World Building Days Gone By


After a recent, especially helpful critique I was left with the impression I needed to mainly focus on two things. The first was moving a wrongly placed conflict. It didn’t surprise me. I had had a feeling about it myself, but justified it at the same time. The beauty of writing is the save as button. Nothing has to change forever. If I decide I like the original way better than the revised way, I can revert. But it’s always worth the try to do something that makes you a little uncomfortable, something you are not quite certain about. It may turn out to be magic.

The other big note is on world building. And admittedly, here is where I struggle. It’s historical fiction. And I’ve done A LOT of research on the time period and the events in my story.  How do I build this world of long ago without dumping all of this info onto the page? Then there’s the question of what do I do about the areas that are fuzzy?  The areas the research didn’t reveal? Do I fill in the gaps creatively or find a way around them?

My brain leads me to further research, but of a fun kind, for me. I got to reading.  Here are the seven things I’ve gleaned from the first three chapters of seven historical fictional novels. Hopefully it will lead me to build one vivid world.

The seven books I studied:

  • Paper Wishes (2016) by Lois Sepahban
  • Down the Rabbit Hole (2013) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
  • Number the Stars (1989, oldish, but my favorite Newbery winner) by Lois Lowry
  • The War that Saved my Life (2015) by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • Worth (2004) by A. LaFaye
  • Dash (2014) by Kirby Larson
  • Fever 1793 (2000) by Laurie Halse Anderson

*Timeout for a plug. One of these lovely authors is the person who critiqued my first three chapters. Do yourself a favor and keep an eye on Kidlit College for opportunities to grow your craft. Ms. LaFaye empowered me to plunge back into a story that had become stale, helped me to see the good in it, and showed me where I needed to grow in a way that made me feel strengthened instead of diminished. Besides, hearing words like compelling piece and powerful story is a confidence boost that makes the baby seem a little less ugly. FYI the Novel Direct Contest is open until November 1, 2016. *

The good news is there’s no one way to do this. The bad news is there’s no one way to do this. So, more often than not, here is what I discovered.

  1. Five of the seven are written in first person. An advantage of this is keeping the movie camera super zoomed in and noticing only what the character would notice. Like in The War that Saved my Life, Ada had no idea there was a world war brewing outside of her flat because she was imprisoned in her home. A disadvantage of first person narratives is being unable to ever leak information to your reader that your protag wouldn’t know.
    • Mine is written in third-person limited. I think this is working for me, for now. Third-person limited is similar to first person in that the protag must be in every scene and only his thoughts and feelings are divulged, the others’ may be inferred. But I may play with first person. It seems easier for the reader to sink into the skin of the protag.
  2. The story is in the specifics. After completing my last rough draft, I read Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. She has an entire chapter called the story is in the specifics. But the specifics, the details, must have a story reason to be there, not just a cool piece of research I picked up and want to fit in. For example, in Number the Stars, the second chapter is nearly all back story, told through a bedtime story that led to a flashback, that delivers a vital theme of the story. A boy tells a Nazi soldier that all of Denmark is a bodyguard to the king. In the third chapter, Annemarie realizes that all of Denmark must also now be a bodyguard to the Jews.  wired
    • In Down the Rabbit Hole, Pringle is very keen to notice people’s fashion. Valuable story retail space is taken with details about the fashion of 1871. I doubt Susan Campbell Bartoletti chose emphasizing fashion over decor, for example, because it is what interested her. I’m sure there is a story reason. But only having read the opening pages, I have yet to discover if I’m right.
    • I have a lot of specific information I know from all of my research. But like Lisa Cron wrote, “The more details the writer gives us, the fewer we’ll remember, proving, once again, that as with most things in life, less is more.” If it doesn’t have a story reason, pitch it.
  3. Don’t just world build for the sake of painting the picture for your reader. There must be reason for it. For example, in The War that Saved my Life, Ada leaves her flat for the first time, ever. As a writer, I’d be tempted to tell of all the things she would be seeing for the first time as she’s walking with her brother to school and running away from her mother. But if Ada were a real person, and we treat our characters like they are, than in reality she wouldn’t notice these things around her. She was in such terrible pain from walking on her crippled foot that she had to crawl a block. At which point the reader learns about the trash and the mud that she must crawl through to escape.
    • What this means to me, is that I have to know my character so well to know what would stand out to him. How much do I pay attention to the color on my wall or the the way I sink into my couch? If it’s everyday to my character, he probably wouldn’t notice it either. And if there’s an emotionally or physically strenuous scene going on, he sure wouldn’t notice the crackling sounds of the wood in the fireplace. I know you have incredible talent at painting a beautiful picture. But state of mind of your protag and moving the story forward trump pretty words.
  4.  Historical information is weaved in organically. Very rarely does the story tell us off the bat the time period of the story. But we often quickly get the sense of time period. Consider the everyday items of today that were different then. In Worth we get clues through the necessary details of the story like using horses and a wagon to do the field work on the farm, or that Ma is a tinker. Her job has two layers of story reason, but it also puts us back in time. In Dash, while riding the bus Mitsi notices signs in stores saying, “We don’t serve Japs.” That’s more than a good piece of research. It’s a detail that is setting the stage for future scenes.
    • If I’m reading my critique correctly, this is what Ms. Lafaye referred to as double duty detail. Meaning it has a story reason to be there, but it’s also giving us a sense of the time or setting.
  5. Sometimes we have to get back matter in. This could be through a flash back, which reads like a scene, or by carefully placing in back story. But again, there must be story reason. (Note the example above from Number the Stars)
    • Example of back story from Paper Wishes: I pretend everything is normal and go to my room. Once, I shared my room with my sister, Keiko, and my brother, Ron. They are far away now, in India… Seeing something sparks a piece of backstory that is necessary for future scenes. But if it’s not necessary for upcoming story, then that piece of backstory can remain in your prewriting journal.
    • A flashback reads more like a scene. Here’s an example from Down the Rabbit Hole: I remember his voice crackled like static air before a storm. “Pringle, I have terrible news.” Yet I plunged ahead, unafraid. I was Alice, chasing the White Rabbit. “It’s Gideon,” I said.
    • Yes, my story has quite a bit of back matter that fuels future story pieces, but I have to be sure its revelation is triggered by something happening in the present and that its reason for being brought up is quickly revealed.
  6. We’ve got more than vision, so use the other senses when possible. In Worth, Nathaniel is trapped in his room with a broken leg, for weeks. He sees the same four walls 24/7. Imagine how bored he would be and we don’t want to bore the readers. Instead, his ears become his eyes. He can tell his dad is wearing his Sunday boots on Saturday by the way they sound and that has great story reason because that means dad is going somewhere important. Lisa Cron warns, “Unless they convey necessary information, sensory details clog a story’s arteries.”
    • I’m starting to get the meaning of advice I’ve heard at many conferences, every word must earns its position on the page. Every sensory detail must be informing the reader or else they will tune it out or worse, get bored and close the book.
  7. Does age matter? Only in Number the Stars is the specific age of the character revealed. In the other six, the reader is able to estimate the age based on how the character behaves and interacts with others. In reality, how often does age come up in real life? It’s not often on our mind, so it most likely wouldn’t be on your characters’ minds either. Yet, isn’t that one of the things we often ask in critique groups, how old is your character?

What do you think? How important is it to tell the age of your protag? Or maybe it’s better to show it.

Okay, I have six books to finish reading and an opening of a story to reshape. Lots to do. Always lots to do!

Happy writing!

Apply butt to chair and read

One of the great things about going to a conference is coming home with a big fat list of books to read.  If they could help me find more time to read that would be just downright magical.

open books

From the four keynote addresses, the eight break out sessions, and the one intensive, I give you books to first enjoy and then study.  You are probably well read and already familiar with many of these, but I encourage you to take another look to grow your craft.

From the intensive on voice with Heather Alexander, literary agent from Pippin Properties comes most of the books.  Though we discussed what each did well in voice, they all are great studies in the craft of writing:

  • Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt (in my Goodreads review I said Gary Schmidt wrote Wednesday Wars just so he could meet the MC for Okay for Now.  This book also made my list of top 25 books I’m glad were written. Don’t miss this one!)
  • Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (Heather called this one of the most vulnerable YA characters we’ve had in a long time.)
  • I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson(Language is important! Imagine what a different story this would be if the homonym was used instead, I’ll Give You the Son!)
  • Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
  • Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
  • The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen
  • Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater

Character-driven novels:

  • Roller Girl – Victoria Jamieson
  • Pax – Sara Pennypacker

A book that has changed the world:

Picture Books that demonstrate tight lean writing

  • All Alone by Kevin Henkes
  • The New Girl by Jacqui Robbins
  • Star Bright by Allison McGhee
  • Zombie in Love by Kelly DiPucchio

The author has a clear sense of the backstory

  • Wonder by RJ Palacio
  • Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

Best first sentence, according to Sarah Aronson:

  • What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman

Great Ending:

  • The Rag Bone Shop by Robert Cormier

Books on the Craft of Writing

  • Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
  • Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch
  • Writing Stories by Carolyn Coman

Happy reading and creating!

Go ahead update your to-read list on Goodreads.

25 Books I’m Thankful were Written

Inspired by the Thanksgiving holiday which you may be en route to celebrate, I offer the 25 books I’m thankful were written.


  1.  The Bible
  2. Freedom Train by Dorothy Sterling
  3. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
  4. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  5. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
  6. This Present Darkness by Frank E. Peretti
  7. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  8. The Monster at the End of the Book by Jon Stone
  9. I am a Frog by Mo Willems
  10. Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
  11. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
  12. The Cat Who … by Lilian Jackson Braun
  13. House Arrest and Rhyme Schemer by K.A. Holt
  14. I Funny: A Middle School Story by James Patterson
  15. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  16. Unglued by Lysa Terkeurst
  17. Marley and Me by John Grogan
  18. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  19. Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
  20. The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns
  21. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka
  22. Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
  23. The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
  24. The Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson
  25. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer


That was hard.  Really hard to stop at 25.  I’d love to hear about the books you are thankful were written.

And the three that I’m truly grateful for are not published yet, but they have taught me oh so very much.

Happy Thanksgiving

Eat Well!

Make Memories!

And when you come out of your turkey coma, your keyboard will be ready for you.


Brown Girl Dreaming Review

Brown Girl Dreaming is the autobiographical memoir of Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood.  It has racked up an astounding four awards!!! National Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award, Newbery Honor Book, and Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award.  Not too shabby! This review, unfortunately, does put a few smudges on all those beautiful accolades.


Written in verse, we travel with Jackie from her early childhood in Columbus, Ohio, to live with her grandparents in the Nicholtown neighborhood in Greenville, South Carolina, to her final home in Brooklyn, New York.  Young Jacqueline is keenly aware that she is unlike others in her family and searches for the thing that fits her just right.

What children will like about it:

This is a story that young girls will be drawn to.  They will identify with Jackie as she struggles with knowing her place in her family and overcoming the challenges she faced with reading.  Though the book is thick, there is a lot of white space on the pages making it friendly to reluctant readers. Jackie also faces very difficult events in her life that children will either relate to from their own histories, or draw closer to Jackie as they sympathize with her. The historical backdrop is a character in itself.  While set against intense civil right battles, the personal perspective was a safe distance from some of the pivotal events, but the reader sits on edge knowing that something could happen.  The young reader will feel anger, sadness, satisfaction, worry, pride, and strength while turning these pages.

Through a writer’s eyes

The language was a cozy blanket on a rainy day.  Vivid word pictures, deep emotion, tight and succinct, only wordy on purpose and on occasion.  The house in Nicholtown felt like home to me and I melted into Grandma Georgiana’s kitchen. Daddy’s song as he sauntered home and his breath being squeezed away by emphysema, or the like, made him the most concrete character to me.  It made me want to be a child sitting on the porch with him, listening to him sing.

The story is subtle.  Jackie’s journey as she finds her way through her struggle as a reader to grow into a writer is very relatable.  However, the story took a back seat to the poetry.  Keeping in mind this is a memoir, the plot was not thick with turns and twists, but it was deeply personal.  The voice sounds like an adult remembering her youth, which is what it is, but it would be stronger if it sounded like a young girl.  This is tricky when writing in verse.  Poetry is inherently more mature, to turn the voice youthful is challenging.

Nonetheless, I was mesmerized by this story and glad it was one that was written.  I will leave you with one of my favorite parts of the book, it comes from the poem “The Ghosts of the Nelsonville House.”

Look closely. There I am

in the furrow of Jack’s brow,

in the slyness of Alicia’s smile,

in the bend of Grace’s hand . . .

There I am . . .


Visit Ms. Woodson here to learn more about her.

Middle Grade Book Length

The dormant math teacher in me is needing to click at a calculator for a minute.  Word count.  This pesky thing is really starting to irk me.  Time to do a little math.  I’ll do it for you, no need to bring out your calculator too.

Wherever you look, it is estimated that middle grade fiction should be between 20K and 55K words.  The average number of words on a page is 250.  That means book length is between 80 pages for lower middle grade and 220 pages for upper middle grade fiction.

My middle grade novel is hovering around 70,000 words or 270 pages.  I would really love to get it under 250 pages.  With this in mind, I decided to take a quick survey of popular middle grade fiction and its page count.

book case

From my bookcase: Title, number of pages, year published, *denotes non-standard formatting

  • Johnny Tremain, 1943, 300 pages
  • The Cricket in Times Square, 1960, 151 pages
  • Bridge to Terabithia, 1977, 163 pages
  • Night of the Twisters, 1984, 153 pages
  • Number the Stars, 1989, 137 pages
  • Maniac Magee, 1990, 184 pages
  • Fever, 2000, 243 pages
  • A Single Shard, 2001, 148 pages
  • Penny from Heaven, 2006, 256 pages
  • Schooled, 2007, 208 pages
  • The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, 2010, 170 pages
  • I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, 2010, 176 pages
  • Breaking Stalin’s Nose*, 2011, 151 pages
  • Dead End in Norvelt, 2011, 341 pages
  • Inside out and Back Again*, 2011, 260 pages
  • The One and Only Ivan*, 2012, 300 pages
  • Tua and the Elephant*, 2012, 202 pages

From this very small sample of middle grade fiction I can conclude book length is trending higher than previously.  So, let’s look at what came out this year.

From the Chicago Public Library’s list of Best Older Fiction of 2014

Out of the 30 books listed

  • two were written in verse
  • one graphic novel was 80 pages
  • of the remaining 27 books
    • 1 was under 200 pages
    • 10 were between 200 and 250 pages
    • 7 were between 251 and 300 pages
    • 4 between 301-350
    • 5 had more than 350 pages

This list was determined by librarians.  I figure they may have a higher tolerance for longer book length than the average consumer.  This brought me to the New York Times Best Seller’s List.

From December 12, 2014’s  NY Times best seller’s list for children’s middle grade

  1. House of Robots, James Patterson, 352 pages
  2. Wonder, PJ Palacio, 315 pages
  3. Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods, Rick Riordan, 336 pages
  4. Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson, 336 pages – in verse
  5. The Fourteenth Goldfish, Jennifer Holm, 208 pages
  6. The Princess in Black, Shannon Hale, 96 pages (for 5-8 year olds)
  7. The Care and Keeping of You 1, Valorie Schaefer, 104 pages (non-fiction)
  8. The Contract, Derek Jeter with Paul Mantell, 160 pages
  9. The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate, 300 pages
  10. Leroy Ninker Saddles Up, Kate DiCamillo, 96 pages (6-9 year olds)

It appears that book length doesn’t turn away the average reader either.

Ideally, it would be great to keep word count below 50,000. I know I love to zip through a book and when it’s shorter, it’s less intimidating to reluctant readers.   This data, however, suggests that it is not a gatekeeper.

The bottom line is: Write well, with vivid language that creates a mental movie for the reader.  Take the reader to a place they can’t go in their everyday life, help them have experiences they might not have on their own.  Don’t get hung up on word count, but make every word work for its space on the page.  Then, when your vivid writing with a strong voice attracts an editor, be ready to kill the darlings.  Until then, write, revise, write better, pay attention to word count, but don’t get hung up on it.

A few pages on word count if you want more information.

From writer’s digest

Literary Rambles

Young Adult verses Middle Grade

The Boy on the Porch

Newbery Medal winner Sharon Creech breaks a cardinal rule of children’s literature in The Boy on the Porch.  The main characters of this story are adults!  The main child character even steps out of the picture for part of the story!  But you know what?  It works!


Marta and John walk onto their porch one morning to find a young boy sound asleep on a chair.  He comes with a note asking the couple to take care of Jacob and stating that whoever dropped him off would return to get him.  Unsigned and unspecific as to when they will return, the couple hesitantly agrees.  Oh, and Jacob doesn’t talk, he taps.

Why it appeals to children: The events of the story are so outside of the ordinary, it compels the reader to stay engaged.  Children will be captivated by Jacob.  His quietness.  His talents.  His journey.  Children will also fall in love with the compassionate dedication of Marta and John.  Additionally, it has great appeal to reluctant readers.  Most chapters are just three pages long, some are longer, and many are just two pages!  The story starts with a shocking discovery and demands the reader to turn the page again and again.

Why it appeals to adults:  The story will especially appeal to educators, social workers, and foster parents.  It highlights the multiple intelligence stance – it’s not “How smart are you?” but “How are you smart?”  And it portrays being a foster parent through a very pure and appealing light.  While this book is not a “foster parent book,” it is an important thread that is subtly weaved.

It was a little odd to read a children’s book that focused on a married couple.  Adult readers will identify with the dilemmas John and Marta face.  What I appreciated most was the simpleness of their deep love. Completely different than the convoluted life of middle America.  They didn’t have much to offer, but they gave everything they had. Not to mention how it tenderly brings in heavy topics like an abandoned child and loving a child that is not like all of the other children.

Creech trusts her readers to create their own mental movie and does not overwhelm with details.   The story is written in an easy going way, but it profoundly communicates the simpleness of John and Marta’s love for Jacob and meeting his deepest needs.

As a writer: Yes, Sharon Creech broke a few rules in writing this story.  She’s a Newbery Award winner and she in entitled to that freedom.  For the rest of us pre-published authors, we have to stay in the lines for now.  (I know what you’re thinking.  Give it a try.  I hope your unique idea works for you and you break new literary ground!  Honestly.)  We can, however, let books like this inspire us to dream of something different while we hone our craft and work on getting that first one published!  We can also take note on how to write succinctly.  Who? Me?

To Sharon Creech I say, thank you for this lovely story.  It left me with a lump in my throat. It is one that will stay with me.  And I am so very glad it is one that was written.

Number the Stars

Number-the-StarsNumber the Stars by Lois Lowry is my all-time favorite children’s book ever!  It’s a historical fiction novel intended for an audience of 9-12 year old children.  It’s the story of Annemarie Johansen living in Copenhagen, Denmark during the Nazi occupation of World War II.  Her best friend, Ellen Rosen, is Jewish. When the story starts the Nazis stop merely standing ominously on street corners and prepare to relocate the Danish Jews.  The lives of the two girls are about to change drastically.  One will be forced to go into hiding while the other’s courage will be put to the test.

It is the winner of the 1990 Newbery Medal.  Though it rightfully received this award, it’s true accolades come from how it stands up to its toughest critics, children.  I have taught this book with two fourth grade and five fifth grade classes across a variety of ethnic groups and spanning the socio-economic bridge.  I have read this book with reluctant readers and avid readers.  The most challenging part of reading it was being told they weren’t allowed to read ahead!

Why children like it

The pace is quick.  The beginning of the story grabs hold of you and you don’t want to let go until the very last page.   The events of WWII are so unbelievable that the setting is both intriguing and mortifying.  The real stronghold is how relatable the characters are.  Annemarie and Ellen are very much like the children in the classroom, but are called to do extreme things.  And the themes of the story are the themes of most children’s lives: friendships put to the test, needing to be brave when it would be easier to run away, coming of age and learning the truth of the world around them.  I’ve had so many great conversations with my students because of the events in this book!

Through a writer’s eyes

Every time I have read this book I got something new from it.  And I’ve read it a lot!  (I am not one for rereading books, but this is a clear exception! – remember I’m a reformed reluctant reader).  This is a book that should be studied by every aspiring fiction writer.  It’s a study of doing it all right!  Characterization, plot, sub plot, intrigue, plot twists, symbolism, voice, show-don’t-tell.  What makes this an even more impressive feat is that the setting of this story, WWII, is one of the most written about topics.  What’s equally amazing is that it is all done in 132 pages!

Give Ms. Lowry a visit at and be sure to enjoy this book that I am glad was written!

Because of Mr. Terupt

mr. teruptWriting a book from many perspectives is a challenge I am not sure I will ever be equal to.   How do you move the story forward? It seems like you could get stuck in a scene for a while when you have more than one perspective.  How do you get the reader to care about each character, to IDENTIFY with each one?  If the reader isn’t feeling connected to the characters, they will close the covers or torture themselves to get to the end.

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea conquered this challenge.  The reader follows several students through the course of the school year and connects with each one.  Many stereotypical classroom personas become characters, and their actions and thoughts ring true.  I was able to relate to each character myself or connect the student to someone I once went to school with or taught.  When one character’s actions result in a grave injury, the reader doesn’t experience just one set of emotions as it effects the entire class.

This story addresses conflicts children deal with on a daily basis, but it also shows how they cope together, or independently, when tragedy strikes.  Every child can relate to this cast of characters and adults will appreciate how genuine the characters are.

I have read other books that have multiple characters.  Most of those books have been a drudgery to get through.  But not this.  This one got it right.  Therefore, Because of Mr. Terupt is a book I am glad was written.  You are good, Mr. Buyea.

Bud, Not Buddy

Bud, not buddyPublished in 1999, a winner of both a Newberry Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award.   I can see why!  This story is like a favorite song.  Where the melody is catchy, the lyrics are moving, the background instruments get highlighted in all the right places, and it’s easy on the ears.  Masterfully it comes together and appears seamless and effortless.

Another historical fiction novel that belies the difficulty of the craft, but gives me inspiration to keep at it nonetheless.  This will be one I reread to study how Christopher Paul Curtis did many things, but most significantly voice and characterization.   I also need to reread it because I enjoyed it so much that I zipped through it and forgot to pay attention to how the story was crafted.

It is written in the first person, which is a challenge I am not up for.   Clearly Mr. Curtis loved Bud, and most likely identified with his main character.

As a teacher, I told the students it helped to make a mental movie of the story to help with visualization and comprehension. This story made it so easy to do that.  The details did not beat you over the head, but was just enough so that I could take what the author gave me and incorporate it with my experiences and paint a great picture.

Bud was not a character in a story but a boy so much like many of the boys I have taught.  He had a funny sense of humor, a couple eccentricities that made him who he was, and very deep hurts that he dealt with so quietly.  Truly well done.  And one that I am glad was written

Inside Out and Back Again

Inside OutInside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This was one of those stories that goes down easy.  Though the content was compelling  and deep, the presentation was gentle and unpretentious.   It’s apparent simplicity is misleading, for Lai is masterful with language.  She communicates succinctly with powerful words ideas that many could not convey nearly as well with entire paragraphs.

It is one of those experiences that seems easy to do; makes me want to try to write a story in verse myself.  I am sure I will quickly realize that I have minimized the difficultly of such a task!  Oh how her powerful management of language belies it’s easiness!

Inside Out and Back Again is a historical fiction account of a little girl, Há.  The reader follows her through her journey from war torn Vietnam to the United States.  Her  adjustment to a new culture and the mistreatment that her Vietnamese family face mingle with the seemingly insurmountable loss she endured.

As a novice writer, I appreciate Lai’s word pictures and her ability to conjure deep emotions with minimal words.  Let me share a taste:


On the third day

we join the sea

toward Thailand.

The commander says

it’s safe enough

for his men to cook,

for us to go above deck,

for all to smile a little.

He says there’s enough

rice and water

for three weeks,

but rescue should happen

much earlier.

Do not worry,

ships from all countries

are out looking for us.

Morning, noon, and night

we each get

one clump of rice,

small, medium, large,

according to our height,

plus one cup of water

no matter our size.

The first hot bite

of freshly cooked rice,

plump and nutty,

makes me imagine

the taste of ripe papaya

although one has nothing

to do with the other.

I opened the book randomly, to be honest, to find something to share.  I was confident that wherever I opened would delineate my point.  From six brief stanzas we get a vivid picture of the scarcity she endures on this ship (while I sit here luxuriously munching on chips and pineapple salsa) as well as her feelings about her situation.  The wonderful part is that our imagination is left to fill in the gaps, which isn’t hard to do when you have the rest of the story in context.

What I need to take away from this magnificent work is how well the author strained all of her potential ideas and determined the essential parts, how powerful precise words are, and the importance of leaving some things to the imagination.  What is of most importance is Thanhha Lai created a piece that makes me want to read it again AND stirs in me a desire to write!

Oh, how can I forget to mention?  National Book Award Winner and Newberry Honor Book.