This month marks a year for Hundred Book Pile-Up. I started the blog because writers are supposed to—supposed to establish a web presence—to promote themselves. Gulp!
I come from a tradition that, to borrow from Garrison Keiler, doesn’t “put peas in the tuna casserole because it’s too show-offy.” “Tooting one’s horn” was extreme bad taste.
But telling people about good books. Easy!
Never underestimate the power of naivete to get things done.
And never underestimate the value of helpful friends who
deal with technology and ask good questions, like what benefits are you offering your reader? Gulp! My opinion? A benefit?
A little background information: The number of books is staggering, and any book store can only carry a fraction of what is written.
On a recent trip to my favorite children’s book store, I froze three feet inside the door, paralyzed by too many choices. Sometimes, books jump at you when you walk by. They holler, “Pick me! Pick me!”
But that day those lazy books just stood there. Not one gave any sign that I should pluck it off the shelf and adopt it. So I just stood riddled with indecision . . .
and then an insight—My mission: shine a light on books I would read with kids and recommend to friends. Author Richard Peck deserves about a 1000 watt spotlight.
Last Saturday, Peck spoke to the San Diego SCBWI. I can’t believe I didn’t know this middle-grade author before. He’s written over 40 books and has won multiple awards. To quote Grover, “Oh, I am so embarrassed.”
After he spoke, my husband and I raced to the sale table. A litter of books all jumped to grab our attention. We limited ourselves to five. I’ve read three of them so far. Each book engrosses, portrays characters with heart, teaches about an historical era, has sentences demanding to be read aloud to another person, and teaches me something new about writing.
The River Between Us, published by Puffin Books in 2003, begins and ends in the point of view of fifteen year-old Howard, who in 1916 travels with his father and little brothers to meet his grandparents.
“Apparently, my dad had been young once, but I couldn’t picture it . . . All I knew of Dad’s people was that they’d lived through the Civil War.”
Howard meets his elderly grandparents and great aunt and uncle. The story switches to his grandmother’s point of view as a young girl living in a town close to the North-South boundary. The story chronicles the costs of war, racism, and boundaries that are not geographical. A ghost is involved. That’s all I’ll give away.
Children’s stories have to be about children and Richard Peck did a masterful job of writing a children’s book allowing each generation to tell its own story. Writers, this is one book I will keep on my shelf as a model; and, readers, this is a book I will keep on my shelf to reread for the love, and what it may say about my family history.
The next Peck book in my stack, Secrets at Sea, Puffin Books, 2011, puzzled me. How could someone who wrote The River Between Us also write a fantasy about mice?
Mice? Mice! Mice with tons of personality and subject to putting on airs. This book is so, so funny!
“ . . . We were here before the squirrels. The squirrels came for the acorns. We sold them the acorns. . . . After the Dutch came the English . . . They brought taxation without representation. Tea—oceans of tea—and a ridiculous nursery rhyme called ‘Hickory Dickory Dock.’”
Peck set out to write a book about the practice of marrying off American heiresses to European nobility to get a title in the family. Peck couldn’t make the book work because he couldn’t overcome his disapproval of the practice . . . until he made his characters mice. What a stroke of good luck for his readers (and a good lesson for writers). Plus, without the mice, the cat jokes wouldn’t have worked at all.
At last week’s meeting, Peck stressed the importance of a novel’s first sentence and of starting your book a little past the beginning of the story. (We writers have a tendency to begin writing before the actual story starts. Not the best way to hook a reader.)
On the Wings of Heroes, Puffin Books, 2007, begins, “Before the War the evenings lingered longer, and it was always summer when it wasn’t Halloween, or Christmas.”
Playing hide ‘n seek, an old couple who didn’t mind the kids using the tree in their yard as home base. This doesn’t sound like starting after the story itself begins—doesn’t sound like a hook.
Actually, he got me. It took me pages to realize what he’d done and that I’d been reeled into a committed relationship with his characters.
This story takes some time before getting to Pearl Harbor and Christmas when Davy’s older brother comes home on leave. “We untangled the strings of tree lights, Bill and I, stretching them through the house. He could stick the star on top without stretching. But then he and Dad had hung the moon.”
Peck’s lovely words.
As in The River Between Us, war doesn’t just involve soldiers, and love has many ways to conquer.