Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Friday's Fare: Review of Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

Middle school! The time in any kid's life when he or she really, truly, begins to "grow up". But growing up means dealing with problems not usually found in elementary school: changes in one's body; changes in one's personality, usually steming from said changes in one's body; homework which increases both in terms of quantity and difficulty; attraction to girls, along with things like dances, sports, and cheerleading; grades, which are definitely more important than they were during the past 5 years in school; and of course, the seemingly ever present bully.

All of these things can be really tough on any kid, but when Rafe Khatchadorian enters 6th grade, "tough" becomes "impossible to survive."  He hates his school, which he insists was at one time a medieval prison that they forgot to tear down and turned into a middle school instead.

 Today that prison is home to the Diabolical Dragon Lady ( his English teacher); the Lizard King ( the principal); the Three Witches Millie, Billie, and Tillie ( the cafeteria ladies); Sargeant Stricker ( the vice-principal); The Ogre ( the gym teacher ); and..oh yes, we mustn't forget Miller the Killer, the ( 9 foot ) school bully.

Unfortunately for Rafe, home is no refuge, either. Here he deals with his little sister Georgia who is "super-obnoxious" and "super bratty;" his mother whom he loves dearly but is never around because she is always working . She has to work double shifts to support not only him, his sister, and herself, but also Rafe's soon-to-be-stepfather who does nothing but lay around all day, drinking beer and watching TV.  Carl, better known as Bear, is in his own way as big a bully as Miller the Killer.

The one saving grace for Rafe is his very best friend, Leonardo the Silent. "The Silent" because he hardly ever talks, and when he does it's just to Rafe.  Leo comes in very handy, however, because he gives Rafe an idea of how to "beat the system" of 26 pages of RULES for middle school behavior. It is a stupendous idea!

Rafe  invents a game based on Leo's idea. That game is going to give him points for breaking every rule of conduct on each of those 26 pages. All Rafe has to do is figure out the best way for each rule to be broken.  He also get "bonus" points for the amount of creativity used in breaking a rule, points for causing laughter from the other kids when he breaks a rule ( because he intends to break each one in a most obvious way, so that everyone...including the Dragon Lady and the Lizard King...knows about it), and of course, MORE bonus points if he is observed by the most popular girl in school, Jeanne Galletta.

But things don't turn out exactly as Rafe has planned.  He is spending more and more time in detention, his grades are D's and F's...even some unasked-for tutoring by Jeanne can't bring them up, and he makes his mom cry.  Events take a turn for the worse when he loses his book with his rule-breaking game in it to Miller the Killer, and the only way he can get it back is to buy it, one page at a time.  So now he is in even bigger trouble, something he didn't think possible, and this time, Leo can't get him out of it.

His troubles just keep mounting up until finally the police are called in, and Rafe has no choice but to tell all.  Surprisingly enough, help comes from a most unexpected source, and Rafe realizes that life can not only get better, but be far more exciting by going in a totally different he loved, but never thought would amount to anything.

This is the hilarious and amazing adventure of one boy's misguided attempts to survive middle school. James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts teamed up to make a fascinating graphic novel, all the more exciting because of Laura Park's hysterical illustrations which detail every thought and move in Rafe's life.

The game that Rafe invented to break all the rules and the ways in which he broke them are delightfully imaginative, even though they sometimes border on dangerous, and inevitably, lead him to pay the consequences of his actions. Nevertheless, you will identify with him, probably remember with great clarity some of your most poignant moments in middle school, and you will undoubtedly laugh out loud with each page you turn.

The most tender and emotional moment in the book is the revealing of Rafe's mysterious friend, Leo. After laughing all through the book unil your sides hurt, this revelation will bring tears to your eyes.

Middle School: the Worst Years of My Life is one of the best kids' book I've ever read, one I will most probably read again, and one which I assure you should be on your list of 'next to buy.' You won't regret it...oh yes, and if you have a boy ( or girl) in or getting ready to go into middle school, be sure you let them read it, too!

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tuesday's Teaser: Create a Setting That's "In Character":Part One

What does the setting of your story say about the story itself, and more importantly, about your main character? Do you give much thought to the setting, or is it something that just "happens" as you go along?

Every character in your story lives, works, plays, cries, laughs, and thinks someplace. They don't just drift in and out of the story from out of the blue. Your MC doesn't live in some vague dimension where there is no sense of time, of space, atmosphere, or weather. She doesn't walk on air; she doesn't sit on nothing, and her five senses are not totally inactive for the length of your story.

Let's talk about those five senses first. As writers, we all rely heavily on sight, as that is our own human nature. When you use sight, what kind of description to you give? Let's say the MC is lost in the desert. Is that the end of it?  Perhaps you give the desert a name, talk about her dragging through the heavy sand. For example:

She stood on top of the dune and scanned the desert. She was lost, and she had no idea what to do next. All around her was sand, nothing but hot, deep sand. She brushed at the tears on her cheeks, and stepped resolutely forward.

That give us sight, but nothing more. We don't see or hear or smell or feel the desert. What about this next example:

 She stood on top of the dune and scanned the desert. There was nothing as far as she could see but the hot sand creating one mirage after another on the horizon. Overhead, the raucous cries of the turkey buzzards drifted down to her as they glided on the thermals in search of carrion. The slight breeze gifted her face with the red grit from the sand, and the unique odor of the creosote bushes was not one she could identify. A single tear crept down her cheek and kissed her lips with salt, before she brushed it away, and resolutely stepped forward into the deep sand.

Does this setting do more for the character? Do you get a sense of what SHE is feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching? Can you picture this location in your mind, and do so better than with the first example? If so, it is because this description uses all five senses, and it gives the reader two things: one is a true picture of the desert itself, and the other is a better understanding of  the character. She is no longer one dimensional, but she hears and smells and feels and tastes as well as sees...just like we do.

Using all five senses is very important to your story and to your characters. All five don't have to be used in every scene, and shouldn't be or that would be a real "sensory overload," but they should be interspersed, one or two at a time, as your characters go along in their lives, just as they are in our lives.

There are other elements to setting besides the five senses. Time, place, location, weather, atmosphere, housing, transportation, life style, culture, art, even food and clothing are all a part of the setting. Not all of these are going to play a part in every story, of course, but you need to pick and choose which elements are going to be important enough for you to write about.

In fantasy and science fiction, writers seem to spend a great deal of time writing about their make-believe worlds. They go to great lengths to describe physical locations, castles, rocket ships, weird animals, electronic weapons and gadgetry...anything to make the reader "see" this new world the characters are romping around in. 

Think about the Harry Potter novels. Weren't you able to "see" Hogwarts, and all of the characters in that first book long before the first movie came out? It was only because JK Rowlings spent a considerable amount of time in detailing the settings.

This should hold true for writers of contemporary fiction, too, but seldom does.  Yet setting is one of the most important elements of any story, regardless of genre or time era. How do you react to your environment? Do you act differently, feel differently, when you are in a familiar place versus somewhere strange you've never been before? Are you more observant of the places you are unfamiliar with than the ones you've grown up in? That is human nature, so it should be "in character" for our stories, too.

We'll talk about characters and settings in Part 2 of this theme. Stay tuned, hopefully I will be bringing you something new to think about!

Until next time,
That's a wrap.