Wednesday, March 31, 2010

THEME: Charles & Emma

When we read Claire Rudolf Murphy’s passionate recommendation for Charles and Emma on The Storyteller’s Inkpot, a blog produced by faculty members of Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, we were curious to learn more so we invited Claire to join our conversation about the book here.

Dear Heather,

Since I raved about Charles and Emma a few weeks ago on our Hamline blog, The Storyteller’s Inkpot, you invited me to write a post for your blog this month. This book did indeed knock my socks off. I even called it sexy. Sexy in that it grabs you from the first page with Charles Darwin’s thoughts of marriage and keeps you focused, turning pages. Many of us adults have been in that marriage quandary. Teen readers may be wondering if they ever will.

Hundreds of books have been written about Darwin, including his own The Origin of Species, published in 1859, twenty-one years after his wedding. But none have ever focused on Darwin's relationship with his devout Christian wife Emma. And that is what makes this book high concept nonfiction. It reads like a great novel. Indeed they do marry. But the promise revealed in the first chapter is carried all the way through: How can you love someone who doesn't believe like you do?

So Heather, when you asked me to post more reflections on this book, I am now several weeks removed from my first study of it. I so admire the way all three of you have discussed and dissected craft in this and other books and included tips for writers of all ages. My discussion is more wide-ranging, but mainly it focuses on theme, the heart of the book and where it came from.

What has stayed with me is how relevant this book’s theme still is today. We still live in a culture of believers and nonbelievers, evolutionists and creationists. If Charles and Emma figured out how to live and love peacefully, then can’t we all respect our differences? It’s gotten so ugly, even violent nowadays.

Heiligman found her theme for Darwin’s life by exploring his relationship with something she cared passionately about - religion. A religious studies' major in college, she’s been thinking and studying about religion and spirituality for decades.

Some editors would say, “Steer away from such a controversial topic. We don’t want to turn off readers.” But don’t we all respect a fair debate, a meeting of the minds or not? That’s what Heiligman presents for us readers – a way to disagree and still get along. She confronts the elephant in the room, and readers like me are cheering her on.

Modern politics and religion have lost this polite discourse, and we are the poorer for it. It’s often said that a writer’s perspective on history is influenced more by the culture of her day, than by the historical setting she is writing about.

What about the rest of your readers? Did it hit you the same way? Wow – Heiligman takes on this hot topic subject that we’re still going at today and likely will until the end of human time.

Maybe one aspect that makes this tricky subject readable is that Darwin didn’t ram his beliefs down his wife’s throat. He waited twenty years to publish it, for fear of its reception in Christian England, and what it would do to his family. Christian Emma supported non-believer Charles every step of the way, in spite of worrying that they would not be together in heaven. But in the end, it wasn’t the big issue of religion that challenged them the most, but rather illness and death and the small challenges of daily life.

By waiting and revising over that many years, Darwin’s book became stronger, and so did their relationship. What a lesson for us all. Give it time – whether a book, a loved one, a cause we believe in.

Not only was Heiligman a religious studies major, she met her scientist husband in college. In her acknowledgements she notes that she never would have written this book without the years of discussions between them about the intersection between religion and science. She couldn’t have written that high concept nonfiction book without her own life experiences.

I believe that is what we are asked to do as writers: tap deeply into what we know about people and life at such a deep level that it rings true for readers, whether fiction or nonfiction. Maybe not for twenty years, but time enough for the story to season and grow.


Claire Rudolf Murphy is the author of seventeen books of fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults, including Children of Alcatraz: Growing Up on the Rock; Daughters of the Desert: Remarkable Women of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Traditions; Children of the Gold Rush and the upcoming picture book Susan B., Mama and B. She has an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and is a member of the Hamline University MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults faculty. You can learn more about her books at

StorySleuths Tip #58: Tap deeply into what we know about people and life at such a deep level that it rings true for readers, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

TRANSITIONS: Charles and Emma

Dear Heather,

You're right that Heiligman packed a lot into the first eleven pages of Chapter 1 of Charles and Emma.

Take a look at what she covers in just five pages in Chapter 2! At the same time she builds tension by postponing the conversation about the "big fear," she also:
  1. clarifies the journey to the setting where the conversation will take place;
  2. describes Charles's father;
  3. orients readers to the historical time frame in terms young readers will understand;
  4. explains the family's religious beliefs that will impact the discussion between Charles and his father;
  5. introduces Charles's siblings and their relationships to Charles;
  6. summarizes Charles's informal and formal education from childhood to young adulthood;
  7. illustrates Charles' relationship with his older brother through a specific anecdote;
  8. foreshadows Charles's future activities by referring to a relationship with a freed slave;
  9. explains why Charles decided not to pursue a medical career; and
  10. refocuses on The Question: What is the problem that Charles thought "Was so big that he hadn't put it on his Not Marry list"?

But in spite of covering so much ground, I followed Heiligman. How, I wondered, does she orient her readers and keep us on track so we don't get whiplash moving from one scene and time period to another every few sentences? Why do her transitions seem smooth and seamless?

1. Repeated words. Heiligman repeats words to help readers make connections. The first sentence ends with "home" and the second sentence begins with "home," propelling us headlong into the chapter which will describe Charles's home.
"To talk to his father, Charles set out for home. Home was the Mount..." (p. 17).
The next paragraph picks up the house's name, "The Mount was typical of Georgian architecture from the previous century." References to people are also repeated as the focus moves from one topic to another. Heiligman describes the house in terms of what "Charles's father" liked, then in the next sentence she describes the physical appearance of "Charles's father":
The house had regular, strict proportions, which was how Charles's father liked things. Charles's father, Dr. Robert Darwin, was a huge man--over three hundred pounds, with a huge personality and reputation to match. (p. 17)
2. Punctuation. A sentence with two parenthetical inserts is followed by a sentence in the following paragraph with a longer parenthetical phrase, cluing readers in to comparisons they'd be familiar with. Repeated parenthetical inserts smooth the connection between disparate time periods in Charles's life--moving backward in time from his growing up to his birth:
[maids and other servants were expected to] keep the fires going to make the house warm(ish), prepare the meals, do the laundry (by hand), and in general run the house, just as they had when Charles was growing up.

Charles was born at the Mount on February 12, 1809 (the very same day a baby named Abraham Lincoln was born across the Atlantic Ocean in a log cabin in Kentucky) (p. 18)
3. Re-echoed concepts. "Hunting and shooting" is mentioned on page 19, "As he got older, his great love was hunting and shooting;" "shooting" is again reechoed in the quotation from the letter written to Charles by his father: "You care for nothing but shooting...." (p. 21)

4. Foreshadowing. Heiligman foreshadows Charles's future activities by describing his earlier interests, adding coherence and connection to different time periods of his life. As young boy, "Charles could entertain himself for hours just by thinking, or observing birds "(p. 19). As a medical student in Edinburgh, he learned "how to stuff birds. This would become quite handy later on" (p. 20).

The amount of research Heiligman integrated smoothly into her story is mindboggling. Her website describes her research on location and using primary and secondary sources. Her successful creation of a storyline anchored in research is an inspiring model for non-fiction writers. And her transitions make following her story a delightful ride.

If you're just now reading Charles and Emma, in Chapter 3 you'll find out what was Charles's "problem that was so big he hadn't put it on his Not Marry list." (p. 21) Read on!

Storysleuths Tip #57: Clear transitions can orient your reader to rapid fire changes in time frames, settings, and action.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

FIRST CHAPTER: Charles and Emma

Dear Meg and Allyson,
I’m not sure how to begin this posting other than by confessing my complete admiration for the first chapter of Deborah Heiligman’s award-winning book Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith. In the first chapter, Charles Darwin ponders a question of critical importance: to marry or not to marry. A true scientist, he draws a line down the middle of a piece of paper and begins listing support on both sides.

Under Marry, he writes “constant companion (& friend in old age).” Under Not Marry, he writes, “freedom to go where one liked.”

As the chapter proceeds, and Darwin adds support for both sides of his list, Heiligman draws the reader step-by-step into Darwin’s world.

In just eleven pages, the first chapter of Charles and Emma:
  • Provides background information
  • Introduces the primary character
  • Establishes setting
  • Introduces the central problem
  • Builds tension, and
  • Hooks the reader.
Of course, all of these items, with the exception of the first, are critical elements for any first chapter. First chapters have to work hard—every word counts!

So let’s pause for a second on that issue of background information. Charles and Emma is a work of non-fiction (winner, in fact, of the first ever YALSA Award for Excellence in Non-Fiction).

While most readers probably know the basics of Darwin’s life and his theories, they may not know the particulars, such as how long exactly the voyage on the Beagle lasted or how England was changing due to industrialization. Heiligman needs readers to understand Darwin’s world and character before moving on to examine how his marriage impacted his scientific work.

The first chapter includes a wealth of background details, which fall into four primary topics:
  1. Biographical details, including Darwin’s age, physical description, his father and brother, his extended family, and the death of his mother.
  2. Life in London in 1838, including friends, the changes brought by industrialization, current religious debates, possible romantic interests, and Darwin’s apartment.
  3. Work as a naturalist, including the voyage on the Beagle, specimens, discoveries, colleagues, theories about transmutation (evolution), and his encounters with native people in South America.
  4. General concerns about marriage, including the joy and burden of children, fear about illness, financial issues, potential dislike of in-laws, desire for companionship, and loss of time.

Despite the numerous and specific details that appear throughout the first chapter, the narrative never slows down.

How does Heiligman manage to maintain pace and interest?

First, Heiligman uses Darwin’s Marry, Not Marry list as an organizing principle.
She shows Darwin writing the list in real time. Each item on the list provides a jumping point to introduce relevant backstory or character details. For example, under Not Marry, he wrote, “Loss of time.” Heiligman explains how much time Darwin’s work requires. 
He felt sure that if he could work it [a new theory of transmutation] through, he would change the way the world thought about creation… He had started the great project already, and he was consumed by it, giving it hours and hours every day (p. 11). 
The Marry, Not Marry list provides shape to the chapter, forcing Heiligman to return to Darwin’s specific concerns about marriage, while allowing her to explore his motivations and experience.

Next, Heiligman focuses on interesting details in her descriptions.
Here is a list of items in Darwin’s apartment:
neatly stacked wooden crates, casks and barrels filled with many of their treasures from Patagonia, Brazil, Chile, and Tierra del Fuego: fossil bones, skins, shells, fish preserved in spirits of wine, mammalia in spirits of wine, insects, reptiles and birds in spirits of wine, plants, rocks, carcasses of dead animals, and beetles (p. 6).
The concrete details show where Darwin traveled, how he worked, and what interested him.

Heiligman takes time to show Darwin’s social life.
Sure, he’s an intellectual scientist, busy with his notebooks and observations, but he also likes spending time with his friends and family. Heiligman even describes three sisters competing for Charles’s attentions. The focus on social relationships is important. Not only does it show Charles’s humanity, but it also provides a connection point between Charles and a teenage reader, who, like Charles, also faces pressure from family and a desire to develop friendships.

The Marry, Not Marry list provides an inherent point of debate.
Should Charles follow the will of society and marry? Or should he devote himself to his work? Will a wife prevent him from achieving his goals? Could he live a life without companionship? These questions are no different than those faced by people today. Young readers may not be considering marriage, per se, but they certainly worry about balancing time with friends, family, school work, athletics, and boyfriends or girlfriends.

Heiligman ends the chapter with a new question to propel readers into chapter two.
As Charles realizes that he wants to marry, Heiligman reveals a new problem, a fear so great that Darwin can’t even write it down. Before committing to marriage, he must talk to his father. What is this big problem? Read on. The answer is in chapter two.

Heiligman’s use of the Marry, Not Marry list is a brilliant start to Charles and Emma. The list provides structure to the chapter, allowing Heiligman opportunities to introduce important people and experiences in Darwin’s life, while staying true to the central focus of the book, the way that Darwin’s marriage impacted his work.

StorySleuths Tip #56: Find an organizing principle such as a list to gave to shape to information and build tension.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Interview with Jacqueline Kelly

After reading and studying Jacqueline Kelly's book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate the StorySleuths wanted to get to know her book (and her!) better. She gratiously agreed to answer a few questions for us, and to offer a StorySleuths Tip.

Thank-you, Jacqueline!

StorySleuths: There are such rich details in your novel that set the character very firmly in a place and time. We are curious about the kind of research you did to accomplish this.

J.K: Oddly enough, I didn't do that much specific research, because I've always been interested in the turn of that century, and I seem to have picked up details about it like a sponge over the years. For example, I love Doctorow's Ragtime. It's one of a handful of books that I re-read over the years, and it's full of rich period detail. I also got some information from my 80-year-old mother (I'm thinking of the strips of fly-paper hanging in the kitchen, and winding your hair in rags to create ringlets.) A friend of mine just recently gave me a facsimile of the Sears catalog from 1900. It's full of such wonderful stuff. How I wish I'd had it before I started writing the book.

StorySleuths: Following up on the first question, we wonder if the story changed in any way as a direct result of the research you did?

J.K.: Nope, not really.

StorySleuths: We wonder if there is a particular element of writing craft that you struggled with, and how you overcame it.

J.K.:  I worried a bit about the level of language and vocabulary in the book, and I was occasionally tempted to simplify some of it. I'm glad I didn't, because teachers and librarians tell me how much they appreciate making their young charges stretch a bit.

So now I say, make 'em go to the dictionary!

StorySleuths:  You have done a fantastic job of creating characters that are clear and distinct. We are curious as to whether you had a clear picture of Calpurnia before you started writing, or did she evolve as the story unfolded?

J.K.: I knew just about everything I needed to know about Calpurnia when she popped up on the first page. I could hear her voice in my head, and I knew what she was all about.

By the way, the first chapter was originally just a short story. I showed it to my writing group, and they all told me that I should turn the story into a novel. I was not happy to hear this as I'd never written a novel before, and it all sounded like such a huge project that I didn't even want to think about it. With their help and support, I got through it. I always tell young writers that they have to find or form a critique group that they trust, and then mercilessly mine and exploit its opinions.

StorySleuths: 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?

J.K.: I originally wrote a fairly long epilogue that told what happened to the family over the years. Unfortunately, several of the brothers would have gone off to WW I, which made the story end on a sad note rather than the tentatively optimistic note I wanted. My editor asked me to take it out before publication. Originally I wasn't sure about her advice, but now I know that she was right.

StorySleuths: Could you share one writing tip that you learned in the process of writing your book?

J.K.: I had trouble keeping track of plot during the writing of the book. Now I'm working on The Willows Redux, which is a sequel to The Wind in the Willows, one of my favorite books of all time. I got myself a large piece of whiteboard on which I map out various potential plot points. Very low-tech, but I find it terrifically helpful.

StorySleuths Tip #55: Take a break from writing to map out potential plot points on a large piece of paper or whiteboard. Many writers find this exercise helps them unclutter their story, uncovering and organizing plot points.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

SETTING IN HISTORICAL FICTION:The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Dear Heather and Meg,

I’m going to begin by sharing two anecdotes that, taken together, lead to the point about writing I wish to make as a result of a close read of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.

First, when Deborah Noyes, writer and Candlewick editor, read the first five pages of my novel about a Mexican girl who had recently emigrated to the US, she pointed out that my main character seemed to be noticing things about her home country that only a tourist would notice. Aha!

Second, when working on a novel set in the mid-1920’s I was tickled to find a Montgomery Ward catalogue from 1924 at an antique shop in Seattle. In it I found all kinds of information useful to make the time and place in my novel feel more true to my readers. I learned that my boy character might wear navy blue serge knickerbockers and a checkered woolen cap. The lady running the shop in town might wear a Chappie coat with a jacquette blouse and a neat pair of two-strap patent-leather Slippers. Her hair might be styled in a Venetian Wave. There could be a nickel plated alarm clock by the bed—one that only needed winding once a week. And in the kitchen, a Windsor refrigerator which Costs less money! Uses less ice! And Saves more food!

The problem was, when I stuck these precious tidbits into my story, they sounded exactly like that—precious tidbits. Aha!

Here is the link between these two anecdotes. In Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, author Janet Burroway says, “If the world itself is in some way exotic, you will need to work in the opposite direction, to make it seem as familiar as the nearest mall.” (p. 131)

Whether I am writing about a different culture (the young girl from Mexico), or a different era (1924), the things I discover in my research are exotic to me. My job as a writer is to afford these things no more reverence or notice than the main character would. This boils down to an issue of how we treat setting. Again, I turn to Janet Burroway for a definition:
setting involves everything that supports and impinges on your characters. The props of the world—artifacts and architecture, infrastructure, books, food, fabrics, tools and technology—create and sustain identity. (p. 131)
The details of setting and the way our characters relate to them dictate how true the story will feel to our readers—is this the main character’s experience? Or is it the experience as told through the filter of a middle-aged white woman living in rural Washington in 2010?

I went back and thumbed through my tattered copy of L.M. Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables to see how she treated the “props of the world.” That book was written in 1908 as contemporary literature, or at least literature set in the lifetime of the author, who was intimately familiar with the setting. It is roughly the same time period in which The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is set. Here is what I found.

In that book, the main character Anne is picked up at the train station by Matthew Cuthbert who is driving, “the buggy and the sorrel mare.” (p. 10) No details are given about what the buggy looked like, because anyone living in that time would have known what they looked like.

When Anne is given chores to do, “she made her bed less successfully, for she had never learned the art of wrestling with a feather tick.” (p. 39) At the time this book was written a feather tick was a common household item and did not bear defining.

When it is time for Anne to tidy up before going to the picnic she flies “to the washstand.” At the time the story takes place, indoor plumbing was not something enjoyed by all, especially not in rural settings. Because it is common, the author does not point to it as if to say, “Look! Notice this! I have inserted something factual about the place and time!”

And finally, when Anne recounts for Marilla her unpleasant day at school she says, “Mr. Phillips said my spelling was disgraceful and held up my slate so that everybody could see it, all marked over.” (p. 103) There is no fuss made about the fact that she is working with a slate instead of pencil and paper, and no reference to its size or color is made, because any child of that time would have been intimately familiar with this object and it would require no further description.

In order to be true to her character and her setting a writer placing her story in the past needs to make as little fuss about her character’s interaction with everyday items as Montgomery does in her novel. That said I will add a caveat: when writing historical fiction I do believe that a modern writer needs, from time to time, to add a definition that a writer of that era would not have needed. If Jacqueline Kelly had chosen to have Calpurnia sleep on a feather tick, for example, she may have chosen to find a clever way to explain what one is (a cotton or linen sack filled with feathers and sewn shut, in case you are interested). The job faced by a writer of historical fiction is to add those definitions in an unobtrusive way.

Now, finally, I turn to my focus to The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, a book in which I believe the author does a great job of setting the reader in a place and time that feels genuine because of the well crafted setting. There are places where she adds a definition that a writer of 1899 would likely not have, but I believe she does so judiciously, and in a way that feels true to the story. Apologies in advance for the lack of page citations—I read this on a Kindle and have not yet found a way to cite pages—anyone reading this who knows whether this is even possible – I would love to hear about it!

Kelly’s opening line leaves no question on the reader’s part about the time in which the story is set: “By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.” (p.1) But throughout the story the props she uses, and more importantly her character’s interactions with them, remain true to the time defined in her opening line. Consider these quotes:

“We lit our kerosene lamps and carried them before us in the dark like our own tiny wavering suns.”

While Kelly could have simply said, “We used kerosene lamps,” this would not have felt true, because a character of that time would not tell someone such a thing – of course they used kerosene lamps, that was all that was available to them. It would be like Rebecca Stead making a point in When You Reach Me of telling her readers that her characters used electric lamps. Instead, Kelly shows the characters using the lamps.

“The heat was a misery for all of us in Fentress, but it was women who suffered the most in their corsets and petticoats.”

Kelly, the author and the historian, wants her young readers to know that back in 1899 women wore corsets and petticoats, but rather than telling something which would have been obvious at the time, she slips it into a comment about the weather. She uses this technique again here,

“We went into the house. I managed to wash my hands and change into a clean pinafore without notice.”

She is sharing with us a tidbit about Calpurnia’s day in which she must change her clothes, slipping in the fact that the clothing for a young girl of that era was a pinafore.

Another time Calupurnia mentions clothing she says, “For once I was glad of the sunbonnet Mother made me wear to prevent freckles.” I suspect that if Anne had sported a bonnet on that buggy ride with Mathew Cuthbert there would have been no mention made of the purpose it served—to prevent freckles. Any girl of that day would have known why one wore such a hat. Here, Kelly is slipping in a bit of extra information to educate the modern reader—again something I applaud as long as it does not feel like such, and I think Kelly does an excellent job of it.

I could go on and on but will stop here!

StorySleuths Tip #54: To create a setting that feels true to the period of your story, treat objects now considered unusual with the same level of disinterest they would have received in their day. Be judicious when offering definitions, fitting them into an active use of that object.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Hi Allyson and Heather,

I love epigraphs and literary references in the context of a novel. Maybe it’s the bargain hunter in me—I feel like I’m getting added value—being introduced to the thinking, vision, or insight of one writer through the eyes of another one.


Most often, if there’s an epigraph, there’s only one, at the beginning of a book. So I was thrilled to find epigraphs at the beginning of every single chapter of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. All the epigraphs are from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and reading them inspired me not only reserve a copy of Darwin’s book at the library, but also got me wondering why Jacqueline Kelly selected each epigraph and how the epigraphs functioned in the structure of the novel.

According to Wikipedia, “in literature, an epigraph is a phrase, quotation or poem that is set at the beginning of a document or component. The epigraph may serve as a preface, as a summary, as a counter-example, or to link the work to a wider literary canon either to invite comparison or to enlist a conventional context.” As might be expected, the Wikipedia examples are not from books for children. However, on occasion epigraphs are included in books for children, and when they are, I take notice.

For example, our first StorySleuths book, which we investigated way back in October, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, includes this epigraph: “There is another world, but it is in this one. W.B. Yeats.” It “links the work to a wider literary canon” and “invites comparison” of Junior’s worlds in and beyond the rez. Awesome, isn’t it?

Turning to the epigraphs in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, I discovered that they serve many functions, including those listed below.

1. Foreshadowing. The Chapter 1 epigraph refers to a “young naturalist” (p. 1), foreshadowing Callie’s initiation into the ranks of “naturalist.” Grandfather says, “You’re a regular naturalist in the making” and Callie wonders, “What, exactly, was a naturalist? I wasn’t sure, but I decided to spend the rest of my summer being one.” (p. 8)

2. Comparison. The Chapter 2 epigraph includes the statement, “the child often reverts in certain characters to its grandfather” (p. 22)—Callie, like her Granddaddy, observes the wildlife around her.

3. Humor. The Chapter 5 epigraph notes Natural Selection is “immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts” (p. 54), a reference to Granddaddy’s “feeble efforts” to distill “drinkable liquor.”

4. Contrast. Chapter 7’s epigraph notes that sometimes someone with a “monstrous character” may emerge from a race of the “same species” (p. 73)—Callie notes that Harry’s “young woman” was “a hag, a stooping harpy….” (p. 74) and a member of the Independent Church, which was not “acceptable” (p. 75), so Grandfather dispatches her with a “good talk” in the library (p. 92).

5. Emphasis. “The crust of the earth is a vast museum” (p. 94), the epigraph for Chapter 8, emphasizes the importance of each living, and previously living, thing that Callie encounters—the stuffed armadillo, the trilobite fossil, the bottled cuttlefish, the microscopic river creatures, and especially the discovery of the hairy vetch with the odd dependent leaf. Best of all, Callie discovers “another member of my own odd species living at the other end of the hall. There was a living treasure under our roof, and none of my brothers could see him” (p. 102). Callie is discovering that her world is a vast museum stuffed with treasures.

6. Allusion. Chapter 9’s epigraph refers to the “caterpillar or cocoon stage,” (p. 112) of Callie’s woolly caterpillar “pet” Petey, but also alludes to her developing past the “grub stage” of “human children” (p. 115), as she herself is metamorphosizing.

7. Thematic resonance. Taken together, the 28 epigraphs initiating the chapters anchor the story in the theme of Callie’s evolution. Her relationships with Granddaddy and other members of her family, her awareness of the natural world around her, and her own self-knowledge evolve throughout the book, and her growth and change are echoed in the theory of evolution that Darwin had published in what was her fairly recent past.

Literary References

Although quotations from The Origin of Species are the predominant literary references in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, other literary references enrich the text as well. One of my favorites is the quotation from Plato that Granddaddy shares with Callie when she responds with surprise to her first glimpse of microscopic creatures: “all science begins with astonishment” (p. 105). Callie refers to a familiar story when she describes her struggles with her knitting:
“I fancied that a malevolent Rumplestiltskin crept into my room at night and undid my best work, turning the gold of my efforts into pathetic dross on a wheel perversely spinning backward.” (p. 213)
As The Origin of Species was the literary touchstone for The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, A Wrinkle in Time was the literary touchstone for November’s StorySleuths selection, When You Reach Me. Rebecca Stead clarified the central focus of Madeleine L’Engle’s book in an interview, saying "What I love about L’Engle’s book now is how it deals with so much fragile inner-human stuff at the same time that it takes on life’s big questions. There’s something fearless about this book."
Other literary references in books I love include lines in Wordsworth’s poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality: “Trailing clouds of glory do we come…” (p. 38) in The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, and the literary touchstone of the story of Little Red Riding Hood in Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.

What epigraphs and literary references in children’s books inspire you?

In Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, Jane Yolen says, “Be prepared for serendipity.” She continues:
How does a writer organize luck? In a variety of ways. Perhaps a file of articles or quotations. Perhaps a stack of books from a secondhand shop on various fascinating subjects.” (p. 75)
As Rebecca Stead was inspired by A Wrinkle in Time and Jacqueline Kelly mined The Origin of Species and Katherine Paterson nourished Gilly through the power of Wordsworth’s images and Annemarie keeps telling herself the story of Little Red Riding Hood, I consider what epigraph(s) and/or literary references might illuminate the story of my WIP.

StorySleuths Tip # 53—Add serendipity to your story—consider including epigraph(s) and/or literary references to offer your readers added value and to give resonance to your theme.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Dear Meg and Allyson,

What a beautiful, early spring day here in the Pacific Northwest! Indulge me for a moment as I share the view outside my window: a blue, blue sky that reminds me of summer; the lacy, pale pink blossoms of a cherry tree; on the fence, two crows bickering like an old married couple; and an eagle soaring high and alone above it all.

A perfect day for a hike or picnic.

Alas, I’m inside, typing at my computer. The irony is that my topic for today is how Jacqueline Kelly incorporates nature into her middle grade novel, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The story begins in the middle of a heat wave in Fentress, Texas. “By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat,” eleven-year-old Calpurnia narrates (p. 1).

The triple-digit weather is so hot that it forces worms into hiding, so that Calpurnia’s brothers can’t find bait for fishing. It brings out fireflies every night for a “spectacular show.” Trails of ants invade the kitchen in search of water. And a new form of grasshopper appears:

huge bright yellow ones, twice as big [as the usual green ones], and torpid, so waxy and fat that they bowed down the grasses when they landed (p. 11).

Calpurnia wonders about these yellow grasshoppers. Where did they come from? Were they an entirely new species? These questions lead her into a new relationship with her grandfather, who shares her affinity for the natural world.

As Calpurnia spends time with her grandfather, she learns about observation, nature, and science. Her new passion for science brings her into direct conflict with her parents’ and society’s expectations for a young girl of means. What will the future hold for Calpurnia?

Kindred Spirits

Reading about Calpurnia’s adventures in Texas reminded me of another spirited girl, Anne Shirley from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books. I adored this series as a child, in part because of Anne’s overwhelming enthusiasm for the landscape around her home on Prince Edward Island, in Canada.

Here, at the beginning of the story, Anne drives through the Avenue toward her new home.

The ‘Avenue,’ so called by the Newbridge people, was a stretch of road four or five hundred yards long, completely arched over with huge, wide-spreading apple trees…. Overhead was one long canopy of snowy, fragrant bloom. Below the boughs the air was full of a purple twilight and far ahead a glimpse of painted sunset sky shone like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle. Its beauty seemed to strike the child dumb. She leaned back in the buggy, her thin hands clasped before her, her face lifted rapturously to the white splendor above (p. 24-25).
When Anne recovers from the beauty of the blooming trees, she immediately scorns the Avenue’s prosaic name, calling it instead “The White Way of Delight.”

Many people believe that children (as well as adults) skim over descriptions of nature and landscape in books, preferring to read action and dialogue. But I loved reading about the trees and flowers in Anne of Green Gables when I was a child, in part, I suppose, because Anne’s enthusiasm and love for nature was so infectious.

Writing about nature

Because people do tend to gloss over long descriptive passages in novels, writing about nature can be tricky. How do authors like Jacqueline Kelly and L. M. Montgomery maintain the reader’s interest?

  1. Nature appears through the viewpoint character’s eyes. Calpurnia observes the animals and plants that live around her house, such as the possum that sleeps in a hole near her room. She even observes the ridges along the top of the mouth of a sleeping dog. In the novel, nature is up-close, and something as common as the family dog inspires curiosity and amazement.
  2. Interactions with nature provide opportunities to reveal emotion. Anne Shirley feels awe in the presence of natural beauty. Likewise, using a microscope for the first time, Calpurnia is shocked to discover “a teeming, swirling world of enormous, wriggling creatures” in pond water.
  3. Nature connects to the novel on a thematic level. By observing nature, Calpurnia develops deeper awareness of her world. Granddaddy looks at the entries in her nature journal and remarks, “It’s amazing what you can see when you just sit quietly and look” (p. 35).
  4. Descriptions of nature enrich the language itself. In The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Kelly develops nature-oriented metaphors. For example, the men who shave their beards to combat the heat “ looked as naked as blind salamanders” (p. 3). When Calpurnia overhears her mother’s plan to train her as a proper young lady, she feels like a “coyote with her paw in the trap” (p. 220). In addition to revealing Calpurnia’s character, these metaphors build a sense of story unity.

Donald Maas in The Fire in Fiction says,

It is impossible to powerfully capture a place via objective description—at least, to capture it in a way that readers will not skim. Only through the eyes and heart of a character does a place truly come alive (p. 113).
Fentrees, Texas comes to life through Calpurnia’s unique point of view.

Nature as a subject

I’d like to veer away from specific writing techniques for a moment to consider the importance of nature and science as subjects of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Did you know there’s a movement of people who believe that children today suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder?

I don’t presume to guess Jacqueline Kelly’s opinion about children’s connection to nature. However, I do believe that books like The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Anne of Green Gables provide inspiring examples of how to interact with and respond to nature. While neither has an overt “message” about the importance of nature or the environment, they feature characters who interact with nature on an intimate, engaged level, with emotions that range from curiosity to awe.

Like the big questions in Marcelo in the Real World, nature matters in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Phillip Gerard, author of Writing a Book That Makes a Difference, says, “The writer owes the reader a large experience—one that will increase his imaginative grasp. One way to deliver this is to recognize the obvious: Subject matter matters” (p. 34).

StorySleuths Tip #52: Bring the natural world to life by revealing it through the character’s perceptions and emotions.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

ONE BEETLE TOO MANY: Suspense in Picture Books

Dear Heather and Meg –

What a perfect line-up of books we have this month, and what an appropriate common theme—evolution. What better theme for those of us striving to evolve as writers through the work we do as readers.

I’m going to start things off by looking at Kathryn Lasky’s terrific non-fiction picture book, One Beetle Too Many, which tells the story of Charles Darwin and his extraordinary adventures. Ellen M. Roberts says, in The Children’s Picture Book: How to Write it, How to Sell it,
No course of instruction, no system for writing can illuminate the principles of effective writing for the picture book age as well as a careful study of the existing first-rate picture books can. (11) 
And this is a first-rate book to explore, whether or not one is writing non-fiction. After all, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, the basic fundamentals of picture book storytelling are the same, with the most important rule being this one: “Fiction or non-fiction, folktale or contemporary story, a picture book must be a thriller.” (52) – again, thanks to Ellen Roberts.

Let me first share with you a quick anecdote. I read this book the first time through as a read-aloud to my boys, ages 10 and 13. They sat on the rug building with Lego while I read. They never once asked to see the pictures, and when I offered, they said “No thanks, we don’t need them.” The book’s illustrations, by Matthew Trueman, are exquisite, but my kids’ response was not about the illustrations, it was about the writing. The story was so compelling that they didn’t require the pictures to make it work for them.

The question their response raised for me was this: How does Lasky do it? How does she make this story “thrilling”, and I believe the answer lies in the way that she builds tension. There is tension right from the start by alluding to a problem in the book’s title: One Beetle Too Many. As a reader I am drawn in—how can one have too many beetles, and what is the result of such a conundrum? While that question is answered in the story’s first two pages, at the page turn we are faced with another problem. Charles is a boy who, like most kids, has some trouble being the person he is expected to be. At the bottom of the third page of text Charles’ father even says to him, “You . . . will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family!”

Charles is a character I care about. He seems like such a nice, interesting, curious kid, and yet his family tries their best to turn him into someone that he isn’t. A doctor? A clergyman? Tension keeps rising as we see Charles try to meet his family’s expectations and fail. When Charles leaves on the Beagle, we are relieved—our hero is finally getting to do what he wants to do. But Lasky keeps the tension building in the conflicts between Darwin and the Beagle’s captain, Fitzroy. Again and again through the story’s middle, Darwin’s astonishing discoveries, whether they are about the nature of animals or of man, are a source for tension between himself and Fitzroy.

The book nears its conclusion when Darwin returns to England five years after setting out on the Beagle. Here, again, the conflict doesn’t stop. Yes, Darwin has become a highly regarded naturalist, he has proven himself to his family. But now, Darwin’s conflict is an internal one. His theories contradict the nearly universally held belief that the world was made in seven days, a prospect that is terrifying for many people, especially his own wife, Emma. Darwin must choose whether or not to go public with his theory, and of course, in the end, he does.

One might argue that the tension throughout the story is there simply because Lasky is reporting events that occurred in Darwin’s life, and his was a world fraught with conflict. I disagree. Yes, his life was tumultuous and fascinating, but Lasky skillfully meters out the story so that it has an arc with rising tension, a critical aspect to any successful story.

StorySleuths Tip #51: In non-fiction as in fiction, keep conflict and tension rising throughout the story to turn your picture book into a thriller.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Julie Larios on Making Poetry Sing: A Careful Reading of Joyce Sidman’s Red Sings from Treetops

The StorySleuths are tickled pink--or red perhaps--to have the FABULOUS Julie Larios blogging for us today, sharing a poetry lesson for those of us striving to read like writers . . . and poets:

May I say straight off the bat that I love Red Sings from Treetops? Why beat around the bush (or around the treetop?) I’ll just sing it out: I love it, love every page, down to the smallest detail, from the strip of earthen words which parade typographically across the bottom of the title page, to the cheer-cheer-cheer chirped by Red on the opening and closing pages.

People who know me know I can be hard on poetry. That’s because I respect it. I hate to see it made pale and thin by a poet’s failure to use the many devices available, or made florid by its misuse as a kind of stand-in for therapy. Good poetry is about the artful control of language, not the outpouring of emotion and not the vacuity of prose broken into lines.

You see? I get grumpy quickly about poetry which doesn’t try hard enough. Then along comes a poet like Joyce Sidman and a book like Red Sings from Treetops, described accurately on the jacket flap as a book which inspires us to cast a closer look at “the thrilling colors of the seasons.” Immediately, all my whining stops. What a lovely book!

What is it then about Sidman’s work that fills me with pleasure and optimism? Well, let’s start with the most basic tool in the toolbox, which she handles like a fine craftsman: Sound. Sound is the auditory thread of the DNA rope that Poetry shares with her twin, Music. Here are the first twelve lines of the book, opening the section titled “Spring”:

Red sings
from treetops:
each note dropping
like a cherry
into my ear.

Red turns
the maples feathery,
sprouts in rhubard spears;
Red squirms on the road
after rain.

Bear with me – I want to look at those lines carefully (maybe even surgically) for a minute. The compression of sound devices used in these twelve lines (34 quick words) is masterly. A list might help organize what I see and hear when I read these lines as a poet, looking for technique:

1. In the first stanza, “spring” rhymes with “sings” and chimes (a kind of syllabic echo) with the word “dropping.” That same word, “dropping” also chimes syllabically with “treetops.” The words “cheer” and “ear” are a full rhyme.

2. The combination of “cherry” and “ear,” like a musical phrase blended by pressing your foot down on a piano pedal, becomes the word “cheer.”

3. The repetition of “cheer-cheer-cheer” approximates a cheap and a chirp, and we hear it as birdsong.

4. Half the words in the stanza – 9 of the 18 –contain the letter “r.” That’s not an accident. Sidman knows that our ears pick that up as a sustained musical note.

5. In the second stanza, 10 of the 16 words contain the letter “r” – a strengthening of the sustained note, which is the sign of a very good voice (for singers as well as for poets.)

6. The word “turns” is a near-rhyme with “squirms,” as is the word “feathery” with “cherry.” The word “spears” reaches back up to the previous stanza to rhyme with “cheer” and “ear.”

The above list is generated by a poet looking consciously (she is a fine enough poet so that some of this might even happen sub-consciously) at just one poetic device – sound. I could list many examples of poetic strategies in these lines: simile, personification, control of line breaks, evocation of the senses. But it’s important to say what I think is best about Sidman’s work: You don’t have to see all these strategies at work to enjoy the poetry, which is light on its feet, graceful and unself-conscious. The poems don’t beat us over the head with rhyme; they’re not doggerel, they’re not operatic nor do they call attention to the poet. They don’t require surgical dissection to understand. Instead, the poetry hums and dances its way along, through all four seasons and through many colors. As a read-aloud, Red Sings from Treetops is a delight , visually and auditorially, to adult readers and the children alike.

Delight. That’s the word I want to emphasize. Joyce Sidman knows how to play with words and make language delightful. The illustrations also delight us, they move and sing, and that makes for what the Caldecott committee called “the perfect interplay of poetry and illustration.” Though I suspected Jerry Pinkney’s bold Lion would roar his way to the Caldecott Medal this year, as a poet I had my fingers crossed for text-rich Red Sings from Treetops, and I was thrilled to hear it announced as a Caldecott Honor book. The illustrator, Pamela Zagarenski, is a multi-talented painter and sculptor, and if you want to see more of her work, you can save yourself some time hunting around the web and go directly to the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Jules put together a stunning compilation of Zagarenski’s work for the post of June 18, 2009.

Red Sings from Treetops has deservedly won many awards and much praise this year; it’s been designated one of Best Books of 2009 by critics and organizations across the country (the ALA, the well-respected critic Sylvia Vardell, the American Booksellers for Children., and many more.) It’s also short-listed for the still-to-be-determined Cybils competition, so I’ve got my fingers crossed again!

Ezra Pound, who knew a thing or two about poetry, exhorted poets to “make it new.” But how can you say anything new to children about colors or about the seasons? Some people wouldn’t try. Too many people have been there, done that, they might think. Not Joyce Sidman. She knows how to say it new. Part of her poem about the colors of autumn is shown with a dark double-page spread that includes a strange constellation – a whale that somehow morphs into a shadowed village. Along the ground, the words “mystery” and “play” are handwritten and tucked into the dirt. Behind bare tree branches, the moon dominates on the right hand side; two cheerful figures – a person and a dog – roll/walk along toward it on the left. Here are the words – the poetry – Sidman gives us:

In fall,
the wind feels Black:
full of secrets.
Pup sniffs and sniffs,
its mysteries.

And there is White:
Resting in dark branches.
It sings a song
Of waxing and waning,
Swims up
Through its cool sky-pool.
Good night,

Black wind that is star-spangled. A cool sky-pool of white moon. That’s how you make it new. Sidman is a joy to read, and this book belongs on the bookshelves of anyone who respects poetry and is delighted by it.

StorySleuths Tip #50: Remember that Julie's lesson on reading poetry like a poet applies to all that we write, as poetry is the music that makes our prose sing.