MIddle Grade Fiction
The Science of Breakable Things is a debut middle grade novel by Hawaii-born Tae Keller. It’s a great read for tweens and those young at heart. Told through Natalie’s eyes and her science journal, we see how her mother’s depression affects Natalie from her friendships and family relationships to her own self-image to how she explains the world around her.
Tae nails the transition from childhood to teenager. The friendships and conflicts ring true. One of the best parts was the magical thinking of how a rare blue orchid would cure her mother; if Natalie could just get one, everything would go back to normal. It’s a touching, endearing, and completely captivating examination of how a child centers the world on herself and how she grows to understand that not only are things not her fault, they’re also not in her power to fix.
With a very light touch, Tae also explores mixed racial heritage challenges and conflicts. Natalie is part-Korean. Generational biases are brought to the forefront as her father tries to nullify his Korean-ness as Natalie tries to embrace it through connecting with her Korean grandmother. It’s one of the smallest and most powerful ways Natalie asserts her own identity.
The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller is available in hardback, paperback, and eBook. Can’t wait to read her next work.
Kino and the King by Jen Angeli is a middle grade adventure quest set in Hawaii. Cutting to the chase, we need more stories like this one where island kids see themselves as the heroes and Hawaiian culture as something both amazing and ordinary, rather than sensationally exotic.
In the story, 12 year old Kino and her mother move to Hawaii to live with her maternal grandparents in Kalihi, Oahu. With her grandfather ill and her family facing eviction from their home, Kino discovers that she has an ancient destiny to save both Hawaii and her grandfather by going back in time to 1825. There she meets the young Kamehameha III just prior to his ascension to the throne. After meeting with a kahuna at a heiau, it becomes clear that in order to return to her own time, Kino must go on a quest for four objects gathered from various parts of Oahu—and of course the young prince is going to come along.
As the adventure quest plot unfolds, Jen deftly weaves in aspects of Hawaiian culture and history. Islanders will recognize kapu customs, protocol, and Hawaiian legends such as night marchers, Pele, Kamapua‘a, sacred waterfalls, ‘aumakua, choking ghosts, and magic gourds and calabashes.
1825 is a significant time in Hawaiian history, after the fall of the kapu system and during the first years of the Protestant missionaries’ influence. Hawaii is experiencing the growing pangs of contact with the wider world. In the story there’s a glimpse of the monumental civic and cultural challenges, but Jen is always conscious of her 4th – 8th grade audience and keeps the action moving. Topics are lightly touched upon in a way that can start discussions about these important topics. Kino and the King is respectful of Hawaiian history and culture. Teachers, parents, and librarians will find it provides a springboard for further reflection, study, and inquiry.
But as good as 1825 was, I gotta say I liked the modern conflicts best. Mean girls, romantic interests, class wars, private school snobbery, leasehold vs. fee simple landownership, high cost of living in paradise, afterschool enrichment classes in Hawaiian—it’s all here. Anyone growing up in Hawaii will instantly relate to Kino’s modern world—and those far from home will probably crave spam musubi reading about it.
Readers of The Niuhi Shark Saga books are certain to enjoy Kino and the King. Can’t wait for Jen Angeli’s next adventure.
Kino and the King by Jen Angeli is available in eBook and paperback from Amazon.
On June 21, 2013 I was privileged to meet some very talented young authors at Brigham Young University. Click on Fan Art to see how they answered the question, “What would you draw on the bottom of a surfboard to chase away a shark?”
One Boy, No Water, Book 1 in the Niuhi Shark Saga, will be available in stores and online September 29, 2012. The series is set in Hawaii and tells the story of Zader, an 11 year old boy, and his adventures as he discovers who—and what—he really is. Most of the descriptions of island life in the series are true. However, in some areas Aunty Lehua stretched the truth just a little bit. Here’s the real scoop about Lua.
In One Boy, No Water…
Lua is ancient form of Hawaiian hand-to-hand combat. It was taught in schools by Lua masters who could perform amazing feats of strength and agility.
The real scoop…
Lua is real! Known anciently as Kapu Ku‘ialua, Lua was traditionally taught to young Hawaiian nobles and warriors, both male and female. Lua ‘ai forms focus on breaking and dislocating bones, locking joints, performing nerve strikes, and using various weapons such as shark tooth clubs, spears, and slings. Lua students were also taught to heal using massage and herbal remedies and to use spiritual forces against their enemies.
In ancient times Lua warriors plucked all their hair (girls, too!) and put a thin layer of coconut oil all over their bodies so they could slip out of holds during battle. The word for Lua master,‘ōlohe, literally means hairless.
Kept secret, sacred, and hidden in legends and taught underground since the mid-1800s, Lua is experiencing a cultural re-birth. Like many martial art forms, Lua also embodies a philosophy. It teaches traditional Hawaiian ideas such as remaining pono in all one’s thoughts, actions, and feelings.
Because so much of Lua is still considered sacred and secret and is not shared outside Lua schools, be wary of websites or people claiming to know all about it. For more information about authentic Hawaiian Lua practices, check out this book:
Lua, Art of the Hawaiian Warrior
By Richard Paglinawan, Mitchell Eli, Moses Kalauokalani, and Jerry Walker
Bishop Museum Press, 2005
One Boy, No Water, Book 1 in the Niuhi Shark Saga, will be available in stores and online September 29, 2012. The series is set in Hawaii and tells the story of Zader, an 11 year old boy, and his adventures as he discovers who—and what—he really is. Most of the descriptions of island life in the series are true. However, in some areas Aunty Lehua stretched the truth just a little bit. Here’s the real scoop about Niuhi Sharks.
In One Boy, No Water…
Niuhi sharks are sharks that are aware of themselves as predators and can choose whether or not to bite humans. Niuhi sharks can appear as human.
The real scoop…
The Hawaiian word niuhi simply means big man-eating shark and is often translated as large tiger shark.
There are hundreds of legends, stories, and myths throughout the Pacific about sharks that can turn into humans, humans that can turn into sharks, guardian spirits of ancestors who assume the shape of a shark, and demi-god children born to a human and shark parent. Many of these stories can be found on the Internet.
In ancient Hawaiian legends sharks masquerading as humans had a secret: on their backs was the large, gaping mouth of a real shark! When in human form, shark men would hide their shark mouths under capes made of leaves, feathers, or kapa cloth. Usually shark men were discovered when someone removed the cape.
Since big predatory sharks tend to hunt and travel alone, most Hawaiian shark shape-shifter stories are about a particular individual and not about whole societies of shape-shifting sharks. The Niuhi Shark People of Hohonukai only exist in the novels.
In the Niuhi Shark Saga, Uncle Kahana and Nili-boy recommend wearing ti leaf leis or special tattoos to ward off sharks. While Hawaiian tattoo traditions do include patterns used to honor shark ‘aumakua as well as to identify and protect the wearers in shark infested waters, there really isn’t an anti-shark bite tattoo, and while there are also many traditions about the healing and protective properties of ti leaves, ti leaves and ti leaf leis are not worn to ward off niuhi sharks.
In Hawaii, children are taught that the best way to avoid shark bites is to follow a few simple guidelines:
- Don’t swim with an open wound.
- Don’t swim in harbors or near the mouths of rivers.
- Don’t swim in murky water.
- Don’t swim at dusk, dawn, or at night
- When spearfishing, keep your catch away from your body. Use a long tethering line or get things back in the boat quickly.
- Be aware of your surroundings. If you feel uncomfortable, get out of the water.
- If you see a shark, remain calm. Watch the shark’s body language. Exit the water slowly.
Sometimes people with ravenous appetites, particularly for meat, are called niuhi, so the next time someone says you’re pigging out, say no, you’re really eating like a niuhi shark!
Return to Exile, the first book of The Hunter Chronicles by E.J. Patten, tells the remarkable story of Sky Weathers and the secrets surrounding his birth that continue to haunt his nearly 12-year-old life. Constantly moving, his family never staying long enough to become part of a community, Sky is an experienced outsider with no close friends except his odd Uncle Phineas. Under his tutelage, Sky has learned all about puzzles, traps, and hunting—hunting monsters, that is. As the story opens, Sky has almost convinced himself that all of his Uncle’s fantastical stories are really just an extreme form of pretend, imagination gone wild, and nothing more.
After 11 years of wandering, the Weathers family returns to their hometown of Exile with the expectation of finally settling down. When Uncle Phineas misses a scheduled rendezvous, everyone gets little edgy. Worried about Phineas and unable to resist exploring ancestral homelands, Sky embarks on a series of adventures that leads him to discovering who he is, his mysterious past, and the high stakes reason behind all of Phineas’ deadly serious games.
Patten has a lot of story and backstory to tell in this book, a horde of characters to introduce, and oodles of detail about monsters and the mayhem they cause. In his world, magic and monsters are not a matter of hocus-pocus, but rather science that’s not fully understood. For readers who love the minutiae and fine print of an imaginary world, there’s a lot here to chew on. Much of the plot hinges on the workings of monsters and hunters and how all the pieces fit—or seem to fit—together.
It’s obvious that Patten loves puzzles and games in all their forms including word play. He delights in turning phrases on their heads. His characters are witty, and the narrative is polished, perhaps a tad too highly. Occasionally the banter and action feel contrived, taking the reader out of the storyline and action simply to be clever. However, it’s likely that only adults with too much literary critique baggage will feel this way; young readers will likely be swept up in the richness of Sky’s journey and will enjoy the winks and laughs along the way.
Return to Exile is appropriate for those eight and older who can read near a 5th grade level or higher. While it’s easy to see how this action-packed fantasy appeals to boys, girls will also enjoy getting to know Sky and his monster hunter friends. Readers who liked The Hobbit, the Percy Jackson books, and Fablehaven series will find similarities here. The pacing and humor is certain to keep even reluctant young readers engaged and looking forward to the second book in the series.
Return to Exile, Snare 1 of The Hunter Chronicles is published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, authored by E.J. Patten, and beautifully illustrated by John Rocco. It can be ordered or purchased as an eBook or in hardback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as wherever fine books are sold.
Sitting in the dark with the dogs under my feet, kids sleeping upstairs, and husband zonked out on the couch, I take a moment to think about each of my characters in ways that never appear in the novels. How one of them sleeps with a flashlight. How meatloaf reminds another of cat food. The way a character holds a pencil, eats breakfast cereal, or sings along to the radio. More importantly, I think about what each of them desires most, holding fast to the knowledge that for them I can, unlike for my kids upstairs, really make all their dreams come true.
In the middle of the night I want to play fairy godmother and send Cinderella to the ball. She’s had a miserable life, but wait! There’s beauty under the ashes and soot. She dances with the prince, loses a shoe, but in the end he finds her and they live happily ever after in a big palace, dinning on sumptuous calorie-free chocolates with their children who never ever do things like throw up on the carpet or scatter Lego shrapnel down the stairs. Cinderella, eternally blissful in her big poofy sleeved dress, minuscule waist, and tiny glass heels. Sigh. Such a happy, happy life.
Oh, gag. I’m doing it again.
Too often burgeoning authors treat their characters like pampered privileged children, skipping right to the happy ending and bypassing the juicy details of the journey. In these stories dangers lurk in the shadows, something vaguely bad guys in black hats, but it’s all okay; everybody’s wearing a safety helmet and a lifeguard’s on duty; the sharks have teeth, but are vegan and just wanna be friends. These kinds of stories are full of quirky, loveable characters and stirring descriptions of conversations over cups of tea, but usually lack that vital spark called plot.
The real point, Constant Reader, is that as an author I have to love you more and my characters less. I have to find ways to make you fall in love with them and then take you both on a journey that thrills and chills, pausing just long enough to warm you back to your safe zone before plunging you down, down, down to despair and disbelief. Rather than the maudlin fairy godmother paving Cinderella’s path to happiness, I have to be Murphy’s Law, the minefield under the playground, the shark in the idyllic lagoon.
Cup of tea, anyone?
There’s been a lot of debate in the blogosphere lately about the future of digital books. Most of the debates center around price point, format, and distribution channels. Traditional publishers are bemoaning the self-publishing frenzy as the death of good, quality fiction that has at least kissed an editor and proofreader’s desks, and big eBook distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are fighting over formats, traditional vs. wholesale pricing models, and proprietary content. Small imprints and large publishing houses alike are clamoring that Amazon is trying to seduce authors away from them and into the brave, new world of self-publishing, while authors are busy running numbers, looking for the magic option that allows them to make rent next month. It’s all about getting a bigger slice of the digital book pie.
From what I’ve seen, most industry players think of eBooks as digital versions of print on a page. Out of all the work they do to create a print book—from editing, book design, and marketing—most simply take the final text file and tweak it so it looks good on various eReaders and add a jpeg of the book cover. There are several easy to use and inexpensive software programs that do a reasonable job of creating digital books from text files; it’s no wonder that many authors are now choosing to self-publish. Unfortunately, based on the thousand or so eBooks I’ve read on a variety of devices, “reasonable” is really all you get with a digital book, regardless if published by self-starters or the big boys.
Did I mention most people think in terms of simply translating print on a page to print on a screen?
But as an author and former interactive instructional designer, I think the industry is missing a huge opportunity. While the vast majority of adult and young adult fiction works well as Print on a Screen, I think there is a market in the middle grade, chapter, picture, and non-fiction book arenas for what I call Enhanced Interactive versions.
Beyond the current standard of linking to internal dictionaries, providing the capability for user-specific notes, highlights, and bookmarks, and simple chapter-based menu structures, Enhanced Interactive versions elevate the reading experience to a whole new level. For example, an EI version of a book that explores a foreign culture or science concepts could link to additional information embedded in the digital book (but not included in the print version—differentiating and driving more people to the digital version) or maintained on external websites. In picture or chapter books, young readers could color or embellish illustrations, watch characters come to life through animation, or even add their own drawings to stories or new words to pictures—everything from writing an entirely original narrative to the existing illustrations to adding their own wacky nouns, adverbs, and verbs á la mad libs. Cookbooks linked to the internet could provide an outlet for home cooks to share their adaptations, tips, and photos. EI books could even take a cue from social media to create virtual book clubs filled with all the minutiae an author knows about his characters, plots, and backstories, along with all the things he writes that never (and often for good reason) make it into the book. For the rabid fan, too much is never enough.
The possibilities are endless; I could write 20 blogs on how Enhanced Interactive versions of various book types could function and the markets they’d appeal to. In a nutshell, simply think of all the ways we game, learn, communicate, and interact with digital media and embed these features in digital text through icons, color cues, menus, tabs—whatever you can imagine. That’s my vision of Enhanced Interactive digital books.
Of course, not all digital books would make great EI books. But designed, targeted, and marketed to the right audiences, EI books have the potential to revolutionize the publishing industry in ways as profound as Gutenberg’s wonderful moveable type and the Kindle’s digital format.
All of which should be good news to traditional publishers. Since creating versions of digital books that go beyond print on a screen requires skill sets and deeper pockets most self-publishers possess, this EI market fits squarely into the bailiwick of imprint and large publication houses. Properly managed, publishers could turn their versions of EI digital books into virtual seals of approval, allowing them to quietly reassume their self-appointed gate-keeper roles as guardians of good writing and purveyors of quality product. The crowd goes wild.
I know just the series to start.
I admit it. I’m not a scrapbooker. I have boxes and files of my children’s lives stashed in random places in my office and in directories on my computer because I know this stuff is too important to throw away, but the thought of sorting through it all to create a meaningful tapestry gives me hives. So when I started getting invites from friends to join Pinterest, the image sharing social networking site, I ignored them. After all, did I really need to spend more time looking at cute bedroom designs I’d never use or read recipes for dishes I’d never cook? Did I mention I’m not the scrapbooking type?
But a couple of days ago, Kirk Cunningham, my publicist at Jolly Fish Press, sent me an email detailing what he wanted me to do with social media to promote my book One Boy, No Water and The Niuhi Shark Adventure Series. Pinterest was on his list, although he listed it only as an option rather than a must do like Facebook and Twitter. Thinking perhaps someday some bored tech savvy tween or teen might check out Pinterest, I half-flippantly wrote back that I was thinking about creating some Pinterest boards based on the main characters. I set up an account and started playing around, first looking for images of food I describe in the book. You know us Hawaiians; it’s all about the food.
Oh. My. Pinterest.
A few clicks and suddenly all of the images in my head about my characters’ likes and dislikes exploded onto the screen. I realized I could pin images about places, food, activities, music—everything from hula halaus to old pineapple plantation hip waders to custom surfboard art—to create complete character profiles and share them with anybody who wanted to know more about the people in my books, more than I could ever write in a novel. Characters who were already living and breathing in my own head could come alive in ways I didn’t anticipate.
Holy cow. What a way to blow an afternoon!
Pinterest as a character design tool is not perfect. Many of the images I wanted to pin to a character didn’t work, probably due to an issue with the originating site not wanting to share images. I get it, but it’s frustrating. I also have to remind myself not to switch back and forth in my descriptions from author to character. I finally decided to create these boards as if they were done by the characters themselves to keep the descriptions from feeling a little schizophrenic. Besides, if a picture is really worth a thousand words, I don’t think I really need to add much, which is probably why most of my pins are labeled in caveman speak.
Still, I gotta admit, it’s a lot more fun than I ever imagined. Maybe someday I will get those scrapbooks organized. (Don’t hold your breath!)
To see how the character profiles are evolving, check out Lehua Parker on Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/lehuaparker/
No problem, I thought. An hour, tops.
The days went by and I didn’t even think about it. No need to rush. I’ve got a week.
And suddenly, I didn’t. It was DUE. I sat down at the computer and cracked my fingers, holding them poised over the keys, waiting for inspiration to strike.
I blinked. I wrote 50,000 words for book one, often writing 5,000 or more words in a day. It can’t be this hard to write a couple of summary paragraphs. Get a grip, I thought. It’s like cleaning the bathroom or doing the laundry. No matter how much you don’t want to do it, you just gotta. Rip the bandage already.
But that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? A blurb is not just a couple of paragraphs that summarize a book. It’s all about marketing, all about teasing, tantalizing, enticing someone who liked the cover enough to pick up the book (or to click on a link) to now open a wallet and spend hard-earned money to buy the book.
Now I’ve bought a lot of bad books based on fantastic blurbs, but I can’t remember buying a fantastic book with a bad blurb. Suddenly, the whole success of my book, of my series, of my life as an author is coming down to a couple of paragraphs.
Ai ka pressah!
Before I completely psyched myself out and started avoiding writing by doing the unthinkable–housework–I looked up ‘how to write a blurb’ on the internet. Here’s what I gleaned.
- The purpose of a blurb is to convince someone to buy the book. (Duh. If it were to convince someone eat chocolate, I wouldn’t be having a panic attack.)
- Don’t fall back on overused phrases or get stuck on awesome adjectives.
- The most frustrating blurbs are a simple selection of quotes from reviews. (No worries there.)
- Blurbs are usually about 100 words.
- Before writing a blurb, try to identify who the audience is, what the book is about, and what makes it special. (I’m beginning to think that not all how to blurb bloggers are geniuses at what they do. Maybe that’s why they have time to blog about blurb writing.)
- Boil it all down to a clear message, but at the same time give enough detail to tantalize. (For example…?)
- Start the copy in an arresting way that leaves the reader wanting more. (Ditto…?)
- Write a lot then cut, cut, cut.
- It’s a good idea to double-check that the names and plot-lines described in the blurb are actually in the book.
Given such cracker jack advice, which also included “try to at least skim the book,” I’m beginning to see why JFP asked me to write it. Besides being the cheapest option, at least they could be sure I actually knew the story and characters.
After pouring soda over ice and watching it fizz, then getting up to let the dogs out, I sat back down and stared at the monitor. This is Zader’s story, I thought. What does he want readers to know? Why should they listen to what he has to say? This is what he said.
Call me Zader. 11 years ago Uncle Kahana found me abandoned on a reef and gave me to the Westin family to raise. He says I can blame my allergies on the Hohonukai side of the family.
I can’t get wet.
I’m allergic to water, fresh or salt. One drop on my skin and it’s like a snake venom nuclear bomb. In an instant, my skin blisters and cracks until it finally turns gray and scaly and flakes off like a bad sunburn.
Don’t get me started on the other weirdness in my life, like the man with too many teeth, the trouble with ‘Ālika, or that my could-go-pro surfing brother Jay is afraid of sharks.
Sometimes life in paradise really sucks.
That’s it, at least until the editor’s red pen hits it.