One Important Secret: Balance. Character, Emotion, and Story in Far from the Tree

Image of road signs.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

Since I am on a YA fiction jag, I want to have a quick look at why National Book Award winning Far from the Tree by Robin Benway is so good. Happily, all the things that make this novel work are things that will work for anyone writing at any level and in any genre: a balance of character, emotion, and story. (While I typically review books here, this post is one I wrote for writers. I want to share here as well as on my writing blog because Far from the Tree is a book for so many YA readers and makes a great booktalk for librarians.)

As stated on the book cover, Far from the Tree grapples with the question “What does it mean to be a family?” It’s the story of three half-siblings who were all given up by their biological parents. The two girls, Grace and Maya, are adopted into two families. Grace remains an only child whereas Maya’s parents received a ‘second miracle’ within months of her adoption and become pregnant with Maya’s younger sister Lauren. The boy, Joaquin, remains in foster care throughout his life, but has found a couple who would like to adopt him as a teen.

Balance: The even appeal of the three characters

Image of book cover for Far from the Tree.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

The key to the beauty of Far from the Tree is balance. I’ve never read a novel that so evenly handles all aspects of character, plot, and emotional range. All three of the main characters are fully developed and equally empathetic. Each of them has significant joy and pain. Each has a deeply developed internal as well as external life. These are the elements that appeal to readers. When each is fully realized, the reader falls for everyone–so every chapter is interesting, and there’s no lag in the storyline.

Keeping that one important secret: Grace

Image of baby doll.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

The reader is introduced to Grace first. She got pregnant in her sophomore year of high school. She delivers the baby, whom she thinks of as ‘Peach,’ the following school year on the night of Homecoming–as her ex-boyfriend is being crowned Homecoming King. Grace’s parents are supportive of her decision to give Peach up for adoption. And though she believes Peach will have a better home and parenting, Grace loves and misses the baby. This is the reason she seeks out her siblings and looks for her biological mother. It seems strange that she wouldn’t tell her newly found siblings about Peach, but she has been called names like ‘slut’ and been told that her former boyfriend had found a ‘nice girl,’ as though she managed to produce the baby by herself.

Keeping that one important secret: Maya

Image of beer bottle with flowers.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

Maya has a girlfriend named Claire, and her family is very supportive of their relationship. But both she and her sister Lauren are keeping the secret that their mother is an alcoholic. They often find hidden bottles around the house. So, not only does Claire not know about Maya’s mom, but neither of the newly discovered siblings know. Lauren is worried that Maya will dump her as a sister now that she has found biological half-siblings. Despite Maya’s propensity to talk a lot when she’s nervous, she skips what matters most to each of the people she values. 

Keeping that one important secret: Joaquin

Image of wishing box.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

Joaquin has a few secrets, but they all involve his fear that he is unadoptable because of his temper. He has much more serious trust issues than the two girls, naturally. He’s lived in seventeen foster homes. We learn quickly that in adoptions, girls are more desired than boys, and white girls are most desired. So Joaquin, whose father is Latinx and whose skin is darker, has less of a chance at adoption. When his current foster parents, who genuinely love him, ask him if they can adopt him, he’s afraid that someone will get hurt. He doesn’t tell anyway that they have asked him. He breaks up with his girlfriend, Birdie, because he thinks he’ll never be able to give her what she needs.

Letting Go of that One Important Secret: Joy

Image of dog checking out a heart made of pebbles.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

The fact that each of the three characters keeps a major secret seems very natural–they have good reasons for being on their guard–but by holding back, they are giving each other an entirely wrong idea of who they are. This is just one example:

“Maya wondered if Grace was lying. Grace seemed like the kind of girl who would wait her whole life so she could lose her virginity on her wedding night, who would read Cosmo articles about how to give him the best blow job of his life! But never actually say the word blow job. Which was fine–Maya wasn’t about to start telling someone what they should do with their body of whatever–but being next to someone that perfect made Maya just want to be messier, dirtier, louder.”

Once the three siblings reach out to one another about their issues, they have the opportunity to develop trust. And through trust, they can find love and joy.

Balance: Uncommonly well done

Image of Channel Island poppy.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

As Grace, Maya, and Joaquin negotiate the territory between their Internal and external lives, Benway propels the story in a straightforward/chronological manner. Each of the three siblings are given their own alternating chapters. They very soon connect emotionally and their care and concern will drive them to take chances with one another and with others in their lives. Grace has a tenacious desire to find their birth mom. Since she misses Peach, she believes their mother must have loved and missed them. Maya and Joaquin don’t hold the same view–the fast talking Maya points out that their bio mom gave the toddler Joaquin away to strangers. But what they discover about their origins will give them all a sort of peace and trust that will help them throughout their lives.

This beautiful balance is something that any writer (of any genre for any age group) should strive for. A reader who is all-in throughout the novel is probably going to pick up and read the next one too.

Other Sources for Hints on Balanced Writing

For more advice on how to tell a good story, see my post on recent books for writers. If you want to read other YA fiction that strikes balance in a very different way, try Challenger Deep (mental illness/the real and unreal) and Not a Drop to Drink (the need for survival in a permanent, climate-change induced drought balanced against the need to continue to trust and love).

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hope in the Mail

Image of “Hope in the Mail”
A good choice for pep talks.

Wendelin Van Draanen, author of Hope in the Mail: Reflections on Writing and Life, wrote one of my favorite YA novels, The Running Dream. (I wrote a review of The Running Dream here. Check it out–and check out the book!) She’s also the author of the perennial teen favorite Flipped as well as the super popular middle school mystery series Sammy Keyes. I was delighted to see that she’d written a book about writing–Hope in the Mail: Reflections on Writing and Life

Hope in the Mail: Focus Topics

I’ve read a variety of books for the emerging writer, and each focuses on different topics. Van Draanen is very good at showing how ordinary life experiences build the sort of character it takes to weather the writing life (think tough experiences that build grit or tenancy). Although she does discuss her experiences in the publishing industry (more on that below), this is not a book about the business of writing. If you are interested in that as the main topic, see my review of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Writing and Kristen Lamb’s Rise of the Machines.

Van Draanen grew up in a large Dutch-American family, one that suffered major tragedies when she was young: the loss of the family business to arson and the death of her father. She began to write after the burning of the family business because she “needed to kill off some bad guys.” She has an “unshakable belief that writing saved [her] life.” I know many writers feel this. If you are a young writer, particularly one who is interested in writing for tweens and teens, you many find some good advice in these pages. “No matter how young you are, you have experience. You have knowledge. You have feelings and observations and thoughts that are worthy of exploration. . . . It’s often the small stories with universal messages that touch us most deeply.”

Some of the topics the author covers include developing the things that readers notice and will evaluate when they discuss the book: author voice; characters modeled on the people around you; looking at the world through the eyes of the characters; developing setting; being clear on backstory including that of villains; building your world; and allowing weird events (and dreams) to open up writing possibilities.

Writing Advice: Underlying Issues

Van Draanen also helps the new writer to understand underlying issues in writing that may be less evident to the reader: hidden architecture; just what theme is in a novel (and how much young people hate overt ‘message’ books); the need for both great plots and beautiful language. A major issue that a new writer may not have considered is how hard it is to finish a novel in what can seem like an endless ‘revise, rinse, repeat’ cycle. She also cautions the writer about research: “A novel is not a how-to manual or a dumping ground for information. It’s a story. If your research contributes to the believability of the story or adds to its texture, use it. Once your reader senses that they’re being ‘educated’ you’ve gone too far.”

Advice particular to authors of chapter books (ratio of illustrations to text), authors of series and sequels is especially helpful to those writing for young people. By showing the specific influences of the writing of each of her own novels, both stand-alone and those in a series, Van Draanen give wonderful examples of how her ideas/suggestions/advice work in real life.

The Experience of Being a Published Author

Lastly, Van Draanen discusses what it’s like to be a published author. Again, she doesn’t tell you how to publish and promote yourself, but rather narrates her experiences with agents, editors, book titles and covers and more.

“Putting hope in the mail means putting yourself–your work, your wishes–out there however you can. It means actively creating the possibility for good things to happen.”

Hope in the Mail: Writing Advice for Young Writers

High School Housekeeping: If you are a teen writer looking for advice, this is a great book to start with.

Note: I wrote this post for my blog on writers and writing. Since Hope in the Mail seems to be the perfect book for teens hoping to write novels–and is written by a favorite YA author–I decided to add it here as well.

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The Field Guide to the North American Teenager

 

Image of novel ‘The Field Guide to the North American Teenager’

Yes, there’s a joke about a moose.

Being a Teen=Lack of Control Over Life

Smack in the middle of his junior year of high school, Norris Kaplan has to move from Montreal, Canada to Austin, Texas when his mom secures a professorship at the University of Texas. He is sad and angry, a truly depressed guy. He’d wanted to stay in Montreal with his dad, but dad is concentrating on his second wife and new baby boy. Norris isn’t great at making friends, and is leaving behind the one person who is close to him.

The second Norris’ plane lands, he believes all of his preconceived notions about Austin–and Texas and the states in general–are true. It’s 104 degrees and Norris has a problem with excess sweating. No one in the airport understands the hockey team logo on his shirt. Everything he can see as he and his mother drive away appears bland and supersized.

Norris Kaplan

Norris is the child of Haitian immigrant parents. He worries that being a Black, French Canadian will make him stick out and become an object of ridicule. The notion that he appears exotic to the Texans is immediately reinforced by the admissions officer at school who continues to try to speak French to him although he keeps telling her he speaks English.

Norris has two major coping mechanisms: he jots observations in a notebook he keeps in his pocket (thus the title of the novel), and he makes snarky, even nasty remarks to everyone he meets as a way of getting in the first punch. While this sort of behavior works well in the TV programs he’s seen about America schools, it isn’t earning him any friends in real life.

Each chapter begins with a few of Norris’ notebook observations. He covers jocks, cheerleaders, loners, part-time jobs, parties, flirting and more. His observations are wry and very funny. The thing is–while some ring true, many are unfair, and this will come back to bite him. Hard.

The Austin, Texas Social Hierarchy

When a group of cheerleaders accidentally slams a door into Norris, the alpha girl assumes he is spying on her. Another appears to sympathize with him and a third gets into a major argument, full of boyfriend drama, with the alpha girl. The one who argues–Aarti Puri, is the child of immigrants from India. She is nothing like the other cheerleaders and doesn’t like hanging out with them. She’s into the arts, particularly photography. Norris sees a kindred spirit in this Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a possible future girlfriend. In the sympathetic girl, Madison (Norris knew one of the girls had to be named Madison!) has a connection to Aarti as well as a possible part-time job. He views Madison as a beta cheerleader, one who is kind, meets everyone else’s needs, and doesn’t ask enough for herself.

Finally, Norris meets Liam, a loner who speaks in a monotone. They connect because Liam wants to learn how to play ice hockey and Norris is the only person he can go to. Liam is even more observant than Norris and has more patience with human error. He’s a great foil.

Read The Field Guide to the North American Teenager

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is full of laughs and wit. It’s great fun to eventually sympathize with all teens in the novel–who each has his or her own charms. I highly recommend this novel.

The author, Ben Philippe, had an interview with NPR that you might want to check out (it’s very short). He said something important about Black male characters, so I’ll add it here:

“I think when it comes to black male characters, there’s often the — I call it the Barack and Trayvon dichotomy, whereas either you’re given someone who’s perfect, who’s almost bigger than life, who’s going to end up becoming President, essentially, or you’re given the tragedy, you’re given all the potential that’s going to get snuffed out from the world. And people say that, you know, Norris doesn’t really have a thing — he’s not this amazing talent or political activist. And that’s exactly what I was aiming for.”

But Norris is witty, deeply-feeling, and he learns to correct his course. So–very much a teenager the reader relates to.

High School Housekeeping: I think readers at every level would enjoy this and come away the better for having read it as it will undoubtedly create empathy. There is a lot of colorful language and as Norris says, he’s the blasphemer in the group. Unless that is a problem, you will love this one.

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Humor, Multicultural, Romance, Sports, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teen Writers! Submit Your Work NOW!

Call for Submissions for a Special Teen Issue of Inlandia: A Literary Journey

Now accepting fiction, poetry, nonfiction, graphic novel excerpts, zine excerpts, book reviews, and art for a special issue of Inlandia: A Literary Journey, Inlandia Institute’s online literary journal. Submissions are open to anyone ages 13 – 19. We are also looking for guest editors for this issue. See past teen issues here and here to get a sense of the teen work that has been published. See the FAQs on the submissions page for more information.

Deadline is February 15, 2020

Deadline

Submissions open on December 15, 2019

Submissions close on February 15, 2020.

Guidelines for submission

  • You may submit work in more than one category, but please do not submit more than one entry for any category, except poetry and art (you may submit up to five poems or works of art).
  • For fiction–there is no minimum word count. Stories should not be longer than 5,000 words. Stories must be self-contained. If you are submitting an excerpt from a novel, it must stand alone. Any genre is okay. 
  • For nonfiction–there is no minimum word count. Essays and creative nonfiction should not be longer than 3,000 words. Any topic is okay.
  • For poetry–you may submit 1-5 poems in a single document. If the formatting might be altered in a Word document, please submit as a PDF. No poem should be longer than one page.
  • For graphic novels/zines and the like–this is new to us, and we are leaving it a bit more open to see what comes in. Please submit as a PDF so the formatting is not lost. Consider that work that is very long–like its own graphic novel–will be too long to publish in a journal. Shorter will be better.
  • For book reviews–you must write the review yourself. Other than that, we are looking for reviews of titles that will interest teens. Whether those titles are fiction, nonfiction, YA or adult lit is up to you.
  • Art–we are looking for work that complements the written pieces and pulls the journal together as a cohesive whole. We won’t know what that is until we receive submissions, but since art is fluid and can be interpreted in many ways, we encourage you to show us some of yours. Submit 1-5 pieces as individual jpgs.

FAQs

Where do I submit my work?

Submissions accepted only through our Submittable portal here. Mailed or emailed submissions will not be considered.

Is there a submission fee?

No, submissions are free.

How should I format my work?

Please use the following format:

  • Margins: one inch on all sides.
  • Font: something standard like Times New Roman. 
  • Spacing: double space your work, unless it is a poem and you want other spacing.
  • Header: Number the pages in the upper right. (You don’t need to number the first page, but if you can’t figure out how to make that go away, we won’t count it against you!)

Is there a type of work that you don’t want?

We will not accept pornographic material or work that degrades any gender, race, religion, ability level, etc. In other words, nothing demeaning of others.

I have a question that is not answered here. Who do I ask?Please email your question to Victoria Waddle at vwaddleido@gmail.com, and she will do her best to answer it.

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Focus on Teen Writers and Artists: Inlandia Launch

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Inlandia-Teen-2019-Cover-e1557118499842-967x1024.jpgThursday evening, the Inlandia Institute celebrated the launch of this spring’s

Image of woman.

Christina Guillen, Inlandia Institute Programs Coordinator, introducing teen readers.

teen issue of Inlandia: A Literary Journey at “Literature on the Lawn,” part of Riverside’s monthly Art Walk. Several of our teen writers and artists spoke as their family, friends, and Inland Empire community member listened. It was a delightful evening of focus on teen writers and artists.

Image of flyer advertising ‘Literature on the Lawn.’

 

Why Focus on Teens?

 

Image of teen reader.

Kiyani Carter, teen editor and writer

Last night I was at my writers’ workshop where I was having a nonfiction piece critiqued by other adults. In my essay, I had written a few paragraphs about something I’d learned in many years as a high school English teacher and a teacher-librarian. This small bit of my essay–it was about helping teens choose books to read–ended up being the most discussed section of my piece. Why?

The adults were fascinated that I have years consistently reading young adult books, things I could keep in the catalog of my mind for later book talks, to use for suggestions when a student would ask me if I had a book with someone just like him as protagonist and hero.

“I didn’t think of that–that every student wants a book with him or herself at the center.”

 

Write Your Own Story

Image of Victoria Waddle

Victoria discussing the process of creating the teen issue and congratulating the teens.

 

Well, of course they do. Sometimes they don’t find that book or that story or that poem, so they try to write it themselves. As Nobel winner Toni Morrison said,

  • “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

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Samantha Schmiedel

 

 

The reason I wanted to have a teen issue for the Inlandia Journal–and this is the second annual teen issue–is that it’s a good place for teens, particularly local Inland Empire teens, to write their experiences and have those experiences read. It’s as simple as that.

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Maihan Phan

 I love giving the teens the opportunity to be heard, I love having teen judges who are getting their first experience as being editors. And while I hope to give teens opportunities, many in this process faced their first rejection–in fact, 75% of the submissions didn’t make it to the journal. To each person whose work was not accepted, I sent notes about what did work in their pieces, encouraging them to keep writing. I want everyone to keep striving because the fact that the pieces weren’t ready doesn’t mean that they won’t be published with a bit more work. They are simply in progress.

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Aubrey Koyle

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Alissar Nahhas

 

 

 

Image of teacher and kids.

Loma Linda Academy teacher David Stone, with his kids, supporting the teen readers.

 

Thank You for Your Journey

Tonight, I want to thank all the teen editors for their work in reading the pieces. Their efforts are truly a sacrifice of time at a particularly busy point in the life of teens–the end of the school year. I want to thank all the teen writers for submitting. It’s a pleasure to feel the emotional resonance of your work, to see you writing yourself into your own story.

Image of students.

Creative Writing teacher Alejandro Cisneros (second from left) with Wren Levya, Alyssa Valenzuela, Violette Valencia and Vivyan Perez (left to right), all from Loma Vista Middle School.

Congratulations on your success!

Note: If you’re interested in submitting work for the next teen issue of Inlandia, subscribe to this blog, and you will receive notification of submission dates. (Right now, that appears to be October 15, 2019-Jan. 31, 2020.)

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Sync Audiobooks for Teens Free Now!

Image of AudioFiles Sync Program

I didn’t realize that AudioFiles summer Sync Program for teens has started this week! It’s a great program–free audiobooks for teens for ten weeks of the summer. Each week books are thematic pairs. Sometimes one is a classic and one is contemporary. Other times, they are books written within the same decade. Every time, they are excellent choices.

As someone who enjoys YA literature, and who has spent years making recommendations to teens, I’ve used the program often. I highly encourage all teens to sign up .

As you can see from the flyer, The first pair of books are Blink and Caution and Swing. I remember reading Blink and Caution when it came out, and loving it for so many reasons–the two desperate protagonists, the friendship they develop, the danger they face, the mystery. I reviewed it here. Now that the folks at AudioFile have chosen to pair it with Swing, I’m going to read that as my next YA fiction.

If you are a teacher or a librarian rather than a teen, please check out the program and encourage your students or patrons to sign up. Start immediately–the books are only available for free for one week ,and then they disappear!

 

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The Teen Issue of Inlandia will be Out Soon!

So excited about the second annual teen issue of Inlandia: A Literary Journey!

Submissions were open to all Inland Empire teens. Ten ten editors selected the pieces that will be in the journal–art, photos, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, microworks, and reviews. It was a very diverse group of submissions this year! As we did last year, we have some teens from outside the area featured as well. However, the majority are from the IE.

Come on by the Riverside Art Walk/Literature on the Lawn this coming Thursday and hear some of our local poets and authors read their work. Let’s welcome them into our arts community! Details below:

Flyer for the Literature on the Lawn event

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