Middle Grade fiction – Writing With a Voice

Navigating though the literary world has been an interesting and at times a frustrating old-keysexperience.  One of the informative parts of this process was spirited by an agent I follow on twitter.  Jen Rofe of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency was discussing how important it is to write with a ‘Voice,’ a term that can be illusive and is often misunderstood.  Fortunately she listed a number of MG (Middle Grade) authors/books who she felt stood out with distinctive voices.  I found Wendy MassJeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life one of the most intriguing.

When Jeremy was eight his father died in an auto accident, the book begins when Jeremy is a month away from turning thirteen.  A mysterious package arrives in the mail about the size of a shoebox with the inscription THE MEANING OF LIFE for Jeremy Fink to be opened on his 13th birthday.  The problem is that there are four different keyholes locking it and it seems that the sender, his father’s lawyer, has not included the keys.  So Jeremy and his best friend Lizzy begin a quest to find the keys that will open the box.  With this platform the author has the kids dive into the world, sending them on an adventure where they encounter different types of experiences and individuals that reflect on the meaning/purpose of life.

While on an errand for a mysterious former pawnshop owner they make a delivery to an elderly gentleman.  As they are leaving while the conversation dances around the topic of the meaning of life the man gives Jeremy an apple and says, “A wise man once remarked that we can count how many seeds are in the apple, but not how many apples are in the seed.”

A confused Jeremy looks on as the man continues, “Before an apple seed is planted, no one will know how many apples will one day sprout from it.  It’s all about potential, and potential is hidden from all of us until we embrace it, find our purpose, plant ourselves so we can grow,” with that he closes the door leaving Lizzy and Jeremy confused.  Jeremy slowly fades into an existential crisis and in the following days although they have other encounters with more insights I found none were as interesting than the man with the apple.

I found it fascinating how the author, Wendy Mass massaged and altered the original quote, “Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the number of apples in a seed.”  part of a sermon from the evangelist Robert H. Schuller.  I’ve never been to Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Southern California but I respect how dynamic his ministry was and the monument that he built but I find Wendy Mass’ manipulation of the quote so much more interesting, insightful and instructive.

To grow we must allow ourselves to become immersed, to be planted, in the area of our passion and then the evolving mystery of our potential will ever so slowly be revealed.  In a society where we strive for acceptance we often tend to try to fit in by mimicking others at times covering, perhaps erasing our uniqueness.  We blend in rather than stand out.  That the meaning or purpose of life is life and living it, enjoying the essence of being.  Although there will be good times as well as bad, we need to allow the good ones, the positive ones, glow in our heart and stay alive.

The Old Dragon Sage in The Littlest Dragon and the Princess know how important self-image is and the importance of dwelling on the positive. When he first meets The Littlest Dragon the old dragon finds him sad and confused since his classmates have tried to convince him that because he is so small he is a nothing.  His encouragement turns The Littlest Dragon in a direction of positive thinking that eventually saves the Princess and the kingdom from the treacherous Prince Luan.


Enter the Warrior Dragons

Warrior dragonsAs I have previously mentioned Prince Luan was the product of a wealthy family that carelessly indulged his every whim and desire when he was a young boy.  They produced a spoiled self-absorbed young man who had no patience and was quick to throw flaring temper tantrums. To safe guard the innocent that Luan might harm I introduce in this post the last type of characters in my story – the Warrior Dragons.

Luan’s behavior may be commonplace in what we call the civilized part of the world where parents in their misdirection look to wealth and power as the major goals in their life instead of incorporating love and discipline into their family structure.  The people of the Princess’ the kingdom were completely surprised by Luan’s behavior, in fact they were stunned.  Before he made his second visit the Emperor and the High Council turned to the Dragon Council for help since they expected another confrontation from Luan.

You may remember from earlier posts that the dragons of this land took care of the people giving them wise advise and counsel but since they were gentle peace-loving creatures they were no match for heavily armed soldiers.  Fortunately the earliest dragon councils knew of the evil tendencies that humans can exhibit and provided for the possibility of cruelty by creating a group of dragons that could protect the weak.

These Warrior Dragons were trained in the martial arts and carried simple but deadly weapons.  They didn’t belong to any of the regional dragon communities but traveled in groups of three throughout the different areas of this country much like rangers.  At the sign of danger they positioned themselves in a triad attack formation ready to go into action.  Then when they attacked they moved with such blinding speed and violence they created an assault that was so ferocious that no one ever survived.


A positive way to deal with adversity

The emperor and his council were stunned when Prince Luan presented the long lost contract that the emperor’s father had signed seventy-five years ago.  As they realized that they couldn’t repay the loan and Prince Luan would take Princess Leizu as payment they were paralyzed.  When the dragons saw that the emperor and his council couldn’t decide what to do the Dragon Council was assembled to address the situation.  They wanted to see if the legal dragons could find any discrepancy in the contract, unfortunately they couldn’t so they went home leaving The Littlest Dragon by himself.  At this point the Old Dragon Sage reenters the story and gives The Littlest Dragon some of the most important advice of his life.The Old Dragon Sage

It is times like this when all hope seems to vanish that we have the opportunity to learn about our character, our courage and our resolve.  The dilemma is used as an opportunity to reveal and reinforce the value of learning how to lead a positive optimistic approach to life.  To introduce and affirm one of the most important principles that Napoleon Hill ever taught, the insight “That with every failure and defeat comes with that situation a seed of equal or greater importance.”

I find that by taking this approach one can begin the process of stepping back from the tragedy rather than being swept away by the pain, shock and hopeless confusion that it can bring.  It allows us to switch from reacting subjectively to the situation to one where we can begin to evaluate it objectively.  It puts the mind in gear to look for some benefit from the horrific situation, at times there are many.  By looking at the information that we encounter and learning how to filter it by the possibilities that we can take rather than by necessities we begin to see that very rarely is there a situation without hope or benefit.


More trouble and what seems like defeat.

Legal dragons at workThe Emperor and his Council were bewildered and dishearten after Prince Luan stormed out.  They couldn’t fathom how they had gotten into this predicament and the thought of loosing Princess Leizu was devastating.  It was like they were in the worst nightmare that you can imagine and not being able to wakeup, they were paralyzed.  They didn’t know what to do next.  Because the Emperor and Council could not seem to resolve the situation, the dragon community felt that they must intervene and the Grand Dragon Council was called to assemble.

Chinese dragons are very organized and methodical creatures.  They have an unwavering respect for history, fairness, and tradition.  The law was the law but, at times, agreements could be open to interpretation, so the best legal-minded dragons brought their books and records and began their review.  Groups were formed to analyze every sentence of the agreement.  Great debates ensued.  After what seemed like days of deliberations, they concluded that the agreement was, in fact, legal and must be obeyed.  They concluded their meeting and went home in dismay.

The Littlest Dragon was stunned.  He had such respect for his elders especially the Grand Dragon Council and when they concluded their meeting without a solution he didn’t know what to do, then he remembered the insights of the wise Old Dragon Sage.  He left immediately to search the mountains to find him.

The action spins in a different direction


Luan's HSIt’s interesting the way my stories seem to evolve and morph as I write and go through revision.  When I first wrote The Littlest Dragon and the Princess I knew that there was a neighboring Prince who had come to collect a debt from a loan that was made to the Princess’ grandfather.   The scene was rather dry, unemotional and woody.  As I rewrote Prince Luan’s arrival the scene exploded; much more was revealed about the prince’s character.  The original appearance of a couple of messengers turned into a showy procession of drummers and mounted soldiers followed by the Prince on a very large horse.  It became a grand gaudy procession; Luan had grown into a very arrogant and bossy character.

After being lead to the council’s chambers by the Princess and the Littlest Dragon he became rude, disrespectful and demanding.  When the council had verified the loan document was authentic they were devastated; they asked for more time to repay the money.  At this point to my amazement Luan’s character came alive and took over the scene from me; I could barely write fast enough to keep up with the action.  I was amazed as the scene continued to build.  Refusing their plea for more time Luan’s rant grew as he shouted at the Emperor and the Council but I was flabbergasted as he ended his demands he spat on the floor in front of the Emperor.  Finishing his tirade he turned and marched out of the council chamber.  As he reached the door he stopped, turned around and glared at the Emperor and the Council; again he spat on the floor.  What a pig!

Prince Luan is more than a condescending bully.  What makes his character so interesting is that he is so spoiled and self-absorbed; he hasn’t a drop of compassion or human decency.  The neat aspect of his change in character is that as we continue with the story we begin to hate him and long for the predicament to be turned around.  Fortunately later in the story the Princess takes control, turns the tables on Prince Luan and he is humiliated.

Hope and Faith essentials for the human spirit

Recently I watched the 2005 movie  “Just Like Heaven” staring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo.  This charming sort of Sleeping Beauty story was loosely adapted from French author Marc Levy’s first novel If Only It Were True.  Set against the backdrop of San Francisco, fate crosses the paths of Elizabeth Masterson, a dedicated young doctor and landscape architect David Abbott.

At the crux of this romantic tale is the fact that Elizabeth was in a serious auto accident and has spent months in a coma in the hospital where she used to work.  Her sister puts her furnished apartment up for rent to cover the cost of her hospital expenses.

David, suffering the pains of the death of his bride two years ago searches for a new place to live in an attempt to escape his past.  He ends up renting Elizabeth’s apartment.  Soon after he moves in Elizabeth wakes to an awareness outside of her body but doesn’t know who she is, who her family is or what type of work she did, all she remembers is where she lived.

Her spirit returns to the apartment where she finds David fighting the depression from his past.  An interesting aspect of the story is that he is the only one who can see or hear her.  At first there is a great deal of conflict and discord between them since each feels that they live there alone.  Eventually they end their battle with each other and band together to find out whom she is and why it is that only he can see or hear her.  Ultimately they fall in love and it is this bond that saves her life and allows David to face the pain and sorrow of his past.

The story is about the importance of hope for the human soul.   When the difficulties of life make the ‘going get tough’ there are times when the platitude “the tough get going” plainly isn’t enough.  It doesn’t matter if the difficulties are from loss of love, of family, pending financial ruin or the apparent death of a dream, the fading and dematerializing of hope can begin a slow spiraling decent into the depths of despair.

We need to have hope to be able to weather life’s difficulties and faith that what we hope for will become a reality.  In The Littlest Dragon and the Princess, Leizu has lost hope that she will be able to counter the demands of Prince Luan and solemnly prepares for a dreadful future.  It is only because of the persistence and dedication of the Littlest Dragon that a solution to their dilemma is discovered and the princess finds hope, faith and happiness again.

Prince Luan’s arrival

All interesting stories need conflict and in the middle of my story a young prince from a neighboring kingdom enters the meager but peaceful lives of the Littlest Dragon and the Princess.  Prince Luan is the product of a wealthy family that has carelessly indulged the whims and desires of their young son thereby producing a spoiled self-centered character who is short on patience and quick to exhibit flaring temper tantrums.

His behavior may be commonplace in what we call the civilized part of the world where parents in their misdirection look to wealth and power as the major goals in their life instead of incorporating love and discipline into their family structure.  For the people of the Princess’ the kingdom Prince Luan’s behavior takes them completely by surprise.


We’d like to know a little more about you for our files

“…We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files – We’d like to help you learn to help yourself – Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes – Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home – And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson Jesus loves you more than you can know…” Simon & Garfunkel

It’s interesting how a soft floating memory can be triggered by a melody and lyrics, and be pulled into my present from a past that seems like a lifetime ago.  I remember how desperately I identified with Dustin Hoffman’s character Ben Braddock in the film “THE GRADUATE.”  I had a suspicion that I was lost and didn’t know it.  Fortunately there wasn’t a Mrs. Robinson in my life but I had my concerns and I didn’t know where to turn.

It was 1967 and I was one semester away from graduating from UCSB into one of the most chaotic times in recent history.  The war in Vietnam raged on, in the streets and college campuses there was a feeling of uncertainty and I didn’t realize how much of the path ahead of me was without signposts.  I felt like I was a square peg and society was waiting for me to enter their world, pounce on me and pound me into a round hole to make me fit.

The thing that I was the most leery about was that I suspected that this process of socialization might be so subtle that I would never see it coming and when the process took place I might never notice. –  Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes – Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home  –  All I wanted to do was to find my Elaine Robinson, (Katharine Ross) and flee.

I was a product of a universal approach to education that gave me knowledge but left me without a real idea of what my strengths and aptitudes were, a clear idea of my interests and how these would translate into a profession that would help me make a meaningful addition to society.

Looking back I don’t think what I feared happened, I wasn’t socialize in a way that neuters a person’s soul and spirit, I was able to keep most of my uniqueness.  I’m happy and proud of the lives I’ve touched – there are some due to my immature ignorance I wish I could offer apologies.  I think that it would have been easier had I found insights into human behavior earlier in my life.

I knew I wanted to be a good person, it was instilled in me from an early age from a wonderful positive home life but I didn’t know what areas to focus on.  And with that this is the reason for this blog and my children’s story, if you use the “Great Riches of Life” as a mirror or perhaps a road map it’s easier to find the greater joys in life.


More on the Background of the Story

This post continues the previous discussion, which explored some of the motivations and general thoughts upon which The Littlest Dragon and the Princess is based.  I wanted to tell a story about a world where hard work, equality and imagination can overcome the difficulties that life can bring.

Our cultural awareness in the western nations especially the United State has significantly evolved over the last hundred years.  The social equality of peoples of different ethic backgrounds and gender is beginning to become the same in most Western countries but as it does there are some questions that lurk in the back of my mind.

The international suffrage movement had little success during the 18th and 19th Centuries.  Most developed countries move to give women the vote took place during the first half of the Twentieth Century.  Since 1950 many of the third world countries joined this movement.  My 21st Century mind finds it’s difficult to understand how anyone could truly believe a hundred years ago that women shouldn’t vote.  Many proposed that if you gave women the right to vote it would put so much pressure on them that they would face mental break down.  (Please!)  A common belief was that since women were emotional creatures they were incapable of making sound political decisions. (My eyes are rolling.)

The issue is that as children we tend to grow and accept the beliefs of our parents and other primary caregivers.  We are taught ideas and concepts of the past, some of which are valid, some are not.  Slowly social change takes place and we look back on ideas like women don’t have the capacity to make wise political decisions as provincial now but back then it was accepted common wisdom.

This brings me to the point of this post.

If the common man in the 19th Century couldn’t see that he was in error due to his ignorance about women’s capacity to vote, what are those beliefs and opinions that I hold today, that tomorrow’s enlightenment will make me shrink with chagrin from those former unsophisticated viewpoints?



Background Ideas on the Story

I’ve taken some liberty with the appearance of my characters while writing this story.  It was an interesting surprise that in the process of drawing the dragons that the different types took on different appearances.  This was not something that was planned it just happened.  It could be likened to dressing a strong willed small child who is very opinionated about what clothes they will wear.  “Don’t put that green shirt on me, you know I don’t wear green” they might argue.  The drawings would wrestle back and forth on my drawing board until their features were acceptable to them and then I could move on to the next character.

The Grand Wizar is a very social dragon that leads the dragon community in the seasonal festivities and especially the birthing celebrations in the spring.  He has a plump effervesce about him where as The Old Dragon Sage is very wrinkled and has a stoic appearance.  Both of these character’s dorsal crest are similar to the traditional approach of drawing an upside down V, which curves backward from their head to their tail.  It was also a pleasant surprise that The Littlest Dragon dorsal crest didn’t follow suit for it was similar to fur that begins with his Mohawk hair cut and proceeds down to his tail.  Not only does this hair cut hint at his mild mischievous nature the addition of this feature made the little guy more appealing, even cuddly.

There have been observations that Princess Leizu doesn’t look Chinese, this was
on purpose since I’ve aimed at a universal appeal and I wanted
her to look Eurasian. One of the biggest changes from reality was the place of women in Chinese society historically and currently.

There are things about our culture worldwide and historically that concern me but the one that really upsets me is the treatment of women.  It is so discouraging the way that they are regarded and  not given the same opportunities, social ranking or liberties as men.  I applaud the changes in the western world even though they’re not complete and I’m horrified at what goes on in the East today.  I guess it could have reflected the fact that men are usually stronger than women but the fact that this perception has lasted as long as it has truly amazes me.

I’ve put Leizu and her Aunt Wu in a position of authority in the weaving mill so they could be involved with the production of the fabric and eventually the strange circumstances would reveal why Leizu dropped that first cocoon into her tea and discovered silk.  This line of attack was also taken so that I could tell a story about a world where hard work, equality and imagination could overcome the difficulties that life can bring.  It is about creating a world that I would like to exist rather than the reality that still exists.

This isn’t something that is unique to me since many artistic works display utopian themes.  The painter, illustrator Normal Rockwell said that the motivating force behind his presentation of wholesome American values was that he was disappointed in the world around him so he painted the world the way he wished it would be rather than the reality that he experienced.