Posted in children's books

Old Magic, New Dangers


       I am holding an advanced copy of Henry H. Neff’s upcoming middle grade thriller, Impyrium, in my hands.  As press contact for Media Masters Promotions, I have the distinct pleasure of reading and reviewing this work, called a “rare jewel..A new classic in the fantasy genre,” by bestselling Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer.  The book came to me like a gift, boxed and wrapped with an autographed poster inside.   How could I resist?  How could anyone resist?
     Neff weaves together magic and mythology with elements of modernity to create a richly detailed and utterly unique world that readers will delight in exploring.  From the Muirlands, where commoners work the land, to the mist-shrouded Sacred Isle where sorcerers hold court, Impyrium  is populated with a diverse cast of fascinating characters.  Told in the alternating points-of-view of bookish, albino, magical twelve-year-old Hazel and daring, witty thirteen-year-old Hob, readers can explore this world both familiar and strange from all sides.  Hailed by Kirkus as “an indulgence for readers thirsting for a futuristic cloak-and-daggers plot with magical creatures..an adolescent version of a Game of Thrones-like plot,” the press release promises an enthralling tale of adventure, court intrigue, and secret societies will appeal to boys and girls of all ages.
          The book beckons to me in the wee hours of the morning, and I eagerly slip into its other-worldliness. There are magical human beings, demons – he calls them rakshasas, which is just fascinating because that has Hindu roots.  What?  It’s long — over 500 pages —  but, soon, I promise to share the magic with you. Impyrium is set for publication by Harper Collins in early October.
Posted in children's books

International Day of the Girl: Reflections on Nancy Drew

Join me in celebrating the International Day of the Girl!  I share with you my essay on the iconic Nancy Drew, a symbol of American girlhood.  It’s a little nerdy, a little cool, and a tribute to girls, books, and childhood.



“She had character, and she had courage. Her blue roadster – my having a sports car became a life dream. And when I got in it, I just imagined myself being Nancy Drew.”

 — Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

In 1920, American women got the vote. Less than ten years later, Nancy Drew arrived on the juvenile fiction scene. She is often portrayed as “emblematic of American girlhood” (Driscoll 5). Accomplished and famous women from Barbara Walters to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer have noted that she was an important role model to them in childhood.[1] The image of a teenage Nancy Drew zipping around in her blue roadster has persisted for almost a century. The series has always had the power to inspire. As Amy Boesky tells us, initial “sales of the Nancy Drew books eclipsed even the contemporary bestselling boys’ series” (Boesky 189). Since then, numerous generations of young people, especially girls, have devoured the series, admiring Nancy Drew’s remarkable skills and living vicariously through her often dangerous adventures. Now the iconic teen sleuth has entered the realm of computer games, particularly those known as Role Playing Games (RPGs), where the player takes on the role of Nancy Drew. Has this shift altered the character of Nancy Drew in any way? What happens narratologically when a player operates a fictional character?

Like books, computer games can be seen as elements of cultural production, and therefore upon examination, it is possible to glean something about the existing culture that produced them. Nancy Drew has emerged as part of girl’s culture, in particular. Cultural theorist Catherine Driscoll has pointed out the “…girl’s role as a marker of cultural identity” that also “installs her as representative of the coherence of an historical period” (Driscoll 15-16). If, as Driscoll also contends, the “category of feminine adolescence {is} specific to late modernity” then Nancy Drew, as one ideal of female adolescence, becomes an ideal subject of inquiry (18). Since the postmodern era has as one of its concerns, the transition from the printed word to the digital, an examination of what happens to a female character in a printed piece of fiction, when it is transferred to the digital medium, becomes a journey of discovery into the cultural underpinnings of such a transition.

Some critics, such as Markku Eskelinen, argue that games and literature are not the same, partially because in many RPGs the reader/viewer/player operates the character of narrator (Papazian 454). While it is beyond the scope of this paper to speculate on whether video games are a narrative form, I agree with Gretchen Papazian, who argues that “some video games – in particular, some RPGs – deploy narrative techniques” (452). As she points out, whether or not you accept narrative terminology as a valid lens for computer games, “it is clear that the player’s role in the…game is key” as they operate the fictional narrator, in this case Nancy Drew (455). I will be looking at the implications for the fictional Nancy Drew, once the player takes on her role, specifically in the HerInteractive Nancy Drew game, Labyrinth of Lies, which came out in September 2014. The game is rated for Everyone Ages 10+.

The original Nancy Drew, created by Edward Stratemeyer, was initially going to be called “Stella Strong” (Boesky 188). Her character has much to be admired. Throughout the series, Nancy’s “heroic qualities….such as independence, self-confidence, intelligence, and physical courage” shine through (Lundin 123-4). Her role as amateur detective also gives her a unique standing. Boesky writes about Nancy Drew as the defender of the established norm; always striving to restore balance, she is a dream adolescent, acting as a “secret agent of the adult world” who patrols “the dangerous line separating the worlds of respectability and evil…with full access to adult privilege” (Boesky 190). From the beginning there existed in Nancy a sense of agency and freedom within the wider world, which was unusual for young women in the earlier part of the 20th century. All these qualities have appealed to girls for over 80 years.

Of course some updating has been necessary. Simon & Schuster bought the syndicate in the late 1970’s and took over the publishing and re-branding of the series in the 1980’s, creating several different Nancy Drew lines designed for various age groups (Marshall 213). In 2004 they came out with the Nancy Drew Girl Detective series, for a target group of tween girls between the ages of eight and twelve. Nancy’s general look on these new covers were brought up to date, while outdated dialogue was replaced within the text to reflect more modern ways of speaking. There was also a significant editorial decision at this point to change the narrator’s voice to Nancy’s own, speaking to the reader in the first person (Marshall 213). This is a far cry from the perspective in The Bungalow Mystery from 1930, where a third-person narrator frequently refers to the teen as Nancy Drew: “Tired as she was, Nancy Drew knew that she could not rest until shore was reached” (The Bungalow Mystery 16). Giving the young detective a voice of her own creates an intimacy with the reader, along with a sense of engagement with the text.

In 2005, with the same age group in mind, the publisher licensed the series to come out as Papercutz graphic novels. These are often linked to Nancy Drew computer games, put out by the company HerInteractive. Since the Nancy Drew concept is already part of a series, it translates well to the gaming world, where Nancy’s mysteries can be played out one at a time, as readers become players.

Readers often use book covers to determine what a character looks like. The earlier Nancy Drew books show a neat and tidy young woman, always in a dress and heels, with a classic hairstyle, often holding on to some clue from the story. Later books show a more modern teenager, wearing jeans and hanging out with friends. The covers of the HerInteractive Nancy Drew computer games depict where the action takes place, with another character or object in the center. All that is left of Nancy Drew is her silhouette – a shadow. The silhouette could be anyone. It could be you. The player does not see Nancy, she sees as Nancy. Opening up a game, a voice whispers, “Dare to Play” and then “It’s up to you, as Nancy Drew.” It’s a clear invitation to step right in and engage with the character. As Nancy tells players on the pamphlet accompanying the DVD of the game, “Without you there would be no reason to create more mysteries, and I would be just a girl without adventure, mystery, intrigue…and a clue.” The same could be said of characters within written texts and their readers, but in this case, since the reader/player actually becomes the character, at least for part of the time, the implications are more complex. Without the player, the silhouette would remain as unrealized potential.

The player usually has two or three choices at any given turn, and these choices set the game in motion. In Labyrinth of Lies Nancy travels to Greece to help curate a new exhibition at a museum of antiquities. Artifacts from the exhibit are disappearing, and Nancy has to figure out what is behind the thefts. As Nancy, there are tasks for the player to accomplish, such as “check in with the museum front office,” “arrange tickets for opening night,” and “explore backstage.” The player uses arrows to navigate, as she explores the virtual world in search of clues. As she goes, she meets up with characters and has a chance to talk to them.   The text is pre-set; the player has a choice of three conversation starters, and this determines the dialogue that then runs, and the information that the player gets. While the text is printed in a box on the screen, the player can watch the person she is talking to, like a movie, and hear the conversation being spoken, at the same time. The player can also choose to call up the Hardy Boys or the director of the museum on the telephone, for help. Just as in the chats with characters from the game, the telephone call is set up with three prompts for opening up the conversation.   Each time the player makes a choice, the fictional character of Nancy Drew takes over and the player transforms back into a reader/watcher for the time being.

There are several other instances where written text is integrated into the game, giving the player access to the fictional character. Clicking on the Diary option at any given time, for example, opens Nancy’s personal journal, which is pre-written text, and explains what is going on in her thoughts, including any observations made or questions to be pondered. This serves to fill out the background of the story, and helps the player focus on essential elements needed to solve the mystery. Of course the player has to pretend that she has written the diary herself.

In another such space, museum director Melina Rosi has left a written note for the player-as-Nancy to find, greeting her and leaving some instructions. It also provides more background information about the exhibit and the upcoming performance, as well as giving a list of tasks to complete. Nancy then hands over some of her agency, in a sense, to the player, who must complete the tasks. In this way she becomes a mentor to the player navigating the virtual world of the game, or at the very least, a partner. This is a major change for the teen detective. As Amy Boesky describes the traditional character of Nancy Drew, “…her’s is the point of view where all answers consolidate; often she works alone, culling information that only she can access” (Boesky 190). In her gaming world, she must share information with the child player who inhabits her character, who then will make further choices and discoveries along the way to solving the mystery.

While Nancy ultimately has the information needed to move the game forward, regardless of the choices made by the player, being given the freedom to move about the virtual world; being able to make calls, take photos, choose whom and when to talk, and putting clues together in order to solve the mystery, gives the child player a tangible sense of accomplishment. In order to become Nancy Drew, the player has to exhibit the characteristics that the teen detective has shown throughout the series. These qualities have not disappeared; they are now shared.

While her character has remained stable, it has also been made accessible, like a country that has opened its borders. Whereas the iconic heroism of the teen sleuth inspired girls for generations, now it has become a collaborative project in character-building. Digital games, especially Rated for Everyone Role Playing Games, offer a cultural paradigm of choice. Papazian refers to the “digital child” who is “granted intelligence, logic, and possibility” (451). The Nancy Drew games are part of this aspect of American girlhood, representing perhaps a trend in the current culture, one that leans towards the figure of a girl full of agency and choice. Within that landscape the digitized character of Nancy Drew has not vanished into the shadows. Her silhouette remains, operational and full of potential, highlighted against the background of the 21st Century.   It serves as a marker of current shifts in the construction of childhood, and reflects her continued relevance to the postmodern child.


Posted in children's books

Give us books, say the children…

thumbelina-annie-stegg-09…give us wings.  You who are powerful and strong, help us to escape into the faraway.  Build us azure palaces in the midst of enchanted gardens.  Show us fairies strolling about in the moonlight.  We are willing to learn everything that we are taught at school, but, please, let us keep our dreams.

Paul Hazard, 1944

French Scholar Paul Hazard came up with the concept of the “universal republic of childhood.” How exciting, and evocative.  It brings to my mind refugee children, waiting for books ( #EducationForRefugees).  These kids need to be remembered.

It also resonates with a wonderful story I’m going to share with you, from this past weekend’s SCBWI children’s writer’s and illustrator’s conference, “The Power of Story.”  It comes from the charming Megan Shepherd’s keynote address.  She was talking to us about her background, and some of the magic things that happened to her, to bring her to writing children’s books.  We bloggers promised not to reveal the techniques and storehouse of creative writing toolbox treasures we learned from this weekend, since all that is the intellectual property of the workshop presenters.  But I think it’s o.k. to share this, since it’s a story, about the power of story.

Megan was working at a summer camp as a teenager.  It was an awesome boy’s camp, that taught exciting adventurous stuff like hang gliding.  Every day was full of noisy fun and glorious mayhem. One day Megan went to get the mail, as always, and the mailroom person said, “We have a problem.” There were about fifty book-sized packages, which did not fit into the tiny mailslots given to campers.  So Megan decided to give them personally to each boy.  It turns out that  inside each package was a copy of the latest newly-released Harry Potter book.  Each boy had made his parents promise to send them the book as soon as it came out.  And they did.  So on that day, fifty boys put down their hang gliding apparatus, went to sit on the grassy hill, and read.  Megan said it was the only day in her whole time at the camp, where there was absolute silence, all day.  And she realized at that moment, the power of reading and it’s absolute value in childhood.

What a fabulous story!  And what a fabulous lesson.  All kids, everywhere, need to read; need to cross the borders of their own life and feel what it’s like to be someone and somewhere else.

I came away from that conference really inspired, remembering why children’s book writers (and illustrators) are so necessary.  It’s our calling, and it truly rocks.


Posted in children's books

Trailer for New Anne of Green Gables

A new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables!! Love love love. The life and times of Anne Shirley seems to reach across generations, cultures and shine its light into the hearts of so many different kinds of people. Young women in Japan have come in droves to be married “Green Gables style” on Prince Edward Island (believe it or not). Children’s literature scholars write paper after paper on the series, plumbing its depths from this angle and that. Now, to have a remake….can’t wait! Coming to PBS this Thanksgiving.

educating alice

New adaptation premiers on PBS November 24th.

View original post

Posted in about childhood, children's books

If Middle Grade speaks to you

….like it speaks to me, then you need to read this post from Project Mayhem:


It’s a clear, inspiring look at the eight-episode show Stranger Things on Netflix.  I’m going to check it out tonight!

Something about the tween age tweaks at my heart and brain like no other — well YA historical fiction notwithstanding🙂  And then there’s the beauty of a brilliant picture book…alright, I’m hopeless.  It’s true love, me and kids’ books, what can I say.  But that age, that threshold holds some kind of magnetic pull.

I wrote my master’s thesis on the unreliable narrator in children’s MG books, beginning with E. Nesbit – do you know her?  End of the 19th century…..Five Children and It, The House of Arden, The Wouldbegoods etc.  all the way up to Sharon Creech, Polly Horvath and Rebecca Stead.  More on that later.

But there’s something about the agency of that age, the purity of their focus on themselves, the fierceness of their friendships, and their lives.  As a writer, I may just end up there.  We’ll see.  In the meantime, do check out the post, and that show.

Talk to you later!







Posted in about childhood, children's books, fairy tales

The enduring enchantment of fairy tales

The Legend of the Briar Rose
The Sleeping Beauty, (1890) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

Fairy tales from around the world such as Sleeping Beauty are stories that have traveled eons.  They have been part of our collective consciousness for so long that that as P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins — a great lover of fairy tales — put it, even if we are reading them for the first time, there is a sense of recognition, of having found something already near and dear and close to our heart. Perhaps a sense of longing for what has been lost and might never be found again spurs us on to re-tell the tales endlessly, crossing and re-crossing the bridge from a dim past into our own time.

Tales of enchantment fell from the lips of storytellers in the 10th century marketplaces of Baghdad and made their way westward with merchants on the Silk Road.  The old wive’s tales of medieval Europe have their roots deep in the orient, and have been re-incarnated time and time again, first orally and then pouring forth into written form.

One of the earliest versions of the tale is The Ninth Captain’s Tale of “The Arabian Nights.” This goes back a thousand years! The story has traveled from the Middle East to Europe, where it resurfaced as The Sun, Moon, and Talia, an Italian literary fairy tale written by Giambattista Basile in his 1634 work, the Pentamerone. Charles Perrault then retold it in 1697 as The Sleeping Beauty.  We know this version well.  We also know the tale as it traveled to Germany and appeared in the Grimms’ fairy tales in 1812, as Little Briar Rose.

Each version of Sleeping Beauty involves the prediction of some terrible thing happening to the young girl, if she pursues her curiosity or desire.  One of the reasons fairy tales are so enduring is that many of the tales involve a curse or prediction of some kind. These can come from animals, who can talk, either being under a spell or whatever..or a wicked fairy, as in Sleeping Beauty. Once the prediction has been uttered, the reader is set up with an expectation of the coming promised event. The sense of fate, of moving towards something, sparks a desire to see what will happen next.

Cultural theorist Catherine Driscoll has pointed out the “…girl’s role as a marker of cultural identity” that also “installs her as representative of the coherence of an historical period.”  If that is true, then the character of Sleeping Beauty is a kind of archetype, The Girl, able to shape-shift throughout multiple times and cultures.

There are multiple modern re-tellings of this tale, from Disney to numerous contemporary re-tellings.  The underlying inborn story continues to fascinate us.  In the contemporary world, as in all ages, she could well be a symbol for that tween or teen girl on the cusp of awakening.   Each one of us has either been or known someone like that — and we all love that girl.


Click here to find my e-book,
Sleeping Beauty: the Evolution of a Fairy Tale
on Amazon

Posted in children's books

Thief Girl, by Ingrid Lee

Multiculturalism lives and breathes in my hometown of Cambridge, and has for years, even before it became all the rage everywhere else.   We all know that. Here your kids can be comfortable being, well, just about anybody. It’s one of the things we love about this place.   I’ve lived here forever. So, when a novel comes along on this theme, it better be good, or forget it. Thief Girl is one of those books. The voice of fifteen-year-old Avvy is so authentic, so compelling, it pulls you right in. She immediately makes you want to sit down and listen to her whole story, right away. Authentic voice is one of those things I feel as a reader, way deep down, and either the narrator has it, or not. If the narrator has it, even if the plot is mediocre, I don’t care, I need to keep reading. If the voice is contrived on any level, even if the plot is wittier than Shakespeare, I get bored. Suffice it to say that I read Thief Girl in one sitting.

Avvy is a first-generation Chinese teenager, with a whiny little brother and hard-working parents who run a stall at the mall’s food-court. Due to a weird zoning thing she gets to attend Oak Ridge High, the ritzy high school across town, where it appears she is the only Asian student in school. (Remember, the author is Canadian. Maybe they need time to catch up.)   Helping out at her parent’s stall after school, Avvy’s life straddles two worlds.   Of course we see these worlds through her eyes, and her observations are tinged with just the right touch of humorous irony and honesty. Against this backdrop, the author deftly weaves several strands of story-line, which slowly and seamlessly come together into a unified whole. It all starts when Avvy finds a leather wallet on the street as she walks home with her brother after work one evening; it’s already been rifled through and all that’s left is a picture of a dog. It’s a nice wallet; unthinkingly she throws it in her backpack. It’s only later, as she pries the dog out from it’s plastic cover, that she discovers a bank card tucked in behind it. Wow. How – awful. How – exciting. When her well-meaning mother, clueless about the price of anything, gives her thirty dollars to buy a new winter jacket, Avvy is sorely tempted, but she resists. It’s only when she gets the idea to give her brother, bullied almost every day at school, martial arts lessons, that she overcomes her natural unwillingness to steal. She tries using the card at an ATM machine and discovers the account has five hundred dollars in it. One thing leads to another. She needs a new jacket (the kids at school!) her parents need a new stove (immediately!) and she learns “two things about thieving: The doing is scary but it’s quick. It’s over before you know it. And afterward you get a rush. It’s only after some time that you notice you feel different – that the rush was really part of yourself leaving. What’s left is heavier.”

Searching for herself in a world where it’s much easier to remain invisible, is the deeper theme here. As Avvy writes in a history assignment: “Governments that used multiculturalism as a basis for policy pushed the real stuff, the deep stuff, to the fringes…” Set in a totally realistic world of high school classes, art projects, and hall-way drama, this is a modern teen novel with emotional veracity and real intelligence.   James Lorimer and Co., 2010.



Posted in children's books

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Diary fiction is hot stuff just now. It’s kind of a hybrid; fiction masquerading as creative nonfiction – a type of voyeurism that allows readers to peer inside the heart and mind of the narrator. Narratorial voice is key, and the more authentic the voice, the more powerful the impact. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a case in point.

I wasn’t going to read this book. I resented the fact that the School Library Journal gave it a thumbs up for twelve-year-olds. True, Arnold Spirit, Jr., the protagonist, is in middle school. But his language, his sarcasm, his whole schtick, at first glance, was alarming.   I just didn’t want to deal with it. Recently, however, I was stuck at an airport and needed something to read, and bought a copy. As soon as I started reading this time, I was hooked. Junior (Spirit’s nickname on the rez) is a real person. He can be vulgar (like a lot of 13-year-old boys, I guess) but he can also be astonishingly sweet, and funny.   He is a living, breathing boy, and you end up really caring about him.

Born with water on the brain, Junior is an Indian (his term; no one in this book is ever referred to as a Native American) cartoonist who draws constantly in order to express himself, and connect to the world. (Junior’s comics are sprinkled throughout the text). He has dreams, and hopes for a good life, even though he knows that Indians aren’t supposed to do that. His family is so poor, his Dad has to shoot their dog when it gets sick, because they can’t take it to the vet. After freaking out one day when he realized the textbook he is handed was used by his mother – meaning it is over 20 years old – a teacher encourages him to leave the rez and go to the rich, white school, 20 miles or so away. Junior is conflicted. He doesn’t want to abandon his people, but he has to go where there is hope, and the possibility of getting out of the cycle of poverty.

Of course all this heavy stuff is implicit – Junior’s cutting perceptions of the problems all around him are punctuated throughout by a wicked wit and unflinching self-examination. After a rocky start, he falls in love with an anorexic “translucently beautiful” white girl who morphs into a sort-of girlfriend, joins the basketball team, and because of his quirky and courageous character, becomes an accepted part of the school community. His true community, however, of course, lives on the rez. How can he leave them behind? Will they ever forgive him?

I have to say, I was wrong about this book. Regardless of its genre, its age range, and what not, Sherman’s novel is just really, really good. By the time you reach the last page, you wish it could go on and on.  Like all great fiction, at heart it’s all absolutely true, and therefore very compelling. As the poet W.B. Yeats tells us on the frontispiece of the book, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” This world of an adolescent on the rez is not often, or ever, portrayed with such stirring clarity.

So is this book for the younger spectrum of middle grade? At first glance, no, not really – at least not on their own. It’s vulgar at times, and a lot of really disturbing things happen. But there is a discussion guide in the back for teachers, with helpful questions that probe the deeper implications of the book. With that kind of guided reading in a middle grade classroom, I imagine the experience would be fantastic.