Sunday, September 29, 2013


Stories come in many varieties and a fine way to take one in is through theater.

The Hale Theater, a community theater in West Valley City, put on Tarzan, a show set in the jungles of Africa. It was wonderfully staged with talented actors, beautiful costumes, and amazing use of the stage in this theater-in-the-round. But what stood out was its adherence to the components of a well-crafted story, especially in terms of character development.

The main characters are both animal and human. Tarzan is separated from his parents at the same time a gorilla family loses a baby to a leopard and we are immediately drawn in. In the agony of her loss, Kala, the mother gorilla, adopts the young human infant. Her husband, Kerchak, is opposed and eventually bans the human. Kala leaves the family to help the young boy survive. When the adult Tarzan saves the apes from a leopard attack, Kerchak allows him back.

There is so much internal character conflict. Kala is torn between her husband and adopted son. The boy Tarzan wonders why he is so different than his gorilla siblings. Kerchak remembers humans that slaughtered his family when he was young. His need to protect the clan comes at the price of losing his wife.

Then enters Jane. An enthusiastic observer of Africa, she is with her father, a university professor studying ape behavior. Tarzan is intrigued by these humans, more like him than the family he grew up with. Jane teaches him language and he shows her the wonders of the jungle. The two become smitten with each other.

With Jane comes the gun-toting Clayton, the kind of human Kerchak fears. It is Clayton’s desire to capture several gorillas and take them home and exhibit them for profit.

(Spoilers ahead.) As Jane and her father are set to return to England, Tarzan is in conflict. He loves his ape family yet feels a connection with these humans. He decides to go with Jane, but not before Clayton tricks him into revealing the whereabouts of the gorilla family he has kept hidden. Clayton decides displaying the ape-man Tarzan would be a better prize and generate higher revenue. He kills Kerchak in an attempt to capture Tarzan and is overpowered by him. Tarzan sees the ugly side of humans and chooses not to leave Africa. Jane, torn between the love of her father and Tarzan decides to stay with him.

The stakes are high for multiple characters and the plot turns on the choices they make. This is classic story telling at its best.

(This article also posted at

Friday, September 27, 2013

To "Ban" Books or Not to Ban Them: The Question of Age Appropriateness

This is the last (probably to the relief of some) in my series of posts throughout September, in honor of the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, September 22-28.

Last week, I mentioned that I see two particularly strong battles when it comes to the classroom reading curriculum. There are others, but I think these are the heart of the matter:

1. Parental control vs. education system control.
2. Age appropriateness

This week, I want to tackle the second of these issues.

The factor I see as the strongest argument to remove a particular book from the classroom is the matter of age appropriateness. It is one of the most oft-cited reasons why books are challenged in schools.

There are several reasons why the age appropriateness of a book should be considered. I'm going to concentrate on two of them:

  • Enjoyment of the book
  • Appropriate subject matter
The question of enjoyment is fairly simple: No child will enjoy a reading a book that is either over his head or too simple. Part of the teaching of books should be to develop an enjoyment of reading. The many benefits of a love of books are obvious to the readers of a blog about writing, so I won't go into any great detail here. But it needs to be mentioned. If reading is seen as torture, kids won't read.
And, if you choose to avoid controversial subjects, remember that there are kids (usually strong readers) who might develop a life-long love of reading after discovering that there is power in books. I loved reading as a kid. Next to running and playing sports, it was one of my favorite things to do. But by junior high, I had grown bored with many of the books I'd been exposed to. As a result, I spent more time running and playing sports in 7th and 8th grade and the amount that I read dropped way down. The stories I'd read as a kid seemed lightweight and unsubstantial. But then I discovered more grown-up books. Some of them had material that might not have been totally appropriate for a kid with exploding hormones and a growing sense that the world contained a broader range of ideas than I had been exposed to, or maybe reading about more adult situations was absolutely appropriate. The reading level and the material were both more challenging, and reading became fun again.
The age appropriateness of subject matter is much more complicated. Sometimes it's obvious. A sexually and racially charged book like Beloved probably should not be taught in fourth grade. For one thing, a child who is barely aware of sexuality is not going to understand a book that contains sexually charged scenes, explicit or not. Most fourth graders will also not understand the book or the issues it raises, and will not enjoy it.

Likewise, a book that relies heavily on irony (like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) or other literary devices will not be fully comprehended by kids who cannot yet process those devices.

There have been studies of Huck Finn that show that a large number of ninth graders don't catch the irony in Huckleberry Finn, and view the book as a simple adventure story. They don't see that, by depicting a racist society as correct, Twain shines a spotlight on the incorrectness, and they miss the point when Huck grows beyond what he's been taught and defies his conscience and declares that he'd rather go to Hell than to give Jim up. They miss the humanizing of Jim through the depiction of a dehumanized Jim. Likewise, younger black readers are more likely to feel targeted and hated by the way black and white relations are depicted in the book.

If ninth graders have so much trouble understanding the book, it probably means that its age appropriateness should be questioned. Many ninth graders are perfectly capable of comprehending the book's reading level and enjoying the book as an adventure story, but if the studies I mentioned are true, some might have trouble understanding the aspects that are most likely to be taught. By eleventh grade, kids are more likely to understand.

I look back at a chapter book I loved as a kid, The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth. Obviously targeted at children, the book is about a boy whose chicken lays a gigantic egg that hatches into a Triceratops. (And this was before the theory became prominent that birds evolved from dinosaurs.) What kid is not going to love a story about a boy who has a pet dinosaur, and both the good and bad things that result from this strange situation? I know I did. It was one of my favorite books. I have no idea how many times I read it.

I read it again as an adult. I still loved the story. I was also surprised to find an element of the story that totally escaped me as a kid. When the dinosaur becomes too big, politicians become involved. It is finally decided that the dinosaur is a national treasure and it should be placed in the National Zoo in Washington, DC for everybody to enjoy. Ironically, after this happens for the protection of the dinosaur, it faces its biggest threat. In what might be one of the best pieces of political satire I've ever read, a certain senator argues that the dinosaur should be disposed of because it is too expensive to maintain on tax dollars, among other reasons. Every adult should read his speech. That it was over my head as a kid can be shown by the fact that, looking back on the book decades later, I had absolutely no memory of that scene.

Should kids not read that book because they'd miss the point of that one one plot point? No. Authors of kids books often throw a bone to the the adults who might be reading it to their kids. Not only that, but that scene did not decrease my love for the story. I'm sure I understood at some level that adults were trying to rob a kid of something really cool, and all kids can relate to that in some way, even if I didn't understand the political overtones.

Anyway, back to my point. If a book is inappropriate for a child's age, the child won't understand it, and could actually be damaged by images that are disturbing and that the child is inable to deal with. When setting up a curriculum, educators absolutely must consider age appropriateness.

The problem is (and it seems like there is always a problem) kids mature at vastly different speeds. Anybody who has more than one child knows that. Multiply those differences by the 20-30 kids in a class, and age appropriateness becomes a difficult consideration. So do you teach to the least mature kids and risk boring the more mature kids? Or do you teach to the more advanced kids and risk losing the kids who are still developing? Or do you aim for the middle and miss the mark for the majority of kids who are either above or below that midpoint? It's not an easy target to hit. Even the question of what exactly "appropriate" means is subject to debate.

Discussions about the age appropriateness of a particular book are important, and parents should remain aware of what their kids are reading. I can understand (whether I agree or not) many of the challenges of books on required reading lists. For the reasons I've mentioned, I think it's important that kids read books that they understand, and that they can process with their growing minds, especially at younger ages.

That all changes in upper grades. I think an eleventh or twelfth grade AP English class should present challenging works, challenging both at the reading level and in content. A kid in an upper-level AP reading level is probably a strong reader who is able to comprehend and discuss a difficult book. Advanced reading material should be expected in an advanced placement course. I have less sympathy toward the parents who challenge AP reading classes, which is where many of the challenges occur. For one thing, it's kind of the point of an AP class to be challenging and to prepare the student for college-level English. For another, AP English is an elective class, so parents who are concerned about the reading materials can easily opt their kid out by not signing up for the class. 

And, of course, the point I've made throughout this series of posts remains. If a book is not appropriate for child's age, either because your child is not yet able to process the material or because it contains stuff that, even if your kid can understand it, you don't want him or her to be exposed to, then by all means, you should raise the issue. If there's no alternative book that can be read, there is always the option of not reading. It might lower the grade, but in the bigger picture a lower grade is not a very high price to pay for maintaining your standards. So challenge the book's availability to your child. But remember that other kids in the class might want to read the book, might even need to read the book, that it might be completely appropriate for them, and that, just as you have the responsibility and right to decide what is appropriate for your child, other parents have that same right for theirs.

One parent might choose to protect her child by keeping materials out of her hands. Another might choose to protect his child by letting him have access to ideas and concepts that he is able to understand, and then discussing with the child, letting him know that there are many ideas in the world, some of which the parent doesn't like, but they exist and you'll run into them, and here are some tools for how to deal with them, starting with understanding why people might hold an opinion that seems contrary to rightness. The side I'm on is probably obvious if you've read this far, but I'm not going to say the other is wrong. That's a matter for each parent and child to decide. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to educating our children.

“It will be asked whether one would care to have one’s young daughter read these books. I suppose that by the time she is old enough to wish to read them she will have learned the biologic facts of life and the words that go with them. There is something seriously wrong at home if those facts have not been met and faced and sorted by then; it is not children so much as parents that should receive our concern about this. I should prefer that my own three daughters meet the facts of life and the literature of the world in my library than behind a neighbor’s barn, for I can face the adversary there directly. If the young ladies are appalled by what they read, they can close the book at the bottom of page one; if they read further, they will learn what is in the world and in its people, and no parents who have been discerning with their children need fear the outcome. Nor can they hold it back, for life is a series of little battles and minor issues, and the burden of choice is on us all, every day, young and old.”—Judge Curtis Bok, Commonwealth v. Gordon, 66 Pa. D. & C. 101, 110.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ideas: How to See Something Special

by Deren Hansen

I once heard a rabbi, speaking to a mixed audience, say, "You know the story of the Burning Bush and how Moses turned aside to see it. I like to believe that Moses wasn't the first to see the burning bush, but that he was the first to turn aside." (See Exodus 3)

While taking care not to conflate writers and prophets, one of the fundamental ways writers can get ideas is by being willing to turn aside and see something--even something incredibly ordinary--in a new light or with new eyes.

Something happens to us as we morph from children into adults: we move from a world of concrete and specific things into a world of abstractions and classes. The process is innocent enough. When a child points at the feathered creature hopping across the lawn and asks, "What is that?", they want to know about the specific one in front of them. But we answer, "Oh, that's a robin." In doing so we give the child a word for a class of birds, of which the specific one they see is only a representative. In time, we stop seeing that one one bird and instead see a robin.

What, then is the technique for seeing something special where others don't?

Like the child, ask, "What is that one? How did that one come to be here and now?"

Human language is powerful because of its abstractions, generalizations, and indirections. Most people use that power for their own purposes without realizing the degree to which they are, in turn, controlled or at least constrained by it. Writers, who regularly wrestle words to make meaning, are among the best equipped to get out from under the oppression of the abstractions and turn aside, like Moses, to "see this great sight."

I won't promise you a revelation, if you turn aside, but you're likely to see something special.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Deeper Part of Revision

By Julie Daines

I've been thinking a lot about the revision process lately as I've been revising two separate manuscripts--one for publication and one for submission.

I both love and hate revising because while the process makes my manuscript infinitely better, it also makes me painfully aware of my shortcomings as a writer.

When revising, it's easy to focus only on the surface problems because they are easier to fix--awkward wording, things that don't make sense, poor characterization and dialogue. But often that is merely treating the symptoms and not the disease.

It's so important to consider the deeper issues when revising in order to successfully improve the story. Elements such as structure, theme, premise, and characters are crucial. The irony is that these things aren't often apparent in the first draft and it takes a preliminary write through before even we, the author, can see where all ends meet.

So before you start polishing the windows to an empty view, first make sure you understand what it is in your story that compels you to tell it. Make sure you can see the all-important beginning, middle, and end. Understand exactly what motivates your characters in all their choices. Make sure it is clear to you the deeper meaning within your text.

Set these in order first, or the rest of the revision will not be meaningful or helpful. This is where a good writers group in invaluable. I'm so glad I've got a group that forces me to look deeper into my writing and clean from the inside out.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

MG novels

The best way to improve your writing is to read so I’ve been consuming stories for the last few weeks.

I’ve taken them electronically, on paper, and I’ve listened to a few audiobooks. A dog narrates my MG story, so I’ve sought out talking animal stories – Bunnicula, and others. I’m going for humor so I checked out Barbara Parks and The Origami Yoda and Bruce Corville’s My Teacher is an Alien. I packed a bunch of books and took on vacation. When I and ran out, I went to the Salt Lake city and county library systems and loaded up online.

What amazing times we live in. Not only are there things like libraries, but from thousands of miles away, you can check things out. All you need is a library card and an app called Overdrive and it will get you into numerous library systems around the country. The county seems to have more kid’s lit available than the city. You can’t always find what you’re looking for, but they have plenty of other titles.

Available was Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy. I liked her last book so went with this one. At WYFIR last summer the importance of antagonists was stressed. Stead gives us the typical school bullies and adds the in-your-head kind. The MC had several things going on and Stead brought everything to a close in a feel-good kind of way. Makes me wish I could write like that. I fell into the story to the point I forgot to look at it with my writer’s critical eye. Another wonderful thing Stead does is her use of metaphor. She uses Seurat's pointillism style of art in which numerous insignificant dots combine to make a big picture. Also at WIFYR, Martine Leavitt's had a session on metaphors. This is a great book. 

Another great author, another I-want-to-write-like-that is Tom Angleberger. In The Strange Case of Origami Yoda Angleberger wastes no time getting to the heart of the MC’s desire. This happens the very first sentence. He builds from there, and saves the final reveal to the very last sentence. He has the upper MG kids pegged and his story is engaging. It is so well crafted.

Other finds: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict. Trenton Lee Stewart’s prequel to the Mysterious Benedict Society seems to break the rules for fiction and does the opposite of Angleberger’s approach. Published last year, this feels like an old fashioned book in which the writer takes time to lay down the setting and build the character. The book is long - 480 pages – and it takes a good hundred pages in before we get a sense of MC’s goal and the story gets off the ground, but. I liked it.

In looking at humor, Barbara Parks is good. I reread Skinnybones, one I read aloud numerous times to students. Parks is one of the best. Also read her My Mother Got Married (and other disasters). They were written in the 80s when it was more acceptable to set the humor before pushing a story. She addressed kids of divorced parents dealing with a remarriage in the one and seems to have nailed the voice for that audience.

I looked at two of the Bunnicula series, narrated by a dog. Written in the 70s, the thing that impressed me most was audience. The Bunnicula books do not feel like they were written for kids. They feel like a Broadway play storyline and I kept thinking that they missed the kid voice. Don’t know why these books were so popular. The family in this story seemed too successful and Leave-it-to-Beaver clean, unlike the more street smart, families-working-to-make-ends-meet people I’ve taught. They have helped me hone in on my target MG boy audience.

So I’ve been going through some children’s literature.
(This article also posted at

Friday, September 20, 2013

To "Ban" Books or Not to Ban Them: Parents vs. Schools

This is the next in my series of posts throughout September, in honor of the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, September 22-28.

Up to now in these posts, I've taken a pretty binary approach to the issue of banning or challenging books, and I do feel pretty strongly on the subject, and I won't totally be able to keep my own bias out of today's discussion, I'm sure. However, I recognize that this is not a simple issue, particularly when it comes to classroom reading.

I see two particularly strong battles when it comes to the classroom reading curriculum. There are others, but I think these are the heart of the matter:

1. Parental control vs. education system control.
2. Age appropriateness

This week, I'll write about the first issue.

Parents have an absolute right and responsibility to protect their children. I'm a parent. I take that responsibility seriously. I see issues involved in the raising of my kids as the most important responsibility I have. Those rights and responsibilities do not end when I put my children into a school.

Any time parents put their children into the hands of somebody else, control disputes become inevitable, whether it's a Grandmother or babysitter giving your child candy or a teacher giving your kid To Kill A Mockingbird. On the one hand, the act of putting your kid in school means that you are delegating a part of the responsibility for raising and training your kids to other people and institutions, and that means a loss of a certain amount of the control. Ideas and topics and materials will be introduced by teachers and friends that, if left entirely in your hands, might not be introduced, or might be introduced in completely different ways. There's no getting around that, unless you do as some parents do and opt out of giving up that control. Delegating some of that responsibility does not, however, mean that your own responsibility is lessened, or that your rights to protect your kids no longer apply.

If a parent believes that materials or concepts introduced in school is truly harmful to their child, the parent should act to protect the kid. A large number of challenged books are challenged for exactly that reason.

On the other hand, schools must be able to set their curriculum. and a great deal of thought and consideration goes into the books that are chosen. They might illustrate what life was like in a historical period that is being studied, including the negative things about the society. They might show multiple sides of a political or scientific concept that is being taught. They might show multiple sides of an issue and open up classroom discussions where a problem is looked at from multiple angles. Or, they might simply be an example of excellent writing. Education is about more than figures and dates and names. If those figures, dates, and names don't have context, they are meaningless. At its heart, education is about ideas and learning to process them and to think and to form opinions and to defend your opinions and ideals and to share the world and the workplace with others even if you disagree with them, all important tools for a productive adult. By taking difficult subjects out of the classroom, an important tool is lost.

But, that being said, it still does not trump a parent's right to protect his child from harm. Problems arise, though, when a parent feels the need to extend that protective right to a whole classroom or school district or, in less common cases, to an entire state of children. It becomes even more difficult when other parents want their children to be exposed to those ideas and desire to exercise their own parental rights by protecting their kids from what they perceive to be a narrow view of the world. Many of us agree that a parent has the ultimate say over how their child is trained and has the absolute right to keep their child from harm, but that that right begins and ends with their own child and does not extend to every kid in the class or district. It's a dangerous world, and some parents believe that a child is more safe when the dangers are known and understood than if barriers are put up between the child and dangers than are sure to have to be confronted one day.

So what's the right answer to this problem? I don't know if there is one. That the issues continue to arise shows that it hasn't been solved, and it likely won't be solved. The issue of who has the most control is not going to go away. Ultimate control rests with parents, but parents also need to let educators do their job.

Teachers, who themselves have an ever-decreasing amount of control over what they can teach in their own classrooms due to standardized tests and government-controlled curricula, should provide alternatives for kids who might have trouble with a certain book. That sounds like a simple solution, but it's not simple at all.

By providing an alternative, they are also excluding a child from the important discussions around the book that is being studied by the class. They are singling out a student or group of students, who will probably have to be removed from the classroom during those discussions. The problems with doing that could take up another post, and range from social issues to "why should my kid even be put in that situation in the first place?"

So, although I oppose the removal of controversial books--and, more specifically, the important ideas they contain--from the classroom, I also support the rights and responsibilities that parents have toward their own children.

And this complicates the topic of challenging the reading curriculum.

Ultimately, the discussions around whether a book should be allowed are important. It keeps parents involved, provides an important check and balance on educators, and opens another door for the discussion of difficult subjects with your child.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ideas: Random Name Generators

by Deren Hansen

A question commonly asked of writers is, "How do you come up with names for characters?"

The technique for finding names presented here is a good example of the general habit of wondering how the things you notice came to be that way--which seems common among the good writers I know.

The pattern is simple:
  1. Find interesting names
  2. Play with the history implied by the name.
Interesting names appear all the time in the written and spoken environment. I once noticed glycol ester of wood rosin among the list of ingredients in a bottled drink. Instead of fretting about obscure food additives, I wondered how Esther Glycol, the Regency-era daughter of an impoverish vicar, came to be mistress of the estate of Woodrosin. (You didn't know you could get that much from a list of ingredients, did you?)

If you need to find names more quickly, you can play the phone book game: open to a random page and drop your finger to find a given name or a surname. On one occasion, when I needed a set of modern, ethnically diverse names, I collected all the surnames and given names from the credits of a recent movie

I've written simple programs that randomly combine names from two or more lists of the lists I collected. If your list of surnames isn't too large, you'll get several first name/last name pairs and it's easy to imagine they're related. Not only will you have names, you'll have genealogies, and perhaps some ideas about family histories as well.

I've also used this approach to assemble names from syllable lists for fantastic or alien characters. One nice result of this approach is that the names sound like they came from the same culture because they're assembled using the same rules.

The important thing is to generate a number of names and then choose the handful that speak to you. Play with the names that are most evocative and see what else springs to mind.

I have to be careful when I play with names because it's so easy to find interesting names and invent histories and relationships that I inevitably collect more names than I can use and spend more time doing so than I should.

A Sample of Name Generators on the Internet
  • is a site for the "etymology and history of first names." It has a generator that can be restricted to particular ethnic groups.
  • There's a US Census-based name generator at
  • Seventh Sanctum™ has a cornucopia of fantasy/gaming-inspired name generators for everything from people to pirate ships.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Upcoming Free SCBWI Event in Provo: Managing Your Time and Creativity

by Deren Hansen

The Utah/Southern Idaho chapter of the SCBWI has undertaken to host events along the Wasatch. Many of these events are free and open to SCBWI members and non-members alike. You can find what's currently scheduled at the events page for our region.

On Friday, September 27, 2013, SCBWI is hosting a round-table discussion on, "Managing Your Time and Creativity" at the Provo Library (550 N. University Ave., Provo, UT) from 6:30 - 8:30 pm.

"This roundtable discussion with focus on ways to manage your time and creativity while writing and/or illustrating. Please bring any great ideas you have about this topic and be prepared to share them with all, or just come to soak in the wisdom of your fellow writers and illustrators."

Contact: Elissa Cruz

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. If you're interested in this topic, you may also want to look at: Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Saturday, September 14, 2013



Sometimes it just works. Sometimes it doesn't.

I hadn't planned on a writing vacation, but took a little time away from it. I didn't stop thinking about writing. I had no interest in pursuing my story on the keyboard. I've been regular with my composing. Not precisely everyday, but I've felt good about the 15 or more hours I've put in per week.

The problem is a friend pointed out a reality issue with my story and thrown it off kilter. Same friend also had me thinking about characters and the best way to craft them. I’ve put a lot of thought into my people during this writing hiatus.

Experts say, give them a flaw, make them suffer, characters have to grow. And so on. How much this applies to a light-hearted middle grade story I’m not sure? I know, I know. That doesn't matter. The authorities laid out the format so the rules apply to from PB to YA. Publishers and readers are looking for character.

The stories we love have in your face characters, people stuck living in this world. People with relationship problems, people with self-doubt, people on a mission. The situations they are stuck with and the way they deal with them help us deal with our own. People like us, except the authors removed the boring stuff.

Writing vacation is about over. Time to take all this advice and put it into practice.

(This article also posted at