Posted in PB, So Many Good Books

Swashby and the Sea

Perfect Picture Book Friday

Swashby and the Sea (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020) by Beth Ferry and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal is a delightfully warm story that can be read over and over. This story has such a sweet ending.

I love what it says about the sea and Swashby, “She knew him in and out, up and down, and better than anyone.” And I love the adorable illustrations.

Captain Swashby, now retired, is happy living by the sea. Until…neighbors show up. He keeps writing messages to them like “no trespassing” and the sea fiddles with each a bit like “sing.” Will Swashby learn to accept these intruders?

Beth Ferry is the author of Caveman Crush and has quite a number of other books–see them here. I need to check out some more. I like the unusual facts and the box format of her about page.

Author/illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal was born in Peru. You may have heard about her debut picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name which was a 2019 Caldecott honor book. She’s also a 2018 Pura Belpré Medalist. Read her other awards here.

Posted in MG Novels, So Many Good Books

Mighty Inside

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

I loved Mighty Inside (Levine Querido, 2021) by Sundee T. Frazier. With discussions on segregation, relocation camps, Korean War, Jewish culture, and more, this book gives a great picture of life in the mid-50s is a very realistic way. It shows how determination, music, and friendship can change a kid’s life. If you like underdog stories, you won’t want to miss this book.

I also love the author’s writing itself. Here are a few favorite phrases: “the ball had been a side dish to a dinner-sized dose of humiliation” and “his tongue was so tenderized it was practically filet mignon.” These touches of humor help us through difficult topics.

Melvin Robinson is getting ready to go to high school–that can be scary for anyone. But with his stutter he just knows he’s going to be “dead meat.” His life is even more complicated by being black in a mostly white school in Spokane, WA. When his brother comes to his defense against some bullies, it’s not the white kids who have to clean up the resulting mess but the “Negroes.” For Melvin learning to communicate becomes more and more important–there’s the girl he likes, the bully he needs to stand up to, the terrible death of Emmett Till, and a chance to talk through music. Can Melvin show he deserves respect?

Anyone who has ever had difficulty speaking up will especially enjoy this historical novel. As my book recommendation did last month, it obviously deals with racism. So sad we are still seeing people experiencing this in real life. The book is inspired by Sundee’s grandparents’ experiences in the 1950s in Spokane. Read more about the award-winning author on her website here. Check out her other books here.

Bonus–this is a book with a 13-year-old protagonist. (I love seeing more with this age. For a while, it felt like there was hardly any books for the 13 and 14 age ranges.)

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Three Commonly Overused Words in Fiction

Overuse of “look” or as Deborah Halverson aka DearEditor says, “Stop Looking!” A character looks up, looks down, looks around, looks another character in the eyes, looks at his watch, looks in her mirror. Some try to replace “look” with “gaze,” “stare,” etc. But the problem is deeper than that.

Looking is not as descriptive as other possible actions. It’s fairly passive. It doesn’t provide sensory details. Sometimes, it is distancing the reader.

Here are a few examples:

  1. John looked out the window.
  2. Leslie glared at her daughter.
  3. I looked at the paper on my desk.

Stronger possibilities:

  1. Out the window the Ponderosa pines were swaying in the wind. If John is the main character, we will assume he sees this.
  2. Leslie’s eyes narrowed emphasizing the hated wrinkle between her eyebrows. If her daughter is present, it will be pretty obvious that Leslie’s not exactly pleased with her.
  3. The paper on my desk said, “Don’t come back.”

I always suggest using Find in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) to see how many “look”s there are. Usually it’s a surprisingly high number.

Then start replacing them with more dynamic content. Of course, you don’t have to get rid of all of them, but changing many and getting out of the lazy “looking” habit will definitely power up your writing.

Too many feelings. Using “feel”, “felt,” and “feels” often are telling instead of showing.

Here are a few examples:

  1. His legs shake and he feels an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifling his mind.
  2. She felt sad. What does that look like?
  3. I felt sweaty and the mosquitoes were biting. Definitely telling!

These could become the stronger:

  1. His legs shake and an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifles his mind.
  2. Her shoulders drooped to match the shape of her mouth. Now that I can picture.
  3. I licked sweat off my upper lip and smashed a mosquito on my jeans.

The fix. I do a search in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) for the correct verb tense of “feel” in my story.

I change them one of two ways:

  • Rearrange the sentence to share the same info without the word “felt.”
  • Make it more active by helping the reader experience what is happening.
  • Show and add sensory details.

You may ignore it in dialogue.

Write seemlessly (pun intended). Avoid “seem,” “seemed,” “seems.” Often used with “to.” You are the writer and creator of the story, so you know whether something happens or not. You should be sharing what happened—not guessing what happened. “Seemed” indicates uncertainty.

Here’s a simple example: It seemed to be raining. It’s either raining or not raining, isn’t it?

Look at these two:
She seems to remember many of the other cousins and there were a lot of them.

The walls seemed to lean toward me.

The fix. Remove “seem” forms in your narration and correct the verb tense. Tighten if necessary. The two above could become:

She remembers many of our numerous cousins.

The walls leaned toward me.

A possible exception. Sometimes a character expresses an opinion in dialogue or even in their thoughts. “You seem unhappy,” Jon said. If that’s how Jon talks, fine. Or perhaps he might say, “You look unhappy” or You sound unhappy.” But if Jon has an attitude and is more concerned about appearances that actual unhappiness, he might say, “Wipe that frown off your face!” It depends on Jon’s personality and the situation.

Of course, there are other commonly overused words and you may have some unique to your own writing. But go on a search and destroy mission with these three and it’ll give you a good start on self-editing.