Truth in Fiction- Lioness: Mahlah’s Journey

I’ve read and enjoyed all of the Bible-based fictional novels by my friend, author Barbara M. Britton. Notice that I’ve categorized this review of her latest release under THE WRTING LIFE as well as reviews. That’s because, while reading her earlier titles and this latest one, I’ve noticed something about her writing that I admire. It’s something I attempt to do when writing historical stories of my own.

Teaching, without teaching.

I am not deeply rooted in, or familiar with, the specifics of individual Old Testament stories, especially those featuring secondary characters. Even so, I learn so much about the nuance of the time, place, and culture of each Biblical era Britton incorporates when writing her fictional stories. It is the richness of those details, though, that bring her characters to life, that anchor their dramatic stories and intense relationships in a world that would otherwise be unfamiliar, but one in which I feel at home.

These stories will certainly drive some readers back to intense reading of the Bible, since Barbara provides back matter to indicate the inspiration for each of her novels and characters.  Some readers will be more like me. I  find the rich details enhance my engagement without feeling a push to pursue further source reading. There’s a fine talent in producing that balance between these two types of readers– providing enough to make a full and authentic experience as a free-standing novel, while lacing enough intriguing elements to  enthrall other readers, urging them to dig deeper through related readings.

Therein lies Barbara’s gift.

I believe you will enjoy reading this first of this trilogy, and you can learn quite a bit about weaving research and imagination in effective writing.

Barbara M. Britton

Lioness: Mahlah’s Journey

Daughters of Zelophehad, Book 1

Author of TRIBES OF ISRAEL series

This first of three titles in a new series is focused on Mahlah, the oldest of five suddenly orphaned daughters. Still a teen, she is dedicated, first-and-always, to God, but then to her family and their right to claim a plot of land despite being all females. The novel opens at the conclusion of forty long years of survival in the desert, a righteous people poised to begin their assault on the walls of Jericho. She relies on their Moses-validated claim to her family’s inherited right to a land share. She is well aware that this requires her to challenge the deep-rooted Jewish gender-based culture that denied female independence or property ownership.

I have a general Old Testament background, but nothing that would win a trivia contest. That (or less) is as much as any reader will need to plunge deeply into Mahlah’s story, to identify with her situation, and to cheer for her from the opening pages. Within the first chapters, readers will experience the immeasurable exhaustion of people who have been abiding in a desert for forty years, sustained by manna and quail, but deflated and even infuriated by the seemingly endless generational waiting for a prophecy to be fulfilled.

Britton has an impressive ability to weave Biblical references, like worshipping pagan idols, into a story that feels nearly contemporary in its urgency and relevance. Those who are entrenched in Biblical reading will find plenty of familiar details, but even without that Mahlah and Britton’s other characters soar. The plot and setting are structured seamlessly and with such sensory and descriptive world-building that the characters move through challenges, develop relationships, and confront complex obstacles as if their lives are unfolding in a movie. Britton’s dialogue and narrative language keep readers rooted in this vivid time and place while unveiling the timelessness of romance, temptations, politics, financial stress, and family love.

The word feminist is never used, of course, and it shouldn’t be. For some reason “feminist” still does not seem to be well-understood even in modern times, and it certainly would not suit this carefully researched and constructed fictional world. Instead, Mahlah’s journey requires her to be a Lioness on behalf of herself, her family, and their independence.

And she is. The struggle to assure her family’s future is less a battle of feminism than it is a struggle for JUSTICE. Mahlah demands that promises be kept and that EACH AND EVERY life be recognized as valuable. In the process, a story is told that will keep readers turning pages and holding their breath throughout her journey.

Mahlah is clearly the star of this novel, but her younger sisters are allowed to share the stage and scenes enough to know that they, too, can take leading roles in the upcoming titles.  Groundwork is well laid for each to move with their tribes into the next stages of Bible history as a background to future compelling and relevant developments in their individual and family lives.

Britton’s novels are categorized as “Bible-based fiction”. Labels can be double-edged swords, identifiers that may attract attention or discourage browsers. I know that labels serve useful purposes for marketing, as shortcuts to communicate, even for shelving for sale at physical or digital bookstores. For those, like me, who might not turn to this category without urging, consider this a serious urge to give this (and Britton’s other novels) a try. I’m confident that her storytelling and writing will leave you recommending her books as firmly as I do.

About Barbara M. Britton, from her website:

Did I always want to be a writer? I read books as a child for school and pleasure, but didn’t see myself becoming an author. Many years later while writing curriculum for elementary school chapels, I hit a mental block and prayed, “Lord, hit me with some creativity.” I composed all my lesson plans, but when I finished, I had a prompting to write more. Nine books, and twelve years later, my Biblical Romantic Adventures are being shared with readers. Not all my stories are set in Scripture–I’m an equal opportunity adventure writer—but after years of bringing Bible stories to life for kindergarten through fifth graders, I thought why not write what I teach.

So, sit back, open my books, and hang on for fiction based in truth.

Appreciating the Value of Canine Military Service

I featured two titles on my picture book blog: first, a recently-released nonfiction picture book, and  another from five years back, both starring a well-recognized canine hero from the First World War. Both profiled Stubby, a stray dog who adopted a a training unit of soldiers and joined them throughout their war experiences.

When I speak to groups, in schools or other gatherings, I often mention that I NEVER intended to write a book with a dog in it. Everyone knows that if a dog is in the story, bad things can happen, to varying degrees.

And yet, once I finally found Mari’s character and voice in my research, she virtually took over the keyboard and insisted that the story was hers. Decades of research and memories of personal stories of resistance from my Norway visits shifted into her focus and, through her eyes, the story poured onto the page.

I wish.

In fact, at many points we argued. Before we could even begin she insisted on having a dog. She won that argument, and the first book is named for her dog, Odin. Mari’s need for a trusted companion, for a reliable source of love and security and companionship through times of danger and confusion, left me no choice. If you’ve even read the summary of the first book, you know that Mari won that argument, and later ones requiring hard choices involving Odin.

So it feels important to share two versions of Stubby’s stories here, and end with a powerful link regarding memorial sites for military service dogs. Here’s what I posted: 

SERGEANT STUBBY is an actual dog who became a mascot and hero during World War I. For many years Stubby’s story faded from history, or remained among adult military historians. Now, in several wonderful ways, Stubby’s story has been shared in kid-friendly picture books. The most recent is STUBBY: A TRUE STORY OF FRIENDSHIP, written and illustrated by Michael Foreman. (Anderson Press)

This is nonfiction with helpful backmatter, including a photo of the actual STUBBY and historic details not told in the body of the text.
Both the imagined casual first-person narration (a suggested version of Corporal Robert Conroy’s voice) and the events portrayed in softened/lightened illustrations allow young readers to focus on Stubby’s energetic and supportive personality rather than on more severe elements of war training and actual war.
Stubby becomes a mascot for Conroy and his company, exceeds every hope or expectation, and even shakes paws with President Wilson. Back matter added small rich details, such as that last one, while freeing the story itself to develop the deep relationship between Stubby and Conroy (and the rest of his team).
The final page makes clear that post-war home life is a big improvement, but also leaves veterans (human and dog) seeking time to find their new place in an old-but-changed world. The end papers are brilliant, as the opening papers carry bootprints into the pages of war, but the final papers include paw prints with the bootprints, heading out of the book and into the future, together.

Stubby and Conroy will certainly raise curious questions from even the youngest audiences. For more detailed (and extensively well-researched) information about Stubby, pick up a previously published nonfiction book for slightly older readers. STUBBY the WAR DOG is written by award-winning author Ann Bausum and is densely illustrated with archival photographs, maps, etc. that enhance the life and facts surrounding Stubby.
The details of Stubby the War Dog (the much-decorated Sergeant Stubby) have made their way into a variety of books for young readers. In this case, the reliable Ann Bausum brings her award-winning research and writing skills to a youth-friendly, photo-rich version of the adult book she wrote on this topic. Using an appealing storytelling tone, Bausum finds both the heart and the power of this war-dog story. Dense with useful (and fascinating) back matter and sources, this is a great choice as anchor reading for middle graders, supplemented by the growing number of simpler picture book approaches to this true story.

Depending on where you live or plan to  travel, you might want to save this link to a post, which features active links and other information about some of the many global monuments to war service dogs. Click to take a virtual tour right away, if travel isn’t on your agenda. Then add a stop at the library or bookstore on your next list for errands and pick up these two books. In them you’ll find amazing stories about this remarkable dog.

As Mari insisted, even when the the prospect of including a dog in a dangerous story fills you with dread, the benefits outweigh the costs. In other words, love and loyalty trump fear.

 

 

Interview with Author and Writing Coach, Rochelle Melander

 

For anyone who missed my detailed review of Rochelle Melander’s latest book in the previous post, click here.

SB: Throughout reading LEVEL UP! I often noted how your astute advice and practical approaches are appropriate for adults, like me, and also adaptable for young writers.

You are the founder of DREAM KEEPERS in Milwaukee and I have several questions about that:

RM: When and how was this program inspired?

I began teaching writing to children when my son started school—mostly offering poetry writing units for his class. In 2005, while attending an inner city church, I volunteered for the after school program. As I interacted with the children, I thought: I would love to teach writing to these young people. Dream Keepers was born. I started meeting weekly with a small group of girls, ages 10-16. We used classic and modern poetry as mentor texts to inspire our work, including Langston Hughes’s poem “The Dream Keeper;” Nina Simone’s song “To be Young, Gifted, and Black;” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; and Pink’s song “Dear Mr. President.”

About a year after teaching at the church, I brought Dream Keepers to the Milwaukee Public Library. I’ve been there since 2007. I’ve also brought the Dream Keepers process to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee Public Schools, and after school programs.

About 3 years after starting Dream Keepers, I took the 4-week Writer’s Institute with the National Writing Project, and that was so helpful for me. I learned a lot about writing circles—which we had been doing—and how to make them even better.

SB: What do you find most gratifying about working with early-stage writers?

RM: I love their openness to trying writing exercises. For many of the young writers, they don’t have pre-conceived notions of what’s right. That means that they can play with stories and writing in a way that older, more experienced writers have difficulty doing.

SB: What surprising challenges have arisen over time?

RM: I’ve been doing this work since about 2001—and I have noticed a distinct change in the young writers I work with. Many of my writing exercises have an art component to them, because I believe that making art stretches our brains and helps us become more creative writers. Recently, many of my students have struggled with simple tasks like folding and cutting paper. This adds a new dimension of anxiety for the students. But I believe that we grow from taking on and conquering challenges, even though they are hard. (Just like a quest!) So I keep asking them to make art and write.

I’ve also noticed that the students are more likely to borrow characters, settings, and stories from television, movies, and gaming. I worry that this is because they fill all of their free time with consuming media—and don’t have time to just daydream. 

Finally, and this is the biggest challenge, I teach after school at the library, and most children come to play on the computer. It’s hard to get them to leave the computer and focus on writing and art.

SB: Did your young writers inspire the gaming premise?

RM: I got the idea for the gaming premise from the book SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefullyby Jane McGonigal. In the book, McGonigal talks about how she healed from a head injury by turning it into a quest, with allies, villains, and power-ups. I loved the idea and tried it out in my own life—it helped me meet daily challenges. And it was fun.

After working with the ideas in McGonigal’s book, I brought the tools to my clients and the young writers. One of their favorite activities has been developing their own superhero identity!

SB:  Oh, I heard a wonderful interview with McGonigal about her book. It is now on my hold list at the library!

You suggest, LEVEL UP! functions well as a kind of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, with readers pursuing target areas of greatest interest or need. Since you’ve tried many/all of these quests, will you share some that you find yourself returning to or utilizing regularly? 

RM: I have a quest in the book called, Master Your Mornings. I used it to develop a morning routine that helps me to focus and get more writing done. During those morning sessions, I use several tools from the quests to support me:

+I use quest #35, “Journal to Boost Productivity,” and regularly practice gratitude journaling and journaling to plan.

+I use quest #2, “Capture Your Vision Daily,” to vision what I want to achieve in the next 3 months.

+I struggle with my mindset a lot, especially around my writing for children. So I use quest #41, “Adopt a Positive Mantra,” to replace my negative self-talk with a positive mantra.

In addition, I am always trying to add power-ups to my day—finding unique and fun ways to renew my energy so that I can work productively throughout the day.

SB: Your introduction is an effective summary of the reasons you wrote this book and some core philosophical tenets you follow in coaching creatives and in broader life approaches. Did you find that writing this book, in this unique way, had a different impact on you than writing any of your other books about effective writing?

RM: I have become increasingly tired of gurus telling people that there is a single way to achieve success. When I wrote this book, I really wanted to keep the reader in my head, to create something that they could use to master their own life, in their own way. As a writer, I’m always thinking about the reader: how will this book support or entertain them? But this book really pushed me to put myself in their shoes. And that has helped me become a better writer and coach.

 SB: Thank you, Rochelle. I hope that everyone will buy your book, because I truly see it as a future-favorite-tool for everyone who is truly committed to living their best creative lives.

Rochelle Melander is a certified professional coach, experienced book strategist, and the author of eleven books, including, Level Up: Quests to Master Mindset, Overcome Procrastination and Increase Productivity. She provides solutions for people who feel stuck, overwhelmed or confused by the writing and publishing process. She is the founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop that supports children and teens in finding their voice and sharing their stories. Visit her online at http://www.writenowcoach.com.

Twitter: @WriteNowCoach

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WriteNowCoach/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/writenowcoach/

Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rochellemelander/

 

 

Are You Game for Expert Writing Advice?

 

 

LEVEL UP:Quests to Master Mindset, Overcome Procrastination, and Increase Productivity. A Guide for Writers, Entrepreneurs, and Creatives

By Rochelle Melander    October 2019      Dream Keepers Press

Rochelle Melander wears many caps. She is a writing coach with experience in support of individual, spiritual, and professional development. She has multiple books to her credit, including Write-A-Thon. She brings a wealth of life and professional experience to this new project, a book that is both playful and play-full, jam-packed with solid guidance, plenty of smiles, and nods if recognition for anyone interested in making the most of their creative potential. The QUEST she set for herself in this book was to offer both new and familiar tools in a way that is not just useful, but FUN!

And she succeeded.

Melander mentions early in the introduction that much of her language will refer to writers and writing challenges, but her advice will transfer readily to those interested in launching a business, engaging in visual or other arts, or contemplating any complex creative task.

Although I absorbed most of her advice from the perspective of a writer, it felt obvious to me that the strategies she offers are, indeed, suitable across the board. I pictured friends and family who are crafters, antique car rebuilders, home-based caterers, all of whom are talented and productive. Those creators often  also grump and grumble about getting behind schedule, juggling so much that important balls are dropped, or otherwise feel less than successful in their chosen creative pursuits than they believe they could be.

Melander’s title reflects the language of digital game play, while the subtitle makes clear exactly who the “players” are and what the book will offer. The premise of her approach is twofold: first, there is NO WAY that any piece(s) of advice will suit every creator, every time, in every way; and, second, in order to succeed, creators would benefit from being able to access and use the best advice at the right time and place.
Those points may appear to be in conflict with each other, and perhaps with the very idea of a book labeling itself as a “guide”. And yet Melander has found a clever way to make a very powerful point (and tool) to integrate those two truths. She has written this as a gaming insider guide, beginning with the advice to take a big picture overview before beginning. By doing so, readers will see a comprehensive table of contents, a useful and precisely worded index, a useful “power up” resource, and will quickly identify the way each two-to-three page “chapter” is organized.

Beginning with the table of contents, Melander has identified five areas of struggle for creatives: visioning and planning an ideal creative life; discovering and implementing your own best practices; mastering your mindset; ditching distractions; and overcoming obstacles.

If you’ve done any reading or attended workshops, webinars, or conferences, you will recognize these topics as frequent (and well-attended) program targets.

What Melander has done, playfully and effectively, is to treat the many elements within each broad topic as gaming tips. Each coaching tip is simply labeled, often as a skill or strategy, followed by a BRIEF focusing introduction. Next she frames the skill as a QUEST, indicating the tools, shortcuts, locations, and steps to achieve and measure the activity or approach. She then provides GAME PLAY TIPS, noting pitfalls to avoid and shortcuts that may help, as well as ideas about modifying  tasks to make the QUEST more achievable in your own circumstances. Finally, She defines FOR THE WIN, indicating ways to measure success and recognize how achieving the quest will move you toward your much larger goals.

This simple framing of information that so often feels overwhelming, confusing, unrealistic, redundant, or otherwise undoable puts the game control into the hands of the player- allowing full control to attempt, to skip over, to return to, or to ignore as best suits that player at that time, in that project. This consistent framing also turns a massive and valuable trove of information into “modules” that need not all be read or processed or used sequentially or according to some master plan.

Because I was reading this material to review, I did “play through” from start to finish. Along the way I quickly noticed Melander stating clear permission to dip in and out, to utilize the chapter titles, index, and other well organized tools to troubleshoot current issues in creativity or productivity. For novices or someone with lifelong experience, there is value in both approaches. Speaking for myself, I found my head nodding in recognition of many QUESTS and GAME PLAY TIPS, I discovered new approaches, and noted many areas of my own life for which the QUESTS were well established but not currently in use. Others, though, made me eager to give them a try and felt ideally suited to an ongoing or back-burner project.

Melander’s clever and original approach makes the overwhelming challenge of independent creativity and productivity feel not just doable, but FUN! As an admitted quote-collector, I was in awe of the many and varied sources on which the author drew to launch a QUEST, illustrate a point, inspire, amuse, and empathize throughout these many topics. These words of wisdom are not randomly inserted nor quoted as directives or authorities. Rather, each quote feels like a collaboration with a fellow human, one who also struggles, ponders, succeeds, and fails. By underscoring the range and universality of the obstacles and efforts that characterize complex lives, these quotes made what can be a very isolated pursuit feel shared. Characteristic of the effective structure of every part of this book, there is a comprehensive listing of each quote’s source in the back matter.

From concept to implementation to actual book, Melander has created a one-of-a-kind resource that I highly recommend. I read this via advance PDF, but intend to purchase a paper copy as soon as it is available. Using my own best strategies, I’ll insert sticky note tabs and jot quick reminders, making it as useful and dependable as a favorite cookbook. And, just as with my favorite cookbooks, there are some QUESTS/recipes I will follow exactly, some I will modify to suit my taste and interests, and some that will simply remind me of my own helpful strategies from the past.

Despite being someone with NO experience with or interest in digital game play, I found the premise, format, and task-labeling to be effective and appealing. I have no doubt that would not be the case were it not for Melander’s powerful organization, exhaustive expertise, and writing quality that shine through and elevate this work. I appreciate learning new approaches and strategies, but I feel I was learning even more by the example of her writing: attention to detail, voice, and awareness of audience. It’s easy to recommend this book highly for everyone to read and use. My advice is not to shelve it after finishing, but to keep it handy for ready access throughout a lifetime of projects.

Despite her very busy life, Rochelle agreed to answer a few questions about this latest project and other pursuits. I’ll share her responses in the next post in a few days. If you don’t want to miss it, use the easy “subscribe” option in the sidebar>>>. You’ll enjoy sampling her voice and insights in the remarks shared here.

Rochelle Melander is a certified professional coach, experienced book strategist, and the author of eleven books, including, Level Up: Quests to Master Mindset, Overcome Procrastination and Increase Productivity. She provides solutions for people who feel stuck, overwhelmed or confused by the writing and publishing process. She is the founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop that supports children and teens in finding their voice and sharing their stories. Visit her online at http://www.writenowcoach.com.

Twitter: @WriteNowCoach

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WriteNowCoach/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/writenowcoach/

Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rochellemelander/

 

 

 

It’s That Time of Year: CYBILS Awards for Outstanding Books for Kids/Teens

It has been my privilege to serve as a Round One panelist for various categories of books for the past four years. I’ve been part of remarkable teams working to evaluate releases for the current year in the categories of fiction picture books, poetry, and nonfiction for elementary and middle grades. I’m so excited to participate again for the FIFTH year, this time in the dual category of elementary and middle grades nonfiction books. I am every bit as excited this year as I was back in 2015 when I was a newbie to the process.

You, reader, are an essential part of this process. CYBILS relies on those who read books to, for, and with young readers (and that includes those amazing teen novels and information books!) to think about your favorites from the past year. Here are the full directions. No worries if you don’t have faves in every category. You can nominate in a single category, several, or ALL! The directions are not really hard, but be sure to read through the linked post to click and read the rules, and then read the post until you find the words “Follow this link to nominate”– where you can click and proceed- until October 15.

I’ve already maxed out my hold list at the library and will be hauling books in and out of my home for the next two months, winnowing and exchanging ideas with the other panelists in my group. Don’t think I’ll neglect this site, though. I have some wonderful books to share right here, on this very blog, that aren’t part of the competition, along with a very special author interview. That’s because, even when reading dozens (nay, hundreds?) of books for the awards, I still love to read fantastic books about writing, books in other genre, and anything that is well-written.

Hope you are doing the same.

And if you’ve never checked out my picture book blog before, I’d love to have you take a look and follow along with my Cybils posts about some incredible books (and eventually the results). You may even want to subscribe to get those posts sent to your inbox as they appear.

And if you found this blog accidentally, feel free to subscribe right over there on the side bar>>> to have my posts on this website blog sent to your inbox, too.

Happy reading!