book review: Dorothy Must Die

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title: Dorothy Must Die
author: Danielle Paige
date: Harper, 2014
main character: Amy Gumm
young adult fiction

 

We all cheered for Dorothy to find the Wizard and make her way back home to Kansas. We loved Glinda’s sparkle and the shine of the yellow brick road, but sometimes too much ‘good’ just isn’t all that good. Sometimes, it’s quite wicked.

Another tornado in Kansas, another girl misplaced in Oz and we revisit the place only to wonder what in the world has happened. The munchkins, flying monkey and people of Oz were all once very happy with their lives but now, they’ve lost they joy and their freedoms. Can Amy figure this mess out? Which side does she choose when the only good advice she gets is to trust no one?

Dorothy Must Die is the first book in the series by Danielle Paige, an African American young adult author as well as a writer for television.

I like the steady pace Paige establishes in Dorothy Must Die. I like the time spent developing characters and their backstory, giving them important roles to play as the story unfolds. This first person narrative makes world building an integral part of the story with readers discovering how this new Oz works right along with main character, Amy Gumm. Her own backstory gives evidence to her poverty. Amy lacks most of the resources that would provide her access to success. She has no friends, her clothing is tattered and her single mother has a chemical dependency problem. Amy is empowered through her tenacity, intelligence, reliability and her magic. We’re going to be cheering for this underdog who is out to conquer Oz along with her mom’s pet rat, Star.

While Paige challenges many sources of power in this fantasy world, she leaves women as the source of magic and magic is the one true power in Oz. Many deep and penetrating questions arise in the book and I’m sure most young readers will want to follow Amy to find answers for her as well as for themselves. This girl is on a hero’s journey.

This is essentially a good vs. wicked story except that we really don’t know which side or which characters are good and which are evil. Amy struggles with decisions she has to make, important consequential decisions that tear at her sense of moral justice. She’s a strong girl this Amy who doesn’t act solely on her own self interest. The title makes it clear that Dorothy must die, but Amy really struggles with her part in this murderous act because she honors and values life. But, yeah. Dorothy must die.

 

 

 

Writers on Writing: Malinda Lo/Serials and Series

 

Continuing a story over several books is serializing that story. Books that share a common setting, story arc or characters is a series. A series would books such as Nancy Drew, Border Town and The Babysitters Club while serialized fiction would include The Goddess Wars, Legend and Dorothy Must Die. Despite these technical differences, we tend to call books with characters and settings that extend over multiple books a ‘series’. To really learn about serialized fiction, I recently interviewed Malinda Lo.

Why do you think serialized fiction is so popular with young readers?

I think serialized fiction is popular with readers of all ages because we become attached to certain characters, and we want to follow their journeys through many stories. Reading serialized fiction is like revisiting old friends. There’s a comfort in it because mlo-by-andiepetkus-wordstock1-lowresyou have a good idea of what you’re going to get, and if they’re old friends, you enjoy spending time with them.  

Additionally, if you like epic tales of adventure, they often have to be in series format. It’s hard to fit saving the world into one book! So if you like big, sweeping narratives, that’s another reason to love series. You get to see much more of that fictionalized world.

How is it decided that a particular story should be serialized? How are the contracts usually negotiated? (one book at a time, or for the entire series at one?)

I’ve written two kinds of serialized fiction. My Adaptation series is two novels and a novella, and is the kind of serialized fiction you generally find in bookstores. The sequence of this series and the number of books in it was negotiated during the contract stage, when Little, Brown acquired it. Sometimes if a book is a standalone and it does really well, publishers will ask for a sequel or for more in the series. So it’s not always decided up front. 

The other type of serialized fiction I’ve written is Tremontaine, a serialized ebook series from an ebook publisher called Serial Box. They release serialized ebook novellas weekly, like a TV series releases episodes. It’s actually quite an old kind of publishing. This is how Charles Dickens released his writing in the nineteenth century — by publishing it in newspapers serially. This was different from my novels because I was one writer on a team of writers, and we worked out the plot together. The overarching beats of the plot were created together before we started writing.

Is writing serialized fiction the same as writing a novel, or are there differences?

If your series consists of a series of novels, it’s like writing a series of novels. As many writers enjoy saying, every novel is different. At the same time, if you’re working with a series, it’s a good idea to know the whole plot (at least generally) before you start writing book one. Otherwise the resulting series will have continuity problems and plot holes. So while each novel on its own is simply (simply, ha!) writing a novel, you have the added issue of plotting across a series rather than only one book.

For Tremontaine, it was quite different from writing a novel because each “episode” was only about 14,000 words. That’s much shorter than a novel, so the structure of each episode was different. You had to limit what you could get done in one episode, and you had to work with the other writers by asking them to insert plot points in their episodes to lead up to yours, or to follow through afterward. The entire arc of the season felt more like a novel. 

If someone were to develop an award for outstanding young adult series, what criteria do you think they should consider?

I think that would be a wonderful idea! There are so many series that are fantastic that don’t get recognized because most awards focus only on standalone novels. For example, Holly Black’s Curse Workers series is truly a work of art. She plants many seeds in the first book (White Cat) that don’t fully blossom until the climax of the third (Black Heart). That kind of multi-book planning — and its successful execution — is really hard to do. So I think a series award would need to look at the entire arc of all books in the series, and consider how well the narrative and characters develop over the course of all books.

Additionally, each book in the series should have its own inner cohesion. Because it’s a book within a series, however, there will necessarily be loose ends in all the books except the last one. But even with that caveat, each book should move the characters through a relatively contained story arc, and then also push the greater story forward. It’s a big challenge and I really admire writers who are able to juggle epic plots and multiple character threads.

What can we expect from you in 2016?

This year I’m hunkering down and doing a lot of writing. You won’t see much new from me this year because I’m working on stuff that won’t come out until after 2016. I will have some nonfiction published this year, including an essay in a collection for adults on the business of writing. And you never know, I might turn out some other essays as well. Stay tuned.

After reading Malinda’s description of what would make good, award winner series, I too wish there were an award! But, Malinda is such a good writer that she could convince me of almost anything. Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, most recently the duology Adaptation, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2013, and Inheritance, winner of the 2014 Bisexual Book Award. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA, a project that celebrates diversity in young adult books. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their dog. We’ll have to watch for her releases in 2017!

 

From the Heartland: Kevin Waltman

My recent interview with Crystal Allen got me wondering who are the Indiana authors who write about teens of color? This is an important question when you consider how many YA books are set in NYC. Teens in Indiana , or any state, benefit from stories set where they live because setting can provide one more way for young readers to relate to their reading. Stories that mention the Pacers, Fort Wayne or Turkey Run State Park not only resonates with readers, but they also let readers  know that where they live matters and indeed they must, too.

Local authors are also important for teachers and librarians. Little can emphasize the importance of reading and writing more that a visit from these experts! Don’t we all get giddy around these rock stars of words and imagination?

You’ve met Crystal and I have several others for you to meet over the next couple of weeks. While some have lived in Indiana their entire life, others passed through for a few years. “Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier!”

These are the authors those students I used to teach in Indianapolis would just love to meet!

Kevin Waltman lived in Indiana for his childhood, high school and college years. Indiana is where Kevin developed his love of basketball, partially because, well this is Indiana! But more important, his dad was legendary college coach Royce Waltman. Kevin currently lives in Alabama. Most recently, he’s been writing the D-Bow High School Hoops Series (Cinco Puntos Press). The first book in the series, Next came out in 2013 and Slump releases in October.

Where did you grow up?

            I was born in Bedford, Pennsylvania, where I lived until I was 11. After that, I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, for five years, then in Greencastle, Indiana, where I went to high school and college (DePauw University). After college I lived briefly in Washington, D.C., before moving to Indianapolis for five years before moving down to Alabama, where I’ve lived since 2001.

Do you have any pets?

          Our dog Henry. Technically, he’s my wife Jesssica’s dog, as she adopted him before we started dating—but we’ve been together for 9 years now, so Henry feels very much like my dog, too.

What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?

            As a little child, I read and read, but the series of books that stand out in my memory are the Black Stallion books. I just couldn’t get enough of those. Like a lot of boys, I hit a bit of dead period in my reading in my teens, but The Catcher in the Rye got me jump-started again.

Which famous person would you most like to write a review for your book?

           Roy Hibbert or Mike Conley, Jr. They’re both NBA players with Indiana connections, and they seem genuinely interested in helping young people—my potential readers.

What book(s) are you currently in the middle of reading?

            I just started The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, but I’m only a couple pages in, so it hasn’t taken over my imagination yet. Before that, I read On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, which is honestly one of the best books I’ve read in some time, at least since The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. And I’m also reading a tale from The Complete Sherlock Holmes in between every other book I read.

Is there much difference between life in Indiana and life in Alabama?

            Alabama’s hotter. Okay, that’s a bit of a joke, but in some ways that underscores other differences. The more rural nature of Alabamians, their relationships to the land, their penchant for comfort food—all of it seems influenced at least in part by the Southern weather. There are, certainly, other differences. Alabama, like other Southern states is more conservative, more religious, and poorer than Midwestern counterparts. However, though those traits are broadly true, the differences on those fronts don’t seem particularly pronounced when compared to Indiana.

                  Then, of course, there’s sports. I sometimes get rather quizzical looks when I tell Alabamians that I’m writing novels that focus in part on basketball, where in Indiana that is rather central to most people’s activities. Down here, it’s football first. And second. And always.

I have noticed that you teach writing at the university level. I would think teaching writing would be so difficult because there are just some things about writing that one cannot teach. What is it about teaching this skill that you enjoy?

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Click to hear a podcast interview with Kevin.

            It depends on what type of writing you’re talking about. I teach a lot of English Composition, which is really about preparing first-year students to write academic essays: how to research information and cite it; how to analyze and develop arguments; how to explore a topic as even-handedly as possible. That seems quite teachable if a student is actually earnest in wanting to learn. Creative writing is trickier, and I think that’s probably what you’re referring to here. In some ways, teaching that is largely telling students to break all the rules that they’ve been taught in English Composition. Rather than one or two accepted styles, there are endless styles. Rather than painstakingly developing “argument,” they can let go of “having a point” altogether. They can fabricate things. They can make up words. They can re-invent themselves over and over again. English Composition is like teaching students how to make a good lasagna, with a few possible variations they might try once they master the recipe. Teaching creative writing is like taking students to a kitchen and pointing out all the possible ingredients, then saying, “Have at it.”

                  In both cases, though, there are times when, as an instructor, you can actually see moments of recognition in students. You’ve maybe told them something a dozen times, but for whatever reason that final explanation clicks for them, and you immediately see a breakthrough in their writing—which also means a breakthrough in how they conceive of themselves as scholars and writers. That’s rather rewarding.

What attracted you to writing about basketball?

            My dad was a basketball coach (in order: Bedford High School head coach; assistant coach at Indiana University; then head coach at DePauw University, the University of Indianapolis, and Indiana State University). Basketball was a part of me from the get-go. Though I played poorly and quit my high school team, I always loved to play—and I was an avid pick-up player until a few years ago when I hurt my knee. But more than playing, I watched endless hours of basketball. When I was a kid, I’d get dropped off after school at the Bedford gym where my dad was running practice. As a teenager, I watched every game on ESPN every single night. I went to hundreds of my dad’s games. I went to Pacers games, to random college games, to tournament games in Indianapolis and Milwaukee and Nashville. To Final Fours in Atlanta and Denver. Alabama games. Summer league games. I once tried to estimate how much time I’ve spent watching basketball—it came out roughly to a full year of my life.

                  So, to answer your question: writing about basketball feels almost as natural as breathing.

How did you decide you wanted to write for teens?

            This is a little trickier. I don’t know if it was ever a conscious decision, as much as it was a happy accident. Sometime in 2000, I met the now-somewhat-famous-y.a.-author David Levithan, and he was busy scouting authors for a new y.a. imprint at Scholastic, where he is an editor. I sent him some material. He liked it. And that’s how my first y.a. novel, Nowhere Fast, began. I followed that up with Learning the Game for Scholastic in 2005, and then after a hiatus where I was working on other projects, I returned to y.a. for Next. It’s good to be back.

Is it difficult to maintain Kevin’s character over 3 books? In what ways does he develop?

            Well, I’m in the middle of writing the third book now. And this is the first time that I’ve ever written a series. So the tricky part has been balancing “maintaining” characters while changing them enough so that there’s real development from book to book. At the same time, I can’t totally reinvent Derrick or any other character when I start a new manuscript—they need to have some consistency. In fact, Derrick—because his basketball goals keep him so focused—has been in some ways the slowest to change. He changes all right, but his end goal stays the same, and as I work on the third book I find that other characters—Wes, Jasmine, Uncle Kid—are undergoing more radical changes around Derrick.

It sounds like there are many generational messages in the D-Bow series. What influenced you to put those relationships into your stories?

            I think there are two forces. The first is that, with sports, it’s hard to separate the player from his parentage (in whatever form that may come). One of the most touching moments in sports over the last few years was Kevin Durant’s MVP speech, particularly his words for his mother. Any player, if he’s honest with himself, owes something. For Derrick, his parents keep him grounded and disciplined, and they keep him from taking an easier—and more questionable—path. Meanwhile, Uncle Kid has been vital to his development as a player. And even if it’s not about growth as a player and a person, the way people experience sports when they’re young is often a way to share an experience with a parent: watching or going to a game together.

                  The other forces are personal. I’ve recently become a parent, and as any parent will tell you that changes everything. There is not a single idea or object in my world that hasn’t been somehow altered and made more brilliant by our daughter’s presence. Her exhilaration at her world becomes mine. So while I’m not consciously putting anything in my books about her, I’m a fool to think that anything I do is left unaffected by her. And, finally, I recently lost my father. Again, that’s not something I’ve consciously worked into the books—in fact, I revised Slump so Derrick’s father’s health problems were less similar to my own father’s. But, again, my own relationship to sports is inextricably tied to my own relationship to my father. So my dad—and my history with him—hovers like a shadow beside every sentence I write in this series.

What does diversity mean to you?

            To me, it means a goal that Americans still need to meet. I don’t mean to deny the progress America has made, not just since the pre-Civil Rights era, but since I was a kid. Most students I encounter now almost reflexively champion the benefits of diversity, though there are still exceptions. That’s great, but I think sometimes it’s lip service. That’s true of individuals who praise diversity publicly because they’re “supposed to,” but who don’t embrace any policies that might actually bring such diversity about. And it’s true of America in general, too. I live just outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which was recently featured in The Atlantic in a story about how our public schools are being re-segregated. It makes sense to focus on Tuscaloosa, since it’s in the self-proclaimed “Heart of Dixie,” but the sad truth—and I don’t offer this in any way to acquit Tuscaloosa of the charges that article leveled—is that such re-segregation is happening all over the country. And that kind of segregation creates a persisting “underclass” that Americans—or at least too few of the officials we elect to office—don’t seem to care that much about, no matter how much we extol the virtues of diversity.

                  So, yes, we’ve come a long way, but I think there’s a self-satisfaction because we see “diversity” all over our televisions, or at college graduation ceremonies, or even in some board rooms. Those images, important as they are, blind us from the segregation that exists between the haves and the disproportionately minority have-nots. There’s work to be done.

review: Feral Nights

title: Feral NightsFeral+Nights+Final

author: Cynthia Leitich Smith

date: Candlewick; 2013

main character: Yoshi Kitihara

Yoshi is a high school senior being raised by his grandmother in Oklahoma well, until grams catches him with this girl he brought home for the night. Gram has a strict “No Company Allowed” policy that she enforces with a shotgun. Yoshi is given the boot and he decides to head to Texas in search of his sister, Ruby. Oh, they’re a werecat family.

Feral Nights is told in multiple voices. While I’ve had enough of multi voiced books to last me a lifetime, Leitich Smith carries it off quite well. The voices are unique and easy to distinguish.

There’s Clyde, a werepossum with 4 younger siblings. He sees ghosts.

Travis, whom Ruby is suspected of killing. He’s a ghost.

And there’s Aimee, a human who genuinely likes werepeople.

The witty dialog and use of present tense writing keep the story moving at a brisk pace. Leitich Smith smoothly packs in a unique, descriptive backstory as she builds an incredible world of werepeople, vampires, deities and humans. Wereanimals (werecats, wereorcas, werebears, werelions…) are at the core of the story with a werecat accused of killing a werearmadillo. More than that, they’re Ruby and Travis. While everyone has animal characteristics, they each also have fully developed human personalities. That Leitich Smith manages to do this all in 290 pages is amazing. Just as the reader has gotten familiar with the characters and the relationships they’re building, everything flips on its head. Needless to say, this is not a predictable story.

This review is really doing the book little justice because Leitich Smith so flawlessly weaves her tale. It’s like watching anyone who does something well: you don’t want to pick it apart because you just want to enjoy the artistry.

Feral Nights is the first book in the Feral Series. Feral Curse was released this past January and Feral Pride is forthcoming. All books are published by Candlewick. Cynthia Leitich Blogs at Cynsations. She’s the best selling author of the Tantalize series, Jingle Dancer (HarperCollins) and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins) and number other books.