Another Shusterman Tribute

In case you haven’t guessed, Inklings (i.e. I) is (am) a fan of Neal Shusterman. Not all Shusterman novels are on Inklings, yet, but they will be eventually.

Most notably, I’ve been blogging about the Skinjacker Trilogy (see Everlost and Everwild). In a flash of procrastination, er, inspiration, I found the Neal Shusterman blog, which will remain on my blogroll for those interested.

Because I also blog about the writing process and haven’t done so for a while, I thought I’d attach one of his blogs about his process. (Note: Everfound out next summer). From the writing perspective, it’s very identifiable, and entertaining reading otherwise.

That said, I want to talk briefly about the idea of travel for writing inspiration. I’m for it. Like your “element” (See Pavlov, Eat Your Heart Out), travel can do wonders for that creative spark. Works for me. New places bring new ideas, but they aren’t always forthcoming, even with travel. Nor are they controllable. It’s one of the major internal conflicts writers face.

In my humble opinion, Shusterman’s stories work because he obeys the rule Character First. This usually develops into quite the tirade for me, so I’ll try to be brief. To sum up, listening to the characters is crucial. Even more crucial than where you want the plot to go. Shusterman’s post preceding the link above discusses that briefly. If you ignore character inclination, you sacrifice their “realness” and your readers’ attachments for the sake of a plot. The characters then fail, and thus, so does the plot. If you don’t care about the characters or are unable to believe them ( “align with” in counseling lingo), the plot will have little relevance for you, the reader. As I’ve mentioned before, characters in Shusterman’s novels, as is especially true in the young adult genre are so creative, yet so real that they pull you in to the story.

So, mission of the week (or period of time between posting): How do you develop strong characters? Let characters drive the story. How do we reach that enigmatic plane where we  release the characters and let them run?

The View from Saturday

Many people haven’t read this book. I did, probably when I was ten or eleven. I don’t really remember exactly how old I was when I first read it, but I did notice that small glimpses came back to me. So, as I went through Konigsburg’s collection, I was very excited to read it again. I realized that I had forgotten most of it.

This particular story is structured differently from the other two. This one works in multiple frames. The frame is a middle school quiz team named “The Souls.”  Each of the four, and then their teacher/sponsor tells his or her story as the major competition runs. What I also discovered that what I remembered from the book was one particular of the framed story.

For me, at least on this reading, it started off a little slowly. Not bad, but not as good as I had built in my head. Still, somewhat clever, and creative at the very least. However, each of the stories is necessary, because they are all very intertwined and have recurring ideas and even recurring notes that create “inside jokes” in the narrative.

My favourite story is in the middle, and it is the one that made the biggest impression on me. Reading it this time, I believe that I like that character as a narrator the best of all the characters. As well they should, each character has his or her own narrative voice and style.

The themes in this book are a little more advanced than the other books in the collection. The most obvious and direct theme is fitting in and acceptance. I really like the book for this theme. It approaches the nature of trying to fit in with others vs. being yourself, but it throws a new spin on this problem. Here, the solution is to find a group that encourages you to be yourself. Interestingly, it begins with each being “selected” very discreetly by an outcast. No one knows they associate with each other, but they create a strong, supportive bond. The fluidity of the group, their fit and genuineness are in the end what creates their success. They do more than just enjoy each others’ company. They strive to do good things for others and work together as a unit. They are loyal and take care of each other.

Which takes us to our second theme of friendship. If we compare this to the idea from JHMWMaME, we see almost polar opposites. Where as Jennifer and Elizabeth feel rather manipulative, this relationship is mutually supportive. Having these two foils is a great lesson for children, and especially older children that are trying to find themselves while fitting in. Instead of forcing each person to be a certain way, this group maximizes each members natural self- a true marker for great friendship.

Before this sounds all mushy, let me point out that the relationships are not perfect. The characters are very human. They hesitate to like each other, for reasons such as jealousy, shyness, or perhaps wanting to maintain one’s current status in families and school. The book is also quite honest about how cruel or ruthless even young people can be. What makes this work is that, despite the fairytale/inspirational nature of the book, it is, for the most part, set in a recognizable version of reality, straight down to the bureaucratic and political nature of administration and public office.

Another interesting element is how putting others above our hesitance or self-centered thinking can really work out better for us in the end. It suggests not necessarily that altruism is it’s own reward, although the factors of that are in the book, but it also suggests that it pays back directly to us, possibly more than self-interest.

The final theme I want to note is that it establishes many, many different kinds of relationships and life paths. It includes divorce, marriage in late life, long-term marriages, single parenting, focus on career, friendships, being a loner, and avoidance. This is a very important concept to introduce, because we often become socially stuck and limit ourselves, because we think of only three or four acceptable relationships or life structures, when in fact, there are numerous ways to be functional.

The View from Saturday is appropriate for many ages, especially around middle school, because that is the age of the characters. Children somewhat younger than that will probably enjoy this book as well.

Inklings Recommended

Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth

For the sake of writing the title repeatedly, I’m abbreviating this one. JHMWMaME is the second listed in the e.l. konigsburg collection.

The story surrounds the friendship of Elizabeth, the narrator/protagonist and Jennifer, a witch she discovers in a tree. They both attend William McKinley Elementary school. Elizabeth has no friends at school, and is subject to the annoying angel-devil Cynthia. So, when Jennifer offers to make her an apprentice witch, she jumps at the chance. She makes numerous changes to be a witch, and the story focuses on her experience.

******Spoiler Alert********

In reading this piece, I found myself somewhat disappointed. As the story progressed, I found myself annoyed with Jennifer and had this nagging feeling that Elizabeth was used, although that was never approached terribly well- nothing further than declaring Jennifer “bossy.”  Perhaps the most frustrating piece was at the end where they just randomly become friends with an unspoken giving up of being witches. While unspoken agreements between friends are commonplace, there was not enough established to support these things. What did she do at THE ESTATE across the street? How did she come to be there? What made her want to be a witch? We know nothing really of Jennifer.

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From this, children can begin to about inconsistencies in people and the nature of dishonesty. Cynthia is that child that most kids meet that are horrible to other children but put up a front near adults. Similarly, children can learn that not all behaviors are easily understandable, or that all people are easy to understand.  They can see the importance of standing up for themselves and finding their confidence.

This book is appropriate for most ages.  Inklings accepted.