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.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Okay, Meg, the hard part here is going to be reeling myself in because there is so much I want to say on the subject of secondary characters. There is a very long essay that could be written just on how Stead succeeds with this aspect of her novel. Apologies in advance for rambling on a bit. NOTE: BIG SPOILER ALERT! If you have not yet read the novel, come back when you have!

In her craft book Between the Lines, author Jessica Page Morrell refers to secondary characters as, “the unsung heroes of fiction.” As writers, we must be certain that these often overlooked and underused characters serve a specific purpose within the story. Do they propel the protagonist towards his necessary growth or change? Perhaps they serve as a source for heightened tension and conflict. Might they provide the reader with an alternate perspective on the protagonist and his motivation? The list goes on, and any of these could be a blog post on its own--but that is a post for another day!

The thing I would like to focus on today is the plot arc of the well written secondary character, regardless of the purpose he serves in the story. In a post made in March of this year, literary agent Nathan Bransford said this in his blog :

“Every single character you introduce, major or minor, should also have their own plot arc(s) with defined goals and motivations. The more important the character the longer and more complex the plot arc(s.)” He goes on to say, “This is often where writers miss opportunities: every character, big or small, has to show motivation, agency, and desire. They have to have their own plot arcs. And it's important that the arcs have a beginning, middle, and end.”

In When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead has done a mind-bogglingly good job of creating secondary characters with well fleshed out plot arcs that rise and fall over the course of the novel. Consider Annemarie. At the onset of the novel she has lost her best friend, Julia, which is the inciting incident causing her to befriend Miranda. Annemarie wants to be liked. She wants to fit in—in fact she wants it so badly that she puts her health at risk in order to be part of the lunch-time work crew at Jimmy’s sandwich shop. She seems like a kid who will roll with the punches and go along for the ride, but when her former best friend’s honesty is brought into question and racial slurs are made about her, Anne Marie’s story arc hits a peak, and we see what she is like when her mettle is tested. She has a full-fledged story completely independent of Miranda’s, yet hers intertwines with Miranda’s in a way that causes both the girls to grow and change.

And look at Sal’s story arc. Miranda believes that the moment of change for Sal came when he was punched in the stomach. We come to learn that his story started sooner than that, when Miranda was sick from school and Sal understood for the first time how dependent he was on her for friendship. This is the story of Sal’s growth into a more independent person who goes after what he wants—a more diverse circle of friends which includes boys—and he gets it. But along the way, a consequence of Sal’s living out his story is that he unintentionally drives Miranda toward her own growth and change.

And what about Marcus! What a story he has to tell. A boy genius raised in an impoverished family of questionable moral integrity, he seems nothing more than a bully. Then, as his story unfolds, we come to understand his motivation. We see him as a person with an enormous capacity to love, and an intense need to do what is right when we finally understand that he has traveled back in time to save the life of a boy he accidentally killed when he (Marcus) was a child. Marcus’s story line begins the day that he punches Sal in the stomach. It hits a climax the day he kicks Sal out of the way of an oncoming truck. And BOY does he undergo growth and change, starting out as a smart, but clueless kid, and winding up in the heroic form of the Laughing man. As for the role Marcus plays in Miranda’s growth--without Marcus, there would be no story. It is because of him, and his actions that the most significant wheels in the story are set in motion.

Julia, Colin, Miranda’s mother, Richard. Every single one of them has a story, and every single one of them plays a major role in Miranda becoming who she needs to be by the end of the novel. What Stead has done, and what we all need to do when creating secondary characters is this: First, she has made each of her secondary characters into a multi-faceted person with a compelling story all their own. Second, she has brought them into Miranda’s life for a reason--to propel her on her journey, to give her cause for introspection, to act as mirrors or foils that Miranda encounters along the way.

STORYSLEUTHS’ TIP # 23: To write effective secondary characters, give them a story arc all their own, complete with a beginning, middle and end.

-- Allyson

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Friday, November 6, 2009


Hi Allyson,

I’ve been thinking about what grips me about this story, why I’m so engaged. I think it’s largely because the narrator, Miranda, is so appealing. She feels like a real kid.

Stead set the story in pre-cell phone, pre-email 1979. Miranda is a 12 year old 6th grader living on the Upper West Side of New York City with her single mom, who works in a law office. Miranda navigates her school as an office monitor, and her street as a “latchkey child.” (p. 3) Her best friend from day care grows away from her, and she seeks new friendships in her class, friendships that are strained, broken, and ultimately healed.

What draws me into this story, in addition to the underlying mystery, is Miranda’s reliability as a narrator. I trust her, because she admits to feeling sad, and mad, and lonely, even mean and jealous. When her friend, Annemarie, hopes that a rose left on the doormat might have been left by Colin, the boy Miranda also likes, Miranda suggests to Annemarie that the rose might have been left by her dad. “Your dad is so nice. It has to be him.” (p. 112) Then the narrator Miranda describes her own feelings: “I was miserable, sitting on the edge of her bed in that puddle of meanness. But I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want Annemarie’s rose to be from Colin.”

However, you don’t have to accept my judgment of Miranda as a reliable narrator. Fourth grade students in Monica Edinger’s class at the Dalton School in New York City, to whom Ms. Edinger read When You Reach Me aloud, posted their own reviews of the book as blog posts in response to an assignment. One of the students wrote: “She [Miranda] lives a normal life...” and another student wrote: “...she [Miranda] is going through the whole friend business with Ann-Marie and Julia.”

STORYSLEUTHS TIP #22: Creating a reliable narrator by making him or her feel real to readers will pull them into your story.

Over to you, Allyson.


New! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me post.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

CHRONOLOGY: When You Reach Me

Hi Meg-

I want to kick things off with this book by chatting a bit about chronology. There are so many ways to handle chronology in a story. The beginning, followed by the middle, followed by end works much of the time. Think "Red Riding Hood," or even A Wrinkle in Time, where there is a straight push from the beginning to the end without any diversions back in time. There may be mentions of the past, but no time is spent there. This is often the chronology recommended for younger readers who might find anything other than this straightforward method of storytelling confusing.

A story can be enhanced by mixing up the chronology. Consider the brilliant picture book  The End, which starts with the final scene of the story and works its way backward, finally ending at the beginning. Or stories in which the ending is revealed, and then the author returns to the beginning and slowly works her way through the story as a means of revealing how that ending came to be. This can be a great tactic when writing somewhat scary books for younger kids—start with the ending to let them know that the character will survive, and then launch them into the protagonist’s perilous journey.

At the Western Washington SCBWI conference in May, 2009, literary agent Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary suggested that mixing up the chronology can add interest to an otherwise saggy beginning. A great example is Judy Blundell’s novel What I Saw and How I Lied, which opens with a scene that is about two-thirds of the way through the story, then Blundell shifts to the beginning and tells the story in a straightforward way. The scene she chose to open with is a far more compelling hook than the actual beginning of the story would have been. It was a better place to start.

Chronology is a topic that fascinates me. In a Vermont College lecture on chronology, author Alison McGhee referred to chronology as a “slippery little fish,” and said, “If you change the chronology it changes everything about the piece.” In When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead skillfully plays with chronology in a way that is perfect for this story of time travel, because the chronology mirrors the story itself—the chronology travels around in time. We start when Miranda has already figured out much of the mystery which is a key element to the book. We then travel with her back to the beginning, back to the present and so on until the entire story has been told. What makes the chronology successful rather than confusing is that Stead always grounds us wherever we are. Through the use of chapter headings, verb tense (more on those later) and sporadic references to the date, we always have clues about where we are in the story.

STORYSLEUTHS' TIP #21: Don’t be afraid to play with chronology as a means of enhancing your story.

-- Allyson

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Monday, November 2, 2009

The Storysleuths Game Plan for When You Reach Me

Dear Readers,
Have you finished reading When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead? Did you give in to the urge to instantly read it a second time? Did you then scour your bookshelves for your tattered, dog-eared copy of A Wrinkle in Time and revisit Camazotz with Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace? Great! Then that means you were as wowed by this book as we were!

We’re mixing things up a bit this month. Instead of exploring tips for writers chapter-by-chapter, we’re doing a topic-by-topic exploration, with each discussion likely pointing to examples of excellent writing throughout the book. A warning that there will be spoilers, so if you have not yet read this amazing book, now is the time. And if you find yourself asking, “How did she do that?,” as we did, read it again, and then come join us as we try to answer that question ourselves.

Topics we'll look at from a writer’s perspective are:

Veracity of Main Character
Roundness of Secondary Characters
Importance of Incidental Characters
Larger Social Issues
Second Person Address (or is it?)
Chapter Headings
Verb Tense
Through-line of Characters
Time Travel
Book Covers

If you loved this book as much as we did, you might also enjoy these links:

 School Library Journal 
Educating Alice 
Library Voice 

Allyson and Meg

Sunday, November 1, 2009

FIRST CHAPTER ADVICE: My Final Freshman Year Report Card, Remembering, and Talking Like Turtles: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Hi Meg,

At the story's resolution I find myself returning to the very first chapter. Here is a note I jotted in my blog journal back when we were just getting started:

It is important to know what the character’s wants are early on. What problem is he trying to solve? What is the purpose of the journey on which he is about to embark? If I don’t know what a character desires, how can I root for him and hope that he gets it? Here, on page 6 we get his emotional want, “I want the world to pay attention to me,” and we get his concrete want, “I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.”

Alexie seems to be promising us that this character is going to try to get off the reservation, and in so doing is going to be paid attention to. Because I like the character, I am eager to read on and see how he does it.

In these final chapters we are assured that through the course of his journey and his struggles, Junior has indeed succeeded in achieving both his concrete and his emotional wants. Richard Peck, at the SCBWI conference in LA said that the first chapter should be a table of contents for the rest of the book. He went on to say that there is no way to write the first chapter until you have finished writing the rest of the book, because how on earth can you write a table of contents without first knowing what the contents are?

He’s a smartie, that Richard Peck!

I think that so many of us, when trying to write novels, stress at the beginning about the first chapter. Sherman Alexie has artfully written his book so that the first chapter truly does provide a snapshot of how the book is going to end. As a writer the take-away message to me is this: Finish writing the book! Finish that crappy first draft and when you have found the path the story is trying to take, and brought it to its logical conclusion, then you can go back and write a first chapter that truly is a table of contents for the rest of the book.

STORYSLEUTHS' TIP #20: Stop worrying about the first chapter. Let your character tell his story, and then you can figure out how and where that story should start.

IRONY, ONE WORD SENTENCES: Rowdy and I... & And Because Russian Guys...: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Hi Allyson,

In spite of the chapter title, "Rowdy and I Have a Long and Serious Discussion About Basketball," this chapter is one of the shortest in the book, introduced with a chapter title that primes the readers for "a long and serious discussion." But the discussion is neither long nor serious, and the irony of that dichotomy is funny.

Story Sleuths' Tip # 18: Irony can add humor to your story.

In "Because Russian Guys Are Not Always Geniuses," even in the midst of the tragedy of his sister's death, Junior retains his sense of humor: "Miss Warren was obviously trying to win the Captain Obvious Award." Junior laughs a lot in this chapter, but there are three points in Junior's lengthy internal monologue, which lasts for much of this chapter, where the reader is stopped short with a single word paragraph: "Wow." First when his father says, "I love you," then when Junior realizes that Rowdy was hiding in the woods watching the burial, and a third time when Junior realized: "I was important to them. I mattered." Wow.

Story Sleuths' Tip #19: Accent important points with one repeated word, which can be its own sentence.

Over to you, Allyson.