Saturday, November 27, 2010

We'll Be Posting Again Soon!

The StorySleuths are heads down in writing projects at the moment, but we're excited to resume blogging following the winter holidays when we'll be looking at Newbery Honor winner Cynthia Lord's newest novel, Touch Blue.

We wish you a peaceful, hopeful holiday season.

Happy reading (and writing!),

The StorySleuths
(Allyson, Meg and Heather)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

ROOTING FOR A PRICKLY CHARACTER: Turtle in Paradise (Post #6)

Dear Sleuths,
When Allyson and I met to discuss Turtle in Paradise, we were surprised to note the number of similarities between it and our July book, Karen Cushman’s Alchemy and Meggie Swann. Sure, a few hundred years and the Atlantic separate them in terms of setting. But look at how both books start: in each, the protagonist—a girl on her own—is sent away by her mother to live in a strange and unfamiliar location with relatives who don’t really want them. Furthermore, each girl is a smart, sharp-tongued character who must find a way to survive in difficult circumstances.

Prickly Characters

In fact, Turtle and Meggie Swann share a common outlook: they are brutally honest, funny, independent thinkers who come off as outspoken, impertinent, cranky or sensitive, depending on the moment. While I wouldn’t necessarily like to have either one as a houseguest (at least not the way they act at the beginning of the books), I do end up rooting for both. And from a writing point of view, let’s face it: given where the two characters start, the changes they go through as they find friends and establish themselves create a highly satisfying character arc.
Every writer wants to show character growth, so it’s not unusual to start a book with a character who has a little attitude. That attitude can go too far, of course. Once, when I shared a manuscript at an editorial conference, an agent cautioned me against making my character too sarcastic and snarky. So I started wondering how Jennifer Holm gets us to root for Turtle despite her “hard shell” (p. 99).

Bonding Time

In the book Plot and Structure, writer James Scott Bell says, “After conceiving a compelling Lead character, you must go a step further and figure out how to create an emotional bond with the reader” (p. 65). One tool authors can use is sympathy.
In contrast to mere empathy, sympathy intensifies the reader’s emotional investment in the lead… There are four simple ways to establish sympathy. Choose wisely. Don’t overload them, as it may make the reader feel manipulated. (p. 66)
Bell’s four ways of establishing sympathy are: jeopardy, hardship, the underdog, and vulnerability. Let’s take a look at each.


Bell writes, “Put the hero in terrible, imminent trouble.” Turtle is traveling to Key West without her mother, and when she arrives, her aunt Minnie is shocked to see her. When Minnie learns that Turtle is supposed to stay with her indefinitely, she exclaims, “As if I don’t have enough already with three kids and a husband who’s never home” (p. 19). Any reader will sympathize with Turtle’s position as an unwanted burden.


“If the Lead has to face some misfortune not of her own making, sympathy abounds,” Bell says. Turtle faces plenty of hardship, from her mother’s current and former employers, to the realities of the Depression. Life hasn’t been easy for Turtle, which goes a long way to explain her jaded outlook.

The Underdog

Says Bell: “America loves people who face long odds.” Turtle is the underdog in her new home. She’s the only girl among a gang of boys, a newcomer in a well-established community, and she is completely unaware of her extended family’s dynamics. Aunt Minnie’s son Beans is unfriendly at the start, describing Turtle as “some freeloading cousin from New Jersey” (p. 27). The boys won’t even let her join the Diaper Gang because she’s a girl. When Turtle succeeds in tricking the ice cream man into giving her a free scoop—something Beans fails at doing—the reader can’t help but cheer for Turtle.


According to Bell, “Readers worry about a Lead who might be crushed at any time.” Turtle is vulnerable because fundamentally, she is a kid on her own. She and her mother have moved around a lot, dependent on working for fickle wealthy employers. Not only that, but Turtle’s mother, Sadiebelle, is less practical than her daughter. “Mama’s good at looking at the sunny side of life,” Turtle says early in the book. “Mama’s watched so many pictures that she believes in happy endings” (p. 10). Later, Turtle thinks “I don’t know what she’d do without me to figure things out” (p. 94). Turtle believes she must take care of her mother—and to make matters worse, Turtle doesn’t have a father to help out. No wonder she longs for the stability of a home (the Bellewood) and the security of a father in Archie.
Holm succeeds in establishing Turtle as a sympathetic character, despite her churlishness. Ultimately, the overarching question the reader has throughout Turtle in Paradise is “Will Turtle be ok?” The details that Holm reveals about Turtle’s family and background help the reader to see that Turtle is like her namesake. As Uncle Vernon says, “You know, the thing about a turtle is that it looks tough, but it’s got a soft underbelly” (p. 100).
And as for Turtle’s snappiness? Her impertinent remarks? Her witty comebacks? The things she thinks and says—the things I’d never say for fear of being impolite—those are the very things that show Turtle’s spunk and independence. While I sympathize with her situation, I like her humor, her attitude, and the fact that she says what she thinks.

StorySleuths Tip #97: Help readers sympathize with a prickly character by revealing her “soft underbelly” but also make sure to show the character’s spirit and spunk.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Dear Fellow Sleuths,

We all know that even the most accomplished authors don’t always get it right the first time. We asked Jennifer Holm if she would be willing to share with us a sample of something she revised--sort of a before and after shot from her wonderful novel Turtle in Paradise. We were expecting some random paragraph from deep within the novel, and look what we got! Jennifer shared with us an early stab at the book’s opening paragraph. How cool is that?

Ladies and gentlemen, here for your viewing pleasure, the birth of an opening paragraph!

Jennifer Holm:

So, Turtle In Paradise is a book I worked on, literally, for years. I started it back in 2005. I can’t even find some of my really early drafts because the original laptop I wrote them on was fried when my husband spilled a cup of coffee on the keyboard. (Yes, we are still married.)

I should point out that I am a somewhat strange writer in that I love revising. (Probably to a fault if you ask my editor.) And Turtle went through a lot of revisions.

This is the opening scene from an early draft I found that was written in July 2006. At the time, the working title of the book was Turtle and the Conchs.

DRAFT July 2006

I’ve got my eyes closed. I’m pretending to be asleep.

Not that it stops Uncle Lyle from talking. Smokey’s been meowing the whole time, and even she can’t get a word in edgewise.

Uncle Lyle likes to talk. And talk. And he’s got an opinion on everything. He talks about how folks in the Dust Bowl wouldn’t be having so much trouble if they’d just move near some water. He talks about how he doesn’t trust President Roosevelt to get us out of this depression and that if you give someone money for not working why would they ever bother to get a job? But mostly he talks about how he can’t wait to get to Key West so he can hurry up and get back home to New Jersey.

Looking back, the problem with this version was that it was more about Uncle Lyle than Turtle. I loved the character of Lyle (let’s just say I’ve known a few Lyle-types in my life) and he really took over the early first drafts of chapter one. This ended up being more of a hindrance because Lyle was pretty tangential to the action in the book.

Final version:

Everyone thinks children are sweet as Necco Wafers, but I’ve lived long enough to know the truth: kids are rotten. The only difference between grown-ups and kids is that grown-ups go to jail for murder. Kids get away with it.

I stare out the window as Mr. Edgit’s Ford Model A rumbles along the road, kicking up clouds of dust. It’s so hot that the backs of my legs feel like melted gum, only stickier. We’re been driving for days now; it feels like eternity.

In front of us is a rusty pickup truck with a gang of dirty-looking kids in the back sandwiched between furniture—an iron bed, a rocking chair, battered pots—all tied up with little bits of fraying rope like a spiderweb. A girl my age is holding a baby that’s got a pair of ladies’ bloomers tied on its head to keep the sun out of its eyes. The boy sitting next to her has a gap between his two front teeth. Not that this stops him from blowing spitballs at us through a straw. We’ve been stuck behind this truck for the last few miles, and our windshield is covered with wadded bits of wet newspaper.

StorySleuths Tip #96: Don’t let your main character get sidelined! And when it comes to revision, remember that it sometimes takes huge changes to get the story where it needs to go. Instead of rewriting the same paragraph over and over—try something new.

Post #6: Rooting for a Prickly Character

Posted by Allyson Valentine Schrier

Saturday, September 18, 2010

CHAPTER BEGINNINGS: Turtle in Paradise (Post #4)

Dear Sleuths,

My intention for today’s post was to write about the way Jennifer Holm incorporates historical details such as references to Shirley Temple and Little Orphan Annie into Turtle in Paradise. Author of six historical novels, including two Newbery Honors, Holm has mastered the fine art of balancing enough detail to set a scene while not overwhelming readers with too much research.

However, we have written a lot about historical fiction over the last few months, and as I flipped back through Turtle in Paradise, something else caught my eye: the way Holm begins each chapter with a short transitional paragraph before launching into action.

Chapters are an interesting element of structure and form in that they exist in all novels, but they warrant minimal discussion in craft books. When chapters do show up in a writing book as a subject, it’s usually in reference to chapter endings. Here’s an example from the book Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham:
You end chapters at places which will hook readers. You do not devise your chapters to provide convenient blank spaces in between them for purposes of transition. (p. 118)
Multiple writing experts reiterated the fact that chapters should not end when characters go to sleep! A hook must be in place at the end of a chapter to propel readers forward. (For more about suspense and chapter endings, refer to Allyson’s April post about Blackbringer by Laini Taylor.)

But what about those chapter beginnings? What is their function? Is it the same as the opening of the book? Allyson’s last post on the narrative hook analyzed how the first chapter of Turtle in Paradise hooks readers with the Four Ws (Who is the story about, where is it set, when does it take place, and what is going on?). Jessica Page Morrell, author of Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing, has a slightly different take on beginnings:
All beginnings matter. Stories, scenes, and chapters cannot simply commence; they must create a tingle in the reader, pique curiosity, and thrust the story and readers ahead with potency and punch. (p. 39)
The chapter openings in Turtle in Paradise both pique the reader’s curiosity and propel them forward. Let’s take a look at an example from chapter eight.
Maybe it’s because it’s only ever been Mama and me, but I don’t understand what’s so wonderful about having a big family. Someone’s always fighting, or not talking to someone else, or scrounging around trying to borrow money. Far as I can tell, relations are nothing but trouble. (p. 72)
What are the elements at work in this paragraph?

1.     Character development. The first thing that strikes me about this paragraph is how much it reveals about character. It gives me a clear sense of how Turtle feels about living in close quarters with her extended family.

2.     Voice. Here is another example of narrative voice in action, complete with attitude, opinion, and patterns of speech (“Far as I can tell…”).

3.     Pacing. The paragraph provides a moment of pause, a break between the action that wrapped up in the previous chapter and the action that’s about to start.

4.     Creating questions. Turtle’s attitude makes me wonder why she feels this way. What’s happening with her family? What kind of trouble are we in for?

And so I keep on reading, quickly transitioning from Turtle’s thoughts to the action taking place in this chapter. My curiosity is piqued, and off Turtle and I go.

All but two of the chapters in Turtle in Paradise begin in similar ways. And what’s really neat, if you’ll forgive the term, is the way I as a reader start to feel the rhythm and style of the story. After a while, I can’t wait to hear Turtle’s latest thoughts, such as this one from chapter thirteen:
In my opinion, the fellas who make Hollywood pictures are really just salesmen. Instead of peddling girdles, they sell thrills and chills, and folks eat them up. Not me, though. I’m no sucker. I know there’s no such thing as giant apes climbing skyscrapers or mummies walking out of tombs. But just try telling that to the boys. (p. 123)
Another revealing opinion. Another great transition.

I want to return to the question of chapter endings and the hook or question that propels the reader forward. Some books, such as the Goosebumps series or the more recent 39 Clues series, end chapters with big cliffhangers. Readers flip the page, dying to know who’s behind the door or what happened when the lights went out.

But some books don’t have big cliffhanger chapter endings. Books such as The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate tend to be more episodic, keeping action contained within chapters. On the scale between Goosebumps and Calpurnia Tate, Turtle in Paradise probably falls toward the middle: sometimes the action ends with the chapter, and sometimes the chapter ends without resolving the conflict, leaving the reader to wonder what happens next.

When chapters do end with resolution (the cat is banished, Slow Poke pays Turtle), then the next chapter opening absolutely must act as a hook to pull the reader into a new scene and new set of action, as happens in Turtle in Paradise.

StorySleuths Tip #95: A strong chapter opening is so much more than a simple point of transition: it can reveal character, develop voice and, like a hook at the end of a chapter, propel the reader forward.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

THE NARRATIVE HOOK: Turtle in Paradise (Post#3)

Dear Fellow Sleuths ,

Well, I should really have started off this post, as it has to do with the beginning. It’s about the way the author successfully grabs you and makes you want to read more. In her book What’s Your Story, Marion Dane Bauer says:

The beginning of your story has one primary job: to capture your readers’ attention so they will want to go on reading. A narrative hook will do this for you. It will grab your readers and pull them into your story.(70)

The narrative hook, she says, is simply your story problem. It is the reason you’re writing the book, and the reason that your readers are going to stick with it—they want to see how that problem is solved, especially if they’ve come to like the character and want to see her succeed.

A quick word about “the beginning”. What is that? By when do you need to hook your reader? By the first line? The first paragraph or page? In her book The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, Nancy Lamb says, “At the most you’ve got two or three pages to hook the reader”. (35)

A couple of days ago I was chatting to a friend who’d just had a manuscript consultation with an editor at Henry Holt. The editor commented that my friend was trying too hard to get the story problem out there in the first few sentences of the story. My friend explained that she was trying to hook the reader. The editor assured her that if the writing is solid, and the story compelling, you have a few pages to do that. The first sentence, while engaging, doesn’t need to be the hook.

That said, it doesn’t hurt to have a riveting first sentence. In Turtle in Paradise, Jennifer Holm succeeds in writing a first sentence that makes you buckle up your seatbelt and strap in tight because you know you’re in for an exciting ride:

Everyone thinks kids are sweet as Necco Wafers, but I’ve only lived long enough to know the truth: kids are rotten. The only difference between grown-ups and kids is that grown-ups go to jail for murder. Kids get away with it. (3)

I love that! But while it pulls me into the story, is it the narrative hook? Does it tell me Turtle’s problem? Do I read that and know that she is a kid who’s being forced to leave home and take up roots in a strange place with people she doesn’t know? No, but it does give me an inkling that there are kids in her world who cause problems for her and for others, and she’s not very happy about it. The fuller problem is revealed over the course of the first chapter. But what this opening line DOES do is intrigue me and make me want to read more.

Marion Dane Bauer recommends that those first few pages in which you reveal the narrative hook contain what she calls the four Ws. Here is how they play out in Turtle in Paradise:

WHO is the story about?

Within several paragraphs we know who the main character is. She’s a young girl living in the depression era, and times are tough. Within a couple of pages we know her name is Turtle and she’s ten. Referring back to Heather’s recent post about voice—we know Turtle is snarky -– “I’m not sweet,” I said. “I slugged Ronald Caruthers when he tried to throw my cat in the well, and I’d do it again”. (5)  

WHERE is it set?

Within several pages we know that Turtle is on her way to Key West to stay with her Aunt Minerva.

WHEN is it taking place?

Page 1 of the novel bears the words, June 1935. But even without those specifics, we know from story details that the story is set in an earlier time. They’re driving in a Ford Model A and travelling on a road that kicks ups dust. The pickup truck in front of them is piled with belongings (an iron bed, a rocking chair) and children who are clearly not wearing seatbelts. The baby in that truck has bloomers tied on her head to keep the sun out of her eyes.

Aside from era, we know the story takes place during summer by Turtle’s description of sticking to the car’s leather seats, the dusty road, the baby with the sun in her eyes.

WHAT is going on?

Within several pages we know what the story is about. We’ve seen the mean kids Turtle has had to deal with. We’ve met slick Archie and vulnerable Mama. We know that on Turtle’s journey she’s going to hit a few bumps in the road—literally and figuratively.

StorySleuths’ Tip #94: Create a story beginning users won’t be able to resist by opening with an intriguing first line, getting your narrative hook out there within a few pages and remembering to reveal Marion Dane Bauer’s Four Ws.

Post #4: Chapter Beginnings

Posted by Allyson Valentine Schrier

Saturday, September 11, 2010

NARRATIVE VOICE: Turtle in Paradise (Post #2)

Dear Sleuths,
How many times have you been at a writer’s conference where an editor says, “I’m looking for books with voice”? The editor might use the phrase distinctive narrative voice or authentic voice. Then, when pressed to explain what distinctive narrative voice is, the editor sheepishly shrugs and says, “It’s hard to explain, but I know it when I see it.”
Sometimes, it feels like there is an entire sense of secrecy built up around the concept of voice. You hear about it all the time, but no one seems to agree on what it is or how to get it. Here is a quotation I found in one of my writing books:
A strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want—and something no editor or teacher can impart. (p. 128, Self-editing for Fiction Writers)
Well, when I read Jennifer Holm’s book Turtle in Paradise, I thought to myself, “Here is a clear example of a distinctive and authentic narrative voice. I see it!” But what is that voice? How did Holm create it? Turns out, those editors weren’t lying. It is hard to explain.
Let’s start with a description of voice (note, I did not use the word definition). Author K. L. Going compares narrative voice to people’s actual voices: 
Our word choices and speech patterns reveal who we are, where we’re from, and what we’re thinking…. The same is true for narrative voice. Your narrator can be revealed by what he chooses to say and how he says it. (p. 113, Writing and Selling the YA Novel)
A way of seeing
Eleven-year-old Turtle, who narrates the story, “sees things for what they are,” and she has no qualms speaking her mind. Take this commentary at the beginning of chapter twelve: 
Everyone’s always saying that hard times bring out the best in people, but as far as I can tell, the only thing that hard times brings out is plain meanness. I left my shoes outside on the front porch last night, and some rotten kid stole them (p. 113). 
She has her own perspective on the world, one that’s informed by her experiences, and she has no problem disagreeing with what “everyone says.”

Favorite phrases
The example above includes a couple of Turtle’s favorite phrases of speech, notably “as far as I can tell” and “rotten kids.” She also likes to say “it’s a fact,” “from where I’m sitting,” and “in my opinion.” Turtle has lots of opinions, and she shares them with authority and confidence. Returning to Going’s description of voice, Holm uses word choice and speech patterns to reveal Turtle’s character.

Metaphorically speaking
Given Turtle’s “see things for what they are” attitude, you might guess that the voice of the novel is plain and straightforward. It’s not. While Turtle is cynical and at times jaded, she’s also sassy and witty, with a wry sense of humor. She comes up with unique metaphors to explain her take on events and people. For example, 
Mama’s always falling in love, and the fellas she picks are like dandelions. One day they’re there, bright as sunshine—charming Mama, buying me presents—and the next they’re gone, scattered to the wind, leaving weeds everywhere and Mama crying. (p. 6) 
Metaphors such as this appear throughout the book, enriching the narrative with distinctive imagery and pleasing comparisons.
It’s important to note that the metaphors in the book fit with Turtle’s experiences and era. For example, about her mother, Turtle says, “’Mama’s head is so high in the clouds, I’m surprised she doesn’t bump into Amelia Earhart’” (p. 94). Every kid in 1935 knew about Amelia Earhart. It’s the perfect comparison, both showing us how crazy Turtle thinks Mama is as well as reflecting the time period of the book.

Gee, that's swell
While helping to reveal character, narrative voice also helps build a sense of the book’s time period and setting. The kids in the Diaper Gang don’t say things like “That’s cool,” or “That rots.” They say “gee whiz” and “aww.” Words such as fella, gotta, dough, gang, swell, folks, mama, and sugar all sound appropriate—even authentic—to the 1930s.

They call it banter
In fact, as I read Turtle in Paradise, I couldn’t help but think about a few classic Katherine Hepburn movies such as “Bringing up Baby” or “The Philadelphia Story.” It was more than the choice of appropriate words and historical details such as references to Little Orphan Annie. It was the wittiness of dialogue. Here’s Slow Poke and Turtle after Slow Poke rescues Turtle from the water.
“I thought you said you could swim like a fish,” Slow Poke chides me.
“A dead one,” I say, and cough.
“Honey,” Slow Poke says, shaking his head, “dead fish float.” (p. 68)
Slow Poke might be late to everything, but he’s got a quick wit, as do all the characters in Turtle in Paradise. This smart dialogue, which often ends on a perfect zinger, contributes to the overall narrative voice.
Short story writer Sylvia Watanabe wrote an essay on voice in the book Creating Fiction. After analyzing a story by Flannery O’Connor, Watanabe tried to “identify the specific aspects of a story’s voice.” These aspects, she says, include:
choice of genre, articulation of point of view, treatment of exposition and dialogue, selection of detail, use of language… and the handling of sonics (the sound and rhythm of the prose). Voice, it would seem, abides everywhere in the story. (p. 202)
Perhaps therein lies the issue: voice abides everywhere in the story. I saw one person summarize voice as “what you write and how you write it.” It’s the combination of word choice, attitude, phrases of speech, regional or historical details, and patterns of speaking.
The combination of all these elements in Turtle in Paradise work together to create a distinctive narrative voice.

StorySleuths Tip #93: When writing and revising, look for ways to use distinctive words, metaphors, dialogue, details and patterns of speech, as well as opinions and attitude, to enrich a story’s narrative voice.

Post #3: The Narrative Hook

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Dear Fellow Sleuths,

Whether or not you have finished reading Jennifer Holms’ marvelous book, Turtle in Paradise, you’ve likely already noticed the brilliant job she’s done choosing character names. There’s Turtle, the endearing main character. Slow Poke, a secondary character who plays a large role in Turtle’s life. Turtle’s cat, Smokey, who’s unfortunate name was chosen, prophetically, before her tail was ever set on fire. In choosing names such as these, Holm has honored several rules concerning the naming of characters. First, she has assigned names that are both memorable and fun, and that will appeal to her intended readership. Second, the character names have meaning. Consider Turtle, tough on the outside, but soft and vulnerable beneath, who literally comes out of her shell as the story evolves, discovering aspects of self and family. And the ever-tardy Slow Poke, who, upon learning that his true love, Sadiebelle has gotten married, comments, “Huh—too late again.”

Following another rule, Holm has been careful to select names that reflect the time in which the story takes place. When the story opens and Turtle is reminiscing about the kids that have made her life miserable, she mentions Josephine, Sylvia and Marvin—not Caitlyn, Maddie and Aidan. It turns out that if you do the math, these characters would have been born in 1923 (they are 12 and the story is set in 1935). Referring to the US Government’s Social Security site I found that in 1923 all three of these names appeared on that year’s top 100 baby names list. And looking at statistics for 1905 (around when I thought Aunt Minnie would have been born) I found that the name Minnie was #35 on the popularity chart for that year.

Holm has also taken care to choose character names that reflect the story’s location. In her Author’s Note, she points out that nicknaming was a tradition in Key West. She gives the Key West local residents names that are in keeping with that tradition. There’s the pair of best buddies Beans and Pork Chop, the baby Pudding, and the calamitous friend they all avoid, Too Bad.

We contacted Jennifer Holm (who wins the blue ribbon for Author Quickest to Reply to a StorySleuth’s Email!) and asked her a couple of questions about how she chose names for Turtle in Paradise:

StorySleuths: All the names in Turtle in Paradise shine with originality. Would you share a few thoughts about how you came up with the names you used in this book? Also, was it an intentional choice to have Turtle and Slowpoke have names that one can draw a strong connection between?

Holm: That's a great question. So ... "Turtle" was actually a nod to the historic turtling industry of Key West (green turtle soup, anyone?) Some of the names were inspired by Key West nicknames ("Beans" and "Johnny Cakes" and "Killie the Horse"). There's a man who grew up in KW who actually went around and catalogued peoples' nicknames. "Pork Chop" just sort of grew out of Beans (Pork Chop and Beans--they just go together!) "Papa" was actually Ernest Hemingway's local KW nickname. And finally, "Slow Poke" was more of a little tease for the reader to understand that he's always been chronically late ... and that sometimes being late has big consequences.
More on Choosing Names

There are plenty of web sites that offer tips about how to choose names. Two that I found to be particularly useful are the Tips for Writers section of the Baby Names website, and Anne Marble’s article Name That Character! at the Writing-World website

And where do you go to choose names that help make your characters come to life on the page? I recall a lecture I attended years ago in which Jack Gantos shared one of his sources—graveyards. But you don’t need to walk amongst the dead to find terrific names for your characters, as there are fun and informative sites available online to both look for names, or generate your own.

The Baby Names site offers lists sorted not just by boy and girl, but even has a “cool names” option with categories like spooky names, names in sports, and top pet names. And there is the Social Security website already mentioned which not only lists popular names for a particular birth year, but can show you how a particular name has waxed and waned in popularity over time.

To generate names, take a look at A Barrel Full of Names, or The Seventh Sanctum name generator which generates names for specific categories like your fantasy character, your gnome or your princess.

StorySleuths Tip #92: When choosing character names do your research and choose names that are not only fun and meaningful, but that also reflect the time and location in which the story takes place.

Post #2: Narrative Voice

Posted by Allyson Valentine Schrier

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Happy September!

Dear StorySleuths Readers,

All across the country, children are heading back to school. Summer vacation is over! We hope you had lots of time to read while at the beach, the pool, or in the backyard.

We'll be hanging on to summer a bit longer in our upcoming September read, Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm. It's the story of an eleven-year-old girl sent to live with relatives in Key West, Florida. If you haven't yet read Turtle in Paradise, grab it for Labor Day weekend! It's a humorous, fast-paced tale, the perfect book for the last official weekend of summer.

We will be hitting a milestone here at StorySleuths at the end of September: our first year of blogging! We've read eleven middle grade and young adult novels, plus looked at eight picture books, uncovering 90 writing tips along the way.

As we plan for the next year, we thought it would be great to know a little bit more about you, our readers. Would you take a few minutes to tell us who you are, what you like about StorySleuths, and what you'd like to see in the future? You could either leave us a comment below, or if you prefer, complete a short survey (guaranteed not to take longer than three minutes!).

We're sad to announce that Meg has decided to take a leave of absence in the coming months. She has been an invaluable member of the StorySleuths team. Her schedule is booked this fall, however, due to teaching commitments. Hopefully, she'll grab her magnifying glass and join us from time to time.

In the meantime, have a wonderful Labor Day weekend! We look forward to discussing Turtle in Paradise after the holiday. (Oh, and for those of you who like to read ahead, we'll be looking at Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief in October. What makes it such an engrossing read? One that kids just can't put down? We can't wait to find out.)

Heather and Allyson

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Interview with Karen Cushman: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post # 7)

We StorySleuths are delighted that Karen Cushman, in addition to being a gifted and prolific writer, is an articulate speaker about her own writing process. Having heard her present at the SCBWI Western Washington SCBWI May meeting, we—along with many others—hope that at some point she will write a book about writing for children. In the meantime, we asked her to respond to some questions about writing Alchemy and Meggy Swann, and she graciously agreed.

1. In your May presentation, you described your writing process as “getting the character from here to there.” You mentioned that on occasion you go back and add action to liven the story up, and we are wondering if you can think of an example where you added action to the story of Meggy to “liven it up.”

The scene in the print shop where the fine gentleman talks to Meggy about the baron and her ballad was at first a short, straightforward give-and-take, but there was no tension or drama in it. Adding more confrontational dialogue and a few actions and gestures heightened the sense of danger and Meggy's anxiety and made the scene much more lively.

2. In the webcast about your writing that was recorded at TOPS school in Seattle in May [NOTE to StorySleuths readers—unfortunately the interview is no longer available online], you mentioned that you find the names of your characters in many sources, including your imagination. One source you mentioned is a book about a queen’s expenses and the names of the trades people recorded there. As a “Meg myself, I’m wondering if Meggy had any special connotations for you? I also wonder if her surname intentionally echoes the image of the ugly ducking who becomes a beautiful swan?

Here's the first answer I wrote to this question: "I wish had thought of the duckling to swan metaphor. I might have made more of it. But I didn't. I played around with ideas for the main characters name to see what sounded and fit her best. She was Bessie Blount at first and progressed through many alterations until I hit upon Meggy Swann. I

liked the sound of it, and Meggy was born." But then I found this comment in an interview I gave about a year ago: "She was Bessie Blunt and then Meggy Blunt and then as I wrote about her, the idea of an ugly duckling growing to be a swan led me to Swann." So there you are. You cannot trust a fiction writer. We make up stories even when we're trying to tell the truth. So which is truth and which the story? Ah, that's another question.

3. You have done a fantastic job of creating characters that are memorable and distinct. Did you have a clear picture of Meggy before you started writing, or did she evolve as the story unfolded?

Meggy definitely grew and changed as the story unfolded. Somewhere about a year into it, I titled a draft "Feisty Meggy," and it was there that I began to make her less meek and pliable and more like the Meggy we know.

And her wabbling came about because she had to have a big, serious, important reason to want to be transformed. I began to research types of disabilities. I had to know exactly what was wrong with Meggy, even though she didn't. I decided she had bilateral hip dysplasia, looked into the effects of that, and practiced walking the way she might have in order to describe it as accurately as I could.

4. What changes and revisions in the text did your editor suggest? Were there changes that your editor suggested that you both decided, after considering them, not to make in the final text?

Dinah thought there should be more focus on romantic feelings between Meggy and Roger. "After all," she said, "Juliet was only 13." Ah, said I, but Juliet is fiction. And I quoted extensively from academic sources that estimated the average age of marriage in the Elizabethan era at 26 for men and 23 for women. Men, after all, had to be able to support a wife and family. And celibacy was the only truly effective means of birth control. So Dinah, with a sigh, gave in.

But she prevailed in her suggestion that I cut some of the description. I wanted to use rollicking, roiling words to describe every house, person, business, piece of flotsam or jetsam in the crazy, chaotic city. She convinced me that enough was enough.

And see also the answer to question 7.

5. There are such rich details in Alchemy and Meggy Swann that set the character very firmly in Elizabethan London. We are curious about the kind of research you did to accomplish this. Did the story change in any way as a direct result of the research you did?

In one of the books I was reading about Elizabethan England, I found references to the vagabond laws. I did more research on them and discovered that even players might be considered vagabonds or outlaws if they did not have some noble patron. And so Grimm and Merryman's troubles were born.

And in another book I found the term "dancing house." More research. I decided to add such a place to the narrative and that led eventually to Meggy's desire to dance and, at the very end, Meggy dancing.

6. Was there is a particular element of writing craft that you struggled with, and if so, how did you overcome it?

Plot. Always plot. I read about writing graphs and narrative arcs and such tools for enlivening a plot. They never seem to fit the story I am trying to tell. I seem to wallow in character and setting and struggle with a plot, with telling versus withholding, with hero versus adversary. I don't think I ever really overcome it. I take my characters and put them into a setting, lay out the trajectory of the story, and go.

7. As writers ourselves we often find ourselves going down a path in the story only to find out that it is not a place that enriches the story as we had hoped and so we cut it. Were there any scenes you wrote that you really loved, but they just didn't fit into the story?

I cut, not without a few tears, the first two chapters, which dealt with Meggy at her village home, the ride into London with her kindly Uncle Ott, and her first impressions of the town. Like this, when they begin to cross the bridge into London: [quote]

What woke her was the stink, a sour stew of fish, sewage, horses, and sweat. Short of Hell, she wondered, what kind of place would smell like this?

Or was it the cursing coming from her uncle on the wagon seat beside her...The wheels as they turned churned the mud and cow droppings on the bridge into a great mucky sludge.

No, it was the muck that woke her, she thought. Certes it was the muck, a wad of which flew up and hit her cheek. Yes, definitely the muck. She wiped her face with her skirt and looked around at the people, animals, and wagons crowded about me. “Is this London then, Uncle?” she asked.

“Ah, no, Meggy, my heart’s love, my lily-faced poppet,” said my uncle. “’Tis but the bridge, the gateway to the wonders that are London.”

“Somewhat unwholesome wonders belike, Uncle,” she said as the turning wheels splashed more muck onto her.[end quote]
Dinah convinced me this all was backstory and the story really started with Meggy in the little house in London bemoaning her fate,

8. Could you share one Writing Tip that you learned in the process of writing Alchemy and Meggy Swann?

Bring action to description. Don't just paint a picture of a scene but put someone doing something into it. Early on, for example, I had many paragraphs describing peddlers on the crowded streets of London. It was great description but lifeless. When I lessened the number of peddlers and had them move and shout and interact with Meggy, they came to life.

Thank you, Karen. For more information about Karen and her books, visit her website.

StorySleuths Tip # 91: With thanks to Karen Cushman: “Bring action to description. Don’t just paint a picture of a scene but put someone doing something into it.”

Sunday, August 1, 2010

TRANSITIONS: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post # 6 of 6)

Dear Heather and Meg,

In my own writing I am working on transitions—how do I smoothly cut from one scene to another within a chapter? How do I keep my transitions from bogging down the pacing? Here, I will point out a couple of techniques I noticed in reading Alchemy and Meggy Swann.

#1 Passage of time sets up a transition

On page 12, Meggy has been left by Roger to spend her first night in the skinny house at Crooked Lane. The encounter between Roger and Meggy ends when she, “pulled her cloak over her head and settled back into her nightmares.

The very next paragraph opens with, “Morning came at last, as it ever does.” From here Meggy goes on to experience her second day in London. By having Meggy fall asleep, then wake up, Cushman sets up for a transition from one scene to the next. She does this same thing again on page 34, where one scene ends with, “She slept again, feeling not quite so alone. And thus ended Meggy’s second day in the house at the Sign of the Sun.” The next scene begins with, “She woke to soft rain.” This quick switch from night to day prepares the reader for a change in scene while keeping the story moving forward.

#2 Change in location sets up a transition

When writing a first draft, when I want my character to move to a new location for a new scene, I find that I often show the physical movement from Point A to Point B. This movement serves to interrupt the story's pacing, slowing things down. Cushman demonstrates that the movement is not necessary—just put the character on scene in whatever the next location is. Here, on page 89, Meggy is at Master Allyn’s print shop. The scene ends with, “Meggy bade them farewell, left them to their troubles, and went home to her own.”

A less experienced writer might feel a need to show Meggy hobbling for home, perhaps tossing in a little inner dialogue or conversations with strangers along the way. Instead, Cushman’s next sentence is on scene in the next location:
Her father was seated at the table, a jug of ale before him. He looked up at her, his eyes as flat and black and cold as bits of coal in his pale face.
Another example takes place on page 141, where Meggy is home alone, confronted with just how sorry her lot in life is:
She blubbered and sniveled. Finally, damp and exhausted, she wiped her nose, tied her linen cap on tighter, and hurried from the house. There was one thing she could remedy.

The next paragraph opens:
She pounded the bear’s iron paw against the Grimms’ front door, but no one answered.
Here again, Cushman doesn’t waste time showing the character moving from Point A to Point B, instead she simply puts the character on location and keeps the story flowing.

StorySleuths’ Tip # 90: To change scenes mid chapter consider a quick shift in time or location to move the story forward without slowing down the pacing.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

PLAYING WITH LANGUAGE: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post # 5 of 6)

Dear Heather and Allyson,

What you said about details and about every word counting, Heather, got me thinking about the specific words that Cushman selected in writing Alchemy and Meggy Swann to (1) convey the historical time/setting, and (2) develop the characters.

Some of the unusual words, like “gallimaufry” (p. 4), “fishwife” (p. 4), and “kirtle” (p. 60), were in use in Elizabethan times but are not in common use today, while others, like “dampnified” (p. 4), “annoyous” (p. 10), and “tipsify” (p. 59), seem to have been created out of familiar words. They convey a feeling for another time by sounding old, even though they aren’t “real” words. They sound as if they could be real, though, because we recognize the root of the word, but the added syllables or suffixes are decoys Cushman has used to create the illusion of past usage.

Cushman also uses familiar words in unusual combinations to convey a feeling for the past and to delineate characters, such as Meggy’s repeated exclamation, “ye toads and vipers,” which opens the story and introduces Meggy:
“Ye toads and vipers,” the girl said, as her granny often had, “ye toads and vipers,” and she snuffled a great snuffle that echoed in the empty room. (p. 1) 
Cushman uses the phrase “ye toads and vipers” to individualize Meggy while also filling in part of her backstory--noting that “the girl” had learned the phrase from her granny establishes the connection between them at the outset. And each time “ye toads and vipers” is echoed throughout the novel we get a familiar jolt of recognition.

During a presentation that Karen Cushman made to the Western Washington Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in May, when asked how she came up with some of the unique words that she used to push the story back to Elizabethan times, Cushman said that the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary was a rich resource, as were Shakespeare’s plays, “especially for the insults.” Also, she said, “I sometimes made the structure of the sentence a bit odd” to give the story a sense of both familiarity and distance.

Cushman’s message was to be creative and stretch the limits—but not too far. I can imagine her chortling over some wonderful constructions as she wrote Alchemy and Meggy Swann. One of my favorites is this enraged outburst Meggy addressed to Roger when he turned his back on her and began walking away during one of their altercations:
“Go then, you writhled, beetle-brained knave!” she shouted. “You churl, you slug, you stony-hearted villain! May onions grow in your ears!” (p. 124)

Storysleuths’ Tip # 89: Tackle the challenge of language like a giant jigsaw puzzle, searching in reference materials (and your own imagination) to find pieces that fit together to delineate characters and clarify setting, while avoiding overloading the text with arcane, awkward words and phrases.

Monday, July 26, 2010

EVERY DETAIL MATTERS: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post #4 of 6)

Dear Meg and Allyson,

How many times have you heard an editor or writing teacher say that every detail in a novel counts? That every scene, action, description, sentence, word must contribute in some way, whether advancing the plot, deepening character, or establishing setting?

I’ve attended enough SCBWI meetings and writing conferences to have absorbed this writing edict, and yet sometimes, when I hear it proclaimed, I think, “Really? Every word? Every description? What if something extraneous slips through?”

Well, I had the opportunity this last month to compare a book where every detail matters to a book where some scenes seem, well, unnecessary.

Let’s start with the latter. I won’t name names. Suffice it to say that I picked up the latest mystery novel of a well-known author who has made a career writing fiction and non-fiction all set in a particular place, which I was planning to visit on vacation.

Now, part of the pleasure of this author’s books is the vicarious thrill of reading about beautiful settings, fabulous meals, and witty conversations, but I found myself wondering the purpose some of these scenes served. Why was the author spending so much time describing the gourmet five-course meal the protagonist ate alone during a layover? Would some detail show up later in the book? Would the character return to the restaurant later? Would he discover a clue there to help solve the crime? Alas, the answer was no. The restaurant scene had no function other than showing the character indulging in a good meal. The story would have functioned just as well without it.

I compare this to our July book, Karen Cushman’s Alchemy and Meggy Swann, where every detail seems to matter. Take, for example, the ballad sellers that appear on the streets of Elizabethan London. The first one appears on page 27:
“Come and buy,” a ballad seller called, “a new ballad of Robin Hood.”
This line is embedded within a long series of paragraphs describing Meggy’s first walk in London.

A ballad seller appears again on page 44.
“Come and buy a ballad newly made,” a passing balled seller called. “Mayhap ‘The Ballad of Good Wives’ or ‘The Lover and the Bird.’”
This time, the ballad seller is more than just one of many people on the busy street. The way he carries his papers in a backpack gives Meggy an idea about how to carry her goose, Louise, while also grasping her walking sticks.

Another ballad seller appears on page 74, and at this point, I’m beginning to think, “There were a lot of ballad sellers in London!” Soon, Meggy meets a ballad printer while on an errand for her father. And then Meggy runs into yet another ballad seller while standing outside the baron’s gate on page 130.

What a pleasant surprise (and yet not wholly unexpected) to learn, then, that the solution to Meggy’s problem relates to selling ballads! The way Cushman integrates details about ballad selling and printing, as well as Meggy’s skills with singing and language, make the climax of this story satisfying. The novel feels unified, a tightly woven tapestry where every strand counts.

Let me just conclude by saying that the ballad seller is not the only seemingly small detail that grows in importance in Alchemy and Meggy Swann. Look back at the book to references to the heads on the Tower Bridge and the issue about players needing noble patronage.

StorySleuths Tip #88: Make sure every detail matters. Look for ways to introduce important details early in the story and then re-introduce them throughout the book to create a unified effect.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

ASKING QUESTIONS THROUGH INNER DIALOGUE: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post #3 of 6)

Dear Heather and Meg,

In Meg’s most recent post about Alchemy and Meggy Swann she points to one of Meggy’s problems being her loneliness—she is alone in part or all of many scenes. As a result, much of the dialogue that takes place is inner dialogue—Meggy pondering, noticing, fretting. In looking at how Karen Cushman uses this inner dialogue I became particularly interested in the way that Meggy is continually asking herself questions.

As the story gets underway, on page 2, Meggy has just arrived at what is to be her new home.

“Darkness comes late in high summer, but come it does. Meggy could see little of the room she sat in. Was there food here? A cooking pot? Wood for a fire? Would the peevish looking man—Master Peevish, she decided to call him—would he come down and give her a better welcome?”
Over the following pages Meggy asks herself questions all the time:

• What sort of place was this London? (p. 6)
• Was Master Peevish coming down? Was he sorry he had given her so poor a welcome? (p. 7)
• What was she to do to quiet her grumbling belly? (p. 13)
•Would Master Peevish come downstairs? Did he even recall she was there? Would the boy in the brown doublet come back? (p. 13)
This continues throughout the book, and I think the thing that drew my attention to it is the fact that these questions often appear in clusters. This question-asking accomplishes several things. First, it gives me, the reader, a direct line to, and constant reminder of, Meggy’s problems. Second, it creates suspense. Each of these questions demands an answer. Sometimes the answer comes right away. Sometimes Meggy wonders the same thing over a series of pages and scenes leaving both herself and the reader wondering whether or not her question will be answered and her problems solved.

Further, questions asked by the protagonist allow both the reader and the protagonist to assess progress the character is making toward accomplishing her goals. Toward the end of the book, on page 155 as the story has nearly come to its conclusion Meggy wonders, “Was she so changed? Just when had that happened, and how?” These questions allow both Meggy and the reader to stop for a moment and ponder the answers, revisiting the path that led to the main character accomplishing her goals.

StorySleuths’ Tip # 87: Allowing the protagonist to ask questions can emphasize problems, create suspense and track the character’s progress toward realizing their goals.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

CHARACTER TRANSFORMATION: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post #2 of 6)

Hi Allyson and Heather,

We’ve given 13 of our posts the “characters” label--we’ve examined antagonists, minor characters, contrasting characters, character development, character wants vs. needs, putting characters under pressure, and differentiating characters through dialogue, among other character-related topics. But no matter how many times and how many ways we look at character, it seems there’s always something new to learn about character from great writers.

One of the many qualities of Karen Cushman’s writing that intrigues me is the power and immediacy of her characters. I wondered: how does Cushman entice me to care so keenly about Meggy? In rereading Alchemy and Meggy Swann, I looked for clues that might help me portray vivid characters in my own writing.

In the same way that Cushman describes the setting of Elizabethan London using various ways (the five senses, contrast, lists, and language), she defines Meggy’s problems and strengths in various ways. Cushman uses repetition, dialogue, and the five senses to clarify Meggy’s problems, and she uses action, memories and dreams to clarify Meggy’s strengths.



Meggy’s first problem is that she is alone. Her opening exclamation is a response to her aloneness:
“Ye toads and vipers,” the girl said, as her granny often had, “Ye toads and vipers,” and she snuffled a great sniffle that echoed in the empty room. She was alone…” (p.1)

Farther down the page, “alone” is echoed:
She was alone, with no one to sustain or support her.

"Alone" is echoed again in the same paragraph:
Belike Louise was on her way back out of the town with the carter, leaving the girl here frightened and hungry and alone. (p. 1-2)

And it is reechoed again, at the end of the chapter:
The dark, the cold, the strange noises, the unfriendly man who had judged her, found her wanting, and left her alone— (p. 6)

The repetition of “alone” tolls like a bell, reminding us of Meggy’s aloneness.


Meggy has another problem: she’s hungry. Although we’re told that she’s hungry (“frightened and hungry and alone”), her hunger is emphasized as we listen to her interact with other characters through dialogue. She calls to Roger:
“You cannot abandon me here. What am I to do here? Who will tend to me? And fetch me things to eat?” (p. 11) 
She adds:
“You will have to fetch me food.” (p. 12) 
Hearing her desperate pleas for food in her own words emphasizes the intensity of her problem.

The five senses

By using the five senses to describe Meggy’s pain and sadness, Cushman engages readers directly—we see her tears:
…tears left shining tracks like spider threads on her cheeks (p. 2),  
touch and taste them:
…she could not dash the tears away. They felt sticky on her lips, and salty. (p. 3); 
hear her singing:
…she sang, but the sound of her trembly voice in the empty room was so mournful that she stopped and sat silent while darkness grew.” (p. 4) 
and smell what comforts her:
she breathed in the familiar smell of goose and grew sleepy. (p. 6).
The strong sensory images connect us viscerally to Meggy.



Meggy’s transformations from hunger to eating, from loneliness to neighborliness, from pain to strength, all begin with action. Driven by hunger, Meggy sets out to buy food.
A rumble from her belly finally sent Meggy reaching for her walking sticks. (p. 24) 
At the end of this venture she takes the initiative to introduce herself to the friendly cooper:
“Margret Swann, if it please you.” Then, surprising herself, she added, “Called Meggy, if you will.” (p. 31) 
Meggy’s actions continue to get her what she longs for—friendship:
“Nay, you have a friend” (p. 57), 
She sat down at the table and feasted on chicken and apple cake (p. 60),
and strength:
"I will stand, Master Printer. I am not breakable, and I be stronger than I look." And to her surprise, she realized she was. (p. 87)


In addition to action, Meggy’s memories are sources of her strength. Memories of her gran give her empathy for others and “ease her spirit.”
Her gran, soft and warm and smelling of meadow grasses and ale, had cooed at her so and sung her to sleep. Meggy let the little girls snuggle up against her, which eased her spirit just as the drink eased her bones. (p. 51)


Meggy’s dreams lead directly to her transformation.
In her dreams she danced and ran, but only in her dreams. (p. 29)
 Suffice it to say, for those who haven’t yet finished the book, that transformation grows from Meggy’s actions, as well from the memories of her loving gran, and from her own dreams.

StorySleuths’ Tip # 86--Use all the tools in your writer’s toolbox to create complex and believable characters—including repetition, dialogue, the five senses, action, the character’s memories, and the character’s dreams, to make even radical transformation believable to readers.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

IMPRESSION, ELIZABETHAN LONDON: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post 1 of 6)

Dear Meg and Allyson,

Last month, we read One Crazy Summer, a work of historical fiction set in Oakland, California, 1968. Now we reach back in time with our July book, Karen Cushman's new middle grade novel Alchemy and Meggy Swann, to another summer. Here it's 1573 in Elizabethan London, a city described by the protagonist as "all soot and slime, noise and stink" (p. 2).

(Quick scheduling note for those of you planning your summer reading: This is the first in our series of six posts on Alchemy and Meggy Swann, which will culminate with an interview with Karen Cushman in early August. The StorySleuths will then spend the rest of August engaged in some summer reading of our own. We will return with a new book and fall schedule in September. To stay posted on our September read, please sign up for our newsletter .)

Cushman brings London to life in Alchemy and Meggy Swann, capturing both the specifics of the time period as well as the frenetic energy of an urban center in any time period:
... the streets were gloomy, with tall houses looming on either side, rank with the smell of fish and the sewage in the gutter, slippery with horse droppings, clamorous with church bells and the clatter of car wheels rumbling on cobbles. London was a gallimaufry of people and carts, horses and coaches, dogs and pigs, and such noise that made Meggy's head, accustomed to the gentle stillness of a country village, ache. (p. 4).
How does Cushman create such a vivid impression of Elizabethan London?

The five senses
Cushman's narrative descriptions include sound, sight, smell, tastes, and touch. Here are just a few examples from Meggy's trip to find her friend Robert (p. 42):
Sound: "Shop signs swung and banged in the wind..."
Sight: "... the afternoon was wet, with mist rising off the river."
Smell: "The girl and goose stood in the fragrant steam rising from an inn."
Taste: "The crust [of a pork pie] crumbled deliciously against her teeth..."
Touch: "... meaty juices bespattered her chin."
Meggy's childhood growing up in the country contrasts sharply with life in the city.
She missed the scents of fresh ale and clean rushes and meat turning on the spit. This house stank of dust and mildew, and from somewhere, a foul reek like hen's eggs gone rotten. All in all it did not seem a place where people truly lived (p. 13).
Cushman uses contrast to differentiate between Meggy's expectations and her present experiences.

Visiting a strange city is often exhausting: there is so much to observe at any given moment. Cushman creates the sensation of busy, crowded streets with lists rather than dense descriptions.
Every corner swarmed with people: peddlers and rat catchers, toy merchants and dung collectors, silken-cloaked ladies and children in ragged breeches, all going about their lives, laughing, shouting, arguing, jeering, and jostling. (p. 26)
The list jumps from one person to the next, providing a wide scope of view in a concise format. The reader never feels bogged down in detailed description or superfluous information. Furthermore, the list also mimics the way an observer's gaze jumps from one thing to another.

Cushman's choice of words also helps to convey the time period and location in her descriptions. Here is another list, this one of food:
...apples and pears, carrots and cowcumbers, fat salmon, pigs' trotters, chunks of cheese, and ginger cakes. (p. 30).
While I am unfamiliar with the term cowcumber, I assume it is an old-fashioned word for cucumber. The use of this word reminds me that the book takes place in another time and place.

The setting of Alchemy and Meggy Swann plays an important role in the book. Meggy has moved to London against her will, and she fears she will not survive in such a place. Cushman brings the chaos and vibrancy of the city to life throughout the book in a textured, almost impressionistic way through her use of senses, contrasts, lists, and language.

Tip #85: Lists, word choice, contrasts, and sense details work together to create a textured, lively impression of place.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Guest post by Monica Edinger--ONE CRAZY SUMMER: Attending to your audience

Thinking about how engaging One Crazy Summer might be for teachers to read with children, StorySleuths asked master teacher and 2008 Newbery Committee member Monica Edinger to share her thoughts and experiences of reading the story aloud to her class. Her insights illuminate considerations we as writers would do well to heed. For more of her insights about books for children, reading, writing, teaching, and much more, check out her blog Educating Alice. (Photo is of Rosemary Brosnan and Rita Williams-Garcia with Monica.) This post may make you wish your children could be in Monica’s class!

When I received the ARC for One Crazy Summer around a year ago, I took a look at the flap copy and was immediately intrigued. The summer of 1968? Folks in Afros and black berets? A time and people that I’d yet to see much of in stories for the age group I taught --- fourth graders. Those I had encountered often felt overly earnest, their authors working hard to make connections to situations today, say linking the Vietnam War to our current engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Or they focused on familiar icons and events of the civil rights movement. This book looked different.

And so it turned out to be. During that first reading a year ago I fell completely in love with those three sisters, their story, and Rita’s poetic and elegant prose. Months later, after learning that I’d reviewed it for the New York Times, my fourth grade students asked me to read it to them. They were alert and insightful listeners --- laughing as Fern said yet again “surely,” curious about the Black Panthers (I showed them that photo of Huey with the shotgun), and moved (not upset) by the girls’ complex mother.

As I read and reread the book, on my own and to my students, I was progressively more and more impressed with Rita’s sensitivity for her intended audience. I've noticed that this is a particularly tricky thing for those writing for children. Some claim not to be aware of their audience while others seem too aware. Don’t you, I've ask some writers, think about your intended reader when writing? No, some of them answer, I only think about the story. But, I will persist, you clearly make decisions that affect that audience. You use one word instead of another. You consider what a young person will know or not know. Perhaps you do it unconsciously, but you do it. No, they will tell me, I just think about my story not about who will read it.

At the other end of the spectrum are those writers who over-think and over-focus on their young readers. These are writers who earnestly and always with the best of intentions, moralize and instruct all too obviously. One hilarious example is Lewis Carroll who talks down most cloyingly to his young audience in his Nursery Alice. One of my students did a wonderful parody of this with, of all things, The Golden Compass.

Rita, I feel, manages this tightrope just right. She respects her young readers, trusts them, and serves them beautifully. While not shying away from having Cecile tell Delphine about her sad and hellish childhood, she does it in a way appropriate for a middle grade reader. What it needed to be, but no more. Similarly, she doesn’t overdo the Black Panther information, giving them a taste, but no more.

This spring Rita visited my classroom and met with our faculty book group where she spoke of deep awareness and personal connection to the Black Panthers. Yet she was very careful not to allow that personal knowledge to take over the story --- she always kept it completely grounded in Delphine, just the way it needed to be for her and for the children today who would read the story. For more about our day with Rita, how I read the book to my students, and their own responses to it please check out this blog post of mine, One Crazy Day.

Thank you, Monica, for this stunning and insightful post, which wraps up our StorySleuths focus on One Crazy Summer.

StorySleuths Tip # 84: Be aware of the audience and adjust the writing accordingly, but don’t overdo this so the writing becomes didactic or forced.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Poet Julie Larios on Joyce Sidman’s UBIQUITOUS: “a symphony of a book”

The StorySleuths are once again overjoyed to share a review prepared especially for us by poet Julie Larios. This time, Julie looks at Joyce Sidman's book, UBIQUITOUS: Celebrating Nature's Survivors. Take it away, Julie!

Not only is “ubiquitous”* a good word to describe the poet Joyce Sidman lately (*Definition: something that is – or seems to be—everywhere at the same time), it’s also the title of her most recently released collection of poetry.

UBIQUITOUS: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors is the new jewel in Sidman’s impressive string of picture books over the last five years, all of which have garnered critical attention and praise, and two of which (Red Sings from Treetops and Song of the Water Boatman) have been named Caldecott Honor books. Beckie Prange, the talented artist who paired up with Sidman for Song of the Water Boatman, is back, illustrating what some people might consider daunting subjects for poets and readers (bacteria, lichens, diatoms, grasses!) as well as more familiar animals and plants like sharks, coyotes, squirrels, and dandelions. Homo sapiens put in an appearance, as do crows, ants, beetles and—one of my favorites— mollusks (“…the pink lip/of a pearled world. // Who swirled your whorls and ridges?”)

What could pull these seemingly unrelated subjects together into a collection of poetry? Well, it’s all there in the subtitle: These are nature’s survivors – tenacious, sturdy, prolific, adaptable, diverse and street-smart (meadow-smart , muck-smart, desert smart and saltwater-smart, too!) It’s a fresh and wonderful concept that’s been executed with elegance – and I do think “elegance” is the right word. The book is not as playful as Red Sings from Treetops, nor is it as serene as Song of the Water Boatman, nor as simple as This Is Just to Say. It isn’t a melody, as those other three seem to be; instead, this book feels positively symphonic. While each one of the poems might be said to function as part of a song line through the book, the non-fiction which accompanies each poem on the facing page is quite a bit longer and more densely packed. It provides deep harmony and variations on the theme. Think Beethoven for this book rather than Mozart!

That’s not to say that Sidman’s particular style as a poet has changed. She’s still got her signature range of traditional forms (for example, several concrete poems, which echo the shape of the object being described) and rhythms, metered as well as free verse, rhyming and non-rhyming lines. This time around, though, the diction is slightly altered. For example, one of my favorites, called “Scarab,” (shaped like the beetle it describes) is almost incantatory: - you’re there, in Egypt, along with the Pharoahs, worshipping:

                                              found me, you
                                      are blessed. Born a grub,
                                  cradled in rot, I am Sheath-wing,
                                 beloved of ancients. You have never
                                  seen armor like mine. As the sun-god
                               rolls his blazing disk overhead, so I roll my
                               perfect sphere of dung across the sands….

(“Sheath-wing” is actually a translation of the word “coleoptera” – the scientific order to which beetles belong. Thank you, Joyce Sidman, for the look at etymology!) I was going to say that the diction and tone of the book are more serious, but that’s not right –they’re simply more intricate.

Have I said yet that teachers and non-fiction addicts will love this collection? On the page facing “Scarab,” the text provides readers with a whole slew of facts about relative size, length of time on earth, and traits which help it survive (did you know beetles have forewings that act almost like armor and allow the beetle to survive in just about any climate?) Added to this material, the illustrator provides a visual step-by-step of the insect’s larval stages. That’s what I mean about a symphony – all kinds of synchronic information to balance the melodic poetry.

Another strong poem (“Come with Us”) provides the song line for coyotes (canis latrans: barking dog!)

Come, come with us!

Come into the woods at evening.

Come canter across the cornfields,

Come slink in the dusk like smoke.

Come, come with us!

Come plunder the wind’s riches….

Meanwhile, on the facing page, Sidman tells us about the adaptability of coyotes to whatever helps them survive, such as a change in social structure or natural habitat (coyote populations come closer and closer now to suburban settings.)

Animals don’t get all the attention. Look at how deftly Sidman handles the anthropomorphizing of grass:

I drink the rain,

I eat the sun;

Before the prairie woods
I run…

On steppe or veld
Or pampas dry,

Beneath the grand
enormous sky,

I make my humble
bladed bed.

And where there’s level ground,
I spread.

“…my humble / bladed bed.” That’s the kind of phrase only a talented poet can write. Someone else might have written “My humble little bed” and the whole poem would have imploded into sentimental schlock. But Sidman knows how to hunt for the perfect word. “Bladed” snaps the poem right back into the natural world – razor-sharp, not sweet and saccharine.

Prange’s linocuts, hand-colored with watercolors (thank you, Houghton Miflin, for providing this information on the pub data page of the book! How I wish more publishers did it!) employ a whole new palette of super-saturated colors for Sidman’s words. The title page alone is worth the price of admission – bright purple, fiery orange, glowing gold, deep black. And the end-papers – well, all I can say about those is don’t pass them up. An illustrator’s note at the end provides an explanation for them.

The author, illustrator, editor and book designer haven’t left a single thing out of this symphony of a book – poems, non-fiction notes, a glossary, author and illustrator notes, and a gecko whose body stands out in relief on the front cover (and whose tail wraps around to the back of the book!) UBIQUITOUS is a singular intersection of language, visual art and science . It adds quite a nice touch to the shelf of Sidman books I’ve been collecting (and oh, it looks like another book, titled Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night is coming out just after Labor Day this year….hooray!)

Thank you, Julie, for once again sharing with us and our readers a deeper look into the world poetic!

StorySleuths Tip #83: Don’t think for a moment that non-fiction needs to be dull! Give a topic your own new, fresh take and create something unforgettable.