what is to come, recall backstory, and, ultimately, make the world you’re creating on the page come to life.

The Girl From Everywhere has amazing fantasy world buildingSome recent books that have really vivid fantasy world building include A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.

 

Gabby’s Approach:

I always do character interviews and development first. Then I do a sort-of world interview. At this point, I may have a general plot outline, but I know that as I develop details of the world, it will impact plot and character, and vice versa. There’s triangulation that happens between the three that takes on a life of its own. To build the world, I have a series of questions, some of which I’ve come up with myself, and others which I’ve gleaned from friends, the internet, and workshops.

I have a strong background in environmental science, so I always include details about the weather, the geology, the seasons, and the flora and fauna in my world building. These have impacts on the lives of my characters. For example, I might explore the variety of predators in this world. Is it a creature that might attack my character? Do they travel in packs, like coyotes? Will my character have lingering anxiety that it might eat her cat? I explore food sources. Are there plants that are harvested, or animals that are farmed–what are they and how are they made available?

I go for LOTS of details–everything from the culture and general beliefs or taboos of a world, to the ecosystem, to the clothing and housing. I’d say I might use about a third of this information in the book. If you’re not sure why these sorts of details might be key ingredients, just look at the role of the poisonous berries in The Hunger Games. Whether or not a character would know those berries isn’t just about the world–it’s about the way the character interacts with their world.

To me there are some details that are more emotional and evocative than others, because they’re universal heart-lines. In my mind those are housing, weather, food, and religion/mythology. These three areas inform all of the best, and most emotional parts of our lives. We share food with family (unless we don’t have one, and then we eat alone). We remember our mother’s cooking, the smells and tastes of our childhood. We believe what we’re taught, or we strain against it. A well built world exerts pressure on a character, and can exert opposing pressure in their relationships. A rainy day, with its scent of wet earth, and heavy sky might mean, and evoke, something very different for me, than it does for you.

I research as needed, as I go. Examples might be anything really: tie-ins to an existing creature or mythology, symptoms of respiratory disease, how to cook a hell-boar (nod to Julie), or I may want to know about the dragonfly life cycle to adapt it for a creature of my own. I don’t really start to think about tropes, cliches or sensitivity reading until I’ve got something pretty developed, unless I notice something that gives me pause along the way.

In terms of implementation of the world, I second Julie. SPECIFICS. Really what this is about is that you don’t find the emotional, evocative ties that bind in broad strokes. Painting the world (relaying all the work you just did) feels–well, it doesn’t feel at all. What touches the reader and ties them to your character, and to your world, is the relationship between that character and the world–it’s in the MICRO. It’s in the details. It’s in the freezing cold wind that your character is going to have to go out in to get their sister. It’s in the smell of that dessert, made with special berries that only come out once a year. It’s in the sad lonely song, sung by a man with no ear for music, that everyone knows, but hasn’t heard in years because it was outlawed. The rocks under your feet impact you. They bruise your skin. All of these things are about the world, as interpreted by the character.

Three Times Lucky has amazing fantasy world building Some books that do fantasy world building  really well are: Three Times Lucky, A Year Down Yonder, Icefall, Howl’s Moving Castle, Savvy, and Scorpio Races.

Tune in next week when we will explore world building in science fiction.

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