The Woods At The End of Autumn Street by Lois Lowry

The Woods At The End Of Autumn Street

Lois Lowry is an American children’s author, best known for The Giver. The Woods At The End Of Autumn is an upper middle grade novel set in WW2 America.

The following biographical information feels relevant to The Woods At The End of Autumn Street:

  • Born in 1937, that makes Lois Lowry the same era/age as Liz in Autumn Street. The details of the era therefore ring true, from the racial and playground gender segregation to the freedom afforded young children, allowed to enter the woods.
  • Lois’s sister Helen, three years older than her, died in 1963 at the age of 28 of cancer. A number of Lois Lowry’s books feature death, e.g. A Summer To Die, Number The Stars and this one.
  • Lowry’s father was a career military officer – an Army dentist – whose work moved the family all over the United States and to many parts of the world. Autumn Street is set during WW2, and the children have been moved to a new place. Moving to a new place is something Lois Lowry herself would be highly familiar with.
CHAPTER ONE

The book opens with a self-contained first chapter, meaning it could almost stand alone as a short story or vignette. The characters are ghosts and float above Autumn Street in Pennsylvania, bordering woods as if from a fairytale.

The reader wonders, why are all these people dead? Why is the narrator, and only the narrator, alive? We already know the narrator is an old woman. Continue reading “The Woods At The End of Autumn Street by Lois Lowry”

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Alexander No Good Very Bad cover

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is an American picture book written by Judith Viorst, published 1972.

This was the first in the Alexander series, followed by:

  • Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday
  • Alexander, Who Is Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move
  • Alexander, Who’s Trying His Best to Be the Best Boy Ever

Writer, journalist and psychoanalyst Judith Vorst wrote her Alexander books modelled on her own three sons, who were about that age when she wrote them. She decided to write the book about Alex because he seemed to have more than his fair share of bad days at the time. At first he wasn’t happy about this and asked if someone else could have the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, but when his mother reminded him that he’d get his name in big letters on the cover, he agreed to be the star. These days he is apparently quite happy about the whole thing.

“Practically every everything that I’ve written that is funny or joyful, I’ve probably lived through first with tears — and crying and bitching and moaning and carrying on,” she says. “I mean, I am not your merry little lady bouncing chucklingly through life. But eventually I pull myself together.

Judith Viorst, at the age of 88

Much more recently, Viorst has created a girl version of Alexander. Her name is Lulu.

  • Lulu and the Brontosaurus
  • Lulu Walks the Dogs
  • Lulu’s Mysterious Mission

Like Alexander, Lulu is what Viorst describes as ‘a hard like’. These are the Max’s from Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, or some of Shel Silverstein’s characters. Viorst names The Secret Garden as an influence from her own childhood. The children in that classic are also hard to like. Viorst writes these characters because she knows children take comfort in learning that others have the same bad feelings as they do.

Before writing Alexander, Viorst had worked as a children’s book editor. This partly explains how she was able to create such an iconic book that the title became part of the English language lexicon. (She says she is very proud of this fact.) Like all the best picture books, Alexander feels simple. For this reason, it’s worth breaking down.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY

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The Iron Giant Storytelling Technique

The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant is a 1968 science fiction middle grade novel by Ted Hughes, adapted for film in 1999 by Tim McCanlies and Brad Bird.

Brad Bird later wrote the screenplays for The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Tim McCanlies has worked on Denis the Menace, among many other things.

STORYWORLD OF THE IRON GIANT

PLACE

Rockwell Maine, in a leafy, hilly suburb. The diner is the hub of the community. This is also where Hogarth’s mother works. Since waitressing pays so badly, this conveniently keeps Hogarth’s mother working long hours. Hogarth has plenty of time to himself. Lack of money is also useful to the story because Hogarth’s mother is keen to have a boarder, looking past the fact that Mr Mansley might be evil.

The Iron Giant diner

The Iron Giant film colours
The colours of The Iron Giant film

A shot of Annie reminds me of a shot from Thelma and Louise.

Annie The Iron Giant
Annie The Iron Giant
Louise at the diner calling Thelma
Louise at the diner calling Thelma

In general, parents who are tired and overworked are useful in children’s stories. It gets them out of the way. (See below.) Continue reading “The Iron Giant Storytelling Technique”

Hud Film Study

Hud poster

Hud is a 1962 black and white film based on Larry McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By. There is a connection to children’s literature here — Patricia Neal who plays the housekeeper was Roald Dahl’s wife. Neal had a severe stroke not long after this film was made. Her recovery meant she had problems with language. The made-up vocabulary of The BFG was inspired by Patricia Neal’s strange communication style after her stroke.

 Hud is in many ways similar to Deliverance, appearing in American cinemas ten years later. 

  • Both are films based on novels
  • Written by white American men concerned with themes of masculinity
  • They both feature a stereotypical macho man whose bravado is also his downfall
  • Both feature a small group of men in a terrible situation, wrestling verbally with each other to make a moral decision
  • Each man of the group falls on a continuum from ruthless to morally upstanding
  • The morally upstanding character is destroyed by his compassion and ends up in the grave
  • While the macho man continues to ‘live’ but he has lost a part of himself, and his victory in getting his way is a pyrrhic one.
  • Both are anti-Redemption Stories: “Hud was certainly a unique picture in many ways, but, most significantly, it dared to portray a central character who was a “pure bastard”—and who remained totally unredeemed and unrepentant at the end of the picture.” (William Baer)

Stories of this type continue to intrigue writers and readers.

Jeffrey Eugenide’s first book of short stories, published 2017, is also about men struggling with how to behave:

It’s sort of, you’re caught in the middle of this thing, you want to redefine what it means to be a man in our time, and then going along with that has to involve a lot of self-exposure, and a lot of recrimination and regret for your behavior. At the same time, there’s maybe some resistance to being told how you’re supposed to behave. So the characters are caught between being good and being bad. That makes for more energetic fiction, when you have someone of two minds trying to figure out a problem, as opposed to being really sure about his way and his conduct.

Vulture

Genre Blend

Hud is not really a blend at all. Hud is a straight drama. You don’t find many of those on IMDb these days — most big films are a mixture of thriller/action/adventure and often with drama thrown in because of the character development.

At the time of release, Hud was said to be a contemporary Western. But here’s what the screenwriter’s response is to that:

BAER: Although Hud is clearly set in contemporary Texas, it’s often cited as one of the films that began the “demystification” of the American Western. It came out a year after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which John Ford began to re-examine the Western hero, and it predated the so-called “revisionist” Westerns of the later sixties, like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and The Wild Bunch (1969). I wonder how you feel about that?

RAVETCH: To be perfectly honest, I never thought of Hud as a Western. Never. I always thought of it as a domestic drama. Whenever I see Hud listed with Westerns, I wince. Not because I don’t admire Westerns—I wrote a number of them in my earlier days—but because I don’t feel the film is appropriate to that category.

Michigan Quarterly Review

The screenwriter, of course, is absolutely right. Hud is not a Western, nor is it even an anti-Western:

  • It doesn’t use the metaphorical symbol web of a Western and nor does it subvert those symbols to make an anti-Western.
  • It’s not about the taming of wilderness in order to build a home.
  • It’s not about expansion of a nation, or the destruction wreaked under said expansion.

On the other hand, I can see where people might get to thinking this is an anti-Western.

  • A Western has a lone warrior hero, leading a group of people to build a new village, and Hud seems like the ironic opposite of that guy.
  • It’s set in cowboy country, where death is all around them
  • There’s a category of Westerns set on a ranch, and the ranch comes under siege from outside forces.
  • There’s a life and death struggle and a pyrrhic victory.
  • Paul Newman starred in a bunch of Westerns and came to be associated with the genre. Larry McMurtry, too, also wrote anti-Westerns (later), as well as comical Western parodies, so was obviously influenced by the Western he grew up with when writing Horseman, Pass By.

Storyworld Of Hud

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Deliverance Film Study

Deliverance Film Poster

Deliverance is a 1972 movie based on the 1970 novel by James Dickey. Watch it in 2017 and it could have been made this year. The river setting, the timeless costuming, the themes and the film-making techniques have not dated. In fact, Deliverance continues to influence film to this day, including an homage in Carrie (the image of the floating hand), and the obvious influence on the 2017 film Jungle, starring Daniel Radcliffe. Deliverance is impressive when considering this was shot before CGI. Actors put their lives at risk on this river, and didn’t come away unscathed. When playing dead, actors were either drunk or trained themselves to hold their breath and not blink for two minutes. Jon Voight really did scale that cliff, but with a harness that had to be kept out of the shot. When the boat breaks in two, that was thanks to a complex pulley system set up under the water.

The author of the novel played the police sheriff in the film. Because he is not an actor, the director basically had him playing himself.
The author of the novel played the police sheriff in the film. Because he is not an actor, the director basically had him playing himself. Jim Dickey was such a dickwaving macho tool he had to be told to leave for most of the shooting so the actors could do their jobs in peace.

The budget for Deliverance was very tight. Director John Boorman dropped the composer and went instead with the same banjo music utilised across the entire movie, functioning as a very simple soundtrack. Budget constraints lead to a very pared down movie, but this simplicity is what makes the film so good in the end.

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Character Empathy In The Sopranos Pilot

If there was a single moment that signaled the new TV reality, it came only a handful of weeks after The Sopranos debuted. By that time, audiences had already begun to feel affection for this new, unusual hero. True, they had seen him involved in beating a man up; plotting insurance fraud, extortion, and arson; and committing adultery. On the other hand, he seemed to come by such behaviour honestly, what with the crazy mother.

— Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

It is more difficult to write an antihero than to write a hero. Before creating Tony Soprano, David Chase served his apprenticeship writing a large number of likeable characters, such as amicably divorced Norman Foley from Almost Grown and 1950s Southern lawyer Forrest Bedford in I’ll Fly Away. He graduated to the antihero from there.

If you’re writing an antihero you must use every trick in the book to get your audience to empathise with them early on.

Interestingly, the Sopranos writers weren’t initially brave enough to attempt an empathetic antihero and a murdering one at that, all in the pilot episode. But the show failed to garner interest with show runners. It was only when the writers had someone murdered that The Sopranos was picked up. The subsequent popularity of this show taught writers something — it’s possible to write an empathetic antihero from the very start, even when we show that character at their very worst.

The key is ’empathetic’, not ‘sympathetic’. We have to understand why a character does what they do, but in the case of criminals, gangsters and murderers, we won’t agree with their goals. The best place to find empathetic antiheroes is TV. For the length of a movie we might stick by a  less empathetic antihero because we don’t have to be in their company for so long. It’s said that the age of the TV antihero began with Tony Soprano, who has been strongly influential in many dramas that have emerged since then, paving the way for characters such as Walter White. The writers of the Breaking Bad pilot used all the tricks listed here.

What tricks are those? How did The Sopranos writers ensure audiences would want to stick around Tony for six seasons? Here they are. And for an ordered list, see How To Write An Unlikeable Main Character.

Continue reading “Character Empathy In The Sopranos Pilot”

Pax by Sara Pennypacker Novel Study

Pax Sara Pennypacker quote

Pax is a middle grade novel by Sara Pennypacker about a boy and a fox who embark upon a mythic journey to reunite after Pax is abandoned in the woods. Structurally, Pax is the middle grade equivalent of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Though this story is classic mythical structure, there are shades of the Female Mythic Form, as the main character Peter (who happens to be male), thinks and feels his way through his journey rather than engaging in battle after swashbuckling battle.

MORE ON THE STORY STRUCTURE OF PAX

Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favorite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.

— publisher’s advertising copy

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The River Between Us by Richard Peck

THE RIVER BETWEEN US STORYWORLD

The River Between Us cover
This cover gives no indication of the intended audience. Nor does it show that this is the story of a family. Anyone would think Noah were the star, and the faceless woman in the background the stereotypical love interest. This is one of my least favourite children’s book covers.

There are historical notes in the back of The River Between Us but unless you’ve been through the American education system and already know quite a bit about the Civil War and the history of New Orleans, I’d recommend flipping to that first.

  • July 1916 is the wrapper time
  • Summer
  • North America
  • Starts in St Louis, South Illinois. The family lives on Maryland Avenue in the West End. See: Maryland Avenue today. (Peck tends to center his stories in Illinois, and most often in Southern Illinois.)
  • Cars are a big deal to a young boy because unlike today you don’t see them any old where. “It was a big thing to drive a car out of town.” They’re not yet very reliable so preparation for a long trip is important. For example, cracking a raw egg into the radiator so it would hard-boil and seal any leaks. Fuel is to be strapped onto the car itself because there aren’t many fuel stations around yet. Only the upper middle class can afford them (hence the narrator is the son of a doctor). You have to crank it up and the windshield isn’t up for city driving. There are a lot of flat tyres — four in one day is not unusual.
  • This is the story of a journey. Stories with rivers are generally about journeys. See: The Symbolism Of The River In Storytelling.
  • Baseball is important. The local team is called The Browns (and was only later the Baltimore Orioles).
  • World War I is raging across Europe. Americans know it’s just a matter of time before they get caught up in it. They anticipate restrictions on travel once that happens.
  • ‘The War’ just as often refers to the Civil War
  • Grand Tower is a ghost town. There never was much to it but showed some progress after the Civil War, with a saddle factor, cigar plant, gun shops, brick works. There’s a hill called Devil’s Backbone. (These days it’s a park.)
  • The grandparents’ house is like going back in time, with the metonym of a black iron range standing for the earlier era.

Continue reading “The River Between Us by Richard Peck”

Annie Proulx’s The Governors Of Wyoming

“The Governors Of Wyoming” by Annie Proulx is a short novella — one of her concise sagas — divided into parts.

the governors of wyoming is set in a place like this

WADE WALLS

Our characters are introduced, as well as the dynamics between them. From the title we know to pay close attention to Wade Walls.

Renti – female, chews fruity gum, a small grubby woman in black tights and construction worker boots, ingrained dirt on the backs of her arms, her face handsome and impatient. Hasn’t met Wade before. Renti is from Taos, staying with Roany and her husband . Lives on a ranch 22 miles south of Slope in mima mount country. “Biscuit land”. (Low domes of earth cast up on the plain by ancient rodents or frost action, no one was sure. She’s been a highway construction flagger, run a candle-wrapping machine, sold art in the lesser galleries etc. She lived with a man (Pan) and an Alsatian wolfhound for a year but has now left him after a disturbing dream about a Chihuahua. Has a kitchen that looks like a home decorating magazine, ranch style. Continue reading “Annie Proulx’s The Governors Of Wyoming”

Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review

STORY WORLD OF STRAYS LIKE US

Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.

This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:

“How did the guys find out anyway?”

“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”

Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an apparent utopia. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:

“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”

The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.

Strays Like Us tree cover
Molly Moberly in the foreground with neighbour Will in the background.

The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here. Continue reading “Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips”