Sunday, May 2, 2010

WORD CHOICE AND ORAL LANGUAGE RHYTHM: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon Post #1

Dear Allyson and Heather,

We are in for a delicious treat this month as we get to savor the tasty writing and rich story of the book we've chosen to focus on: Newbery Honor winner Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. This is a book that I can almost taste as I read. You know that kind—where you want to speed up to get to the next page and slow down to savor each word? That’s Grace Lin’s gift—she leads me deeper and deeper into the web of her story while at the same time enticing me to reflect on her language and images. What a feast she has written.

There’s so much to look at in the first chapter, where Lin:

  • establishes a vivid setting
  • introduces a feisty main character
  • includes the first of 16 stories set apart from the narrative and main characters while concurrently interweaving with them
  • identifies the central story problem, and
  • propels readers headlong into the next chapter: “Maybe,” Ba said, glancing at Ma, “I should tell you that story tomorrow.” (p. 10)

But I’m not going to focus in this post on any of those elements.

A common thread in the two starred reviews of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the description of Lin’s writing as particularly noteworthy. Jennifer Rothschild in School Library Journal says, “The author's writing is elegant…,” and Andrew Medlar in Booklist says, “With beautiful language, Lin creates a strong, memorable heroine and a mystical land.”

I, too, felt Lin’s language pull me into the story and engage me with the characters, so I decided to take a look at the choices Lin makes with respect to word choice and sentence structure--the building blocks that we, as writers, use in creating our stories.


Lin uses alliteration to bring harmony to her writing, starting off with the title, which includes 3 words with initial m’s: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. In addition, both Mountain and Moon have final n’s, giving the title unity and resonance. The main character’s name also begins with an initial M, linking her alliteratively to the title of the story. Minli’s impatient mother is referred to as “Ma,” another initial M. And the person who Minli decides to seek by the end of Chapter 1 has two initial M’s in his name:

Whenever I ask something important, people say, ‘That is a question you have to ask the Old Man of the Moon.’ Someday, I will ask him. (p. 9)
The predominance of the initial M’s in the names of all these characters introduced in Chapter 1 gives Minli’s mission a feeling of intentionality and purpose.


Whereas alliteration gives Lin’s writing the feeling of flowing liquid, contrast gives her writing punch and bite. In the first sentence Lin selects hard words to emphasize the harshness of the setting:

Far away from here, following the Jade River, there was once a black mountain that cut into the sky like a jagged piece of rough metal. (p. 1)
Nothing could be harsher than the landscape described as “black,” “cut,” “jagged,” “rough.” But to top this harsh landscape off, it is smothered in dullness:
Crowded into the corner of where Fruitless Mountain and the Jade River met was a village that was the shade of faded brown. This was because the land around the village was hard and poor….Over time, everything in the village had become the dull color of dried mud. (pp. 1-2)
Nothing could be drearier, sadder, or more hopeless.

Yet in the midst of this dull brown village there was a brightness that Lin conveys initially through her selection of the image that describes the house where Minli lives, even before we meet Minli herself:

One of the houses in this village was so small that its wood boards, held together by the roof, made one think of a bunch of matches tied with a piece of twine. (p. 2)
Lin chooses the word “matches” as an image to describe the house, with the association of “matches” as something that ignites, that lights up, or enlightens, just as the child who lives there will add her own light to the dullness, the hardness, the poorness, of where she lives. Lin states this contrast clearly:
Minli was not brown and dull like the rest of the village. (p. 2)
Lin then selects words that connote light to describe Minli: she has “shining” eyes and a smile that “flashed” from her face. When Minli hears the stories her father tells her every night at dinner she “glowed” with wonder and excitement. She reflects some of her father’s light as he tells her the stories:
Ba seemed to drop his gray and work weariness--his black eyes sparkled like raindrops in the sun when he began a story. (p. 3)
and he set down his chopsticks his smile twinkled in a way that Minli loved. (p. 4)
"Shining," "flashed," "glowed," "sparkled," "twinkled"—Lin chooses words foreshadowing the light that Minli will bring to the poor villagers in the dull brown village at the bottom of Fruitless Mountain, where “nothing grew on it and birds and animals did not rest” (p. 1).


Even before Ba’s story begins, Lin writes in the rhythm of oral language. The first sentence itself echoes the rhythm of a fairy tale: “Far away from here…once…” (p. 1). The place and the time of the story are far away and long ago, and the story opens with a storytelling voice. Elizabeth Law said in her First Pages breakout at the Western Washington SCBWI Regional Conference a few weeks ago, “Get into the voice of your story on the first page.” Lin does.

A storyteller’s voice tends to run on without using commas to separate the words in a series, as is accepted practice in written communication. In this first chapter, Lin repeatedly writes without using commas in a series. Take this sentence:

The villagers had to tramp in the mud, bending and stooping and planting day after day. (pp. 1- 2)
And this one:
Working in the mud so much made it spread everywhere and the hot sun dried it onto their clothes and hair and homes. (p. 2)
How different those series would sound if punctuated: “bending, stooping, and planting,” or “clothes, hair, and homes.” The rhythmic storytelling voice continues into “The Story of Fruitless Mountain.” Describing the Jade Dragon’s four dragon children, Lin says:
They were large and strong and good and kind. (p. 4)

Although the stories that Lin includes within the context of Minli’s adventure are set apart by their titles and different typeface, they flow seamlessly together because the whole narrative is written in a clearly oral storytelling voice. As a storyteller myself, I’m intrigued and impressed by how beautifully Lin captures the sounds and rhythms of oral language and expresses them on the printed page. It’s a pleasure to read them silently, to feel them flow, and to “listen” to them echoing as I read.

StorySleuth’s Tip # 68: One way to write elegant, beautiful language is to use the sounds and rhythms of oral storytelling language.