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This week I read Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick.

 

From the Jacket Flap: When Private Matt Duffy wakes up in an army hospital in Iraq, he’s honored with a Purple Heart. But he doesn’t feel like a hero. There’s a memory that haunts him: an image of a young Iraqi boy as a bullet hits his chest. Matt can’t shake the feeling that he was somehow involved in his death. But because of a head injury, he can’t quite seem to put all the pieces together.

Eventually Matt is sent back into combat with his squad. He just wants to go back to being the soldier he once was. But he sees potential threats everywhere and lives in fear of not being able to pull the trigger when the time comes. In combat there is no black-and-white, and Matt soon discovers that the notion of who is guilty is very complicated indeed.

Purple Heart is a page-turning, gut-punching read that gives you an inside look at modern war through the eyes of an eighteen year-old boy.

I’ve read two other YA novels by Patricia McCormick. Sold, which was a National Book Award finalist, and Cut, which was a bestseller. If you’re looking for realistic characters dealing with intense situations in contemporary times, check out any of her books.

Patricia was trained as a journalist and writes like a poet. That combination makes for some powerful writing.

Thanks for stopping by.

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In my corner of the world

The first  snow of the season clings to a layer of thin ice on Frog Pond

A squirrel perches, exposed on an island of bare willows,

As the sun sets on Autumn.

 

My friend, randomizer chose Elana Johnson to recieve a nice hard cover copy of Borderline by Allan Stratton. Congrats, Elana!! 

Have a great weekend everyone!!

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Allan Stratton is the internationally acclaimed author of CHANDA’S SECRETS, winner of the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Honor Book, the Children’s Africana Book Award, and ALA Booklist’s Editor’s Choice among others. Allan’s career took off with NURSE JANE GOES TO HAWAII (1980), one of the most produced plays in Canadian theatre history. His other award-winning plays include REXY!, PAPERS, and BAG BABIES. Allan’s first YA novel was the ALA Best Book LESLIE’S JOURNAL, recently re-released in a revised, updated version. His last novel, CHANDA’S WARS, was a Junior Library Guild selection, won the Canadian Library Association’s Young Adult Canadian Book Award, 2009, and is on the CCBC Best Books List. Allan’s newest novel, BORDERLINE, is a coming of age, mystery/thriller about a gutsy, funny, North American Muslim teenager whose father is accused of being part of an international terrorist plot. Allan is published in the USA, France, Germany, Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Australia and Slovenia. To contact Allan, or to read more about his books, awards, and upcoming readings and events, please visit him online at www.allanstratton.com or follow his blog at http://allanstratton.blogspot.com

PAUL: Allan, you are an internationally known playwright and novelist. Your first play was published in 1969, while you were still in high school. You had your first professional stage production in  1977 and then went on to write at least ten more plays that saw what I’d call major productions. In the late-1990s you made the switch to writing fiction. What inspired that switch from playwright to not just novelist, but Young Adult Novelist? How did that happen?

ALLAN: I’d written a six-character, one-set play called “The Phoenix Lottery”, but the story kept growing in my head. Soon it was an epic with over fifty characters, spanning seventy years several continents. Hard to feed those many actors — and as for the sets! So I switched to fiction. 🙂

“The Phoenix Lottery” is what would be called adult, but it includes ten-pages of the teen diary extracts by one of the characters. Annick Press was launching a young adult line; the publisher asked if I’d like to write a whole novel because he liked my way with teen voice. the result was “Leslie’s Journal”. Personally, I consider the term “Young Adult” to be more a marketing concept than anything; books are books are books; books with teen protagonists tend to be called YA. It’s useful to note that my novel “Chanda’s Secrets” that is published as YA has been made into a movie, “Life, Above All” that is sold as adult. (Incidentally, it’s South Africa’s official entry to the 2011 Oscars and will be released in North America in the new year. The trailer, plus raves from Roger Ebert and Time Magazine are at my website — they saw it at the premiere this spring at Cannes.)

PAUL:  I must say, you do have a way with teen voice. I’ve read two of your books, Chanda’s Secrets and Borderline, and didn’t want to put either of those books down once I cracked the covers. And, I can’t wait to see, “Life, Above All.”

So, I’m curious. How was writing that first novel for you? How did your years of experience as a playwright lend themselves to the process? It sounds like you weren’t lacking for material with “The Phoenix Lottery.” But what were the most difficult and challenging parts for you? Was there anything you had to unlearn or set aside from being a playwright in order to write fiction?

ALLAN: Not really. Actually, I found it very liberating. Being restricted to dialogue is a challenge you don’t have to face as a novelist. In fiction, you can delve into backstory, and if you’re writing first-person, as I’ve done to date, you can rattle off interior monolgues that would never be possible on stage.

At the same time, theater skills are very transferable to fiction. At the beginning of each scene (chapter) I ask myself for each character: “What do I want? (What’s my Objective?) What/Who is getting in my way? (What’s my Obstacle?) And what will I do to get what I want? (What are my tactics?)” I think of myself as each character just as I did when I acted and wrote plays.

PAUL: Thanks for sharing those writing process questions for individual scenes. Tell us a little more about your process for writing an entire novel. I’m particularly interested in Chanda’s Secrets since I just read it a month ago. Chanda’s Secrets was chosen as a Printz Honor Book in 2005. It’s been published in sixteen countries, and received 25 awards, and is now going to be on the big screen.

For our readers, here’s a blurb from the Annick Press website:

In this sensitive, swiftly paced story, readers will find echoes of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD as Chanda, a 16-year-old, astonishingly perceptive girl living in the small city of Bonang in Africa, must confront the undercurrents of shame and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. 

Through his artful style and dramatic storytelling, Allan Stratton captures the enduring strength of loyalty, the profound impact of loss, and a fearlessness that is powered by the heart. Above all, it is a story about living with truth.

It’s such an amazing book on so many levels, from the beautiful prose to the emotional impact and contemporary significance. Tell us a little bit about the journey of writing this story from the inception of the idea to publication.

ALLAN: The novel I wrote at Annick’s request after they’d read THE PHOENIX LOTTERY, was LESLIE’S JOURNAL. It’s the story of a young woman who is date-raped and stalked by a psychotic boyfriend; in the revised 2008 edition, he uses Facebook and GPS as well. It was on four American Library Association Best Books lists, as a result of which Annick asked me to write another novel. They suggested a novel about AIDS orphans, but I said that while I’d love to write a novel set against the pandemic I wanted to write about infected people who were dealing with the progress of the virus; it’s easy for orphans to gain reader sympathy, but society still has huge fear and stigma about those infected.

I went to Francistown, Botswana, and other countries in the sub-Sahara and met with so many families and organizations. They confirmed the parallels between their experiences with HIV/AIDS and those I experienced living in Manhattan in the 1980s when the virus peaked in North America. I also gained a lot of visual and cultural insight. 

I wrote the book as I do all my works. First I think through characters and narrative: what happens; what kind of people do the things that happen? That took about three months. Then I went through the process I described for individual scenes. I must add that although I start with an outline, it’s constantly changing. Characters do things that surprise me and I always follow their lead. For instance, Mrs. Tafa has a secret revealed at the novel’s end. I had no idea what she was harboring until I found myself writing her revelation scene.

The first drafts usually take me six to nine months. Then I go back and forth with my editors for another few months.

PAUL: I really want to talk to you about another one of your YA novels, Borderline, but first, I’ve just got to ask you about the screen adaptation, Life, Above All, for Chanda’s Secrets. What’s the story behind how Chanda’s Secrets made it to the screen?

ALLAN: I was researching CHANDA’S WARS — which involves Chanda and her siblings in the world of child soldiers. Oliver Stoltz, the producer, was in Toronto from Germany with his Emmy-nominated documentary THE LOST CHILDREN. I asked to meet him, and gave him CHANDA’S SECRETS after our coffee.

The next year I was in Berlin on a reading tour for my German publisher. Oliver and I met in Berlin. He said he’d like to make it into a movie. The year following I was back on another book tour and he introduced me to director Oliver Schmitz, a South American expatriate who fled to Germany to avoid the apartheid draft. We clicked. And the rest, as they say…

PAUL: I really love this photo on your blog of you and the kids who play Iris and Soly in Life, Above All.

Share a little about these kids. Who are they? And how much time did you spend with them in person? Do you keep in touch with them? 

ALLAN:  The kids in the photo are Mapaseka Mathebe as Chanda’s little sister Iris and Thato Kgalai as her little brother Soly. I was on set with them for ten days. They’re from around Elandsdoorn, a two-and-a-half hour drive northeast of Johannesburg. And they’re as cute in real life as they appear in the photo. Mapaseka is the daughter of local royalty, which gives her a wonderful attitude as Iris. I haven’t seen them since the shoot since they live in the sub-Sahara, but I saw our Chanda again at the Cannes Festival. Her name is Khomotso Manyaka and she’s a real find as you’ll see in the trailer. Your readers might like to know that I blogged about the shoot all through December 2009 and they can see Khomoto’s photo there.

PAULThanks, Allan. I just can’t wait to see Life, Above All. As a former teacher, I’m guessing that over the years this movie will be shown in many, many classrooms.

Now, onto the first book of yours I read. When I picked up your YA novel, Borderline (HarperCollins 2010), and read the jacket flap I immediately knew that I wanted to read this book:

Life’s not easy for Sami Sabiri since his dad stuck him in a private school where he is the only Muslim kid.  But it’s about to get a lot worse. When Sami catches his father in a lie, he gets suspicious…He’s not the only one.  In a whirlwind, the FBI descends on his home, and Sami’s family becomes the center of an international terrorist investigation.  Now Sami must fight to keep his world from unraveling. An explosive thriller ripped from today’s headlines, Borderline is the story of a funny, gutsy Muslim-American teen determined to save his father, his family and his life.

Where did you get the idea for this book? And, what motivated you to tell this particular story? 

ALLAN: Three life experiences almost certainly fueled BORDERLINE:

My mom left my dad when I was a baby. Growing up, I was soon aware that the father I knew was very different from the father my half-brother knew, and even more different than the father my half-sister knew. As a teenager I thought, “If I can’t really know my dad, how can I know anyone? How can anyone know anyone?”

The second experience happened to me when I was eight. I was hiding under the picnic table and eavesdropping on a conversation Dad was having with my grandparents about capital punishment. I remember breaking into a cold sweat, overcome with the certainty that one day I’d be executed for a crime I didn’t commit. The idea that life isn’t fair has stuck with me ever since — and that horrible sense of how helpless we are in the face of rumor, gossip and fear.

 Finally, there was growing up as a gay kid in the 1950s and 60s. Unable to be open even to the parents and friends who loved me, I instinctively learned to hide who I was in order to survive. I learned about the borders that keep us from each other, about the lines that separate and shape us. And I learned that ‘The Truth’ and ‘The Whole Truth’ are very different things.

In fact, come to think of it, these three experiences connect to the thematic passions in all my work – to my obsession with secrets, loyalty, betrayal, justice, and the absolute importance of living with truth.

PAUL: A couple of final questions: What are you working on now? Do you have another book coming out anytime soon?

ALLAN: I’m working on a pair of connected Middle Grade fantasies that use Shakespearian motifs to tell stories of children separated from their families by storms at sea and reunited by fortune: secrets, identity, things hidden — a new way to express favourite themes.  THE GRAVE ROBBER’S APPRENTICE is the first. I’m in final rewrites. It comes out a year from now with HarperCollins. the stand-alone followup is THE NECROMANCER’S REVENGE which comes out the year following.

PAUL: I’m impressed that you’ve written four realistic YA novels and now are writing MG Fantasy. Very cool, Allan!! 

I know you love to write. But you must love some other activities, too. What does Allan Stratton like to do when he isn’t writing? 

ALLAN: I travel. In the past year, I’ve been to Argentina, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, France, South Africa, Germany and Italy, as well as New York, Florida and Winnipeg in North America.

Also, I love to snorkel in coral reefs. When I’m home, I visit my mom almost daily; she’s in a care facility and has been the most amazing person in my life. I also exercise five times a week — half-hour X-trainer, some weights and a few hundred sit-ups. Oh, yes, and I eat ice cream (Ben and Jerry’s Caramel Triple Play and New York Super Fudge Chunk are favourites) and take care of my four cats — Soly, Misha, P2 and Penster.

PAULThanks so much for stopping by today, Allan. Any last words or thoughts you want to leave people with?

ALLAN:  I’ve had wonderful luck in my life. It’s true that one has to do the work first, but still… While one has to be ready to open the door when opportunity knocks, sometimes opportunity knocks while you’re out at the drug store. Or sometimes when you’re most prepared, opportunity visits another street.  

For instance, change a reviewer and a rave in the NY Times becomes a pan, or change a jury member and that national award that makes your career goes to someone else.

I always try to remember to be grateful for my luck and never to think it came just because of me. It didn’t, it never does, no matter how good the work. That thought helps to keep a person humble.

Also, bad times will pass, but so will good time… so remember to cherish the good times while they’re here — never take them for granted — and to remember that the pain of our bleakest moments will one day lift. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. It’s a mantra that’s seen me through some awfully painful periods, and has kept me level in the happier ones.

Please leave your comments and questions for Allan below. I have a copy of Borderline that I’m giving away. One commenter will be chosen randomly. The drawing is open until mid-night Thursday EST.

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I came at writing slowly.

As a kid I spent most of my free time playing or watching TV. I liked to read but not in an obsessive way. And I didn’t write unless I had to for school.

My senior year of high school I had an English teacher who really knew how to bring books to life through discussion, and I discovered that I liked thinking deeply about books.

In college I started keeping a journal, but only wrote in it sporadically about girls I liked but was too shy to ask out, or about what life is all about, or about how I needed to get off my butt and do something, anything.

Sophomore year I decided to major in English because I had to major in something and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life besides go camping and backpacking.

My last two years of college I wrote lots of old-style rhyming poetry, modeling the poets I was reading, and had two poems published in a student literary journal.

When I moved to Alaska a few years later and was living in a cabin outside of town, I wrote some really bad short stories about a guy living in a cabin where not much of anything is happening.

Yeah, writing what you know doesn't always work out.

Fast forward a few years: I’m teaching English in an alternative school and I discover Young Adult Literature. I start bringing home books by the arm-load, searching for a few my reluctant and struggling readers will connect with, and I fall in love with the genre.

Now that I’ve got my students reading, I’m looking for ways to turn my students on to writing so we start writing scenes using characters from the novels we are reading.

My students like doing the assignments, but I love doing the assignments.

I’m not sure I would’ve started writing YA if it weren’t for my students. Now, I’m hooked.

How did you come to be a writer? Did you love writing from an early age or did you discover it in a more roundabout way?

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Jo Knowles

I was fortunate enough to secure a copy of Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles the day before I left for a two-week trip. I finished it in just a few days. Yes people, it kept me up past my bedtime. 

  

From the Jacket flap: 

Ellie has hooked up with more than a few boys. Each time she is certain there will be more to the encounter than just sex. While she is with them, she feels loved. For a while anyway.  So when Josh, an eager virgin with a troubled home life, leads her from a party to the backseat of his van, Ellie follows. But their “one-time thing” is far from perfect: Ellie gets pregnant. Josh reacts with shame and heartbreak, while their confidantes, Caleb and Corinne, deal with their own complex swirl of emotions. No matter what Ellie chooses, all four teenagers will be forced to grow up a little faster as a result. Told alternately from each character’s point of view, this deeply insightful novel explores the aftershocks of the biggest decision of one fragile girl’s life — and the realities of leaving innocence behind. 

Jumping Off Swings (Candlewick, 2009) is Jo’s second YA novel, and it has racked up a slew of awards: 

YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers
YALSA Best Book for Young Adults
Gold Star Award for Excellence from TeensReadToo.com
Starred Review in Publishers Weekly Online

I thought the book was both poetic and page-turning, and emotionally honest. 

And, from a craft perspective, is a work of art. Jumping Off Swings, told in first person, masterfully alternates POV between the four main characters.

If you’re a fan of contemporary character-driven novels with complex plots, then this book is for you.

Another thing I think is really cool about Jumping Off Swings is that Jo Knowles was awarded an SCBWI Work In Progress Grant for it back in 2002. I don’t know the whole story behind the story but I think this is a great example of sticking with something. From the acknowledgments at the end of the book: To my agent, Barry Goldblatt, for not giving up on the novel formerly known as Slut.

Look for Jo Knowles’s newest book: SEE YOU AT HARRY’S!, about a twelve-year-old girl who feels invisible among the chaos of her family’s restaurant business, thanks to her parents’ benign neglect and the more demanding needs of her sister and two brothers in Spring 2012 from Candlewick. 

Leave a comment, and your email address, before midnight Friday, Sept. 3rd (Eastern Time) for a chance to win a copy of Jumping Off Swings.

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