Oh, this strange, wonderful, wise book. Every month, I’m writing a love letter to a book that has shaped me, and this month, it’s The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
For those poor souls who haven’t yet read this classic, it’s the story of Milo, who comes home from school one day to find a tollbooth addressed to him. He drives his toy car through it and enters the magical Kingdom of Reason, where he discovers two warring kings, Azaz the Unabridged, who believes words matter more than numbers, and his brother, the Mathemagician, who is equally certain that numbers are more important than words. Milo embarks on a quest to reunite the kings and save the land by rescuing the twin sisters of the kings, Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason, who have been exiled to the Castle in the Air. Joining him on the journey are Tock, a dog whose belly is a huge watch, and the Humbug, a gruff and self-important beetle.
The language is absurd and delicious. Juster excels at word play and puns, and each sentence can be unpacked for layers of meaning and added delight. Here are a few gems:
“Whether or not you find your own way, you’re bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago. I imagine by now it’s quite rusty.”
“If something is there, you can only see it with your eyes open, but if it isn’t there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed. That’s why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones.”
You want to linger over each sentence, but Juster pulls you along with Milo and his crew to the next adventure, which is bound to be even more fantastic and silly than the last.
Hidden in amongst the bizarre and the playful, though, are some real nuggets of wisdom. For instance, Milo learns on his journey that one can easily jump to the island of Conclusions, but the only way out is a long, hard swim through the Sea of Knowledge.
When Milo finally makes it to the princesses, he laments, “[W]e would have been here much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes. I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”
Princess Reason responds, “You must never feel badly about making mistakes…as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”
I recently read The Phantom Tollbooth to my nine-year-old. I was pleased to find that as an adult I felt the same delight I had as a child, luxuriating in Juster’s language. My son’s guffaws made clear that this book, now more than fifty years old, holds up well.
More surprising, though, was to realize how much the book had shaped me. The Phantom Tollbooth introduced me, a devoted rule-following kid, to the joys of a journey with lots of side trips and missteps, and to playing around with language just because it is fun to do so. It is a lesson I am still learning.
I also believe that it is due to The Phantom Tollbooth that I view the greatest and most moral of skills to be the fair and peaceful resolution of disputes. As a child, I wanted nothing so much as to be the lovely, kind, just, and intelligent princesses. I think I became a lawyer because of them.
I still feel a catch in my heart at their description: “They were dressed all in white and were beautiful beyond compare. One was grave and quiet, with a look of warm understanding in her eyes, and the other seemed gay and joyful.” Rhyme’s laugh was “as friendly as the mailman’s ring when you know there’s a letter for you.”
Wouldn’t you want to be them? Don’t you?
And while I know that I will never achieve their heights of calm wisdom and lighthearted reassurance, this book taught me that it is worthwhile to strive for those things. It taught me that reason and compassion can save almost anything.
So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.
Kate Hillyer loves reading aloud, mostly because of the guffaws. She writes middle grade stories about brave girls who fight for the things they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. You can find her online at www.katehillyer.com and on Twitter as @SuperKate. She also has a book blog, www.kidbooklist.com, and lucky dog, she gets to be a Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse.
Here, we write love letters to our favorite books—the ones that shaped us, as writers and as people.
First up is the book that inspired me to start this series: Anne of Green Gables!
In case you haven’t read it, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is the story of an orphan girl who, after being shipped to various abysmal foster homes, lands with an older couple (actually brother and sister) on an idyllic farm on Prince Edward Island.
I am an Anne girl. I get a glow just holding the book (especially the lovely edition from Puffin and Rifle Paper—yum!). My red-haired daughter is named Lucy, after Lucy Maud Montgomery.
There are a few things that made this book so influential to me.
First, Anne is not perfect. She tries really hard to be good, but she loses her temper, she messes things up royally, and she is given to fits of despair. I was a kid who worried all the time about doing the right thing, and seeing Anne’s horrid mistakes and tantrums gave me a gleeful thrill, and permission for my own imperfection. (Imperfection is good! I wrote a whole post on it.)
Second, L.M. Montgomery taught me about writing description. Here is how she describes the road to Anne’s new home, when Anne first sees it:
The “Avenue,” so called by the Newbridge people, was a stretch of road four or five hundred yards long, completely arched over with huge, wide-spreading apple-trees, planted years ago by an eccentric old farmer. Overhead was one long canopy of snowy fragrant bloom. Below the boughs the air was full of a purple twilight and far ahead a glimpse of painted sunset sky shone like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle.
Isn’t that lovely? Oh, it makes me sigh every time.
Montgomery elevates the scenery of her beloved home while also being so specific that I can picture it. I see it perfectly, and I feel the same awed reaction that Anne experiences in that moment. I strive in my own writing to make descriptions that not just make a place real, but make it magical and inspiring.
Finally, Anne loves with her whole heart. Her joy at her new home is palpable. She takes the time to feel every moment and savor it. She doesn’t dwell on her unhappy background, but she is constantly amazed at her good fortune to end up in a place so enchanting. May we all be so grateful for the good in our lives!
Here’s my favorite quote:
“Dear old world”, she murmured, “you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.”
In the comments, please share yours!
Kate Hillyer writes middle grade novels in the D.C. area, but is certain she’s going to make it to Prince Edward Island someday. Look for her in long red braids soon. In the meantime, she blogs here and at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, and maintains her own book blog at Kid Book List. She’s also a 2017 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her on Twitter and at www.katehillyer.com.
Three gutsy protagonist, three continents, three different time periods. How’s that work? Well, you won’t have to wait much longer to discover how middle-grade author Alan Gratz weaves these interconnecting stories together in a way that Kirkus Reviews has called a “feat nothing short of brilliant.” REFUGEE hit bookstore shelves in July 2017 and made it to the NYTimes best-sellers list for middle grade fiction twice in August. BAN THIS BOOK released on August 29th!
We are delighted to talk with Alan Gratz about REFUGEE, BAN THIS BOOK, and writing.
Welcome, Alan! Tell us about your inspiration for REFUGEE.
The idea for Refugee came from a number of different places, over the course of many weeks. It began with the story of the Jewish refugees on board the MS St. Louis. I was looking for a way into that story when my family and I took a vacation to the Florida Keys, and we woke one morning to find a raft on the beach that refugees had used to come to America. We had no way of knowing where the raft had originated, or if the people who set out in it had made it to safety, but it got me thinking about how so many people are risking their lives every day to have what I and my family have.
I wanted to tell the story of the MS St. Louis, but now I also wanted to write something about Cuban refugees coming to America by raft! And then—this was in early 2016—we came home every night to reports on the news and the Internet about the Syrian refugee crisis. I wanted to write a book about the MS St. Louis, I wanted to write a book about Cuban refugees coming to America, and now I wanted to write a book about the plight of Syrian refugees! Finally I realized—what if I wrote a single book about all three, linking the families across the ages and across the globe? That’s how Refugee was born.
You often write about young people tacking adversity head on. What do you hope readers will take away from REFUGEE?
I want young readers to see refugees. My family and I knew refugees were risking their lives to come to this country officially and unofficially every single day, but because we don’t live on the front lines of that struggle, we didn’t see it every day. Out of sight was definitely out of mind. I hope that Refugee does for young readers what that raft on the beach in Florida did for me and my family: make the invisible visible again.
I also hope that young American readers understand that, unless their family is Native American, we are ALL immigrants. Whether their families came over on the Mayflower, or came here on a raft last year, we’re all Americans, and it’s that immigrant melting pot that made this country great, and continues to do so.
Whew! In 2015, 2016, and 2017 you’ve released two middle-grade books each of those years? How?? Magic, time turning? You’ve gotta share your secret. Okay, maybe you don’t have to tell us, but you’ve obviously figure out some strategy to getting words on a page. What tips do you have for us on making time to write?
Did I? Oh, wow. I guess so! Pardon me while I go pass out… Seriously though, I’m not happy unless I’m writing. I’ve been doing a lot more school visits of late—I think I did more than a hundred last school year!—which also takes away writing time. So the first thing I had to do was say no travel for six months out of the year: December through February, and June, July, and August. (I still break that rule all the time, but I do TRY to hold to it.)
Then, for those six months, I’m working on new books all the time. For my historical novels, I do about a month of heavy research for each, where I’m doing nothing else during my “writing” time but reading books about my subject and taking notes. Then once I’ve got enough research to build a rough story, I’ll start working up an outline. I’m a big proponent of outlining. It takes me another month to create a detailed outline, where I lay out what happens in every single chapter.
During this time, I’ll also work on character creation and do fill-in research for parts of the story my first round didn’t cover. Then, once all that pre-writing is done, I can usually write a first draft in about a month, at the rate of about two chapters a day. That’s my three month block! I turn the book in, and my terrific editor takes over. She’ll get the book back to me while I’m on the road visiting schools again, and then I’ll begin the revision process when I get back.
All the traveling I’m doing now may knock me down to one book a year, but that’s probably better for my sanity in the long run. But I learned to be a disciplined writer doing non-fiction advertising and marketing work before I was a novelist, so when it’s time to get writing done, I just sit down and do it!
Your other 2017 middle-grade novel, BAN THIS BOOK has a main character, Amy Anne, who is a girl after my heart. Tell us something about the story that will make us want to add BAN THIS BOOK to our Must Order and To Be Read ASAP List.
Well, I’ll give you the elevator pitch first: Ban This Book is the story of a fourth grade girl who goes to a school where a parent start banning and challenging books. As a protest, Amy Anne takes those books and hides them in her locker and starts checking them out to other students in secret as a Banned Books Locker Library. And all the kids’ books that are banned in the story have actually been banned in the last couple of decades in America! It’s (what I hope is) a funny, heartfelt story about the issue of book banning, as well as my love letter to middle grade novels.
What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
When I visited Japan seven years ago, I met a man who had been a young boy on Okinawa when the Americans invaded in 1945, toward the end of World War II. He told me that the Japanese Army pulled him out of school, lined him up with the other middle school boys, and gave them each a grenade. Their instructions: go off into the forest and don’t come back until you’ve killed an American. That’s the first chapter of the new book I’m writing, which I’m calling Grenade. That will be out in late summer/early fall of 2018.
Buckle up for the…Lightning Round (*hands you a slice of pepperoni pizza for strength)
If you had a superpower, what would it be? Super speed! The Flash is my all-time favorite super hero.
Wooden pencil or mechanical? Always wooden. I never got the hang of mechanicals.
Coffee or tea? Coca-cola!
Sweet or salty? Always salty! If I could live on French fries, torilla chips, and popcorn, I would. Or maybe I already do…?
Dog, cat, or other? I’ve had both, but the answer is dog. Mine’s name is Augie. He’s a rescue mutt.
Plotter or pantser? Plotter! (As you now know!)
Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?
You’ll hear this from a lot of professional authors, but that’s because it’s true: talent matters, but what really gets you published is persistence. I’ve met so many writers who give up after one or two rejections. You have to keep sending your stuff out, and keep getting rejected until someone says yes. And while you’re sending out one book, start writing the next. And the next. And the next.
I was still subbing (and getting rejection letters for) the first two YA novels I’d written when I wrote Samurai Shortstop, which would ultimately become my first sold and published novel. I’ve never sold those previous two manuscripts—they just weren’t good enough. Write, write, write, submit, submit, submit, and get better at what you’re doing with every attempt. Then, if you stick with it long enough, you’ll break through.
What an inspiring interview! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! And best of luck with both of your new books!
Alan Gratz has been putting kids in fictional danger since 2006. You can find out more about Alan and subscribe to his newsletter by visiting Alan’s website.
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 storyIN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology will fund scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.
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We’re psyched for the launch of Winged Pen member, Kristi Wientge’s, middle grade debut. Karma Khullar’s Mustache will hit bookstore shelves on August 15th! We invited Kristi and her agent, Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Agency, to talk about Karma and how this story became a book.
Patricia, what first drew you to Karma Khullar’s Mustache?
Patricia: I knew when I first started reading that this novel was the whole package. First of all, as a huge Judy Blume fan, I’m always drawn to contemporary middle grade that deals with the uncomfortable realities of growing up, and I had never seen an MG novel about body hair before, so that made me intrigued right from the pitch. Then, on top of having a great concept, Kristi’s writing had a fantastic specificity – every character in the book, from Karma’s best friend to her obnoxious brother, felt perfectly real, like they could just step right off the page. I was struck by what a great job the book does of braiding together issues of family, friendship, culture, and body image to show all the layers of Karma’s world. Plus, perhaps most importantly of all, Karma’s voice stood out—as a narrator, she’s funny and insightful and has a very unique way of looking at the world that’s relatable while also being completely her own. I loved her right from the first chapter!
Kristi, what made you feel comfortable putting the sale of your story in Patricia’s hands?
Kristi: I actually spent the few days between my email with her and the day we had the call set up scouring every blog post for lists of questions I should ask. Can you believe it that straight away Patricia basically ticked right down my list of questions without me even having to ask a single one?! Not only did that win me over, but it was also her complete excitement for Karma. I felt that she really got what I was going for.
Patricia, what are middle grade readers looking for in a story?
Patricia: Voice is a huge part of it! Kids have exceptionally well-tuned BS detectors, so the voice really needs to feel genuinely and authentically “kid,” not like an adult trying to sound like a kid. Beyond that, pacing is key in this category—the story needs to move along swiftly, with enough exciting plot developments going on to keep a young reader turning the pages.
Kristi, does Karma have a superpower? If so, what is it?
Kristi: Karma is resilient, super hero resilient.
Patricia, what would you say Karma’s superpower is?
Patricia: I’d say Karma’s superpower is how inventive and imaginative she is—she definitely has no shortage of creative mustache-elimination ideas. 🙂
Kristi: I understand you have a surprise for Winged Pen readers today.
Kristi: We have a giveaway! Win a copy of Karma Khullar’s Mustache by commenting below by 5 p.m. EST on July 17th. The name of one lucky winner will be pulled from the Tri-wizard cup!* International entrees welcome!
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:
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!!!