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Ballet and Rock & Roll – and Writing Beyond What You Know, a guest post by Brianna Bourne

The first time I saw Swan Lake, I was eleven, sitting in the front row watching a red velvet curtain rise on darkness. A single beam of light revealed a blanket of what looked like snow on the stage. But it wasn’t snow—it was dry ice. The swans were folded over, hidden beneath it. As they rose up, the dry ice poured toward me, racing over the lip of the stage to cool my face like a breath of night.

A group of birds flying in the air

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(Swan Lake by Birmingham Royal Ballet. Image: Andrew Ross)

I didn’t know then that I’d one day work backstage for major ballet companies—that I’d be the one wearing a headset and calling the cues for the dry ice machine to turn on, for the lights to change, for the curtain to rise.

And I didn’t know that a few years after that, I’d publish a book with a main character who was an elite ballet dancer.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the old writing adage, “Write what you know.” On one hand, writing what you know can be a wonderful thing. There’s something so compelling about a story that peels back the curtain on a specialist hobby or profession. It’s pure magic when I read about a character who is an elite gymnast or a champion canoeist or a country music singer, and by the time I’ve turned the last page, I feel like I’m the gymnast or the racer or the singer.

Do I know ballet? Sure. I know the terminology, I can (very crudely) replicate a pas de chat or a penché, and I’ve been known to do a few chaînés if I find myself in a large empty room. When I wasn’t on tour, I spent forty hours a week in a rehearsal studio with jaw-droppingly talented dancers.

But I’m not a ballerina, by any stretch of the imagination. But that’s what writing is, right? A stretch of the imagination.

I certainly stretched the limits of “Write what you know” when I turned my love of 80s rock into my second main character’s talent/passion. For years as I drafted and revised, every car ride was filled with the electric, hair-raising energy of Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Dokken, Scorpions. I loved every second of that very serious book research.

A group of people posing for the camera

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(Guns N’ Roses)

“He was a punk, she did ballet” might have been enough to carry a lighter contemporary YA romance, but I blew the lid off writing what I knew when I decided my book would follow the last girl and boy in the world after they wake up to a silent, empty city.

But even that, somehow, felt like writing what I knew: I remember once, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I woke up long past noon to find my house empty. It was unnaturally quiet, and even the angle of the sun pouring in through the windows unsettled me. It turned out that my mom wasn’t far—out in the backyard having an argument with the A/C unit—but for a few heart-stopping minutes, it felt deeply wrong.

At their core, stories are a cookie-crumb trail of emotions. And we are all intimately familiar with the kaleidoscope of human emotion. Fear, love, hope, intrigue, skepticism, desperation, embarrassment—we are each witness to thousands of moments daily that make micro-impacts on our feelings. And that’s where I find myself writing what I know: in those moments where we get a concentrated dose of an emotion so pure it makes our breath catch.

I’m not an elite ballet dancer, and I’m not a rock musician. I haven’t woken up alone in an empty world. But I am a writer. And it’s my job to imagine situations and settings, to climb into a character’s body and mind and heart, and then somehow shape all of that into words on a page. Words that can miraculously transfer those tiny, concentrated moments of emotion to someone else.

So I’ll keep writing what I know—and what I don’t know. One day, maybe I’ll have a clearer answer on whether “Write what you know” is good writing advice.

But that day is not today.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Barnaby Aldrick

When Brianna Bourne is not writing, she works as a stage manager for ballet companies around the world. Originally from Texas, Brianna grew up in Indonesia and Egypt and now lives in England with her rock musician husband and their two daughters. You & Me At the End of the World is her debut novel. You can find out more about her on her website, and she can be followed on Twitter and Instagram.

About You & Me at the End of the World

This is no ordinary apocalypse…

Hannah Ashton wakes up to silence. The entire city around her is empty, except for one other person: Leo Sterling. Leo might be the hottest boy ever (and not just because he’s the only one left), but he’s also too charming, too selfish, and too much of a disaster for his own good, let alone Hannah’s.

Stuck with only each other, they explore a world with no parents, no friends, and no school and realize that they can be themselves instead of playing the parts everyone expects of them. Hannah doesn’t have to be just an overachieving, music-box-perfect ballerina, and Leo can be more than a slacker, 80s-glam-metal-obsessed guitarist. Leo is a burst of honesty and fun that draws Hannah out, and Hannah’s got Leo thinking about someone other than himself for the first time.

Together, they search for answers amid crushing isolation. But while their empty world may appear harmless . . . it’s not. Because nothing is quite as it seems, and if Hannah and Leo don’t figure out what’s going on, they might just be torn apart forever.

ISBN-13: 9781338712636
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 07/20/2021
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Book Review: The Whispers by Greg Howard

Publisher’s description

whispersA middle grade debut that’s a heartrending coming-of-age tale, perfect for fans of Bridge to Terabithia and Counting By 7s.

Eleven-year-old Riley believes in the whispers, magical fairies that will grant you wishes if you leave them tributes. Riley has a lot of wishes. He wishes bullies at school would stop picking on him. He wishes Dylan, his 8th grade crush, liked him, and Riley wishes he would stop wetting the bed. But most of all, Riley wishes for his mom to come back home. She disappeared a few months ago, and Riley is determined to crack the case. He even meets with a detective, Frank, to go over his witness statement time and time again.

Frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation, Riley decides to take matters into his own hands. So he goes on a camping trip with his friend Gary to find the whispers and ask them to bring his mom back home. But Riley doesn’t realize the trip will shake the foundation of everything that he believes in forever.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

11-year-old Riley’s mother always told him a story about wish-granting Whispers that live in the woods behind their South Carolina home. Just leave them a tribute, tell them your heart’s desire, and the Whispers, who know all the secrets in the universe, will take care of you. When Riley’s mother disappears, he desperately hopes this story isn’t just fiction.

 

Riley’s mom has been missing for four months when we meet Riley. He’s repeatedly interrogated by a detective but can’t come up with any other details to help them find her—Riley was at home playing, his mother was napping, there was a mysterious car nearby, then she was gone. They keep going over the details, and Riley has no hope that the detective, who he thinks is incompetent, will ever find his mom. It’s up to him. It’s up to the Whispers in the woods behind his house. They must know where his mom is.

 

Riley, a self-professed mama’s boy, has been miserable since she disappeared. He’s started wetting the bed (which he refers to as “my condition”), his father hardly acknowledges him, and the bullying and teasing he’s always faced at school has gotten worse. He has one good friend, biracial Gary, and a protector in an older neighbor, Dylan, but beyond that, is alone. He’s carrying the heavy weight of guilt, worried that he somehow drove his mother away with his “other condition,” which is how he refers to the fact that he likes boys. He thinks that he’s being punished for this.

 

Deciding to take things into his own hands, Riley heads into the woods with Gary and Gary’s younger brother to camp, hoping to maybe hear more from the Whispers, who have been speaking to him lately. They tell him that “she’s here.” Believing them, believing that she’s in those woods, Riley heads deeper into the forest. He offers the ultimate tribute to the Whispers, but will it be enough for them to reveal where she is?

 

Readers will tear through this story, with many questions along the way. Is Riley hiding something from the detective? Or from the reader? What’s really going on with his neighbor, Dylan? Who is Kenny from Kentucky? What happened in the shed? Does the unlikely helper he encounters in the woods know something about his mother? Everything is eventually revealed and answered, and what readers learn will likely send them scrambling back to reread the story through new eyes. A moving, thoughtful examination of trauma, grief, and the power of imagination. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525517498
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/15/2019

Book Review: The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell and friends

Publisher’s description

cardboard kingdomPerfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier, Awkward, and All’s Faire in Middle School, this graphic novel follows a neighborhood of kids who transform ordinary cardboard into fantastical homemade costumes as they explore conflicts with friends, family, and their own identity.

Welcome to a neighborhood of kids who transform ordinary boxes into colorful costumes, and their ordinary block into cardboard kingdom. This is the summer when sixteen kids encounter knights and rogues, robots and monsters—and their own inner demons—on one last quest before school starts again.

In the Cardboard Kingdom, you can be anything you want to be—imagine that!

The Cardboard Kingdom was created, organized, and drawn by Chad Sell with writing from ten other authors: Jay Fuller, David DeMeo, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, Cloud Jacobs, and Barbara Perez Marquez. The Cardboard Kingdom affirms the power of imagination and play during the most important years of adolescent identity-searching and emotional growth.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I’m keeping track of what books I read for younger readers this summer and making a post-it note blog post about them, just like I post during the school year. But I loved this book so much that I wanted to single it out and make sure it gets seen so it can be added to all collections. There is a lot to like about this graphic novel. The vibrant, cheerful art is incredibly appealing, the large cast of characters all get their own little storylines and stand out as unique and memorable—not an easy task when looking at this many characters. I love the emphasis on creativity, imagination, and working together as well as the creative play that allows you to imagine yourself however you’d like to be—or to show the world how you really are. As the parent of a kid who still, at 12, loves nothing more than turning a cardboard box into the scene for some imagined battle, a kid who is generally outside in some kind of costume, I especially love it. The diversity of kids and home lives shown here is effortless, inclusive, and affirming. There’s a boy who lives with this grandmother while his mother is off somewhere else, and needs to learn to care for herself before he can go live with her again. There’s a young child, Jack, who loves the role of the sorceress because she is how he sees himself, how he’d like to be. His mother assures him that she’s okay with that, with him, and that he’s amazing. There’s Miguel who longs to be the romantic lead opposite a dashing prince. Seth’s parents are splitting up and he fears his father’s visits to their house. Some of the kids are the charismatic organizers while others hang back more and have to work a little harder to feel at ease with the group. This is a really excellent book with one of the most diverse groups of kids I’ve seen in a children’s book in a long time. A surefire hit with the graphic novel crowd. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781524719388
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 06/05/2018