Archive for the ‘Middle Grade’ Category

This is the final report from the local writers’ festival I attended in August. It took me a while to get through them all. The last session I attended at the festival was called Frankenstein’s Children. Acclaimed Kiwi Speculative Fiction writers, Elizabeth Knox & Lee Murray debated the influence of Frankenstein on modern literature. Knox is one of my favourite Kiwi authors. I’m a big fan of her Dreamhunter series, which I found transformative and compelling reading (reviewed long ago when I was a member of Goodreads). Knox has an ONZM, is an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate, and won the Prime Minister’s Award of Fiction in 2019. She teaches at Victoria University and lives in Wellington, New Zealand with her family.

Lee Murray is a New Zealand science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer and editor. She is a multiple winner of the Bram Stoker Award and a twelve-time winner of the Sir Julius Vogel Award. She is a well-respected rising star.

It felt like a privilege to sit in on their live-streamed interview. I love hearing how other writers think and how they approach their craft.

Both authors were asked the same question about why they had chosen the spec. fiction genre. “From childhood, the things that most excited me had dragons and ghosts. My imagination went in that direction very early.” Elizabeth Knox said, “You have a reaction to the world, and you want to push against appearances and say, what if? How much do we live in the present; how much do we live in imagination? It’s a penetrating, all-time approach to the state of the human being.”
Lee Murray had done her research. “It was a term coined in the 1960s. It was called Speculative, and it’s developed over time. Ursula le Guin said, ‘It’s about possibilities.’ It’s also about myths and legends, asking what if, and looking at the human condition. It’s new perspectives. It’s changing all the time.”
What a great way of looking at it. Why did the two authors consider their work to be “Frankenstein’s Children”?

“Mary Shelley is considered the mother of spec fiction,” Murray explained. “She wrote Frankenstein at the age of 17 in the 1800s, writing about the resurrection of life with electricity before it was invented. It’s a book about othering. The monster wanted to belong. Shelley couldn’t be published because she was a woman. Spec Fiction is a place for women’s narratives. She was able to show she is intelligent.”
I found this thought-provoking.
Murray went on. “I wanted to write about what mattered to me and things that frighten me. It allowed me to write about things safely. Spec fiction is not this world. It’s not pointing at this person or thing. It gives us a little bit of distance.”
The author neatly skewered one of the reasons this genre drew me to it. I can tell my stories without having to worry about treading on any toes because it’s all make-believe. The genre is a forgiving umbrella. I’m fascinated to hear it is popular. Since the age of seventeen, I’ve been writing spec fiction, but whereas in the 80s publishers told me, ‘No one is interested in fantasy,’ now, suddenly, it’s cool. Or, as Murray said, “It’s the place to be.”

This reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s interview. When asked at a previous festival, did he expect to be where he is today in terms of career, Neil said he never expected to be famous. When he started, he worked in niche areas where no one in those days ever got famous. ‘You didn’t get famous in comic books, fantasy, or children’s writing—I thought I’d be out here with the weird kids. Then it spread out, and now we’re all the weird kids.’ That’s it exactly. Our strange little frowned-upon fantasy corner of the world is becoming more mainstream. Hey, it’s nice to have company.

I am also drawn to writing middle fiction, and maybe there’s a reason for that. Knox said, “There’s a period when young people are entering the world, and they’re refusing it.” I liked that. There’s an inherent kind of rebellion that comes naturally with being young or young-at-heart and trying things out, questioning the status quo. “I think we need fiction more than ever.”

Murray said, “Spec. fiction has a role in social change. It has real value. It’s the new black. It’s the place where the young people are.”
I agree. But you have to write with a lightness of touch. “As soon as you start hitting readers over the head with your message, they don’t want to read it.” Knox said, “I’m an avid reader. But I’m resistant to being told I have to do anything. You can’t step outside reality. Spec fiction is the world outside the consensual reality.”
That’s what makes it so exhilarating.
“I love fairies and Arthurian legends. Even a tragic ending can bring joy because of the shapeliness,” said Knox. “I’m changing my mind about hope. I think it belongs to the things that console us like fiction.”

Wow!
Do you see why Elizabeth Knox is one of my current writing heroes?
I’m proud to write Speculative Fiction or Frankenstein’s Children. It’s fun! How about you? Do you read it or write it?

Talk to you later.
Keep creating!
Yvette Carol

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Good stories are dangerous. Dangerous, anarchic, seductive. They change you, often forever…they challenge our vocabularies and our history. Sometimes they challenge our comfortable morality. And sometimes…they challenge our most basic assumptions. ~ Jane Yolen

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My friend said she soaked up the events at this year’s writers’ festival like a sponge. I know what she means. The “conversations,” the lectures, the workshops, and the performances that took place in August filled my cup to overfloweth. It’s worth putting aside a week each year for the festival. I’ve been attending for years and have a large old paper notebook spiral-bound that I have kept notes in since the first time. As promised, I will continue to report on the events I attended whenever I get the chance. The writers’ festival is a blast. The buzz of being around other scribophiles and learning more about the craft and the business is an intoxicating mix. As a card-carrying introvert, it takes a lot to drag me out of my cave, especially in winter. But events like that can do it. Then I go out and come home jazzed every single day. However, once it’s over, I must lie inside my cave for a while to recover.

The second session I attended was the Middle Fiction workshop with Kate de Goldi. I know! I am such a fangirl and have rabbited on about this much-lauded Kiwi author and tutor for years, and I got to attend another workshop with Kate herself! As soon as I saw her name on the agenda, I signed up. I’ve done several courses with Kate over the years, and they have always enriched, enlightened, and inspired me. Though I didn’t expect Kate to recognize me, I’ll admit I was chuffed when she did. We even had a quick chat about the workshops in the past, and Kate let me get an updated photo with her. Yay!
Kate is a passionate advocate of the middle fiction genre and maintains that ‘Much of the best writing for children can be found in the middle fiction space.’ I remember the first workshop I did with Kate in 2005. I was so excited about her perspective. “I don’t think you can say suitable for 9 – 13. I resist those divisions. It should be 9 – 99. Most of the great children’s books are read by adults.” This so mirrored my feeling about children’s literature that I felt at home, in the right place. “There is no difference between writing for children and adults, and there’s no difference in the level of craft.” My sentiments exactly.

This workshop with her was about exploring ‘language, voice, and characters of the form’ and was as brilliant as expected. Kate had some terrific advice on how to write at the middle fiction level. “If we bring the same armoury of craft to children’s fiction, we need to be observing. Polishing and excavating your sensory capacity is necessary. Seeing the world from a completely different point of view is essential.” Kate recommended we get in touch with the old child self. “Interview your 9, 10, and 11-year-old self. Your job is to practice noticing and to think about the emotional territory we occupied at that time.” The reason for that was simple. “Noticing, a sense of wonder, and being new in the world IS middle fiction.” I love it when a teacher can be reductive yet, at the same time, say everything.
As Kate doesn’t believe in rules for fiction or prohibitions, she has a free approach to teaching about writing, which I also appreciate. “Being in the world and thinking about your inner child self is a good place to start.” That, I can do.

And how do you learn how to write? “A plumber knows drains. Read your genre. Go to the library and read your genre across decades and authors.” That was how Kate had learned to write. She started as a reader. She said she was too underconfident in her writing to take a writing course and had learned by reading. Similarly, I was too shy to share my work for years, therefore I connected with that point. Usually, I feel daunted by the wealth of scholastic accomplishments achieved by my writing peers. At least now I can say I’m in good company.
How do you figure out what to write about? Kate said you should not come to the page wanting to write about X. “You should come with something you feel driven to say that you don’t fully understand yet. Interrogate your 11-year-old self. What were you puzzled by, conflicted by? A character propelled by something is a good place to start. After that, I get them walking and talking.” Easy, right?

While I’m busy fangirling, who are your favourite authors? Who would you love to meet in person?

Talk to you later.
Keep creating!
Yvette Carol

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“I think of middle fiction as the body of work that has most influenced children.” ~ Kate de Goldi


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It’s time for another group posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Time to release our fears to the world or offer encouragement to those who are feeling neurotic. If you’d like to join us, click on the tab above and sign up. We post on the first Wednesday of every month. Every month, the organizers announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG Day post. Remember, the question is optional!!! Let’s rock the neurotic writing world! Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG, and the hashtag is #IWSG.

This month’s question: What do you consider the best characteristics of your favorite genre?
Whittling it down to just one is a hard ask. My favourite genre is the one I write, fantasy fiction for middle-grade children. I remember in one of the writing courses I took twenty-odd years ago, the tutor exhorted us to do as Thoreau once said, to “know thy bone.” In other words, to circle your preoccupations, recurring motifs, to explore your particular palette, “bury it, dig it up, sniff it, gnaw on it” – know thy bone. Thankfully, many years ago, I discovered the right genre for me, and I’ve been circling it ever since, figuring out how to say what I want to say. The tutor advised us to “immerse ourselves in the genre” by reading as well. I don’t need any encouragement! This is why I write and read my favourite genre.
What is the best characteristic? Gee, still hard…

To make things easier, I might break the answer into two parts. Let’s start with the age group, middle-grade, or children between the ages of eight and twelve. This stage of life is magical because kids are strong enough to be somewhat independent while still being young enough to be starry-eyed. They are not too old for enchantment. Ava Duvernay said of this age group that ‘it is a time to discover who we are in our minds and our hearts. A time to listen and learn and think and wonder. A time to start to decide for ourselves how we want to walk through this world.’ That’s powerful stuff, right there.
Middle grade is a great age group to write for. The first time I ever saw Kate de Goldi speak in public was when she gave a keynote address at the Spinning Gold Children’s Writer’s Conference in 2009. Every point Kate made hit home when she spoke of why she chose to write Middle Fiction. “I don’t write about or for children, but I write for the once and always child in myself,” Kate said. “When I’m writing for children, I’m chasing down a lost Eden, that hopeful springtime, approximating the pleasure I had in those shaded places. The lost Eden of my childhood.”

Thank you for putting it into words, Kate. I am ever seeking to evoke the bewitching, magical heaven of my idyllic childhood when the joy of reading took hold of my heart and soul.
There is a deep secret fascination with that time of my life. In the years 8 – 12, I was an independent thinker, and I believed in the possibility of magical things, like leprechauns, tooth fairies, unicorns, and Santa Claus. When I was on a writing course with Kate de Goldi once, Kate told us, “Inside, I’m always twelve.” And I am the same. I feel I haven’t lost touch yet with my young life. The inner child who never stopped believing in the possibilities.
Middle Grade is a cool audience. They’re not reading with a sentimental nod back to those days when we used to believe in dragons; these readers can still be thrilled by the idea that such things might exist and aren’t afraid to let their imaginations run wild with it. I love that.

The fantasy fiction part of the genre is an equally important part of my bone. I started as a young reader of fairy tale anthologies, myths, and legends, Hans Christian Andersen, C.S.Lewis and Enid Blyton, and Tove Janssen. It was not that my life was something I sought to escape from as a child, but rather that fantasy fiction was so vivid, such a thrilling place to escape to. As Neil Gaiman said at last year’s writer’s festival, “Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been.” And that’s exciting.
Why do I write it? The common thinking about our draw towards fantasy fiction is that it’s about ‘fulfilling the heart’s desire.’ This usually means our longing for a better world, a better self, and a better life. I relate to that completely. They say that ‘Fantasy seeks to heal the wasteland.’ Almost every story aims towards the ultimate wish fulfillment, where everything works towards the greater good – the wasteland healed.
Saving the world is the deeper, philosophical view. I also write fantasy fiction because that’s what I read as a child. And, it keeps my inner child happy. Keeps hope alive. Feeds my sense of wonder. And, I gotta tell you, it is rewarding to learn how to trust my style, my voice, my way of adding another carrot to the stewpot. I adore my bone. It’s satisfying to bury, dig it up, sniff it, and give a good gnaw, before burying it again ready for the next time. It somehow feeds my soul, gnawing my bone.
Many people still look down their noses at the fantasy fiction genre. But, I love it. What’s wrong with that? What the heck is wrong with escapist literature?

I appreciated what Neil Gaiman said on this subject. “I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or children, is mimetic, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds themself in.” I don’t get the prejudice. When the world outside my door appears to be on fire, why wouldn’t I escape to a fabulous place which is not on fire, where fantastic things are happening? Writing (and reading) fantasy fiction is a constant spirit lifter. And, I highly recommend it.
What do you consider the best characteristics of your favorite genre?

Keep Writing!
Yvette Carol
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When she is most lucky, the poet sees things as if for the first time, in their original radiance or darkness; a child does this too, for he has no choice. ~ Edwin Muir

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I have finished reading my thirteenth novel for 2022, Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter, by Astrid Lindgren. I bought this novel because I had read Pippi Longstocking as a child, and I remember being utterly thrilled by the feisty wild protagonist. I’ll admit I was unaware the author had written other books. Bursting with curiosity, I raced home from the bookstore and started reading it straight away.

My first take on it would be that despite being published in 1985, Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter, has a timeless quality to the writing that makes it seem to come from another age. I guess this reflects the author, Astrid Lindgren, having been born in 1907 and quite literally belonging to another age. The story starts with a flourish and continues the same way. On the night that Ronia was born a thunderstorm was raging over the mountains, such a storm that all the goblinfolk in Matt’s Forest crept back in terror to their holes and hiding places.
The story is set in the past. There is no technology. The robbers milk their goats, churn their butter, and hunt for their meat. Ronia is born the only child of Matt, the robber chieftain who lives in his castle in the mountains with his band of twelve robbers and Lovis, his partner. The thieves rob the forest travellers for their goods and live a life of freedom. Ronia, the black-haired daughter, grows up to know every part of the forest so well she can find her way through it in the dark. Like Pippi, she is a free spirit who learns to dance and yell with the robbers.

Life goes on unchanged until the day Ronia meets Birk, the only son of Borka, the rival robber chieftain who lives in Borka’s Wood. Although the kids are initially wary, they also are immediately drawn to one another as children on their own are likely to do. The pair slowly fall in love, which I found a little odd considering their age. Nevertheless, fall in love they do, in utter secrecy as their fathers are arch-enemies. When Matt and Borka, the two rival chieftains, have a major clash, Ronia and Birk reveal their bond and run away into the forest to live by themselves, causing great distress to both families.
The story follows the harsh realities of life in a cave for the two youngsters, in which they grapple with growing up fast. They manage to survive through spring and summer, and finally, much to the reader’s relief, the pair are finally reunited with their families and allowed to return home before winter.

It’s a highly original tale. I had never read anything like it before and perhaps never will again. Ronia, as our protagonist, is described by her mother, Lovis, as “a storm-night child” and “a witch-night child, too.” The dialogue and the phrasing, everything about this tale is evocative of a bygone age. Ronia gasped with rage. Borka’s Keep! That was enough to choke you! What rogues they were, those Borka robbers! And that rascal grinning over there was one of them!
Perhaps the fact it is so unusual and different is why I found it so fascinating. I couldn’t stop reading because I couldn’t imagine what would happen next. And the funny thing is that nothing much does happen. Even so, the story is well told in a quaint fashion that could turn it into a classic. It was certainly enough to inspire Studio Ghibli’s series, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter!

Astrid Anna Emilia Lindgren, née Ericsson, was born in Sweden. She was a highly successful children’s book author and screenwriter whose novels have been translated into nearly eighty languages, from Arabic to Zulu. Lindgren has sold close to 165 million copies worldwide. She earned the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing in 1958. Though she published many titles in her lifetime, it is Pippi Longstocking that is her main legacy as Pippi became an international phenomenon. Lindgren is particularly beloved in her native Sweden, where she appears on the 20-kronor note.
Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter, won the Mildred L. Batchelder Award. While it is not in the same league as Pippi Longstocking in my humble opinion, it was an entertaining read.
My rating: Three stars

Talk to you later.
Keep reading!
Yvette Carol
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Full of high adventure, hairbreadth escapes, droll earthy humor, and passionate, emotional energy. ~ Horn Book


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It’s time for another group posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Time to release our fears to the world or offer encouragement to those who are feeling neurotic. If you’d like to join us, click on the tab above and sign up. We post on the first Wednesday of every month. Every month, the organizers announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG Day post. Remember, the question is optional!!! Let’s rock the neurotic writing world! Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG, and the hashtag is #IWSG.

This month’s question:
What genre would be the worst one for you to tackle and why?

There are a few genres I would be too scared to tackle, and some I know I should never attempt. I wanted to write romantic novels at one point when I was a lot younger, and I made it to the halfway point with a contemporary romance set in the South Island of New Zealand when I ran out of steam. It felt like a case of mentally choosing a direction, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I couldn’t sustain the energy levels needed to finish the project. As Gina Cole said at the launch of her book Na Viro last Friday night at the New Zealand Society of Authors meeting, “Writing a book is tough.” Short, sweet, and to the point! All the fates have to be aligned, and your energy has to come from the inexhaustible fuel supplied by conviction. You can’t fake story writing. It needs to come from a deep source within or the well runs dry pretty quick.

I wouldn’t dare write literary fiction because I neither read the genre nor enjoy it. Throughout the recent writers’ festival, I sat in on several live interviews or “conversations,” and two of them were with authors of highly-praised literary novels. Those were the only events where I felt out of place. Truth is, I’m not as intelligent as I look. The thought that went through my head multiple times while watching those interviews was, “I think this conversation is above my pay grade.” A lot of the points they made did not compute.
Likewise, horror and all variations thereof leave me cold. It’s another personal no-go zone. I don’t have the stomach for horror. The only horror story I’ve read – apart from critiquing my friend, Maria Cisneros-Toth’s book, Spooky Tales – was Ghost Story by Stephen King (Peter Straub). The latter’s novel freaked me out big time, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Ghost Story afterward. I didn’t like feeling afraid in my own time because of a book, and it put me off reading horror altogether. The only horror movie I’ve ever seen was Dawn of the Dead when I was a teenager. I lasted five minutes watching that movie, and then I stood up and walked out of the cinema. It’s the only time I’ve ever done so. And I’ve not seen a single horror film since. The genre is not my bag. I don’t want nasty images replaying in my mind long after a movie is finished. And the same goes for the darker sorts of fiction. I don’t want to read threatening material or have it cloud the bright sky of my imagination. It feels like I need to protect my good spirits and keep my environment positive. My friend would call it ‘keeping my armour polished.’

Another genre I avoid is picture books. There was an extended period in my twenties when I wrote picture books for the 0 – 5-year-old range. I spent at least a decade developing the stories and illustrating them. Looking back on this time, I learned a lot about writing through labouring under the constraints of the form. The economy of language and tightness of composition is essential, along with an ear for the rhythm of the spoken word. However, I prefer using lots of words, and I felt confined by the genre and miserable. Eventually, the limits of the form began to feel like a straightjacket, and I felt driven to escape.

Alternatively, my first ever experiment writing middle fiction was like lighting a flame. With more generous word limits, I could have fun with words and spend more time getting to know my characters. I could explore the plot, the story arc, and so on. The natural fit for me was to write fantasy because that is the genre I read as a child and still like to read now. When I think back, it wasn’t a matter of consciously choosing what I would write at that point. I picked up the pen and that’s what came out. Fantasy middle fiction fit like a glove, and I’ve been playing happily in my sandbox ever since.
What about you? What genre do you avoid? Which do you embrace?

Keep Writing!
Yvette Carol
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Let it be easy. ~ Anon

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Subscribe to my newsletter by emailing me with “Newsletter Subscription” in the subject line to yvettecarol@hotmail.com

It’s time for another group posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Time to release our fears to the world or offer encouragement to those who are feeling neurotic. If you’d like to join us, click on the tab above and sign up. We post on the first Wednesday of every month. Every month, the organizers announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG Day post. Remember, the question is optional!!! Let’s rock the neurotic writing world! Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG, and the hashtag is #IWSG.

August 3 question – When you set out to write a story, do you try to be more original or do you try to give readers what they want?
Whew! Talk about a challenging issue for authors, especially unpublished writers. When you’re starting out and unsure of yourself, you wonder do I follow my ideas or try to write for the bestselling genres? If an author wants a long career, can they afford to ignore the demands of the market? That is the million-dollar question.
When I started writing picture books in the 80s, agents and publishers said you couldn’t write about cats or dogs because they were overdone. Although that didn’t stop everyone else from writing about them. When I started writing children’s chapter books in the 90s, they warned against writing about witches or wizards for the same reason. Since then the Harry Potter phenomenon happened, so, yeah, thanks, guys. Several years ago, everyone was writing about vampires, then it moved on, and everyone wrote about zombies. I didn’t bother. Suffice to say, I stopped worrying about what the market wanted long ago.

I guess I’m fortunate. Being a hobby writer, sales are not my main focus.
I don’t strive for originality, either. Over the years, I’ve learned that the prose has to come through me in whatever state it arrives. Then I enjoy tinkering with the muse’s gift. After all, isn’t most of an author’s time spent on editing rather than the original free writing? It’s up to us how much we change the form.
At the editing stage, I appreciate the input of critique groups. I feel they give insight into how readers might think or feel. My sister always urges me to leave my stories untouched. Her point is that too many cooks can spoil the broth. I get it. However, I value the opinions of my critique group, feeling that at some stage, an author does need to consider their audience, even if they self-publish and their audience is few.

The danger is when you overdo the critique and meddle to the point that the essence of your creative intelligence gets diluted. Was it Terry Pratchett who said if you question the muse too much, you might stuff the whole thing up? I’m paraphrasing. But it was something like that.
Creativity is a divine splash of energy in our brains. My dear elderly friend, Meg, used to call it ‘the inspired whatevers.’ The writer’s task is to watch for when the muse might strike and endeavour to catch ‘the inspired whatevers’ straight off the ether. I remember one writing teacher telling us that we had to ‘grab the first word given, and from there, the rest would come.’ That has been true for me with my fiction. Sometimes, I have failed to catch the first word, which resulted in floundering, unable to get started. But, if I catch that first word, then we are away. The rest of the story tumbles out of the cosmos, ready and willing. That magical feeling occurs when art can happen, that tingling when you capture the spark. We authors act as the conduit for the sublime. As do all artists.

During the editing stage, we turn into alchemists. We try to bash and hammer the divine spark forcing it into a round hole. We take inspiration from the ether and try to make it fit within the standards of storytelling. I remain uncertain about how to get the balance right. How much do you add, and how much do you lose? It’s a constant balancing act.
How about you? Do you strive for originality with your writing? Or do you try to conform to current literary expectations? What do you think?

Keep Writing!
Yvette Carol
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I’m never truly happy with everything I ever put out. There’s always something I can improve on. Phrase a sentence better. Make the message pop. Not be such a dullard. But facing that doubt is part and parcel of the writing life. ~ Stuart Danker

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I have finished reading my twelfth novel for 2022, The Dragon Defenders, Book One, by James Russell. In New Zealand, you can’t move without hearing about this author and this series. Every time you browse through a secondhand bookstore, firsthand bookstore, or library, you are apt to see one or other of the five-volume series pop up. Whether it is Book Two: The Pitbull Returns, Book Three: An Unfamiliar Place, Book Four: All Is Lost, or Book Five: The Grand Opening, The Dragon Defenders series is everywhere. As is the author, the self-published James Russell, who tours Indie fairs and conferences, featuring as a bestselling author. A big fish.
Recently, I picked up the first book in the series and could hardly wait to see what all the fuss was about. I think I started reading The Dragon Defenders the same night I bought it.

The middle-grade novel series follows the adventures of Paddy and Flynn, brothers who live with their parents and little sister Ada on an island populated by dragons. Brought up isolated from technology and today’s world, the boys spend their days honing their bushcraft outside. They are self-trained sharpshooters with their slingshots and bows and arrows. Athletic and strong, the boys have excellent surviving skills. When a group of egg and dragon poachers led by a guy called Pitbull come to the island, Paddy and Flynn must outwit them, aided by their pets – Clappers (their horse), Lightning (their falcon), and Coco (their dog). The boys use a combination of planning and tricks to save the dragons.
There is a lot of action at times. The boys are proactive risk-takers. Nothing is too violent, however, and the author’s message of not taking revenge on one’s enemies makes a timely point of difference. The feature of extra digital content is a bonus, which the reader accesses through a device or smartphone. It’s the sort of multimedia feature that kids love these days. For an old fuddy-duddy like me, it was a novelty to see the maps and videos appear, yet it also felt like a distraction from the more important business of reading. Digital enhancement is not my preferred way of imbibing a book. I prefer the paper versions. I find it hard to get lost in a fantasy world when I’m fumbling with my smartphone.

If you asked me my main takeaway? I’d say too much exposition. In the opening chapters, the author tells us a lot about the characters, setting, etc. ‘They were allowed to explore the natural world, and as little children, they got hurt. A lot. There may never before have been two children with so many bumps and scrapes, bruises, and cuts.’ It’s the sort of thing we get rapped over the knuckles for by modern tutors and critique groups. I recall reading the Harry Potter novels with the same sense of surprise at the amount of exposition. These days the arbiters of style recommend less is more. Yet, J.K.Rowling’s book sales are only rivalled by the Bible, and James Russell is one of New Zealand’s bestselling authors. For some writers, the rules don’t apply. Good on him/them for sailing above the prevalent writing mores. They are staying true to themselves, and we need more people like that in this world.

James Russell is also the author of the best-selling Dragon Brothers Trilogy of picture books (The Dragon Hunters, The Dragon Tamers, and The Dragon Riders). The Kiwi author launched his first book for adults, Mine – A Surfing Odyssey on North Sentinel Island on June 1, 2021. He lives in Auckland with his wife and two young sons.
The Dragon Defenders, Book One, is a gripping adventure for 7 – 12-year-olds. It is a solid start to the series, and I always applaud a happy ending.
My rating: Three stars

Talk to you later.
Keep reading!
Yvette Carol
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‘As you’ll have realized by now, Paddy and Flynn were born adventurers.’ ~ The Dragon Defenders


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It’s time for another group posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Time to release our fears to the world or offer encouragement to those who are feeling neurotic. If you’d like to join us, click on the tab above and sign up. We post on the first Wednesday of every month. Every month, the organizers announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG Day post. Remember, the question is optional!!! Let’s rock the neurotic writing world! Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG, and the hashtag is #IWSG.

July 6 question – If you could live in any book world, which one would you choose?
I always try to answer these questions as honestly as possible by going with the first thought that comes to mind. My dad used to say that the gut reaction was always right. My gut feeling when I read this question? I would live in the books I’m writing. It sounds like a self-congratulatory thing to say. But every time I get precious hours to pour into my new story, I dive into this imaginary world and love spending time there. My writing has always been my way of escape and still is.
If you’d asked me this question a few years ago, when I was working on editing my middle-grade series, The Chronicles of Aden Weaver, I would have wanted to go there. The trilogy took me a decade to write. I became so familiar with the environment I had created that I knew every nook and cranny like my own home and garden. The world, and the characters, were like family, a part of my daily reality.

When I started work on my present children’s series, it was a thrill to build a new world and unfurl my wings over unique and unknown landscapes. This year I have had a ball developing the story bible for this series, figuring out the setting, and beginning to picture it clearly in my mind.
They say that writers write for themselves. That is certainly true for me. Often, in my life, and especially in the last two years, I write the sort of world that makes my heart sing. I can’t tell you any more about that world right now, not until the stories are close to finished. Time has taught me not to speak about my stories while they’re in the nascent stages, for fear the muse will exit stage left and leave me cold. Besides, this is the genesis stage and requires nurturing and sustained silence.

When I started writing fiction for children, I was a teenage mum stuck at home with a baby. All my friends were off traveling the planet, having the times of their lives. My only way to escape the humdrum of nappies and housework was to climb out that golden window of my imagination into a better place. Creative writing was my saving grace. Literally.
Neil Gaiman once famously said, ‘I’d like to say a few words on escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds themself in.’

Like Neil, I’ve never understood why people look down their noses at escapism through literature. There are far worse things in the world. And considering the state of affairs on the planet at the moment, frankly, we need all the escapism we can get. It’s benign, nourishing, affordable therapy. And it works. As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who warn against escape are the jailers.
I want to provide that escape route for my readers. And I seek the same haven, too. There’s no place in the multiverse I would rather be than living inside my own story worlds. So, yes, please, sign me up.
A close second would be the world of Moomintroll.
Which book world would you escape to and why?

Keep Writing!
Yvette Carol
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‘Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been.’ ~ Neil Gaiman

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I have finished reading my eleventh novel for 2022, The Gypsy Crown, by Kate Forsyth. It is the first book in the six-book series, The Chain of Charms, published in 2006. Kate followed this with The Silver Horse, The Herb of Grace, The Cat’s Eye Shell, The Lightning Bolt, and The Butterfly in Amber. Recommended for grades 5-9.
Set during the time of Oliver Cromwell (1658), Emilia and her cousin, Luka, are Romany gypsies (the Rom). The story starts with two gypsy clans coming together for the marriage of two young members. They make a wedding agreement. 13-year-old Emilia, Luka, and other family members travel to the nearest village to sing and dance to help raise the dowry. But singing and dancing are considered the work of the devil. The gypsies are captured and imprisoned, then threatened with hanging. Only Emilia and Luka escape, with Emilia’s horse, Alida, a pet dancing bear named Sweetheart, a trained monkey called Zizi, and a faithful dog, Rollo.

After a hair-raising journey, Emilia, Luka, and their animals make it back to the matriarch of their clan, the Queen of the Gypsies, Maggie Finch. The matriarch tells them the legend of the chain of charms. Long ago, a gypsy matriarch had broken her chain of charms, giving one charm to each of her five children, and ever since then, the luck of the Rom had turned foul. Maggie Finch gave Emilia the gypsy crown, her first charm from the chain. She tells the children if they can gather the charms from the other gypsy families, it would help bring their family freedom and turn the tide of fortune to favour the Rom.
The Chain of Charms series follows the adventures of Emilia and Luka as they seek to find each of the families that hold the charms on their quest to reunite the legendary chain. The first book, The Gypsy Crown, sets the stage for the five books to follow and establishes the high stakes involved. Emilia and Luka have a deadline. They must free the imprisoned members of their families facing the gallows. Whew!

I love historical fiction, and I picked up this slim volume purely because it takes place in England at the time of Cromwell’s rebellion. Historical fiction can be hard to write convincingly, and I always read with curiosity to see if the author has managed to live up to the challenge. It didn’t take long to feel reassured she had. As well as adventure, there is historical value in a book like this. The reader will learn about life in the 1600s. I learned something new because prior to reading this, I was unaware they persecuted gypsies. Across Europe, punishments included flogging, torture, branding, mutilation, hanging, and shooting. These details put the reader firmly on the side of the Rom. Who doesn’t love a good underdog tale?
Once Emilia and Luka get into trouble and are on the run, the action becomes high octane, and I was on the edge of my seat. At first, I was annoyed that they took the bear, Sweetheart, with them. How do you run for your life with a bear in tow? It seemed an insurmountable problem. But what it does very successfully is to pile on the tension. Brownie points to Kate Forsyth.

Who is Kate Forsyth? I was curious to know, as the book surprised me (in a good way). Kate writes with assurance, yet I’d never heard of the author before. It surprised me to read her biography. Kate has a doctorate in fairytale studies, a master of Creative Writing, a Bachelor of Arts in Literature, and is an accredited master storyteller. The girl is over-qualified! She writes Historical Fiction, Children’s Books, and Fantasy. Born in Australia, Kate is now the internationally bestselling author of 40 books. She lives in Sydney with her husband and three children.
My only beef with The Gypsy Crown is that it was too brief. The subject was so meaty and could have included a lot more historical details, but I inhaled it in two sittings, leaving me feeling short-changed. I wanted to get to know the characters more, too. However, since the idea is to entice the reader into the next book, it succeeds on that level. And since I assume the story length would be ideal for child readers, it is an easy-to-read, engaging story that all children would enjoy.
My rating: Two and three-quarter stars

Talk to you later.
Keep reading!
Yvette Carol
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‘They can imprison us and beat us, but they cannot stop our hearts from feeling and our minds from thinking and our tongues from speaking, can they?’ The man heaved a great sigh, and then repeated, very low, ‘Can they?’ ~ The Gypsy Crown


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I have finished reading my eighth novel for 2022, When Did You See Her Last? The second book in the All the Wrong Questions series by Lemony Snicket. The premise of this series has the author writing himself as a kid detective, up against the baddie, Hangfire, both seeking a strange statue, the Bombinating Beast. Throw in a missing father and a missing girl, and you have the basic storyline of When Did you See Her Last?

A girl has gone missing, the Ink Inc. heiress and genius chemist Chloe Knight. Apprentice detective Lemony Snicket, and his incompetent chaperone S. Theodora Markson take on the case. The tale is set in a town that flourished because of ink, aptly named Stain’d-by-the-Sea. The town is becoming deserted because it has run out of squid. It is rumoured Chloe Knight has created a new type of ink that would reverse the fortunes of the dying town. Snicket has to find out more about a strange group called The Inhumane Society. He must piece together the clues surrounding Chloe’s disappearance and hopefully rescue the girl with a lot of hijinks along the way.
Snicket stories tend to cruise along the edge of the ridiculous, bringing to mind other such stars of the genre, like David Walliams and Anthony Horowitz. As always, in When Did you See Her Last? Snicket likes to have fun with words. “A laugh is harder to swallow whole than a honeydew melon. Her mouth twisted every which way, and her eyes flitted madly as she looked everywhere but at me…We waited until it was safe to open up the laugh, and then we shared it.”

It takes guts to do that.
I liked it when the author wove into the story references to classic books the Lemony Snicket character had read without giving us the actual title. However, this device relied on the reader having read all those children’s books. As an adult, I thought it was clever, but it occurred to me that all these finger-on-the-nose references would go over the head of the modern child reader.
Personally, I’m not a fan of the author speaking directly to the reader, yet, it’s a device Snicket uses a lot. The ‘breaking down of the fourth wall’ is a technique some people love. I read an interview with Neil Gaiman last week, in which Neil said the books he had read as a child wherein the author spoke directly to the reader made him feel all warm and cozy inside. So when he started writing his books, he used the same technique.

I find the author’s voice an intrusion. It breaks the spell holding me, which I find jarring. It does not add any warmth but provides a reminder of the puppeteer pulling the ropes.
“No matter how many slow and complicated mysteries I encounter in my life, I still hope that one day a slow and complicated mystery will be solved quickly and simply. An associate of mine calls this feeling “the triumph of hope over experience”, which simply means that it’s never going to happen, and that is what happened then.” ~ When Did you See Her Last?
I guess author intrusion comes down to a matter of personal taste. Snicket is a popular author so it obviously works for him.
Lemony Snicket is the pen name of American novelist Daniel Handler (February 28, 1970). The author of several children’s books, including A Series of Unfortunate Events. This series has sold over 60 million copies and was made into a film and TV series. Lemony Snicket serves as both the fictional narrator and a character in A Series of Unfortunate Events, as well as the main character in its prequel, the four-part book series titled All the Wrong Questions.

Ever wondered how Daniel chose that pen name? It originally came from research for Handler’s first book The Basic Eight. Handler told NPR that “the character of Lemony Snicket, this man who speaks directly to the reader and is tangentially involved in the stories that he’s telling is more of a character. We just thought it would be fun to publish the books under the name of this character.”
Essentially it works. Book sales speak volumes. I think the concept is cool, and the pen name is different. The panache is there. The idea of the pessimistic protagonist is an excellent twist. Snicket knows how to spin a web and layer in the questions, whether wrong or not, to keep the reader guessing the answers until the end.

Purely from the point of view of personal taste, When Did you See Her Last? is not my favourite kids’ book. But then it’s not my least. Farcical noir is not a genre I would seek to read for pleasure.

My rating: Two stars

Talk to you later.
Keep reading!
Yvette Carol
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“Being curious is the most important part of being a journalist. It might be the most important part of being anything.” ― Lemony Snicket, When Did You See Her Last?


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