A writing style analysis of a steampunk series opener: Monsters, robots, and POV, oh my!

 

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The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz (2014)

Opening Line: “The secret entrance to the headquarters of the Septemberist Society could only be reached by submarine.”

I love a story in which the opening line leaves me with SO MANY questions. (What is the Septemberist Society? Why is it called the Septemberist Society? Why can you only reach it by submarine? Why is it secret? Who’s in the Septemberist Society? Is it a real thing? Where is the headquarters located? I could go on.)

In anticipation of Alan Gratz’s author visit to our school in October, I’ve been attempting to read through all the books of his we own in our library. His black/white/red covered books (see: Prisoner B-3087, Projekt 1065and Code of Honor) are wildly popular with our students, and while I can definitely understand why that is the case, they weren’t doing the same for me. I liked them fine, but I didn’t love them. It was starting to make me feel anxious. As a librarian, I want to be able to earnestly and honestly and exuberantly push these books on my students prior to his visit. I was trying to piece together what the issue was until I opened up League of Seven, and was immediately gripped by the story. Phew.

Our main character is 12-year-old Archie Dent, son to researchers for the Septemberists, a secret society aimed at keeping the world safe from the Mangleborn, massive world-destroying monsters. Several times throughout the history of humankind, the Mangleborn have risen up and destroyed civilizations, and it is only through a League of Seven heroes that they are quelled and trapped beneath the earth once again. It’s been many generations since the Mangleborn have awoken, but according to research by Archie’s parents, there are rumblings of a rebirth. This becomes very clear when they arrive at the Septemberist headquarters and council has been infiltrated and taken over by strange bug-like creatures buried in the backs of the council-members necks. Soon Archie learns that Thomas Alva Edison, evil genius, is attempting to use lektricity to awaken the Swarm Queen, a Mangleborn locked under the swamps of Florida, and he is using Archie’s parents to help him. Archie is thrown together with two other young people, Fergus — whose impressive mechanical knowledge makes him desirable to Edison — and Hachi — a First Nations girl who has great skills in weaponry and a vengeful death wish for Edison — and together, they must figure out a way to stop Edison and the Swarm Queen from killing Archie’s parents and destroying the world. No biggie.

Okay, so there are some definite differences between League of Seven, and the black/white/red books (subsequently referred to as BWR books). First of all: genreLeague of Seven is an alternative steampunk historical fiction novel (as opposed to realistic historical fiction). We’ve got some some robots, some ancient legends, some real-life characters making a very different impact on society (hello there, villainous Thomas Edison), all set in a much different picture of 1870s America.

Secondly, tense. I’ve noticed his other books (that I’ve read so far) are written in present tense. This gives the narrative an urgent, action-driven focus. For some reason, this tense style feels more juvenile for me. Again, I see value in it for the intended audience, but for me, it’s not my preference. League is written in past tense.

Next, point of viewLeague is written primarily in the third-person limited perspective (with Archie being the limited scope), although we do see a more omniscient perspective occasionally. This is my FAVORITE pov to read. I think it gives the author flexibility while still allowing the reader to feel personally connected to the protagonist. I think it also lends authenticity to the text. The BWR books are written in first person, which again, tends to be the more comfortable choice for my students. However, authors who write for middle grade audiences are still ADULTS (primarily), and when they write in a tween voice, even the best authors are impostors.

Now maybe my English major analyzer is in overdrive here and these aspects are just correlation not causation. I feel like I’ll certainly be more aware of these things in the future. Let’s just say I’m super pumped to be able to promote this series to my students this fall in anticipation of Alan’s visit. I’ll still booktalk all his books, but the BWRs basically promote themselves. League is a little more off the beaten path, but I think will be a HUGE hit with those insatiable fans of our dear friend Rick Riordan.

2.5 stars. Next two books in the series are already out!

 

 

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…for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

26026063Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk (2016)

Opening line: “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”

What a delicious opening line. So much anticipation, so much mystery.

Annabelle is living in rural Pennsylvania amidst the years of WWII, although it’s the earlier war that plays a more significant role in her story. Oldest of three children, Annabelle spends her days quietly wandering the woods and hills by her home, following her boisterous younger brothers to and from school, and occasionally running across Toby, a homeless WWI vet who has taken up residence in an abandoned smokehouse nearby. Though strange and mysterious to most of the townsfolk, Annabelle’s family takes a special interest in Toby, sometimes bringing him food and clothing, and sharing with him the camera Annabelle’s mom won in a photography contest years ago.

Things change in quiet Wolf Hollow, though, when Betty moves to town to live with her grandparents. A few years older than Annabelle, it quickly becomes clear that Betty is a bully. Annabelle is determined not to let Betty get to her, despite her regular threats of violence, but when Annabelle’s youngest brother’s face is cut by a wire deliberately stung across their path, Annabelle feels the need to speak up. Before she gets a chance, though, Annabelle’s best friend Ruth is horribly injured by a thrown rock, and Betty tells everyone she saw Toby throw it.

Annabelle doesn’t believe Betty’s telling the truth, and now she’s adamant to set the record straight before things turn into a witch hunt. But when Betty goes missing, everyone assumes Toby must have something to do with it.

Other reviewers have compared this to To Kill a Mockingbird, and I agree with their assessment. Like Scout, Annabelle is forced to grow up as she struggles with what is right and what is wrong and attempts to prove the innocence of a man who seems unable or unwilling to defend himself. And like Mockingbird and so many other wonderful middle grade and YA stories, I loved the message that age cannot define how much of a difference you can make. As Annabelle put it, “There would always be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say. But… If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?” (p 228).

In addition to the rich language and small moments of magic in the pages, I marveled at the complexity of each of the characters the author presents to us. She shows us that we can never fully know another person’s history — even those whom we dislike — though it never hurts to try.

I loved this one. I hope it becomes a classic. 3 stars.

P.S. That book cover, though, right? Swoon.

This one’s moving up my roster

 QB 1, by Mike Lupica (2013)

Opening line: “If you were a high school quarterback, a Texas high school quarterback, this was the moment you imagined for yourself from the first time somebody said you had some arm on you.”

I don’t know why I keep being surprised by the fact that I love middle grade sports fiction. I never pick one up unless it’s on a state awards lists, and yet, I am always happy I do.

Jake Cullen starts the football season as third-string quarterback, a position he is very familiar with. His whole life he’s been playing third-string behind his older brother Wyatt and, before him, his father Troy, the man the football stadium at Granger High is named after. The Cullen name means quarterback gold. And here Jake is, freshman at Granger after brother Wyatt has finished his four perfect years as QB 1 and recruited as starter to the Texas Longhorns. Jake is comfortable with his reality, ready to wait his turn, to do the work and put in the effort. But in the first game of the season, the first-string quarterback tears his ACL. And suddenly QB 1 is wide open.

It’s a sort of classic underdog story. But in this one, it’s not so much about Jake overcoming the odds. The odds are stacked graciously in his favor. He’s been living and breathing football since infancy, he’s got a head for tracking plays and seeing outcomes, and he’s even taller than his brother, even at 14. Instead, it’s about Jake finding his one place, his place outside the Great Cullen Shadow.

Plus, it’s got great football action that is not dumbed down for us novices out there. (I felt like I could totally talk football now after reading this.) The author reminds the reader (or perhaps explains to the non-sports-aficionado reader) why we keep coming back for more:

“This was why you played. This kind of night, this kind of opponent, stakes like these. Didn’t matter if you grew up in Granger or Redding, Laredo or Huntsville or Abilene. This was the kind of game you grew up seeing somebody else play at the same time you were dreaming about playing it yourself… This was the town in the stands, families, friends, and strangers alike, every one of them feeling like they were a part of something, that they were going to somehow help you win tonight.” (p. 199)

That’s the thing about sports stories. They make fans out of non-fans, they bring the readers, the characters, the author, that moment all together, cheering for the same thing. They make us all a part of something. And that’s what reading stories is all about, isn’t it?

2 stars

Leaving one world for another

Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston (2009)

A couple years ago, I took a creative non-fiction writing class “for fun” to round out my last semester of college. It ended up being one of the most consuming classes of my college career. It’s a difficult thing to write interesting, purposeful, and honest prose featuring your life, and have it be something you’d actually be okay with someone else reading. Ghostbread is the kind of thing I aspired to write. It is just lovely.

Sonja Livingston grew up as one of seven children in a single parent household. While providing for seven kids is difficult for any family, Sonja’s mother struggled particularly, and the children grew up in extreme poverty, moving from apartment to house to reservation to motel to friend’s house to another friend’s house to home. It was far from a stable environment. And yet, the love and sibling bonds held the family together throughout the turbulence and uncertainty.

The story arc isn’t what captured my heart on this one, though. Instead, I was fascinated by Livingston’s prose. Let me tell you, each sentence packs a punch. She structures the narrative into compact 1-2 page stories, and each is led by a powerful first sentence that sets the tone for that piece. “When you eat soup every night, thoughts of bread get you through,” she writes as she begins discussing the meals while on the reservation. Or of elementary school, “At school, I learned to read and write and use spit in creative ways.” And later, revealing a thought common to many of us in adolescence, “No one told me the thing I most needed to know.” Each beginning line carries you to the next line and you can’t help but read through the rest of the story. To put it simply, it’s captivating.

The well-deserved winner of the Award for Creative Nonfiction (from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), Livingston’s book is highly recommended for any fans of this genre or any readers wanting to get an inside view of what it’s like to grow up hungry.

2 stars