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Musings of a fantasy writer for young people
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Last week the remarkable Jody Feldman tagged me to participate in a great get-the-word-out game called The Next Big Thing – Thanks, Jody! The Next Big Thing is an awareness blog campaign that began in Australia and became international. It features authors and illustrators of books for kids and young adults and their recently published books and/or those that are slated to be released this year.
1) What is the working title of your next book?
THE GLASS PUZZLE. It’s always been that title, even when it was a germ of an idea.
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
I really don’t remember. I guess the idea of two kids falling through a puzzle into another world just came to me and I fell in love with the image of a puzzle made of glass.
3) What genre does your book fall under?
Similar to my other books, THE OWL KEEPER and THE SCORPIONS OF ZAHIR, THE GLASS PUZZLE is middle grade adventure-fantasy
Cover by Fernando Juarez
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Zoe: a young Saoirse Ronan (with a competely different haircut)
Ian: Asa Butterfield
Dr. Marriott: Anthony Hopkins in disheveled professor mode (he’s Welsh, after all!)
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When two cousins discover a glass puzzle, ancient forces are unleashed that threaten their Welsh seaside town in sinister ways.
6) Who is publishing your book?
THE GLASS PUZZLE comes out July 9, 2013 from Random House/Delacorte Books for Young Readers. As always they’ve done a fantastic job with a stunning cover and amazing illustrations… a detailed map of the town, too!
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I know it sounds strange, but I started writing this book 25 years ago, when my kids were young: my first attempt at a novel! The first draft probably took a year or more because I had trouble with creating a world on the underside of the puzzle; I just couldn’t get it right. Over the years I worked on the book, then shelved it, then took it out again, and it finally came together when I fused it with another half-written novel I’d set in Wales.
8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Middle grade fantasies that deal with crossing over into other worlds, such as THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME, Edward Eager’s KNIGHT’S CASTLE, INKHEART by Cornelia Funke, THE EMERALD ATLAS by John Stephens, P.J. Hoover’s THE FORGOTTEN WORLD trilogy, WILDWOOD by Colin Meloy, GREGOR THE OVERLANDER series by Suzanne Collins.
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
As a child I watched “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” with my dad, the original black-and-white sci-fi horror movie where outerspace invaders replace human beings with duplicates that appear identical on the surface but are devoid of any emotion—and nobody knows! Well, almost nobody: the main character, a doctor, figures out what’s going on and tries to stop them. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of people being secretly taken over while everything on the surface appears to be perfectly normal. This was a theme I used in this novel.
THE GLASS PUZZLE suddenly took on a life of its own when I switched the setting from upstate New York to the medieval walled seaside town of Tenby, Wales, notorious for its pirates, smugglers, caves and ghosts, and the maze of tunnels that run beneath its cobbled streets. I’ve been twice to Tenby and it truly is a haunting, mysterious windswept place.
10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Hmm, let’s see. Well, a drowned island lost in time, tunnels beneath the town and a cavern of lost enchantments, an ancient book, a secret society, a parallel universe. And, oh yeah, watch out for the terrifying creatures that are waiting to slink out through the puzzle!
Thanks for reading this! And please check out posts next week from my critique group cohorts Pat Lowery Collins and Laurie Jacobs.
Next week my husband Peter and I are flying to Madrid to hike 500 miles across northern Spain, following an ancient pilgrim’s path known as the Camino de Santiago. Carrying a small backpack each, we’ll set out from the medieval town of Roncevalles, in the Pyrenees, and head for the fabled Galician city of Santiago de Compostela.
We’ll be away six weeks, and for most of that time we’ll pretty much be off the grid. Forget getting any writing done. Or reading! The only book we’re taking is John Brierley’s guide to the Camino, a “practical & mystical manual for the modern day pilgrim.” It weighs almost nothing. In fact, we’re packing only the bare essentials.
And that, of course, is the point: travel light, travel slow. Embrace the unexpected.
My creative space is an alcove of our living room, near windows with views of the sea. I work at a large Shaker desk littered with carved wooden owls (my muses), surrounded by photos, framed prints and drawings, a glass bottle of Sahara sand, small gargoyles and shelves of children’s books. There’s a cupboard door covered with notes to myself and a map of the desert. Gazing out over the salt marshes and boats, I can see sky and waves and shifting colors. It’s easy to imagine distant places and other worlds.
A quiet place, a comfortable chair and a computer, plus long stretches of time (and access to a refrigerator!): that’s the ideal creative space for me. Up until a few years ago, however, I’ve written on rickety tables, in cramped corners, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, trying to fit the writing around a full-time job. Only now do I have the luxury of my own space and time.
Working on my MacBook in Buenos Aires
When I’m in Argentina or Maine, I take my my MacBook Pro. (Here it is, on the left, in my apartment in Buenos Aires.) Sometimes when traveling I’ll write by hand using a writing tablet or moleskin notebook. With my liquid gel ink pen, I go into organizational mode: outlining, world-building, making timelines and/or sketching maps and characters for my next book.
Favorite time to write: early morning
Favorite snack: popcorn and iced tea
Favorite chair: Aeron ergonomic chair from Herman Miller
Favorite desk: my Shaker desk from Maple Corner Woodworks in Vermont
Blog: owl tracks
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Middle grade literature
, "The Owl Keeper"
, A Wrinkle in Time
, Astrid Lindgren
, Edgar Allen Poe
, Edward Eager
, Hans Christian Andersen
, Kelly Murphy
, Knight's Castle
, Madeleine L'Engle
, Margot Benary-Isbert
, middle grade authors
, Middle grade readers
, middle-grade novels
, Pippi Longstocking
, Ray Bradbury
, Shirley Jackson
, The Dreamkeepers
, The Haunting of Hill House
, The Scorpions of Zahir
, The Snow Queen
, The Wicked Enchantment
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A few months ago I was emptying out an old file cabinet at the back of my closet when a folder caught my eye. “Early Stories” was printed across the top in neat letters. Curious, I opened it and papers tumbled out, looking timeworn and ancient, like ink-scrawled maps of my childhood. I recognized my childish looping left-hander’s script: they were stories I’d written between the ages of eight and twelve, with titles like “The Mystery of the Blood-Stained Emerald Sword,” “A Slip Back Into Time,” The Mummy’s Curse,” “Vampires and Death.” Even then it was obvious where I was heading. I wrote stories with my special fountain pen (considered cool in those days), and sometimes pencils, on the lined pages of big spiral notebooks. From the age of seven I wanted to be a writer. When I wasn’t writing, I was at the library, breathing in the musty odors of moldy books, losing myself inside tales of time travel, monsters and otherworldly enchantments. And then there were the scary sci-fi and Dracula films I watched on Friday nights with my next-door neighbor Jody at the local movie theater.
The books that stayed with me were The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Knight’s Castle and all of Edward Eager’s time travel books, Margot Benary-Isbert’s The Wicked Enchantment, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and stories by Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe. Some of their tales terrified me, while others transported me to strange and fantastic worlds. I often imagined that if I turned a certain corner, climbed a twisting staircase, or discovered an ancient ring, anything might happen.
As an adult I wrote newspaper articles and stories for adults. It wasn’t until I had boys of my own that I began writing for children. Reading stories to Ian and Derek took me back to the world of children’s books and I decided to write the kinds of books I’d loved as a child. A story written for a children’s literature course in grad school became my first published novel, The Dreamkeepers. The hero was my ten-year-old son and I set the book in Wales, where my husband grew up. (His parents, thinly disguised, are in there, too.) Having always been a huge fan of monster (my favorite toys were dinosaurs and a cyclops), I found creatures sneaking into my books: Usk beetles (from The Dreamkeepers), plague wolves and the genetically-engineered skraeks in The Owl Keeper, and giant scorpions in The Scorpions of Zahir. I quickly discovered that, like myself at that age, many middle grade readers are monster-lovers too.
Illustration by Kelly Murphy
Writing for middle graders, I’ve come around full circle. Middle graders are caught somewhere between childhood and the traumatic teens. They have a child’s sense of wonder and often a teenager’s fierce sense of independence. Life is scary and heartbreaking a
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“The Scorpions of Zahir” started with a journey. In the summer of ’98 I traveled with my husband Peter and our two teenage sons to Morocco. We didn’t encounter giant scorpions, attacking desert warrior tribes or planets hurtling toward earth, but the experience was seared deep into my memory: the heat and dust, the exotic colors and smells, the frenetic pace of Marrakech. Most haunting of all was the Sahara, where we traveled by camel and camped overnight in the desert. As our journey progressed, I became intrigued by the idea of how the desert changes you.
So I created an “alternate family” – the Pyms – who make a similar journey to Morocco. Zagora Pym, eleven years old, has one burning desire: to go to the Sahara and find the half-buried desert city of Zahir. When her father, Dr. Pym, receives a mysterious letter from a friend who’s been missing ten years and claims to be in the desert near Zahir, Zagora gets her chance. She sets off with her dad and older brother Duncan, who’s nerdy, squeamish and obsessed with astronomy – and who definitely doesn’t want to spend his summer vacation in Morocco.
I sent the Pyms on the same route that my family took in Morocco, beginning with the night train from Tangiers to Marrakech – a mysterious, frenetic city – where we spent a few days, then rented a car and drove over the High Atlas (the highest mountain range in Northern Africa), stopping at a cafe in the Tizi n’ Tiki Pass where we met Mohammed, a Moroccan boy who invited us to his family’s house. We continued south, into the Draa Valley, ending up in a dusty town called Agdz, where we dined with Mohammed’s family. The following day we drove to the edge of the Sahara, to Mhamid, barely more than a desert oasis, where we bartered for camels and started our trek into the desert.
Zagora is a combination of my favorite childhood heroines – Pippi Longstocking, Meg Murry, Jo March – and she grows braver and more determined the farther she goes into the desert. The desert changes not only her, but also Duncan and the two Moroccan kids, Mina and Razziq, whom they meet along the way.
I write fantasy for middle-graders because that was the age when I was most excited about books. Reading was like a journey to the desert, filled with danger, mystery and adventure. That’s why I hope my books will spark the imaginations of young readers, transporting them from the everyday world to far-flung magical realms and unexpected places.
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Illustration by Kelly Murphy for “The Scorpions of Zahir”
Monsters, I have to admit, are a favorite topic of mine. As a little kid I preferred my plastic dinosaurs and one-eyed Cyclops-monster to playing with dolls–in my opinion monsters were way more cool.
Monsters are creatures that evoke fear and terror—for many of us they hold a dark appeal. Defined as “animals of strange or terrifying shape”, they lurk in dangerous and inaccessible places, at the fringes of our world; they turn up in our worst nightmares. Ancient maps often marked uncharted waters with pictures of sea serpents and/or the warning: “Here There Be Monsters” to signify the unknown.
Children are terrified of monsters, yet paradoxically they want to read about and think about things that scare them. When I was small the things that frightened me were vampire movies, fairy tale creatures and the invisible monsters under my bed. These were things I fed off and when I became an adult I was still fascinated by ghoulish creatures.
Monsters abound in fantasy, some benign (Suzanne Collins’ Overlander series, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are) But most monsters are terrifying, because they represent our deepest, darkest fears: the creatures in Rowling’s Harry Potter or the Nicholas Flamel books by Michael Scott, James Dashner’s ‘grievers’ in The Maze Runner, Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch. Adult-fantasy monsters include HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, the monster Grendel from Beowulf, the orcs in Lord of the Rings.
JRR Tolkien noted that his orcs owed a good deal to “the goblin tradition”, writing how the goblin idea blended with a more modern concept: that of the evil inherent in human beings. One of my worst fears growing up was the fear of familiar people being overtaken by some mysterious force, and turning creepy or even dangerous, from within – like what happens in Invasion of The Body Snatchers, or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.
In my books I’ve written about plague wolves, genetically-engineered creatures called skraeks, and giant scorpions. Yet sometimes in literature the scariest monsters are not fully described (The zombies in Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands & Teeth, & the botched experiments called misshapens in my book The Owl Keeper). These monsters are frightening because they’re shaped by the reader’s imagination. If you describe a monster in great detail, there’s a limit to how far you can go– you want your readers to tap into their darkest fears and nightmares.
Stephen King, one of the gre
This little gem of a book arrived in the mail from my friend Ro, who lives in Nottingham, England, for my birthday. She restored the cover of this 1885 edition of “THE OWLS OF OLYNN BELFRY: A Tale for Children,” written by A. Y. D. and illustrated by Randolph Caldecott. It cost one shilling when it was published in London by Field & Tuer, The Leadenhall Press, E. C. What a remarkable book! Randolph’s exquisite illustrations include pictures of owls sleeping in the belfry, an ornithologist, children at a circus, owls attacking robbers, “aged inhabitants in the church tower,” baby owls, and an owl performing a minuet with a fairy.
From page three: “Even now two very young creatures, named Bunting and Snunting, are sitting in a hollow of the woodwork in the belfry. They are covered with soft white down, and are sometimes snoring in a curious manner…”
At the April 13th book launch for THE OWL KEEPER, hosted by Wavepaint Design & Gallery in Ipswich, MA, I met an extraordinary woman by the name of Gail Doktor. Gail was holding a stack of books she intended to buy and deliver to Children’s Hospital Boston. She and her family are the founders of Bright Happy Power, set up in memory of their daughter/sister Jessie, a twice-relapsed leukemia patient, who spent six years on treatment before dying due to complications following a bone marrow transplant.
The purpose of Bright Happy Power is: “To place hope, happiness and empowerment into the hands and lives of children and families facing life-threatening and catastrophic challenges.”
You can find out more about Jessie at http://www.brighthappypower.com and read her family’s online journal at www.dok.com.
If you have books you’d like to donate to Children’s Hospital Boston, or if you’d like to contribute in some other way, you can contact Bright Happy Power by email: email@example.com or telephone 978-356-3780.
To celebrate the launch of THE OWL KEEPER, there are three blogs offering giveaways!
You can throw your name into the hat on one or all of these sites: AuthorsNow!, Cleverly Inked & *HEADDESK*!
Here’s a celebration cake for THE OWL KEEPER from Liz of CleverlyInked:
…is celebrating children’s authors and illustrators, beginning at 4:00 pm on Saturday April 17th! Please join us for readings and a reception for the illustration exhibit!
Poster design by Barbara DiLorenzo
Wavepaint Design & Gallery
4 Market Street
Saturday April 17th 2010
Here is a photo of my Barred Owl, adopted through the Adopt a Wildlife Ambassador Program offered by the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, Maine. I chose this one because it reminds me of my owl in “The Owl Keeper” (except this owl is much bigger)!
Photo by Jeff Kaplan
The center is dedicated to rehabilitating sick, injured and orphaned wild animals. The goal in treating these animals – owls, falcons, hawks, kestrels, turtles, opossums, bats – is to return them to their natural habitats.
Unfortunately, sometimes the injury is too severe and the animal would simply not survive in the wild. Some of these animals remain at the Center to become an “ambassador” of its species in the education and outreach programs, where they are brought into classrooms, civic organizations, youth group meetings, and wherever else they’re needed. By adopting one of these animals, the sponsor helps cover costs of food, medical treatment and daily care for one year.
Stay tuned for more!
Lechuza: symbol of wisdom, N. Argentina
In Argentina, the owl – called “lechuza” in Spanish - symbolizes wisdom and good fortune. This indigenous owl watercolor (above) was given to me by a shopkeeper in Buenos Aires. I love the way it’s both ancient and abstract.
Lechuza from the Toba Tribe
This small hand-painted owl comes from the Toba, a tribe in the Chaco Region of Northern Argentina. I keep him on my desk for good luck.
Lechuza carved of palo verde wood
Carved of palo verde wood, this owl also comes from the north of Argentina. She looks to me like a philospher.
This owl necklace (below) comes from the trendy shop ‘Rapsodia‘ in Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires. Like the city, she’s funky and whimsical.
Bianca (Photo credit: Laura Dehler)
The Center For Wildlife in Cape Neddick, ME has sent me a Certificate of Adoption for rescue barred owl Bianca!
In 1995 Bianca was hit by a car and suffered a broken wrist; she wasn’t able to be released. She’s been a foster parent to many other barred owlets and travels often with programs to educate the public.
Barred owls (Strix varia) are the second largest owl in the country, with brown and white feathers all over their body, and a slight golden tinge to the ends of them. Their name comes from the barring across their chest. They’re very vocal birds and have an amazing variety of wails, moans, cackles, hisses and laughs.
Like all owls in the Northeast, barred owls are nocturnal and hunt at night. Their staple food is mice and small mammals, but they will eat frogs, birds, insects and crayfish. The outer edges of their primary feathers have a fluting edge, which allows them to fly silently over their prey.
If you’d like to adopt a rescue owl or other rescue wild animal, contact:
Center for Wildlife - Wild Ambassador Adoption Program
PO Box 620, Cape Neddick, ME 03902
Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges once lived on this street
“With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he, too, was all appearance, that someone else was dreaming him.” -Jorge Luis Borges, THE CIRCULAR RUINS
The apartment where I spent the month of February is located on Calle Guatemala, in Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires. Half a block away, Guatemala is intersected by Calle Jorge Luis Borges, named for this barrio’s most famous luminary. Born in Buenos Aires in 1899, the internationally acclaimed Argentinian writer, essayist and poet is considered one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. V.S. Pritchett has written that Borges has “the art of enhancing the effects of the unbearable, the sinister, and the ineluctable.”
In the photo above is El Preferido café, which started out as an almacén in 1952, founded by Arturo Fernández from Asturias, Spain. Borges lived across the street between 1901 and 1914. His family lived in a large house with an English library of over one thousand books. “If I were asked to name the chief event in my life,” Borges would later remark, “I should say my father’s library”.
I was a student in college when I discovered Borges. His writings delved into the dark corners of the human psyche, exploring the fantastic within the seemingly mundane, inventing bestiaries and arcane libraries and fables involving the nature of time, infinity, labyrinths, illusion, mirrors and identity. New York Times’ reporter Noam Cohen described Borges this way: ”A fusty sort who from the 1930s through the 1950s spent much of his time as a chief librarian, Borges (1899-1986) valued printed books as artifacts and not just for the words they contained. He frequently set his stories in a pretechnological past and was easily enthralled by the authority of ancient texts.” His works have had a significant impact on fantasy literature and, according to Wikipedia,”scholars have noted that Borges’s progressive blindness helped him to create innovative literary symbols through imagination since ‘poets, like the blind, can see in the dark’.”
Borges died in 1986 at the age of 86 in Geneva, Switzerland.
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Cover illustration by Fernando Juarez
The haunting cover and illustrations for THE OWL KEEPER were created by two extremely talented artists. I made a point of getting in touch with both of them to let them know how much I loved their artwork.
Spanish artist Fernando Juarez illustrated the cover for THE OWL KEEPER. I instantly fell in love with the owl, she’s so luminous and magical-looking; the background of silvery moonlight, the overhanging branches and houses lend a sort of dreamy Gothic quality. Fernando lives in Madrid with his wife and children, where he’s working as art director for Ilion Animation Studios on the film “Planet 51.” His illustrations are often quirky and whimsical, as you can see on this book cover he drew for Rita Murphy’s novel “Bird.“
Cover illustration by Fernando Juarez
Maggie Kneen is an architect, children’s author and children’s illustrator who grew up on the northwest coast of England. ”Art was what I did best, so that’s what I pursued,” she explains on her website, “but every opportunity to bring history and archaeology into my life has been taken or made.”
Illustration by Maggie Kneen
Her illustrations are elegant and mysterious, somehow reminiscent of illustrations in books I read as a child.. They capture perfectly the novel’s characters and spooky atmosphere!
One of Maggie’s most charming books, which she wrote and illustrated, is “Hamlet and the Tales of Sniggery Woods,” about a young pig named Hamlet, who “lived with his family in a small house, just above Molefurrow Market, between Sniggery Woods and the river.”
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Illustration from "Hamlet of Sniggery Woods" by Maggie Kneen