Thursday, December 16, 2010

Keeper by Kathi Appelt - Guest Post

Kathi Appelt
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
399 pgs.

I will be reviewing Keeper by Kathi Appelt December 17th her on The Brain Lair. Keeper is one of my top choices for our Mock Newbery.   Here Kathi gives us a little insight into Keeper's favorite items in the story.  If you haven't read the book, run right out and get a copy.  If you have the ARC, get the hardcover because the illustrations are fantastic!

A Magic Whistle and a Wooden Bowl

photo by Ken Appelt
For anyone who has ever worked in a theater, you know that one of the key jobs is “props.” It’s up to the Property Manager to make sure that all those items that the actors use in the play are in place. If one of the characters needs a scarf to toss over his shoulder or another character needs a dagger to plunge into her boyfriend’s chest, it’s critical that those things are on the stage when they’re needed.

I’ll never forget working on a play in which the main character needed a whistle. The whistle was supposed to be enchanted and whenever the character blew it, something magical would happen. A magic whistle. Someone on the props crew was supposed to check the pocket of the main character’s costume before the play began just to be sure that the whistle was in place.

Sure enough, whoever was in charge forgot. So when the poor actor got to the line about the magic whistle, only to discover that there was no whistle, he panicked. He rummaged through all of his pockets. Alas, the only item he could find was a small knife. Not exactly the same thing as a whistle. Ack!

So much was lost: the sound of the whistle, the intention of the story, and the magic. There’s a huge difference between a magical whistle and a magical pocket knife. In addition, the actor lost confidence in the crew, and for the run of the play, each time he got to that spot in his lines, his anxiety level rose.

When I’m working on a story, I give a lot of thought to the props that my characters are going to be dealing with. Like the whistle, objects in fiction become a tiny bit magical. We call them “endowed objects,” because we endow them with special properties, special memories, special significance.

In Keeper, I wanted to avoid the whistle/pocket knife mix-up, and make sure that the objects she kept in her pocket were in tune with the story. But where to start?

Because I have always been interested in mermaids and their cousins, I wanted to include as many of them in the book as I could. In early drafts, I actually had different mer people appear throughout the story. However, they never really seemed to fit with the story. They seemed gratuitous. For example, where would an Irish selkie come into the picture? Or what about a Japanese ningyo? Was there a scene that I could include using the German meerfrau, a fresh-water mermaid, in the salty Gulf of Mexico? What would their purpose be? They would just be making cameos really, to show that I knew my merpeople. They were sort of my own author’s way of saying, “Hey, I know the folklore of merpeople.” Oh, brother.

Illustration © 2010 by August Hall from Keeper by Kathi Appelt. Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
The answer came in the notion of a gift: the merlings.

Gifts always have significance. Since Mr. Beauchamp loved Keeper, it made sense that he might give her these small figurines of the various merfolk. And it also made sense that Keeper would love them. In that way, I was able to give Keeper her very own special props, props that represented affection, artistry, and that also offered an added layer of folklore to the story, without bringing in a dozen new characters who really had nothing to add to the plot.

Another endowed object in the story is Signe’s large wooden bowl. Why a bowl you might ask? Well, when I was tiny, my grandmother had just such a bowl. She used to set it on the kitchen floor and let me sit in it. Then she would spin me around and around. There was nothing particularly special about that bowl, only that it was large and that it belonged to my grandmother. Likewise, Signe’s bowl came from her mother and it held the same kind of significance for her that mine did for me. I tapped into my own personal props in order to give one to my character. When Signe’s bowl breaks, it’s heart-breaking. The break works in two ways, both physical and metaphorical.

A writer needs props. A character needs them too. Take a look in your own prop-shop. Make sure that it’s the right choice, then put it in your character’s pocket. That way the magic will be there when it’s needed.

Kathi also shared with us what she's reading: 
A chapter book for all ages:

Bink and Gollie, by Alison McGhee and Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Tony Fucile – Two best friends figure out how to work things out despite their differences . . . and similarities. Just wonderful!

A couple of middle grade books that just make me happy:

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger – The whole notion of a fictional character made from Origami just brings a smile to my face—this is an endowed object of the highest order.

Wiff and Dirty George, by Stephen Swinburne – The entire fate of England rests in the hands of two unlikely heroes, complete with a three-foot long Madagascan worm. This book exemplifies the word “rollicking.”

In the YA department, I recently read:

Alien Invasion & Other Inconveniences, by Brian Yansky – Who knew that a book that starts with a complete siege of the Earth by aliens would have so much heart? I loved this story.

Extraordinary, by Nancy Werlin – Poignant, intense, lovely. All about what it means to be extraordinary . . . or simply brave. Werlin’s beautiful prose, matched with a wringer of a tale, gives us a story to savor. Extraordinary.

And yes, I even read books for grown-ups:

Tinkers, by Paul Harding – Told in alternating voices between a son and father, this is a heartbreaking look at the ways our choices impact everything, including the people we love the most. It’s like reading a long narrative poem. Just beautiful.

The Stolen Child, by Keith Donohue – Also told in two voices, this is a changeling story. One narrator is the changeling, the other voice is the child who was switched. It’s provocative and wonderful. I loved it.

I also want to give a shout-out to a wonderful new picture book:

Holler Loudly, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Barry Gott – An original tall tale about a boy who was born to be loud, and for a good reason.

On my “to read” stack:

Rex Zero, the Great Pretender, by Tim Wynne-Jones and I Will Save You, by Matt de la Peña. Two of my favorite authors!

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