On the Reading Table: Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley by Stephanie Greene

My friend, Carmen Oliver just posted an interview with Stephanie Greene so I decided to chime in over here because I recently finished reading Stephanie’s Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley.

Fellow VCFA alum, SCBWI Regional Advisor and friend Debbie Gonzales says Stephanie’s book is a model for perfect structure. I don’t disagree. From the very first page, we know what Sophie Hartley wants for her 10th birthday: a baby gorilla. The remaining 127 pages take us on Sophie’s journey of getting or not getting that baby. It is clear, precise and funny.

What I especially love about this book is how Stephanie uses family and friends as setting. While Sophie shines at the center of this book, the world that is her family and friends is deftly drawn in around her. AND not for one minute does it overwhelm her. Mom doesn’t become too Mommy. The friends never feel like devices. Everyone has a personality but the reader never loses Sophie.

How does Greene do it? She would probably say hard work and lots of drafts, but here’s what I noticed: I had the sense that at every moment, she knew where the family was and what they were doing, even if they weren’t in a scene. Like a master composer, Greene added little melodies of each character so that if they were in a scene, they were pitch perfect and not dominant.

Setting for middle grade novels is tricky because the 8-12 year old’s landscape is fairly limited. Often their family and home is their setting. So the writer must find ways to make family life compelling without overwhelming the main character. Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley is an excellent example of a writer doing it well.

Read it for structure. Read it for setting. Read it for fun.

Yoga and Writing

A couple of times a week I go to the Yoga studio and submit to a 90 minute guided meditation. I say ‘submit’ because the practice takes place in a 105 degree room and the 26 postures are exactly the same in exactly the same order every time. For some, this could be intensely boring.

For me, it isn’t.

Because every time I go, I intersect the meditation at a different place. Simply, I am different every time I go while the practice stays the same. Some days, I suck at the balance series. (Hmm, I wonder if the rest of my life is a bit out of balance.) Recently, I realized I dreaded the spine strengthening series less. (Could it be? My spine is getting stronger.) Some days, the room feels less hot, even cool. (What’s that about?)

When I sit down to put words on paper, it is exactly the same practice every time but I am different each time. Some days I come to the task on fire. On other days, I am more tentative. On still others, I make myself put my butt in the chair because that’s what you have to do to get words on the page.

The practice is the same. You are what changes and grows. Think about it.


Last night, my teen, in her best teen anguish voice, said, “Why can’t you be medium?”


“You’re either acting like a six year old or you’re hovering like a granny. Why can’t you just be medium?”

I thought her complaint/request was the funniest thing I had ever heard. I laughed and laughed. That made her mad, mad, mad. So I gulped back my chuckles until all that remained of my mirth was a wee smile, a wry smile, perhaps a Mona Lisa smile.

Onlookers have wondered for years about what caused that wisp of a smile on Mona Lisa’s face. Perhaps she, too, had a complaint/request from a family member. “Why can’t you be more bland?”

And so she smiled because she was delighted she wasn’t.

Thinking Out Loud

My friend Brian Yansky has a post today about inspiration and showing up for your writing. I read Brian’s blog regularly because, well, he’s the one who got me into this blogging semi-regularly business. There we were, standing at some party, chatting and somehow the conversation tripped into blogging and he said something like, “Yeah, I maybe post two or three times a week. You know, thoughts about writing. It’s good. It keeps you thinking about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it.”


So I began tap, tap, tapping away in my little corner of the cyber-wilderness. And mostly, he’s right. These posts give us a chance to reflect on the craft and the life of writing.

The question is why do it in a public format? Why add to the huge tumble of churning bytes already threatening to crush us with TMI (too much information)?

For the same reason we show up everyday at the blank paper/screen. We have a story. We have a view that is unique, that might make a difference to one speck in the huge milky way of people out there.

Today I am showing up for my young adult story. (Yes, last week I handed in my middle grade novel to my critique group for a literary bone scan. Nervous teeth gnashing. How bad is it, doctor?) I know who the characters are. I even know what the story is about. But writing can be elusive and slippery. Even though I know all of those things, I still have to tell myself the story. I have still have to write wide to go deep. I still have to show up so that wee light of inspiration can show me the heart of the story. I am on my third draft of this story. I am getting closer. Sometimes when I tap out a page, I wonder, “Will this bit stay in?” I hope so but I don’t know. I won’t know until I get to the end. Then I can look and see if the effect is there. This may seem like the long way around the barn to write a short story but its the way I have to do it. I am glad to know that Brian is over there doing the same thing.

The Texas Book Festival Perfect Moment

Years and years ago, when I saw Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia, I fell in love with Gray’s notion of a perfect moment. It is that moment which takes you by surprise, reorganizes your molecular structure and shoots you out the other side a changed human being. I paraphrase. For Gray, those moments broke open his consciousness and allowed him to see life differently, more clearly.

Ever since, I look for perfect moments. Everywhere I go. Vacations. Music Festivals. Book Festivals. I think they can happen anywhere. They are meant to lift you, for a brief moment, out of your life so you can return more grateful, happier, more aware of how your skin touches the air.

This weekend at the Texas Book Festival, my perfect moment occurred in the music tent at 4 pm on Saturday. There, amidst all the words written by my fellow authors, was this songwriter who really sounds like no other. His medleys are like short story cycles. They drift through you so that you have the feeling you’ve been to that cafe, met that waitress, even tipped her. And his voice. It is wind and gravel and night. It sounds like the way life is in your soul when it’s quiet and empty, like a west Texas night.

I’m talking about Terry Allen. His impish grin and hair brushed by grey hairs only begin to suggest the complications this man might know.

Terry was at the festival because he had just completed this gorgeous book (University of Texas Press) which put a binder around his life as a visual artist and songwriter. On Saturday afternoon, accompanied by his son Bukka and Richard Bowden, Terry tore off the binder and took us on a ride through his song lines.

At this point in the post, I might embed a Youtube video of Terry singing. But I can’t. Oh they’re there. You can look. But none of them convey the moment of sitting there when the lyrics, the mandolin and the accordion take you some place you hadn’t been before.