Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book Review: Flora and Ulysses

The winner of the Newbery medal in 2014 goes to “Flora and Ulysses,” by Kate DiCamillo. Kate has an impressive body of work, most of which include cute animals, such as “The Tale of Despereaux.”

There are several superheroes in this story.  There is Flora, who discovers a squirrel getting sucked up in a vacuum cleaner and attempts to save the squirrel and come to terms with her parents’ divorce. There is William Spiver, who is temporarily blind, and somehow acts as an anchor for the other characters. Then there is Ulysses the squirrel, who discovers so much beauty in the world after being sucked into that vacuum cleaner that it inspires him to write poetry. He can also fly.

The story is silly, and at times has no point other than to entertain the reader. Pages are drenched in humor that pokes fun at the colorful characters, such as Flora's father, who constantly introduces himself, even when he knows every person in the room. The quest to save the squirrel from certain death doesn’t bear the weight it should. Still, the story is fun, with a lighthearted voice and whimsical illustrations for some scenes. “Flora and Ulysses” doesn’t hold a message as strong as last year’s Newbery winner, “The One and Only Ivan” did, but it has personality and timelessness.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Bookshelves are Necessary Objects

Five months ago, we moved our family of five from a 2200 square foot house to an itty bitty two bedroom apartment. We did it to be prudent. Job changes necessitated a move, and after hearing horror stories about houses being on the market for years, we chose to stay together and live conservatively until the house sells.

Moving from a fairly good sized house to a small apartment was a challenge. I have had to change my pantry habits, buying less and shopping more. No more stocking up on items for this mom. There simply isn’t room. There isn’t room for much. We are reduced to one coat per season, minimal toys. My Tupperware cabinet all but abandoned, as there is neither a spare cabinet big enough to contain my plastic stash, nor refrigerator space for the covered goodies.

Something else we left behind in our new skinny life…. the books. We own a ton of books. Nearly every room in our house had a bookshelf or two. With three beds in one room and barely enough clearance for the kitchen table with five chairs, we could not afford the furniture space. We vowed to use the library more often (and we do) and have a few reading choices stashed on the hall tree.

Even with library visits and those selected few volumes, I heard the swell of discontent. “I miss the books.” “I don’t have anything to read.” At one point, I had to give my Kindle to my 6th grader.

With this in mind, while packing up our house for the last time (it sold!), I told the patient husband we need to bring back a bookshelf. Neither of us knew where it would go, as the apartment was already filled to the brim with all of us and our minimal stuff. He doesn’t ask questions, and suggested the smallest of our bookcase collection. I put my sons on task to choose some books for it, and warned them to only bring what they will read in the next six months (because the house sold! We don’t have to stay in the apartment for years!)

This, of course, led to less packing going on and little boys getting into trouble for hiding in their empty rooms reading.

I put the bookshelf in the almost nonexistent hallway between the bedrooms and the living area of the apartment. We will probably run into it 500 times before moving out, swearing at this decision daily. The smallest boy put the books on the shelf, carefully, lovingly and oh, so slowly as he stopped to read each title and peruse the contents with the excitement of opening a package received in the mail.

Instantly, that bookshelf transformed the apartment. It made it a home. Somehow, this extra piece of furniture we decided was unnecessary five months ago adds an ambience that is comfortable and soothing. Each of us has stopped to look at the shelves, or touch its surface, page through a book, or notice how the shelf itself fills the space with good, comforting vibes.

A place is not a home until there is a bookshelf. I am convinced.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Creating Tension in Scenery

A writer friend shared this tip, from Donald Maass's, "Fire in Fiction."

Determine the point of view of your character about the scenery or objects in your book. Put in scenery or objects that the characters have feelings or opinions about....good or bad and even have them disagree about these feelings which can up the tension. 

Making the scenery, and differing opinions among characters, is a great idea to both add to the scenery that surrounds the characters and add a layer of character development. It also puts more tension on the page, possibly adding another obstacle for the protagonist to overcome.

In the book I just finished, "Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking," the main character loves living near Boston, but her mother is thinking about moving to New Hampshire with the boyfriend, Putrid Richard. Among other things, this is a source of tension in the book. Moxie clearly loves being able to go to Boston with her best friend, has great affection for the city, and doesn't want to move away.. She hesitates to give her mother any reason to move them away from Boston, especially when Moxie and her family may be in danger.

The tension anchors the reader to the place and adds importance to the scenery in the story. This helps make the images come to life for the reader. I am rooting for Moxie to stay in Boston. Her descriptions of Boston are more poignant, and make me love the city more. 

I noticed a similar theme in the book, "Tell the Wolves I'm Home," which was reviewed on this blog. The main character has a stated affection for the city, and the apartment her uncle lived in up until he died. What his surviving lover does to the place adds color and tension to the scene. His overflowing ashtrays and clutter change the apartment, and create a new scene that adds to the hardship in accepting her uncle's death. 

One of my favorite things about a book is its ability to paint a picture and capture a scene that comes alive in my mind. Creating some tension in those scenes can make those descriptions come across more clearly and without the dreaded list of details. The tension also attaches a feeling to a place, which further invests the reader.