Monday, December 28, 2009


Dear Allyson,
Happy Monday morning to you. I hope you and your family had a magical and beautiful Christmas. Today we wrap up our discussion about A Season of Gifts, and I wanted to focus on the book’s rich language.

The storyteller voice of A Season of Gifts, complete with characters’ grammatically incorrect dialogue, slang, and clich├ęd metaphors, makes the book an easy read. And yet underneath its casual and chatty tone lies a wealth of examples of rich, poetic language.

Let’s start with word choice. Every writing class I’ve ever taken says to use active verbs. Richard Peck puts verbs to work in A Season of Gifts:
Seethed. Peppered. Slumped. Nuked. Plunked. Teetered. Hoisted. Drifted. Flinched. Billowed. Quivered. Inventoried. Craned. Veered.

Even out of context, don’t these words create vivid images of specific types of action?

Peck also gets the most out of nouns, creating texture by focusing on specific descriptive details. After Thanksgiving, for example, Mrs. Dowdel gets busy baking for Christmas:
Her kitchen was stacked to the ceiling with black walnut fudge, candied orange peel, Linzertorte, sugar cookies in shape, pfeffernuss, gingerbread people, spingerle, brandy snaps, heavenly hash, popcorn balls, glazed chestnuts, and some fifty pounds of peanut brittle rolled out on a marble top from one of her front room tables.

Wow! This list conveys Mrs. Dowdel’s enthusiasm for Christmas, her ambition, and her energy. It even hints at her cultural background (Linzertorte, pfeffernuss and springerle).

Words aren’t just workhorses, though. Peck also plays with words and language. The double-meanings and word sounds of puns lighten the mood and provide humor. Early in the book, Bob meets the town thugs after a day helping his father fix up the church.
“You smell funny, preacher’s kid,” said another voice from on high. And he should talk. “What’s that you smell like?”
“Shellac,” I said in a puny voice. “I’ve been shellacking a pew.”
“Pew. You can say that again,” said another voice, and they all did a lot of hee-haw laughing (p. 19)
Taking a step away from individual word choice, we can look at how Peck crafts sentences. Sometimes, as with the list of cookies above, he uses long sentences. Sometimes, he shifts into staccato mode. Here’s an example from the Christmas Eve church service at the end of the book:
Brad and I were at the back, flanking the door when it banged open. Wind blew in. Candles blew out. People jumped. Brad and I fell back. An enormous figure filled the door—bear big. “Hit the lights,” it said (p. 153).

The short sentences keep the action coming. Peck stays in the moment, paying attention to every detail, and by doing so, he builds tension for the reader. What’s happening? Who’s there?

Varying the length of sentences affects how they sound. Another way Peck manipulates sound is through alliteration. “White cold cream clung in all the crevices of her face” (p. 94). All of those hard C sounds stick in the back of my throat, just as the cream sticks to Cora Shellenberger’s face.

As with puns and word choice, Peck also plays with sentence structure to create moments of humor. Several examples occur when Mrs. Dowdel tells Mr. Barhnart that every church needs a good funeral to build followers.
“Without a funeral, you ain’t got a chance in—“
“The world,” Mrs. Wilcox said (p. 71).
Then, on the next page, Mrs. Wilcox explains her desire to bury the Kickapoo Princess.
“I’m sick to death of all this fussin’ and fumin’ about restless spirits and floatin’ princesses and such horse—“
“Feathers,” Mrs. Wilcox said (p. 72).
The interrupted sentence, marked by the dash, clearly implies what Mrs. Dowdel would like to say, while Mrs. Wilcox provides comic relief and prevents the need for a cursing.

The sentences throughout the novel read easily, but Peck clearly paid attention to crafting them for maximum impact, sound, and meaning. This same attention shows on a larger scale in the work. For example, Peck repeats details periodically for an effect that is similar to a refrain in a song. At the beginning of the book, little sister Ruth Ann worries that “he” won’t find her in their new home. Bob, the narrator, doesn’t understand who “he” is. “'S-A-N-T-A,' Phyllis spelled, 'C-L-A-U-S'” (p. 37).

At the end of the book, Ruth Ann sulks, upset that Mrs. Dowdel treats her like a little kid, worrying for Ruth Ann that “he” will look for her in their old home.
“Who, honey?” Dad said.
“You know who, Daddy. S-A-N-T-A,” Ruth Ann spelled, “C-L-A-U-S” (p. 132).
Repetition of details such as this unify the story. They help us remember who Ruth Ann is. When well done, such as this example, repetition can also reveal change. Not only does Ruth Ann know the truth about Santa now, but she can spell his name too.

While looking at the larger scale of the book, I also want to mention section breaks and chapter endings. Peck takes advantage of line and space to emphasize dialogue, build tension, and create hooks to the next chapters. In Chapter Ten, Bob, his parents, and Mrs. Dowdel race to the Shellenbergers to care for Phyllis, who was in a car crash after a night out with bad-boy Roscoe Burdick. Mrs. Dowdel sniffs Phyllis’ breath.
She pointed past us at Phyllis, growing smaller on the settee. “She’s had one too many.” 
Silence fell hard. The mantlepiece clock ticked off several slow seconds (p. 97).  
Notice how the visual space of the section break creates the very silence that Bob experienced.

What I find fascinating about A Season of Gifts is that while reading it, I feel like I’m in the presence of a storyteller. It feels so easy, so conversational. Effortless. The book feels like it should be read aloud. And yet, clearly, Peck worked hard to create that feeling.

Then, when I looked at the general groupings I made in my notes about language, I started to think about poetry. Word choice. Sentence length. Alliteration. Word play. Repetition. Line breaks. Tone. I could flip through A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver and find those very topics.

The gift I take away from reading Richard Peck’s novel is a greater awareness of how poetic language enriches fiction, allowing the casual reader to experience the book as effortless while rewarding careful readers with the treasure of beautiful language.

StorySleuths Tip #36: Pay attention to language on every level, from word choices and sentence structures to sections and chapters. Don’t be afraid to include poetic language and rich imagery.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

STORY CHOICES: A Season of Gifts

Dear Allyson,

You brought up Mrs. Dowdel in your post about characters in A Season of Gifts. I can’t agree more with your assessment that actions speak louder than words: in everything she does, Mrs. Dowdel proves that she is larger than life.

Unfortunately, some of the actions of this fictional character have resulted in a real-world controversy. I know that the goal of StorySleuths is to find examples of great writing techniques in hopes of improving our own writing. However, I feel I must take a step away from craft to draw attention to something that gives most writers nightmares: the potential of inadvertently offending people through our writing.

The bloggers and readers over at School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal, a Mock Newbery blog, have been debating just such an issue in A Season of Gifts. The issue relates to a rumor about a Kickapoo Indian ghost.

Let’s start with what happens in the book (spoiler alert!):

  • Rumors circulate that a Kickapoo Indian ghost haunts Mrs. Dowdel’s property, which was built on an ancient burial ground.
  • When a group of teenage girls tries to steal squashes from Mrs. Dowdel, a ghost, wearing beaded moccasins and a feathered headdress, appears.
  • Bob, the narrator, realizes that his little sister Ruth Ann played the part of the ghost in Mrs. Dowdel’s charade.
  • Mrs. Dowdel profits from the ensuing excitement and publicity about the Kickapoo Princess ghost by setting up a roadside stand to sell her melons, preserves, and crafts.
  • A few days later, Mrs. Dowdel decides it’s time to put the Kickapoo Princess rumor to rest (pun intended). She comes to Bob’s father, pastor of the new and struggling Methodist church, with a box of “bones” and a request for a funeral.

Mrs. Dowdel says, “’You can’t get a church up and goin’ without a good funeral first… Any fool could tell you that. Without a funeral, you ain’t got a chance…’” She explains that she’s tired of the “’fussin’ and fumin’ about restless spirits and floatin’ princesses’” so she dug up the princess’ bones. She hands Mr. Barnhart a box wrapped in a blanket. “’This is all I could find of her, and it’s not much more than eye-teeth and gristle’” (pp. 71-72).

Mr. Barnhart reluctantly agrees to support Mrs. Dowdel’s plan. “’I’m not a showman,’” he tells his wife. “’It sounds like they won’t want a funeral. They’ll want a show.’” He shakes the blanket-wrapped box and adds, “’I don’t think there’s much of anything in this box…. Or anybody” (pp. 73-74).

Nina Lindsey at SLJ writes

“It’s mostly the digging-up-and-reburying of the ‘bones’ that really upsets me…. What Grandma Dowdel is doing is capitalizing on the publicity that a ‘Kickapoo Princess Ghost’ generates to insure the success of a Christian Church.”

Her blogging counterpart, Jonathan Hunt, contends that Peck’s writing is satirical.

“He is not making a comment on Native culture, but rather the white culture that finds it, by turns, fascinating, mystifying, and exotic.”

Were Mrs. Dowdel’s actions exploitative, as one Heavy Medal commenter said? Do her actions offend? Does the book perpetuate stereotypes? I encourage StorySleuths readers to look at the SLJ Heavy Medal posts and reader comments, as well as subsequent posts. The debate is fascinating on multiple levels.

Why do I bring this up? I must admit that when I first read this section in A Season of Gifts, I assumed the bones were as fake as the princess ghost. Mrs. Dowdel devised the funeral for two purposes, namely stopping people from visiting her property and helping the struggling church. Mr. Barnhart’s sermon (“Her communion the juice of the berry/And the loaf from this Illinois grain”), made me a little uncomfortable because of the mixture of references to nature and Christian symbols. I did not see any potential for offense. I merely saw Mrs. Dowdel’s hoax.

It is clear, though, that these sections do offend. Debbie Reese commented, “Disgusting lack of respect. Utter lack of shame.” (Read more at her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature).

Second, as a writer, I would hate to cause offense to readers through negligence or ignorance. I am a white, middle-class female writer who grew up in the United States. And yet, I cannot write about my neighborhood only. I live in a diverse, multi-cultural world. I write about characters who travel to places as near as California and as far as India. How do I portray their experiences authentically and sensitively?

If Richard Peck, a Newbery Medal-winning author, can get in trouble, then what about the rest of us? What can we as writers do? Should we only write about our own culture? How do we reflect the diversity of the world or, in the case of historical fiction, the realities of the past?

Debra McArthur, who is graduating this semester from Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children program, wrote her critical thesis about this subject. In a lecture this summer, she said,

We all have the responsibility to work our hardest to create non-rascist literature: to portray the characters who need to be in our stories in ways that represent them as people, not stereotypes.

Debra had a number of suggestions, including:

  • Be aware of predictable stumbling blocks (see guidelines from the Council on Interracial Books for Children)
  • Recognize our own limited view of the world
  • Be honest in our appraisal of our own work
  • Be willing to accept criticism and consider other viewpoints
  • Know that we will likely fail in some respects.

Returning to A Season of Gifts, I don’t know Peck’s intentions for this section. Maybe he meant it to be satirical. Maybe he meant it to be funny. One of Heavy Medal’s readers made an interesting comment about the princess bones. “They aren’t organic or necessary part of the story, and I don’t think they add anything important or valuable… either.”

This comment made me wonder: If Peck didn’t mean to write satirically, could he have found a different way for Mrs. Dowdel to help the Barnharts’ church?

Allyson, I am learning so much about craft from reading and rereading A Season of Gifts. Peck is a skilled writer who brings places and people to life. This issue with the Kickapoo Princess reminds me that we must bring as much attention to our story choices as we do to our craft. We need to be aware of what we are doing when we write outside our own culture or time period. We risk falling short of our intentions, as Debra McArthur noted, but we must do our best to tell our stories honestly and fairly.

StorySleuths Tip #35: Solicit feedback from others. If something seems potentially offensive or insensitive, ask whether the questionable part is integral to the story. Review the CIBC guidelines. Brainstorm other options for achieving story goals.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

CHARACTER: A Season of Gifts

Hi Heather,

You tied setting up so neatly – thank you! In your post you mention Peck’s masterful way of creating settings using vivid descriptions. This made me think about the way he uses description to paint pictures of characters as well:

About Mrs. Wilcox: “Her eyes were all over the place, and her teeth came out to meet you.” (p. 47)

About Ruth Ann: “She was all eyes and mouth. Even her braids looked interested.” (p. 46)

About Roscoe: “He worked his chin from sideburn to sideburn with one of his big thorny hands and gave her a deep blue-and-green stare. It was like he’d never seen a girl before.” (p. 35)

When exploring character I came upon the web site of Rick Riordan, author of the enormously successful #1 New York Times bestselling Percy Jackson and the Olympians series for children, and the multi-award-winning Tres Navarre mystery series for adults. About describing characters Riordan says,

“Describe characters as Dickens did – with a single deft stroke. A laundry list of physical traits is realistic, but it is neither memorable nor compelling.”
When reading the writing of young kids, I find they are compelled to describe the character’s size, his eye color and the color of his hair. Always. And you know what? We grown-up writers do it, too. What we need to remember is that unless the description creates the character as a unique and memorable one—don’t bother. As you read or re-read A Season of Gifts, notice how Peck uses a few, very precise words to paint characters in a vivid, unforgettable way.

We have seen that both setting and character benefit from unique description, so is description the most important way to draw your character for your reader?

Back to Rick Riordan, who says this:

“Define a character through action, first. Through dialogue and description, second. Through explanation, never. The character should be primarily defined by the choices he makes, and the actions he takes. How does he respond to violence? How does he respond to love? Secondly, a character must be vividly but deftly describe through his speech, and through the initial view you give the. Never stop to explain who a character is when we can watch him in action and decide for ourselves.”

I will focus here on the character Mrs. Dowdel, and take a look at how action, description and dialogue create a complete picture of who she is. As for description, we first meet Mrs. Dowdel when we see her through Bob’s eyes:
“Every blazing morning she’d tramp off her back porch and down her garden rows with a hoe humped on her shoulder. Her straw hat looked like she’d swiped it off a mule. It hid her face except for her chins. She worked right through high noon in a fog of flies hoeing, yanking weeds, and talking to her tomato plants.

The heat slowed her some, and the flies. But she could be amazingly light on her big pins. We’d already seen her take a broom and swat the Fuller Brush man off her porch. She kept right at his heels till he was off her property.

As everybody knew, she didn’t neighbor and went to no known church.” (p. 6-7)
What have we learned? That Mrs. Dowdel is a larger-than-life kind of character, both physically and otherwise. She is independent. She is deliberate in her actions, and she cherishes her privacy to the point of having little to do with neighbors or church. We also know that Bob is new to town, and that the information about Mrs. Dowdel as a woman who keeps her distance from both neighbors and church comes from an outside source—“As everybody knew.”

 Now let’s take a look at how Peck sharpens our focus on Mrs. Dowdel through dialogue and action. When she discovers Bob in her privy Mrs. Dowdel takes him in and furnishes him with an outfit. Her actions contradict what Bob has come to know about her. Her actions speak of a woman who is, in fact, quite neighborly. Sending Bob home in the hand-me-down clothes of her grandson Mrs. Dowdel says, “I’ve got me a spare jar of apple butter. . .And I baked today. You can take the loaf to your Maw. Tell her you found it on the porch.” (p. 30)

Mrs. Dowdel doesn’t just give Bob any old clothes to go home in, she gives him treasured belongings of a young man who clearly meant a great deal to her. She doesn’t send him home with one of the half-dozen loaves of bread she baked today—she tells him to take “the loaf”—probably her only one. And she doesn't want any recognition for her kindness--she is selfless on top of everything else.

The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is a key one to remember when creating memorable characters. Throughout A Season of Gifts Mrs. Dowdel’s actions and her dialogue speak louder than any narrative description could. Her kindness toward Ruth Ann and Mrs. Wilcox. Her effort to see that justice is served to Roscoe Burdick. The funeral, and then the wedding that put Bob’s father’s church on the map. These all betray a big-hearted woman who watches out for her neighbors with a rough-edged tenderness.

StorySleuth’s tip #34: I cannot say it any better than Rick Riordan does: “Define a character through action, first. Through dialogue and description, second. Through explanation, never.”

Saturday, December 12, 2009

SETTING & LANDSCAPE: A Season of Gifts

Hi Allyson,
Thanks so much for inviting me to explore A Season of Gifts with you. I love digging into great writing to figure out what makes it tick. Richard Peck gives us lots to think about in his most recent novel, which is set in the same rural Illinois town as two of his most well-known books, A Year Down Yonder (Newbery Medal) and A Long Way from Chicago (Newbery Honor).

Setting plays a critical role in this new book, which relates the experiences of the Barnhart family, who recently moved to town to start a new Methodist church. In fact, the book begins with an image of the house next door to their new home:
“You could see from here the house was haunted. Its crooked old lightning rods pointed bony fingers at the sky. It hadn’t had a lick of paint since VJ Day, maybe the war before that. A porch sagged off one side.” (p. 5)
Writing books often caution writers not to start a novel with setting details. However, those three lines convey a wealth of information that extends beyond the obvious (the house is old). The reference to VJ Day hints at the time period, post-World War II. And words like haunted, crooked, and bony evoke mood and hint at what’s to come.

This spooky, old place belongs to Mrs. Dowdel, and many of the individual settings in the novel take place in her garden or house, which Peck describes in wonderful detail. Here, Bob enters an upstairs bedroom:
“In there, dusty west light filtered through darned curtains. The windowsill was a wasp graveyard. An ancient brass bed angled out of a corner… A darker triangle showed on the wallpaper where a pennant had hung.” (p. 27)
The implication of these details is clear: Mrs. Dowdel hasn’t used this room for a long time. The imagery, though, is fresh. Peck doesn’t rely on a stock layer of dust or a musty smell. He shows us the dead wasps by the window and the space where a pennant once hung. And while the images are unusual, they are also the kind of details that a twelve-year-old boy, our narrator, might notice.

I could continue with more examples of how Peck creates unique individual settings for each scene, but I want to shift to the broader setting of the novel, a small town in the late 1950s. As a work of historical fiction, the time period is a critical element of setting. Interestingly, Peck doesn’t reveal the exact year, 1958, until page 20.

Using the same technique that you discussed in your posting, Allyson, Peck alludes to the time frame in previous pages through details such as the comment about “VJ Day” as well as through specific references to things like Ruth Ann’s hula hoop and doll buggy, the Fuller Brush man, and Rinso soap. Bob’s father feels thankful for their home’s indoor plumbing: many of the houses in town still have “privies.” And Bob notes that everyone else in town has a television antenna. When the year finally appears, it is another one of those A-ha! moments you noted.

Peck continues to refer to the time period throughout the book. Details such as clothing, names, music, and current events remind readers that the story takes place in 1958. Here are just a few examples.
  • Bob’s older sister loves Elvis. When Elvis gets shipped off to Germany, she refuses to go to school.
  • Walking past the Dairy Queen, where all of the town’s teenagers hang out, Bob notes that “The guys were all buzz cuts and ducktails.” (p. 35)
  • The girls’ names are all Fifties-sounding, including Phyllis, Ruth Ann, Barbara Jean, Edna-Earl and Vanette.
These examples, along with many other details about life in the 1950s, appear throughout the novel. They keep the reader grounded in time.

Likewise, Peck keeps the reader grounded in place by layering in details of rural small town life: the train that flashes by each evening, the Homecoming Parade, gossip and rumors that spread like wildfire, church gatherings, tractor pulls, hay rides, and meetings of the Future Farmers of America.

The overall effect of Peck’s individual settings as well as the depth of place and time details reminds me of mystery writer Elizabeth George’s distinction between setting and landscape. In Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, George says
“… setting is where a story takes place—including where each scene takes place—while landscape is much broader than that…. It’s the broad vista into which the writer actually places the individual settings of the novel.”
In another passage, she explains, “Landscape is the total place experience in a novel.” (pp. 29-30)

In reading A Season of Gifts, I get a total place—and time—experience. By evoking mood, focusing on concrete setting details and weaving the narrative throughout the novel with references to place and time period, Peck paints a broad landscape of life in a small, southern Illinois town in the late 1950s.

StorySleuths Tip #33: Think beyond setting alone. Paint a broad landscape for readers by including unique individual settings, concrete details, fresh imagery, and references to the time period and place.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

ALLUSION: A Season of Gifts

Dear Heather,

First, thank you SO much for joining us in an online discussion of Richard Peck’s novel, A Season of Gifts. I know that you’ve been enjoying the critical analysis side of your work in the Hamline MFA program, and am glad that you’re able to bring that to a book discussion here at StorySleuths.

Years ago, at an SCBWI conference, Sid Fleischman said that if you want a reader to see something, point to it. This makes a great deal of sense. As writers, we sometimes dance around what we are really trying to say in the interest of being clever or mysterious. Instead of illuminating things for our readers, we leave them in the dark.

What I have loved in A Season of Gifts is the way that Richard Peck does NOT point to things—at least not directly. Instead, he alludes to them.

Before I share an example that really worked for me, let me POINT to why I think this can be such a powerful way of writing, especially for younger readers. In alluding to something rather than pointing to it we engage our readers at a deeper level. We drop clues for them like word-shaped breadcrumbs. The reader follows our trail, and then there is an A-ha! moment when he grasps the point we have been alluding to—he has become a participant in the unfolding of the story. This is a marvelous gift to give a reader, especially a younger reader who winds up not only loving the story, but feeling empowered because he “gets it.”

I’m going to jump all the way to the end of the book and talk about the wedding scene. If you have not finished the book, I’m about to spill some beans . . .

Recall the scene when the homecoming parade is winding its way through town. About the self-appointed homecoming queen, Waynetta, Mrs. Dowdel says, “She looks a little peaked and off her feed. . .And I’ve seen better hair on bacon.” (p. 90)

On my first pass through the book I read this line and thought nothing of it, aside from laughing out loud at the hair comment. Then I reached the scene at the Christmas wedding. In comes Waynetta wearing the same outfit she’d worn on the homecoming float, only it didn’t look as good this time around. “It didn’t fit her as well now. Her dress-up suit strained around the middle.” (p. 155)

Hmmm, she looked peaked, and now the dress is straining around the middle. I wondered, is Peck trying to tell me something here? Soon I learned that Roscoe, the groom, was clearly not at the wedding by choice, “there was panic in his blue-and-green stare. Blind panic.” (p. 157) I learned that the bride’s mother had opted to stay home, feeling a bit ill. Finally, the narrator shared that long after the day of the wedding, he overheard his mother tell his father that instead of “Joy to the World,” perhaps a more appropriate wedding song would have been “For Unto Us a Child is Born.” (p. 157)

I read this book aloud to my boys the first time through, and there was a glimmer of a blush on my thirteen-year-old’s face when he suddenly sat up and announced, “I think Waynetta is pregnant.” He then went on to rattle off all the clues, proud of how he had put it all together.

Again and again in this story Peck packs in subtle clues to allude to the nature of characters or their relationships:

A-ha! So it was Mrs. Dowdel dropping off all those gifts on the porch!
A-ha! So it was Ruth Anne who dressed up as the Kickapoo Princess!

It occurs to me that what I am describing is really an expansion of the concept of showing rather than telling, but the piece of craft that struck me was the way Peck unfolded the showing so slowly, so expertly over the course of many chapters. When full realization hit me, I felt as if I had earned it.

StorySleuths Tip # 32: To deepen a readers experience with a story give them opportunities to figure things out themselves by alluding to things rather than pointing directly at them.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Hi Allyson,

In choosing A Penguin Story and The Snow Day to discuss this week (before launching into a discussion of A Season of Gifts for the rest of the month), we selected them because of what we could learn about writing picture book text from both of them. Of course in many ways they are very different from one another—notably in that A Penguin Story is written from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, and The Snow Day is written from a first person point of view. But it’s interesting to me to look, as well, at their similarities—both about a personified small animal/child character, both with jackets that include falling snow and the protagonist alone, both brilliantly designed (you mentioned the orange and green endpapers of A Penguin Story ; the endpapers of The Snow Day also intensify the mood of the story with the relentlessly falling snow above a low, flat horizon), and both having already garnered recognition as outstanding picture books, with starred reviews and their inclusion as two of the 10 books on the list of 2009 New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books.

What you said about story arc applies to The Snow Day by Komako Sakai as well. The book has both a beautifully structured action arc and a tightly interwoven emotional arc—a small child bunny has to wait for the fun of playing in the new snow, and faces the terror of an absent parent, but when the bunny/child notices that the snow has stopped, he (or she—the sex of the bunny child is not mentioned) initiates the action of going out to play in it, under they eyes of the watchful mother. Finally, the fact that the father will return “tomorrow, because it stopped snowing,” assures the child that all will soon be well.

But rather than focus on story arcs in The Snow Day, the element I’ve chosen to focus on is the use of language in this story—how word choice conveys the action and emotion of the story, and in only 252 words, translated from the original Japanese. (I’m assuming the translation is by the author, since a translator isn’t noted in my edition.).

The story opens nonverbally with the image of a grounded plane on the title page, already introducing the subplot of the father’s delayed return home. With the page turn, the first sentence of the story identifies not only the main character and the setting, but also introduces what, as you said in your previous post, will make this day different from all other days:

When I woke up in the morning, Mommy said, “You can sleep late today.”

The next sentence breaks convention by including the dialogue of two speakers in a single paragraph, connected by “and,” and in so doing demonstrates the author’s mastery of an oral storytelling voice:

“How come?” I asked, and she said, “Kindergarten’s closed” (p. 3).

Breaking that dialogue into two shorter sentences, and two paragraphs to indicate the change of speaker, would make it sound choppy, but as it is written, it flows smoothly when read aloud, as it would be to a preschooler/kindergartner. And what an efficient way to indicate the age of the protagonist—through one word: “kindergarten.”

The second spread includes just 11 words, which at the same time are the mother’s explanation for the kindergarten closure—“It’s been snowing all night, and the school bus got stuck” (p. 5)—and also foreshadow why Daddy’s plane cannot take off.

One word at the top of the next page sums up the child’s delight—“Snow!”—so that the author does not need to TELL us that the child is excited, or to even use a dialogue tag to let us know who is speaking. Rather the author SHOWS us the delight of the child, not only by that excited one-word outburst, but also through the action of the child: “I jumped out of bed and ran for my boots” (as well, of course, as illustrating the speaker in the delightful spot illustration of the little bunny in action).

Although the child cannot go outside because the mother doesn’t “want you to catch a cold,” (p. 6) the bunny child “snuck” outside onto the balcony and made a little “snow dumpling” (p. 8). Word choice illustrates the author/translator’s ability to use sound as well as meaning to convey character and emotion—“snuck” is fun to say as well as intimating initiative, and a “snow dumpling” is a delightfully surprising and innovative concoction.

Tension builds as Mommy can’t go to the grocery store and Daddy calls to say his flight got canceled. Mommy and child stand on the balcony watching the snow, and the child says, “Mommy, we are all alone in the world” (p. 17), the peak of the emotional arc in the story.

Night comes, and the little bunny, alone now, looking out of the window without Mommy in the illustration, peers into the black night and sees it has stopped snowing. The child then takes action, asking to go out, and the mother relents. Out they both go, putting “footprints in the fresh white snow” (p. 24). Here another convention is broken—the adage that one adjective is better than two, advice that writers should pick the strongest adjective and go with that one. But in this sentence both “fresh” and “white” are important, and the author has wisely retained them both. The rhythm of “fresh white snow” echoes the footprints they make.

So they made snowballs, and snow dumplings, and “even made snow monsters” (p. 27). As they return home, with Mommy’s scarf now wrapped snugly around the child, “tomorrow” on page 28 is echoed, and reechoed, on page 30: “Tomorrow…Yes, tomorrow…” building tension for the page turn. The words on the last page, “Daddy will be home tomorrow, because it stopped snowing” (p. 32), resolve the tension and reassure the child listener. The text is fitted into the illustration, as their footprints lead off the page, and the images of the three snow monsters—Daddy, Mommy, child—remain under the clear, starry sky, as an affirmation that all is well.

StorySleuths’ Tip #31: Focus on the power of language--make conscious word choices. Read the story out loud. Particularly for picture books that will be read aloud, strive for fluent rhythm in an oral “storytelling” voice. Don’t be afraid to break conventions to get the sound right. Choose words with awareness of how they sound—words that are fun to say and that convey personality and mood, and/or foreshadow plot, and/or have emotional overtones.

Have fun exploring A Season of Gifts with Heather Singh—I’ll see you for Geektastic in January.


Thursday, December 3, 2009


 Dear Meg,

What a book! The design, the plot, the main character—I could write on and on about any of those, but in keeping with our Storysleuths’ practice of focusing on one thing we took away as writers, I am going to focus on the arc of this wonderful story.

I’m presently working with a classroom of fifth and sixth-grade students writing picture books to enter into a contest. It’s great fun, and of course also a great challenge. I find that one of the hardest things for them to do is create a story with a complete arc in as few as five hundred words. And why shouldn’t that be hard for a bunch of ten, eleven and twelve-year-olds? It’s a darn near impossible task for grown-up writers, too!

But let’s look at how Antoinette Portis creates complete arcs, both an action arc and an emotional arc, in just 294 words. . .

Edna the penguin’s is a Hero’s Journey story, and we get clues about her, and about her journey, right from the start. The cover shows a penguin trudging through a snow storm--she is alone.

The title page features a little wide-eyed, thumb-shaped penguin apart from the rest of her flock--she is different. So, even before the story unfolds, I as a reader, or as a listener am informed by the illustrations about the main character, and I get a preliminary sense that something is amiss—why is this little penguin set apart from the others?

Then the story begins and we are given a name for our hero, she is Edna, and for the first few pages of the book, whether she is with a crowd or by herself, she continues to be set apart, always gazing off as if looking for something. On page seven her yearning is put into words: “But there must be something else.”

As readers, or young listeners, we now understand that our character has a problem to solve: Edna is a child explorer in search of what else life has to offer. As the story unfolds we see Edna turn down offers to play, even offers for food because she is looking for “something else.” She is a tenacious character who will not stop searching until she is satisfied: “I’ll never stop looking, thinks Edna.”

Both the text and illustrations ramp up tension in the story—a key ingredient to a successful Hero’s Journey. The child reader will notice the orange airplane that flies by without Edna seeing it. The child knows that there is indeed something else—but will Edna find it?


Tension rises again when Edna sets off on her adventure. The illustrations show the passing of time as Edna searches by day and by night for something she cannot put a name to.


And then? The action of the story hits a peak as Edna stumbles upon something bright and round and orange. I thought it was the sun. I thought, Ahh! She is a little penguin in search of summer. But then she hugs it? What could this object, which is clearly not the sun, and not the orange airplane which flew by earlier, be?


So notice what is happening here when Edna returns to her home and announces, “I found the something I else I was looking for! Come and see!” Tension rises again. The reader is as excited as Edna is—she has found Something Else. But the reader is also sitting at the edge of his seat wondering, what is it?

Once again, Portis brilliantly portrays the passing of time through the illustrations as the action moves from the left side of the page to the right, and the flock of penguins travels through a day and a night arriving at what looks, once again, like the sun. But then, on a page turn, the reader comes upon the real climax of the action. Edna has discovered the base camp of human explorers and the little penguins are jubilant. But look at little Edna off on the right hand side of the illustration at the edge of the tent – she is STILL looking for the next magical thing.

The story wraps up with a satisfying denouement as the penguins frolic about the camp, finally going home with a trophy from the journey, a bright orange glove.

And how has the character grown? What has her emotional journey been? From the beginning one is left with the sense that Edna has long yearned to find something else, but this is the day that she does something about it. This is an important question an author must ask when writing a book – what makes this day different? Over the course of the story one see’s Edna’s euphoria in the bright orange illustration of her gazing at her discovery, her satisfaction at being able to share her discovery with her family and friends. At the story's conclusion we know that really, this is just the beginning of a whole lifetime of exploration for our lovable little penguin, Edna. When, on the final page she wonders, “What else could there be?” the child reader will see the prow of a large green boat entering the picture from the far right side of the page and will know with certainty that Edna’s days as an adventurer have only begun because she had developed the confidence and self-assurance to continue her quest. Today was a unique and wonderful day, but the success of the day guarantees that Edna has developed the self-assurance to keep on going.

Storysleuths’ Tip #30: A picture book telling a Hero’s Journey type story must, just as with a novel, have an arc which begins with a problem, has rising tension and ends at a solution which is both surprising and yet inevitable. Along the way the character must grow and change over the course of an emotional arc which mirrors the arc of the story’s action.

PS - Meg, thanks for forwarding me a link to Betsy Bird's review of this marvelous book!

Monday, November 30, 2009

TITLE & COVER: When You Reach Me

Hi Allyson,

This has been quite a month, focusing on this spectacular book. And now that this is our last post about When You Reach Me, I’m thinking back to the beginning, my first intro to the book.

Our local independent bookstore, Island Books, used to have a gift certificate card which said, “A book is a present you can open again and again.” I like that. And when I think of presents, I think of packaging. The packaging of a book is its title and its cover. They’re the first things you see. They lead me to (or sometimes, if it’s too gruesome, away from) the story inside. The title and the cover are like the wrapping and the ribbon.

Elizabeth Bird says, in her review of When You Reach Me for School Library Journal, “It [the title] does not zip, nor does it stick in the brain.” She remarks that she happens to know that this is not the original title, which of course makes me curious about what was the original title, and wonder why it was changed. One of Monica Edinger’s 4th grade students says, “The title is O.K., not the best but not the worst. Maybe it should be named, “The Letters,” or, “Time Traveling,” or, “The Time Machine.” Another student says, “I don’t think that the title fits with the book. I think it should be called “The Notes, The Letter, and the Laughing Man.” A third student says, “The title is confusing until you start reading about the notes.”

Assuming that “You” in the title refers to Marcus, since he is the person addressed as “you” by the narrator in the story, I wonder whether “Me” in the title refers to Sal, who is reached by Marcus just in time to save his life. Or perhaps “Me” in the title refers to Miranda, and the title alerts readers to the fact that Marcus reaches Miranda through the notes. Who do you, and/or other readers of Storysleuths, think that “Me” in the title refers to?

Another of Ms Edinger's students says, “I think the cover is very good and I really like the objects that show up in the in different points in the book.” I agree. I like the cover. It’s fresh, and the perspective intrigues me. I’m also intrigued by the “shadow” of the mailbox, which is in the shape of a man, but which extends in the opposite direction from the shadows of the other objects, giving observant readers a clue about the story events. I enjoyed examining the cover after reading the book and finding the visual references to other clues that are important to the story.

As a writer, unless you are also the illustrator, you may not have much influence with regard your cover image, which most often will be up to the art director and the editor and, if it is an illustration, the artist (and, of course, the marketing department). But as the writer you may suggest a title, or various titles, for the editor and the marketing director to consider.

Some of the books I co-authored with Liberian storyteller Won-Ldy Paye, like The Talking Vegetables, almost titled themselves. Others, like Head, Body, Legs, were more challenging to title. We had a list of over 20 possibilities for that one, and we decided to add A Story from Liberia to the title in order to honor the story’s origin. Mrs. Chicken and the Hungry Crocodile at first seemed too long a title, but when we considered cutting “Hungry” to shorten the title, the editor recommended leaving it in, to add tension. It turns out to have been a great title, even though it's on the long side. Why Leopard Has Spots: Dan Stories from Liberia also turns out to have been a great title. We considered calling it “Spider Flies to the Feast,” the title of another story in the collection, but the editor recommended that we stick with Why Leopard Has Spots because it would sound familiar to readers. (The stunning leopard on the cover by Ashley Bryan was subsequently reprinted in a New York Times Book Review.) Titles can be tough, but it’s also fun to finally get to name the “baby” you have been gestating.

For some great titles, look no farther than the Storysleuths books coming up: The Snow Day, A Penguin’s Story, and A Season of Gifts, for December; Marcelo in the Real World, for February; and our January focus book, the brilliantly titled Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, which has everything--bezazz, clarity, a catchy rhyme, and originality (the editors, they say, created the word, defined by them on the back cover as: “marked by fantastic geek qualities; a compliment of the highest regard”). Those are qualities to reach for in choosing a title. It’s fun to recommend the book just because it’s fun to say “Geektastic”!

Storysleuths’ Tip #29: Play with titles until one pops up that’s catchy, memorable, different from anything else out there, and, most important of all, fits the story. Then be open to suggestions and input from the editor and others who’ll be responsible for marketing and selling the book. Fighting for a title you love is OK, but ultimately the decision may be up to the folks who will promote and sell your book.

Friday, November 27, 2009

TENSE: When You Reach Me

Hi Meg,
After reading your post I got to thinking about other ways that Stead demonstrates where we are, chronologically, in Miranda’s journey. The first way is that she often starts a new chapter by simply telling us where we are in time. Consider these first lines:

“Right before Thanksgiving” (73)
“On the Friday after Thanksgiving” (84)
“'You two have certainly gotten close,’ Mom said the following weekend” (118)
“The next morning” (128)
“New Year’s Day was weirdly warm” (137)

Thus, as soon as the chapter opens I as the reader know where I am chronologically in the story.

Another way that Stead shows the reader where she is in time is by using verb tense to indicate whether the current action is taking place before or after the story’s action climax—when the laughing man saves Sal’s life--has happened.

The story opens in present tense—post climax. Miranda’s mother is gearing up for her big day as a game show contestant. The chapter finishes with Miranda saying, “I still think about the letter you asked me to write. It nags at me, even though you’re gone and there’s no one to give it to anymore.” (2) She goes on to say, “Sometimes I work on it in my head, trying to map out the story you asked me to tell, about everything that happened this past fall and winter.” (2)

So here we are at the beginning of the book, but we are much of the way through the story that is about to be revealed. The laughing man is dead, and the two seasons during which most of the story takes place are in the past.

The second chapter, Things That Go Missing, is also written in present tense. Move ahead to chapter three, Things You Hide. Here, the story slips into the past. It is the fall. Miranda has forgotten her key and as a result has spent the afternoon at Belle’s. Miranda and her mother decide to hide a key in the hallway so that Miranda need never worry again about forgetting hers. This chapter is written in past tense.

The next chapter is written in present tense, and so it goes until about a quarter of the way into the book when Stead tells the story almost exclusively in past tense with a straight chronological flow. The action arc of the story rises and peaks when the laughing man charges into the street and kicks Sal to safety. But the mystery is not yet solved. The emotional arc of the story lags slightly behind the action arc.

Enter the chapter titled The $20,000 Pyramid. Here, we are back to present tense which is clearly established with dialogue tags like “Mom asks” and “I say.” We are back to the time frame when the book opened. It is spring, a time of renewal, and the story hits its emotional arc when Miranda realizes fully the identity of the laughing man, and her part in his story.

In a story about time travel, especially a story that jumps around in chronology, it is critical that the author use devices to ground the reader in time.

Storysleuths' Tip # 28: Specific time setting descriptions at the beginning of a chapter, and the judicious use of past and present tense, can be enormously helpful when establishing for the reader where they are in the chronology of the story.

New!! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me post.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Hi Allyson,

I love a book with chapter titles. Perhaps this dates from my passion for Charlotte’s Web, when as a child I read “Escape,” or “Loneliness,” or “An Explosion,” and I anticipated what would happen in that chapter. I enjoy being given a hint and looking forward to what is about to be revealed. So I appreciate it when an author makes the effort to write great chapter titles, especially because it’s tough to write chapter titles that give readers a clue without giving away the punch line of the chapter.

I started thinking about chapter titles after your latest post about 2nd person POV, because of Stead’s use of “you” in many of the chapter titles in When You Reach Me--15 out of the 53 chapter titles include “You.” I was curious about who “you” in these chapter titles referred to—was it the same “you” as the book’s title “You”? (More about the title in a future post.) And if not, who did the pronoun “you” refer to?

What I discovered is that in the chapter titles, the referent for the pronoun “you” varies. Sometimes it’s Miranda, as in “Things You Keep in a Box” (p. 1) and “Things You Count” (p. 73). Sometimes it’s Miranda and another character, as in “Things You Hide,” (p. 7) in which Miranda and her mother hide the key to their apartment, or in “Things You Wish For” (p. 27) when the wishes of Richard, Miranda’s mom, and Miranda are all clarified. Sometimes “you” is another character altogether, as in “Things You Hold On To” (p. 81), which refers to the $2 bills that Jimmy collects. And sometimes the referent of “You” is more general, as in “Things You Push Away” (p. 71), referring to “some people.” Stead’s use of varied referents for “You” in the chapter titles wasn’t distracting to me, however, because she always made the referent, and the context, clear

Focusing on these chapter titles got me interested in other aspects of Stead’s chapter titles. She accomplishes a lot in her chapter titles.

First, the chapter titles are a hook, baiting me to read on and find out what they refer to. Second, many of the chapter titles (41) focus on “Things,” and those emphasize an important element of the story--the “Winner’s Circle” of the “$20,000 Pyramid” game. These chapter titles were fun--I got to guess, like the contestants would have, what might be some of the specific “things”-- “Salty Things” (p. 84), for example. Or “Things You Pretend” (p. 88). Third, some chapter titles, like “Christmas Vacation” (p. 132), “The First Note (p. 60), and “The Second Proof” (p. 134) alerted me to the passage of time. It’s useful to be told, in effect, “Here’s when the first note appears,” or “Now the second proof’s coming up.” Fourth, some of the chapter titles foreshadow or reinforce important themes; for example, “Magic Thread” (p. 187), in which the “veil” is snatched away; “Sal and Miranda, Miranda and Sal” (p. 196), about the continuation of their friendship; and “Parting Gifts” (p. 197), which includes the resolution of the mystery. And some chapter titles accomplish several of these purposes simultaneously; for example, “Things That Kick” (p. 16) relates to the $20,000 Pyramid game, and it also invites me to guess “things that kick,” and in addition it foreshadows that someone’s kicks will be important to the story.

Storysleuths’ Tip #27: Use chapter titles to hook readers to continue reading, to emphasize an important element of the story, to focus on the passage of time, and to foreshadow or reinforce important themes. Sometimes chapter titles can accomplish several of these objectives at once, but never give away the punch line of a chapter in the chapter title.

Over to you, Allyson.

NEW!! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me Post.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Dear Meg,

Will you forgive me a little nerdish exploration of point of view? It is not very often that we come across the “you” address in middle grade fiction, which makes me want to spend a little bit of time with it, and consider how it is used in When You Reach Me, and what we as writers can learn from its use in this novel.

Immediately after finishing the book I looked online for discussions about it. I came across conversations about the use of the “you” address in When You Reach Me, questioning whether this was an example of second person POV and wondering how effective it was. I got thinking—what is the definition of second person point of view, and is the use of the pronoun “you” as it occurs in this book really an example of it? What is Stead hoping to accomplish using this POV, and does she get there?

First, as to the definition of second person POV: I have found that there are many, and they do not necessarily agree. In his very thorough paper on this topic, Dennis Schofield of Deakin University in Australia points out that there is a great deal of discussion in the writing and academic communities about the correct definition of what constitutes second person address. He refers to “the often equivocal nature of the ‘second-person’ pronoun within narrative discourse.” There are those who feel that the second person address must always refer to the narrator himself. Others insist that this POV must refer to another character within the story. It is a trend in non-literary writing to have the pronoun “you” refer back to the person reading the piece, something that is rare, but not unheard of in literature as well.

Schofield references the work of Gerald Prince who, in his Dictionary of Narratology, makes the case that in a second person POV the “you” address must always refer to the narratee.

Naratee? What’s that?

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary could not help me out. But the English department at Reed College could.On their web site I learned that:

     "Every story is told by a narrator (sometimes by more than one narrator). Stories also    are told to narratees. Just as the narrator is different than the author, the narratee is different than the reader. The narratee is the person "inside" the text to whom the narrator is speaking.

     "Taking the time to understand who the narratee is can help you understand the narrator and the act of narration. . .It is usually harder to pin down the narratee than the narrator, but pay attention to any details you can find, and you'll find it a very useful analytic exercise."

Sticking with Prince’s rule of thumb, in When You Reach Me, the “you” is certainly addressing the person inside the text to whom the narrator is speaking. So, while the book is written in a first person POV, there are occasions when the author slips into a true second person address. Referring back to my craft books, I found that Janet Burroway and Francine Prose concurred that this use of the “you” address is indeed an example of second person POV.

Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer:

"The truth is that marvelous fiction has been written in the second person, though in these cases, the 'you' is less likely to be the reader in general than someone in particular, an individual to whom the story (often metaphorically or imaginatively) is being addressed."

Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction: "the second person is the basic mode of the story only when a character is referred to as you…Only when 'you' becomes an actor in the drama is the story or novel written in second person.”

Now, on to a quick discussion of what this accomplishes within When You Reach Me. Mima Tipper, a fellow Vermont College student, wrote her creative thesis on the topic of the second person address and very graciously shared her paper with me. Mima makes the excellent point that the “you” address creates, “potential confusion for readers as to whom the second person ‘you’ in the story addresses. Is the ‘you’ the actual reader? An imagined reader? Or is the ‘you’ a character in the story?"

Given that the average ten-year-old reader is not likely to go through the gyrations that I did exploring the use of the second person address in modern fiction, Mima’s point is very relevant: isn’t the “you” address a little bit confusing?


But is that a bad thing?

I think not. While I, and young readers I interviewed, found the “you” to be confusing, it was because they were left wondering, “Who is Miranda talking to?” And wasn't that the point? I suspect that Stead very intentionally used the second person address to intensify the mystery, and it works.

I am going to quote from one of Mima Tipper’s conclusions in my Storysleuth’s Tip—

Storysleuth’s Tip #26: “when used intentionally and with a full understanding of its effects, the second person viewpoint provides MG and YA stories—any fiction actually—with an intriguing, necessary, character-revealing viewpoint.”

New!! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me post.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Hi Allyson,

At the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Western Washington Fall Writers’ Retreat last weekend Cheryl Klein, Senior Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, identified three kinds of “action” or “external” plots (as opposed to “emotional” plots, which she defined as the moral and emotional development of your characters). The three kinds of action plots she described are:

1. conflict

2. mystery, and

3. lack (in which the main character misses a quality or seeks an object).

Although social conflict and personal lack are elements of various subplots in When You Reach Me, from the first page the book screams MYSTERY! Already, by the end of page 1, I wonder:

1. Who wrote the notes in the box under the narrator’s bed?
2. What do they say?
3. Why is the narrator saving them?

Those questions propel me into Chapter 2, where yet another mystery is presented:

4. Why does Mom have to win the money?

Mysteries abound. What is the “last proof” the narrator mentions at the top of page 2? And which proofs precede the “last one”? Why is the narrator supposed to write this mysterious “you” a letter? And why, above all, doesn’t the narrator want to watch the “movie” that it is all about?

More mysteries emerge. Why did Marcus hit Sal? Who left the rose on Annemarie’s doormat? Who stole Jimmy’s Fred Flintstone bank?

Throughout the book Stead drops clues that provide the answers to every single one of these mysteries, and others. But she drops them so lightly into the story that many flew right by me as I read. It wasn’t until I finished the book and went back to read it again that I could appreciate how cleverly she had placed them.

Who would connect the fact that the laughing man had about thirty fillings in his teeth (p. 16) to Marcus’ repeated trips to the dentist? I didn’t. Who could have guessed that a man running down Broadway stark naked (p. 35) would turn out to be a hero? Not me. Who could imagine that the fact the notes appeared they “had once gotten wet” (p. 60) would be an indication of how they had been transported and delivered? These details seemed random, but they weren’t random at all. Each one was carefully crafted, thoughtfully fitted into the whole so that each piece of the puzzle, slipped into place, finally completed the picture. In retrospect, each clue was hidden in plain sight.

Even the reason for Mom having to win the money is revealed clue by clue. First of all, she hated her work. (p. 6) She wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer, started law school, and had to quit when Miranda was born. (p. 10) And finally, Richard gave Miranda an envelope full of applications for law school to give to her mother after her mother won $10,000 in the Winner’s Circle. (p. 191)

Stead skillfully threads clues throughout the fabric of the entire book, weaving them in one by one so subtly that I’m enticed to keep reading to find out the answers to the questions posed on the first page: who is writing the notes, what they say, why the narrator is saving them, and most of all, what they mean.

Storysleuths’ tip #25: Use mystery plots and subplots to hook readers, then keep them reading by dropping clues judiciously in bits and pieces. But make sure to tie up all the loose ends.

NEW!! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me post.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Hi Meg –

I’m really glad we looked more deeply into the role of secondary characters, both the more significant characters, like Annemarie, and the seemingly less so, like Jimmy, and the teacher. I have found that as a result I’m paying far more attention to the secondary characters in the middle-grade novel I’m revising, and isn’t that precisely the point of this work?

On we go, to Larger Social Issues.

As authors for children we are advised to steer away from being didactic. How, then, does a writer convey a strongly held belief, piece of morality, or life lesson without making the reader feel preached to? After reading When You Reach Me I am left feeling quite confident about some of Stead’s beliefs:

• That our system of incarceration is broken.
• That racism is an abhorrent thing.
• That the problem with homelessness in our country is a complex issue in which the need for personal safety and the desire to be kind often butt heads, resulting in our simply treating the homeless and helpless as though they are invisible.
• That the world would be a gentler place if girls were not so mean.

The writer in me wants to understand how I took all this away when I never, for a moment, felt that Stead was standing on a soapbox pushing her beliefs at me. And here is the conclusion that I have drawn—it all goes back to that old adage, show don’t tell. Stead succeeded because she never used narrative to describe these larger social issues. Instead, she thrust her characters into believable situations in which they either faced these things directly, or shared dialogue about them.

Raising social issues such as these makes our work more relevant to our readers, and makes our books excellent catalysts for classroom discussions. Now, a look at how Stead contemplates these issues without being heavy-handed . . .

Our System of Justice

Once a month Miranda’s mother works at a jail where she talks to pregnant prisoners about what to expect after their babies are born. She explains to Miranda that jail is a hard place. That it changes people, “from becoming who they might grow to be.” (p. 85) Miranda sees that as a good thing, after all, jail is supposed to change you, to reform you so that you are no longer a criminal. Her mother explains, “A lot of people make bad mistakes. But being in jail can make them feel like a mistake is all they are. Like they aren’t even people anymore.” ( p. 85) At another point Miranda’s mother says, “not everyone accused of a crime is a criminal.” (p. 116)

There is never a statement made that our system of justice is broken, but the discussions between Miranda and her mother cause the reader to contemplate such a possibility.

The Meanness of Girls

Girls can be really mean. I know this from experience both as the girl who dished it out and the girl who meanness was heaped onto. In When You Reach Me, the girls in Miranda’s classroom are vicious to Alice Evans. Alice seems a perfectly likable girl, but she has the unfortunate challenge of needing to use the restroom often, and urgently. When the girls sense that Alice needs to go, they do their best to delay her. They find it funny watching her writhe and twitch. It is painful to read about.

Miranda eventually befriends Alice when she offers to go with her to the restroom. She says, “Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean.” (p. 144) In that same discussion she goes on to say, “I wasn’t one of the girls who tortured her on purpose, but I had never lifted a finger to help her before, or even spend one minute being nice to her.”

As writers for children, we must, through our fiction, offer our readers strategies for navigating the real world. We must give them opportunities to see themselves as both the good guy and the bad guy, because really, aren’t we all a bit of both? Stead has done young readers a service by demonstrating the hurtful affects of meanness, and offering way out.

Race Relations

Miranda explains about the character Julia, “I soon found out that Julia wasn’t like the rest of us.” (p. 34) This is not because Julia is black, plenty of kids in Miranda’s world are shades of black or brown. The thing that makes Julia different is that she is wealthy. For Miranda it is Julia’s wealth, and not her color that is an issue. The character Jimmy, on the other hand, is a bigot who spurns anyone whose skin color is a shade off-white. When Annemarie understands his motivation for keeping Julia out of his sandwich shop, she calls him a “racist pig.” (p. 129) Rightfully so.

I love the fact that Stead has introduced racial conflict in a way that is in keeping with how children, especialy children living in a non-homogenous place like New York might experience it. While they themselves may be color-blind, the world, sadly, isn’t. Stead never says, “racism is bad.” Instead, she demonstrates the ignorance of racism through the character Jimmy.


In the character the laughing man Stead confronts the issue of homelessness. Here is a man who shows up out of nowhere, the way homeless people do. He laughs for no apparent reason. Shakes his fist at the sky, yelling. He sleeps with his head under the mailbox. By anyone’s account, he is not just homeless, he is mentally ill. The kids have taken to calling him names, which initiates this conversation between Miranda and her mother:
     “Don’t call him Quack,” Mom said. “That’s an awful name for a human being.”
     “Even a human being who’s quackers?”
     "I don’t care. It’s still awful.” (p. 16)

At one point Miranda and Sal walk past the laughing man as if he were not there. Isn’t that what most of us do when encountering a homeless person? Stead makes a bit of social commentary about that phenomenon: “It’s crazy the things a person can pretend not to notice.” (p 18.)

In the chapter titled Mom’s Rules for Life in New York City Miranda describes the precautions she’s been taught to take as a child growing up in a large city. Having lived in New York for years, I found Miranda’s list of precautions to be completely plausible. We all learn to avoid eye contact. We insulate ourselves from other people. It is illuminating when Miranda says, “and I’ve discovered that most people I’m afraid of are actually very friendly.” (p 26.)

Later, Miranda gives the laughing man a sandwich. When her mother objects to Miranda’s having done so, Miranda is taken aback. She thought her mother would approve of her demonstrating kindness to a homeless person. Instead, Miranda’s mother delivers a lecture on the inappropriateness of Miranda’s having, “struck up a relationship with a mentally ill person.” (p. 115) Her mother goes on to explain that she is simply concerned for Miranda’s safety.

Again, Stead points a finger at the social struggle we are all faced with. To preserve our own safety we look the other way and ignore social outcasts, yet we teach our children about the importance of generosity and kindness and that all people should be treated equally.

A final note about Stead’s treatment of the homeless and seemingly mentally ill—they all have a story. Some of them are even heroes. Maybe we would be less judgmental, less fearful if we knew what that story was.

Storysleuths’ Tip # 24: Don’t be afraid to broach larger social issues in your work, but when you choose to do so, avoid narrative. Instead, create scenes which demonstrate how your characters’ lives are touched by these issues.

NEW!! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me post.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Hi Allyson,

Yes, Stead not only gives the secondary characters their own plot arcs, but she also rounds out the minor characters, giving each one an important role in Miranda’s development. Robert McKee, in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, describes the importance of the “cast of characters” this way: “In essence, the protagonist creates the rest of the cast. All other characters are in a story first and foremost because of the relationship they strike to the protagonist and the way each helps to delineate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature.” (p. 179) Even characters who play minor roles in When You Reach Me have a specific personality, and/or past history, that help to promote Miranda’s growth.

Take Jimmy, the owner of the sandwich shop near the school, who lets Annemarie, Colin and Miranda work there during their lunch time in exchange for a soda and a sandwich, which they can each create from the “setup tray.” (p. 55) He’s nice enough to them, but he’s a bigot, stretching his eyelids back as he says, “Velly important.” Miranda notes, “If Mom had been there, she would have whacked him on the head with a plastic tray.” (p. 62) His bigotry surfaces again, and creates a platform for Miranda to announce the gulf between herself and Julia, when he orders Julia, who is black, out of his shop. “Now.” (p. 83) Miranda, jealous of Julia for her worldly travels, nice clothes, and little silver Swiss watch, is secretly pleased: “Jimmy could be a grouch, but he saw right through Julia, just like I did.” (p. 83) But Annemarie sees right through Jimmy. When he suspects Julia of stealing some money from a bank in his shop because of “her blood,” Annemarie says, “You pig....You racist pig.” (p. 129) This interaction precipitates Miranda’s sharing the reasons for her jealousy of Julia with Annemarie. Thus Jimmy is the catalyst for an enormous amount of Miranda’s growth.

Take Miranda’s teacher, Mr. Tompkin. Miranda’s mom tells her that Mr. Tompkin is a frustrated architect who became a teacher, like a lot of young men who became teachers because they “didn’t want to fight” in Vietnam. So Mr. Tompkin’s class “studies buildings every year.” (p. 43) This year the class project is Main Street, a scale model of a city block, the creation of which figures into much of the social interaction between various students in the class. When at lunch one day Julia questions Miranda about how she would make the swings for the Main Street playground, Miranda observes, “It was dawning on me that Julia was showing me something, teaching me how to help Annemarie.” (p. 90) So the teacher initiated an action that resulted in Miranda’s social and emotional development.

Take Richard, Miranda’s mom’s boyfriend, who hasn’t been given a key to their apartment. “Keys are power,” he says. (p. 4) As a reader, I wonder: What key will have the power to unlock the mystery of this book? Repeated references to keys throughout the book in connection specifically with Richard are reminders that Miranda still hasn’t unlocked the mystery, which at times seems to be tied up in knots. Richard knows knots--how to tie them and how to untie them. He teaches Miranda to tie knots--he had even given her a set of ropes two Christmases before. He told Miranda that he ties and unties knots when he has a problem at work, which helps him get in the right frame of mind. (p. 19) Miranda wonders if tying and untying knots will help “solve my problem.” (p. 20) Finally, after Miranda unravels the knots of her problem and finds the key to the mystery of the notes, she gives Richard his own set of keys to the apartment--tied with a sailor’s knot. With her birthday gift, Miranda welcomes her mom’s boyfriend into their family. It’s through interactions like this with the relativity minor character Richard that Miranda grows.

Storysleuths’ Tip #23--Even minor characters can (and perhaps should) trigger significant events.

Over to you, Allyson.

NEW!! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me post.