Diversity

Writing Quest Stories

  My fascination for quest stories began when I was in middle school.  At the time, our bespectacled young boy named Harry Potter wasn’t born yet. However, because I lived in India, I had the exposure to fantasy quest stories based on Indian culture. I read  Ramayana and Mahabharata epic novels, and stories from other Hindu texts. Those fantasy stories have been in the world for centuries, even millenia in some cases.

I often compare what I grew up reading to the middle grade quest novels of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. My brain is hardwired to pay attention to the common themes in the characters’ growth, and appreciate the similarities and deeper meaning in the journeys of the characters.

 

Quest stories make the characters seek something, and we as readers get to join them on the ride. In her book, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones describes a quest as “a large-scale treasure hunt, with clues scattered all over the continent, a few false leads, mystical masters as game-show hosts, and the dark lord and the terrain who make the quest interestingly difficult”(153). Therefore, the hero leaves her comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into a challenging, unfamiliar world where she encounters conflicts with antagonistic, challenging forces before achieving her goal.

In this post, we will take a look at two fantasy quest novels:

Where the Mountain Meets The Moon by Grace Lin    

and 

The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz by Frank L. Baum

We will focus on some of the common themes around plot, conflict and change that made these quest stories timeless reads.

Plot:

If you’ve been writing fiction for even a short while, you have probably heard or used the word “plot” in your critique conversations. In his book, The Plot Thickens, Noah Lukeman writes that “plot is not just about having a single great idea; on the contrary, a good plot is an amalgamation of many ideas or elements of writing, including characterization, journey, suspense, conflict, and context” (xv). Therefore, while an idea is important, a plot doesn’t exist without the supporting elements that make up the story.

In Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, the main character Minli sets off on an extraordinary journey of adventure and folklore to find the Old Man on the moon to ask him how she can change her family’s fortune.

In the Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy and her dog Toto are swept away from a Kansas farm to the Land of Oz by a cyclone.

Minli’s quest is to find the Old Man on the moon. Dorothy’s quest is to return to her home in Kansas again.

In both the stories, Grace Lin and Frank L. Baum spend considerable amount of time at the beginning of the book establishing their main characters’ normal life before they take off on their journeys. The authors introduce the readers to the secondary characters and set up the cultural context. The settings create a vivid contrast with the strange new worlds Minli and Dorothy enter. All these elements together make strong plot structures for the stories.

Conflict:

Story plots must always involve conflicts.  Philip Athans writes in his book, The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction that “unless your protagonist comes into conflict – in the broadest sense of the word – with someone or something, you have no plot, no story, and no novel” (25). Therefore, it is exceedingly important to put the characters in difficult situations that cause conflict.

In Where the Mountain Meets The Moon, the central conflict for Minli is that her family’s fortune is very weak. So she goes on an adventure to have a better fortune, make friends and bring green to the Fruitless mountain.

In The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, the main conflict is that Dorothy thinks that life will be better someplace else (i.e. over the rainbow). She runs away from home, gets caught in a tornado, and ends up in another world. Finally, she is desperate to find her way back home.

Baum and Lin put their characters in conflict arising circumstances, and raise the stakes to increase the importance of their story goals. How Dorothy and Minli deal with the conflicts show us a great deal about their traits and personalities. They force the reader to take sides and keep reading.

Change:

In Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, Minli has a lively and impulsive spirit that is different from her parents. She makes friends along the way in her journey. She even befriends a dragon. But when Minli finally reaches home from the Never-Ending Mountain at the end, she realizes that all her questions are answered. Minli’s village is prosperous again, and she is thankful for her family.

In The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, there’s an inherent change in Dorothy’s character when she meets other characters like the scare crow, the Tin Man, the lion, the wicked witch of the west and the wizard. In the end, Baum shows the change in Dorothy by having her realize that the special world of Oz must eventually be left behind if she has to get back to Kansas. This marks her decision to return to her home where Uncle Henry and Aunt Em live. The quest becomes meaningful when Dorothy returns to Kansas with a lesson from Oz. Dorothy finally returns to Kansas with the knowledge that she is loved, and that there is no place like home.

Even though The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz and Where The Mountain Meets The Moon were written and published at different time periods (1900 and 2009) and have different cultural references and symbolisms, Baum and Lin have made their characters embark on profound journeys that eventually lead them to self-realization and change from within.

Minli’s and Dorothy’s quests sum up themes that center around courage, coming of age, exploration, and family. The novels take us on fascinating journeys that emphasize similar quest elements of plot, conflicts, and change, which in turn give the characters growth and meaning.

And now, to jump into the world of quest stories, here’s a quick list of some recent books:

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Fish by L.S. Matthews

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

My Side Of The Mountain by Jean Craighead George

Fog Magic by Julia L. Sauer

What are your favorite quest novels? What do you like about them? Share with us in the comments below.

 

What does getting a Starred review from Kirkus mean?

I was enjoying an evening of golf and dinner with my husband and friends. I left my phone at home. When we got home to walk our lovable two-year-old Labrador (who has the incredible literary name of Luna), I grabbed my phone. As I fired it up, I had several texts from my editor, Michelle Houts.

“Hey! I’m so very excited and happy for you, the shining star (think emoji) of our series!! Congratulations! (Another emoji.)

I sent a text back. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“Julie…you got a Kirkus STARRED REVIEW for Virginia Hamilton.”

At which point I called Michelle and had a memorable, fun conversation about this good fortune that has been bestowed on my recently released middle-grade biography of the most honored author of children’s literature.

Wow.

Even though this all occurred about a month ago, I’m still pinching myself. My third book published, just my second biography, and I’ve received this incredible validation of my writing abilities. And to be honest, from the outset, I didn’t really know the significance or the impact the glorious review meant. So, being the true-blue, nonfiction writer I am, I did my research.

Kirkus is one of four magazines that review books for publishers, for a fee.

Publishers Weekly is considered the leading magazine covering every aspect of “creating and selling the written word…” Over 7,000 book and media reviews are conducted each year. Subscribers shell out $250 annually for the benefit of reading the magazine. Kirkus gives individuals in the industry a preview of the most notable books being published, weeks before they are released. Kirkus sends out weekly emails to subscribers, doling out their reviews. Digital and print subscriptions cost $200 a year.

Library Journal and Booklist are the other two, and geared mainly toward librarians.  Booklist reviewers are affiliated with the American Library Association and reviews over 8,000 books annually. Library Journal reviewers are librarians and library experts who review a similar number of books as Booklist.

All four offer Starred Reviews.

But getting one from Kirkus is a whole different level, so I’m told. Kirkus has a reputation in author’s circles as being, well, let’s say persnickety. Harsh was another adjective used.

So, getting a Starred review is even more significant. It symbolizes excellence in writing. As the Kirkus website offers, “The Kirkus Star is one of the most prestigious designations in the book industry.”

When I shared the news with Arnold Adoff, the late Ms. Hamilton’s husband, he shared that in all the many years he and Virginia wrote, “getting a star from Kirkus was the hardest.”

So, what does that review mean? For me, that little star hopefully shines a big light on Virginia’s life journey, and ultimately creates new readers and fans of her work.

Virginia Hamilton Cover

She’s the real star.

Diversify Your Summer Reading

Here’s a Summer Reading Challenge from your book-loving friends at The Mixed-Up Files:

Diversify Your Reading!

Something about the way the modern world works has a tendency to create silos or echo chambers in which are our tastes, desires, and beliefs reverberate back to us from like-minded sources. Ultimately, that kind of intellectual isolation isn’t good for any of us. Books are one of the best ways to broaden your perspectives, but only if you diversify your reading.

Several readers have written about how their lives were changed by changing the way they read. Instead of sticking to the tried and true genres or authors that they knew and loved, these women actively sought titles outside of their usual selections. Kelly Jensen decided to only read women authors for a year, Sunili Govinnage chose to focus on writers of color, and K. T. Bradford excluded books by cis, white men from her list. Each one was surprised at the shift in her perspective after a year of focused reading.

Gene Luen Yang, the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, has launched a program with the Children’s Book Council called Reading Without Walls to encourage similarly adventurous reading among kids and teens. You can download an Activity Guide here. Even better, you can play Reading Without Walls BINGO! The BINGO cards are available through the American Bookseller’s Association and at many independent bookstores. I got mine at Roundabout Books in Bend, Oregon!

Here is a list of The ABC Group 2017 Summer Reading Program suggestions to get you started:

  • A book about a character who doesn’t look like you
  • A book about science
  • A book with a differently-abled character
  • A book in verse
  • A book about personal identity
  • A graphic novel
  • A biography about someone who lived long ago
  • A book about a young girl
  • A book about civil rights
  • A book about a young boy
  • A book by someone with a different religion than yours
  • A book about something you know nothing about
  • A book about a character who doesn’t live like you do
  • A book about technology
  • A book about a character like you
  • A book about history
  • A chapter book
  • A book about sports
  • A book written by a woman
  • A book written by a man
  • An award-winning book
  • A book published before you were born
  • A memoir or autobiography
  • A picture book

If you need suggestions for specific titles, We Need Diverse Books has aggregated a wonderful selection of diverse book lists here.

All of us here at The Mixed-Up Files hope that you’ll share youR new favorite books with us!

Happy Diverse Reading Everyone!