Mar 28, 2017

How to Avoid Extinction by Paul Acampora: Transforming a Misbelief

Craft Review by Becky Levine

How to Avoid Extinction by Paul Acampora (Scholastic, 2016)

I absolutely loved How to Avoid Extinction. I fell in love with the hero Leo on page one, and stayed in love as I watched him try to keep up with his grandmother as she journeys across the country in search of dinosaur fossils.  His attempts to keep her safe, when safety is the last thing she wants, cemented my adoration for both of them,  Acampora’s writing is fast and snappy and funny. On some levels, the books is one of the most fun, engaging road-trip adventures I’ve ever read.

On another level, it’s the perfect book through which to examine the concept of the hero’s misbelief, which I’ve been thinking about in my own writing as I read Lisa Cron’s craft book, Story Genius (included in a list of favorite craft books on this blog). A quick definition is that the misbelief is the thing your hero (falsely) believes to be true, the thing that is keeping them from getting what they most desire.

Action: Read this post by Lisa Cron, at Writer Unboxed, to see her explanation of misbelief.

Leo’s Misbelief

I’ll be honest. I’m not 100% sure what Leo’s greatest desire is. Maybe he wants to stay safely at home; maybe he wants (without knowing) to have a big adventure. Maybe he wants freedom from his mother’s demands; maybe he wants freedom from his grandmother’s needs. Maybe he just wants the chance to be himself, a kid, without all the responsibility people keep piling on him. Like I said—I’m not sure. And, I will say that, in terms of falling in love with this book and staying there, that didn’t matter one bit.

Leo’s misbelief, though? Acampora makes that crystal clear. Leo’s misbelief is that it is his job to keep track of his grandmother, that it is his job to make sure she stays safe. At some unspoken level, I think he believes that it is his job to make sure she doesn’t die, as his Grandfather did just a year ago.

That’s a powerful responsibility. In How to Avoid Extinction, it’s a powerful misbelief. And Acampora does a beautiful job of challenging, testing, and helping Leo break through that misbelief.

Action: Take a few minutes to think about your hero and what their misbelief might be. What is the one thing they believe, wrongly and strongly, that is getting in the way of their happiness?


Leo’s Misbelief Leads to Conflict

Leo is a cautious, careful kid. He does not, even secretly, crave excitement. He does his best to stick with Gram, to keep her under control, to take charge of her choices and her actions. Of course, once we meet Gram, we know this is a losing battle. When she decides she wants to go to Utah to see dinosaur fossils, we see the first crack in Leo’s control. He tries to simply tell Gram she can’t go.

“I turn to my grandmother. ‘You can’t just hop in a car and drive to dinosaur land.’

Gram stands. ‘I’m old, I’m able, and I’ve got an extremely high credit limit. Dinosaur land is definitely within my reach.’ She gathers up her books and magazines and maps, she slides out of the booth, and then she heads for the door.

…‘No,’ I say. ‘No. No. No.’”

Yeah. That doesn’t work. If Leo is going to follow the rules of his misbelief, he has no choice but to jump with Gram, his cousin Abbey, Abbey’s dog, Kermit, and a box of chocolate sprinkle donuts. Leo is off to Utah to keep Gram out of trouble.

With every scene, Paul Acampora makes that harder for Leo to do. A stop in Chicago to see Sue the T-Rex almost gets his grandmother’s car towed. A “helpful” paleontology student piques Gram’s interest in detouring to Colorado to get a dinosaur tattoo. And just when it looks like they might be able to relax a bit, Gram…well, no spoilers, but she sends Leo into crisis mode, chasing after her again, with the single goal of getting her back and getting her home.

Action: Think about your hero’s misbelief. What would make it harder for your hero to keep believing this thing that isn’t true? Make a list of obstacles you can put in the way of your hero’s need to follow where that misbelief leads.


Obstacles Force Leo to Face His Misbelief

Up to this point, Acampora’s obstacles have been funny and even fun. Now he kicks it into high gear, throwing really bad things at Leo, at high speed, from every direction. Going after Gram, Leo and Abbey leave the cities for the wild, have to camp in the car, and get chased by a bear. Then Kermit gets in real trouble (again, no spoilers!). Leo has so many other things to worry about, so many heavy decisions to make, that he has no time and no ability to keep track of his grandmother. He has to let go of what she is doing, let go of whether or not she is safe.

Action: Think about what you can add to your list of obstacles that will make things even worse for your hero. What can happen that will make it truly impossible for them to hold onto their destructive misbelief.


And Leo Grows

As Acampora whittles, then chisels, away at Leo’s misbelief, we see how Leo is able to—finally—grow past it. The skills Leo has developed over the story, as unsuccessful as they have been in controlling Gram, let him deal beautifully with all the bad things that happen in the second half of the story. He is helpful, decisive, and, best of all, able to take charge of the life that matters most to him—his own.

Which, maybe, was his greatest desire after all.


  1. Carol A Foote says:

    Great analysis, Becky! Thanks!

  2. Marilyn Hilton says:

    Becky, thank you for this wonderful examination of the book, with helpful points to think about.


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