Dear Robin Brande:
I just finished Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature in a single blaze of reading and I simply had to write you to tell you how much I enjoyed the book. I bought the book from my local independent bookstore and I hope all of my cool readers follow suit.
I should be a little cross with you! =) I sat down yesterday to write the last 3000 words or so of the first draft of my own young adult novel. I figured that I would just read a little bit of Evolution and get back to my work…but your book distracted me. I didn’t resume writing until I found out what happened to Mena and how her story would end. (Don’t worry; the first draft is finished.)
Mena Reece is a very charming character; she’s a high schooler who begins the year in a tough place. All of her old friends hate her because of a letter she sent the previous year. (Read the book to find out what it said.) She’s no longer welcome in her old church and sending the letter has put her parents’ insurance agency into jeopardy. Her life is at a low point, all because she did the right thing. Fortunately, it’s not all bad. Ms. Shepherd is a brilliant and stellar science teacher who could make a lot more money doing…other sciency things. Instead, she teaches high school because she wants to shape the minds and hearts of the next generation. Mena is also increasingly psyched about her lab partner, a young man named Casey. The two work on a big project together and, as you might expect, grow to care about each other a great deal. There’s a cool science vs. religion showdown in the classroom and a very sad scene that occurs when Mena returns to her church. In the end, of course, Mena finds a way to improve her life and to be happy by following Polonius’s greatest advice: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
I read the first two short paragraphs of the book the night before I read the rest.
I knew today would be ugly.
When you’re singlehandedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars, you expect to make some enemies. Fine.
I loved the paragraphs so much that I shared them on Facebook. Why? Because you did a great job of setting up the story and preparing the reader for his or her journey. You are extremely economical in the opening:
- “I” – Okay, now the reader knows that the book is in the first person.
- “today” – You’re letting us know that the book begins on A BIG DAY. A DAY UNLIKE ANY OTHER. This is good! We know we’re not going to be bored! We’re wondering what you mean by that.
- “would be ugly” – Cool. Something nasty is going to happen today. Thankfully, the ugliness will only be in the book and not in reality.
- “you’re singlehandedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars” – There we go. There are HUGE STAKES for the character. People are getting sued and for LOTS of money.
- “you expect to make some enemies.” – And there are HUGE STAKES for Mena as a character. Good! This story MATTERS.
- “Fine.” – Oh, and the protagonist has some personality and is (eventually) a bit of a fighter. Fantastic. This will be fun.
Once I read those two paragraphs, I knew I was in good hands. (And yes, I did look back at the first bit of my own YA novel. It seems to me that the emotional stakes are clear and huge, but I’ll take a closer look once I type everything up.)
One of the reasons that I bought the book in the first place is that you set your story against the backdrop of the perpetual and extremely American conflict between science and religion. I happen to have been tangentially involved in this field; not in a big way, unfortunately. (I did have a piece in Skeptical Inquirer and that was a big thrill.) I was a little worried that the book might not be…compatible with reality. So I skimmed the acknowledgements and saw that you thanked Kenneth Miller. I felt better immediately. Dr. Miller, as you know, is a brilliant scientist who is also extremely devout in his religious belief. (Maybe things have changed in recent years, who knows? I’m sad to say that he’s not an acquaintance of mine.)
Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature succeeds for the same reason that evolution “succeeds.” Life is complicated and messy. There are no easy answers. The only way to determine truth is to scrutinize your own beliefs and subject them to rigorous analysis. Mena is surrounded by people like the big baddie, her former friend Teresa, who see things in black-and-white. Well, the world is not black-and-white and neither is Mena’s psychology. She’s a teenager, so she really has a lot of work to do in the book to figure out a complicated representation of her identity and thoughts. Does Mena lie to herself in the book? Sure. (Especially with regard to how she feels about Casey.) But she’s always striving to reach a deeper understanding of self and of the world around her. ALL of our characters must be as complicated and as messy as possible because that’s what we all are, when you really think about it. There are no absolutes in the way people think and act, only shades of gray.
It’s a bit of a personal tangent, but I also want to thank you for the book because it took me back to 2007, when things were a little…different in the skeptic community. Things are a little…tense at the moment and I miss the way it was.
So thanks again for such a wonderful couple hours of reading. If my YA book ever gets published–don’t hold your breath–it will be fun to look back to see if any of the emotion of your book rubbed off on the ending of mine. I wish you the best of luck in the future and I admire that you’ve become such a prominent YA writer…and it all started with Mena.
Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:
- Ensure that you have HIGH STAKES in your story and that you establish those stakes quickly. The events of your narrative need to mean something BIG for your characters. That’s the only way that the reader will care about your make-believe world.
- Allow your characters to be as complicated as real people are. Remember those shades of gray. There are no absolutes in the world when it comes to people and why they act the way they do.
And you just know you have to check out this cool video interview:
Are you curious about skepticism and how important it is that people understand how to think critically? (This is a big theme in the book.)
Check out the James Randi Educational Foundation. Those hardworking people have been fighting irreality for a very long time. Just look at how fun and interesting Randi was on The Tonight Show. He’s demonstrating how “psychic surgeons” ply their trade. (And Randi should know; he is a world-class magician…he’s also honest about the fact that he’s doing a trick.)
What’s the Harm? is also a great resource. The next time your friend tells you that he or she is going to pay a bunch of money for “cupping,” you can find out what that is and why having it done doesn’t make any sense.
Dr. Harriet Hall is an MD who writes about alternative medicine and the like.