How “Hooky” Is Your Hook?

During my first semester of graduate school at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was working on a novel about a very anxious girl beginning her freshman year at a very intense prep school. I really loved this anxious girl, and I really loved her science-obsessed best friend and her kind, stressed-out dad and the adorable, math-genius boy who had a crush on her. But…well…not a whole heck of a lot happened in the novel draft. And it definitely didn’t have a catchy premise I could sum up in a sentence.

When I started my second semester of grad school, my new advisor told me there were a lot of wonderful things about this character, her voice, and her world, but what I had written didn’t yet qualify as a story. That was a little bit hard to take. I mean, lots of things qualify as stories. An off-the-cuff monologue about some silly thing that happened on the subway ride to work could get categorized as a story. But my novel-in-progress couldn’t?

My new advisor helped me identify a true inciting incident that would happen early on in a new draft and shake up this poor anxious girl’s world. We realized that everything I had written so far was like a prequel. The true story should begin a full year later.

Determining where to start the book was a great first step. But my advisor also encouraged me to raise the intensity of the set up. “What if the girl’s overachieving brother died when they were young and that’s why getting perfect grades and being the perfect daughter is so important to her?” she suggested. “Or what if at the end it becomes clear that she’s been hospitalized for an eating disorder?”

I wanted to take my advisor’s advice (she is indisputably brilliant), and I certainly wanted to improve my book. But I really didn’t want to give this girl a dead brother or an eating disorder. That was partly because I didn’t envision this book being a grief novel or a novel about body image issues. It was also partly because I haven’t had to deal with an eating disorder or the death of someone very young and close to me, so I didn’t think I could write that kind of story authentically.

Eventually, after I’d started the story over a few times and it still wasn’t working, my advisor said something that sparked an epiphany. She explained that readers tend to expect that the main character in a novel will be going through something bigger than what they themselves have been through. If you don’t give the main character something significant to work against, readers might not feel as invested in his or her journey. I didn’t have to use the dead brother or eating disorder idea—she wasn’t saying I had to choose one of those. But I couldn’t just rely on character and voice, even now that I was starting the story closer to an inciting incident. I had to figure out how to give my character a more specific, significant obstacle to work against.

A couple of years later, when I was ready to send out queries for a book I’d started my third semester (I put the one from first and second semester aside for a good long break), I began to read a lot of agent interviews and blogs. This Publisher’s Weekly article “New Trends in YA: The Agents’ Perspective” suggests that a strong contemporary realistic submission has two key things: “a strong voice and a good hook.” Suzie Townsend shared a similar recipe for hooking an agent in this great blog post (which happens to reference one of my favorite books, Saving Francesca). She explains: “Voice + Character + Set up = Hooked!”

I think the “hook” or “set up” agents describe is similar to what my second-semester advisor was talking about when she encouraged me to start my novel-in-progress in the right place and develop specific, significant obstacles. But I still wonder: how can a writer be sure that her hook is hooky enough? Especially a writer like me, who loves character and voice first and a dramatic story second?

In the same blog post, Suzie Townsend offers a helpful explanation of a hook. She says that starting in the right place is crucial, and she adds, “Great first lines are a definite plus and a set up that can be summed up in a concise sentence or two (this is also called a logline) is even better.”

Beyond this, different people seem to have different opinions about what makes a hook hooky enough, which certainly isn’t earth-shattering news, since reading tastes are subjective. I’m probably not ever going to be the kind of writer whose books have really dark and edgy or glamorous-splashy hooks. That’s not to say that I have anything against dark and edgy or glamorous-splashy books! That just isn’t my style. When I was querying agents, I would read successful query examples and lament over how many of the books that had landed agents had hookier hooks than mine did. Now that I have an agent and my book is on submission, I like to read Publisher’s Marketplace sales reports and worry that the books that are selling all sound more dramatic than mine.

This is probably not a wise thing to do. What I probably should do is try to make sure that my stories start in the right place and have specific, significant obstacles and a set up that can be described concisely. I can also be on the look out for books that fit my sensibilities and have strong hooks, so that I can learn from the work of other authors. Some contemporary realistic books I’ve read (and loved) recently that feel like my kind of book and have especially effective set ups include Corey Ann Haydu’s OCD Love Story, Sara Polsky’s This Is How I Find Her, and Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando’s Roomies. And I can push myself to expand my ideas of what kinds of set ups I could pull off authentically, by finding ways to connect the experiences I’ve had with the experiences I’m imagining for a character.

That sounds much wiser, doesn’t it? I’d also love to hear about any other effectively hooky books you’ve read recently or any thoughts on what a hook is and what makes one strong!

Integrity…the Second Definition

As part of the middle school advisory program at my school this year, we’ve been focusing on the theme of integrity. From the start, most of my advisees already understood the first definition that’s listed in a print or online dictionary when you look up the word integrity; they already knew that having integrity means being honest and showing strong moral principles.

But they weren’t as familiar with the definition that appears second. They didn’t know, until we looked up the word together, that integrity also means “the state of being whole and undivided.” So after we spent some time grappling with the first definition of integrity as we debated the honest, moral thing to do in different scenarios, we moved on to the second definition.

According to a piece by Connecticut Friends School on the Friends Journal website, having integrity means letting your inner life match your outer life. Living with integrity means honoring your passions and talents and sharing them with others. Inspired by these ideas, I asked my advisees to take turns teaching the group about something that is important to them: something that makes them who they are, but that the rest of us might not know about.

So far, we’ve learned French and Mandarin words from students who speak those languages at home. One student used diagrams and a YouTube video to show us how she navigates a slalom course. One took us outside on a very cold day and taught us how to throw and catch a lacrosse ball. One brought in Saudi food to share with us, and one taught us a hip-hop dance (which none of the rest of us could really do…but we all tried!).

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Here, some of us are attempting the dance…

At this point in the school year, I know all of my advisees pretty well. But this activity has reminded me that there are plenty of things I don’t know about them. They have full lives outside of school—lives that are sometimes rewarding and sometimes frustrating, sometimes energizing and sometimes draining. It’s been really wonderful to find out more about their varied interests and areas of expertise.

This activity also has implications for fiction writing. I think it’s a helpful exercise for writers to ask themselves what their characters might teach a group of classmates if they were asked to share an interest with the group. Lissy, the main character in my YA manuscript REBOUND, came to life when I discovered her passion for baking (which is definitely the interest she would share with a group of classmates). As soon as I made her a baker, her voice became more distinctive and she became more likable, because she turns into the best, most confident version of herself when she bakes.

On the other hand, it also might be telling if a character does not have a clearly defined passion. In the YA project that I’m working on now, the main character has a very clear goal that she’s fixated on, but it’s not an internally driven passion—it’s an externally driven obsession. Recently, I realized that if she were one of my advisees and I asked her to share one of her interests with the group, she wouldn’t know what to share.  I could picture her listening to other people’s presentations and beating herself up because she doesn’t have a true passion. And in fact, it’s important to her character and her journey that she doesn’t yet have an interest that makes her feel whole and accomplished when the book begins.

As you can probably tell, I’ve found it really interesting to think about what it means for me, my students, and the fictional characters I read and write about to live with, or in pursuit of, this version of integrity. I hope it might be helpful for you to think about that, too!

Epistolary Fanfiction: A Story and an Exercise

I recently read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? after a few people, including13526165 my good friend Laura Sibson, had enthusiastically recommended it. (Laura wrote a post that was partly inspired by the book here.) I loved the book, and I also loved Maria Semple’s short story “Dear Mountain Room Parents,” which appears at the end of the Kindle version of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Both the book and the story are epistolary: written in letters/documents/emails, although the messages in the book are woven together with some narration and the story includes emails only.

So here is my holiday gift to you—a gift for which I can claim absolutely no credit, admittedly—a link to the hilarious short story, which was originally published in The New Yorker. Go ahead and read it now, if you haven’t already. And you’re welcome.

After you’ve read it, if you’re anything like me, you might find yourself itching to write your own version of the story for fun. Back in October, I posted about how I often assign my middle school students “fanfiction” challenges that invite them to use the characters, setting, or style of a published piece. I thought that Semple’s short story would inspire a lot of fun writing, so I shared it with my eighth grade students and encouraged them to write their own stories consisting of one person’s emails.

I did one, too, and it was a great writing exercise: it forced me to create a brief story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and to develop a character primarily through that character’s voice.  I think epistolary stories and novels often feature especially engaging first-person voices because so much of what we know about each character comes from how that character expresses herself, so writers really give the characters trademark expressions or ways of putting together sentences. I know this is a busy time of year, but after the holidays, I recommend this exercise, especially for people who want an excuse to play around with a first-person voice.

Here’s my story. I cheated a little bit, bringing a second narrator in at the very end to close it out. I’d love to see what anyone else does with this prompt, too! Enjoy!

Holiday Concert Dress Code: A Reminder

Dear Parents,

We look forward to seeing you on Thursday night at the annual Winter Concert! This is just a friendly reminder that your children should come dressed all in black. Young ladies should not wear spaghetti straps, and they must wear tights or leggings underneath if they choose to wear skirts. After all, it’s cold outside!

Have a joyful evening!

Ms. Peridot

Hello again, parents,

There seems to be some confusion in response to my last message, so this email is to clarify that young gentlemen should not come wearing spaghetti straps or skirts without tights or leggings, either. In fact, the gentlemen should wear slacks (and the ladies may wear slacks as well—perhaps that is simpler if everyone does).

Finally, please bear in mind that “slacks” does not mean those track pants with glaring white or neon stripes down the sides.

Joyfully yours,

Ms. Peridot

Parents,

Some of you seem to have two remaining concerns about the concert dress code, even after my clarifying email. The first concern stems from some parents’ feeling that there was not enough notice about the dress code. Thanks to lengthy emails from several of you, I realize that some of our families need to go out and purchase black shoes and/or clothing at what feels like the last minute. I understand that the need to fit in a last-minute shopping trip in the midst of the holiday season might create some anxiety and/or resentment.

Let me assure you, however, that my email from earlier today was, as I noted then, a reminder, following up on this month’s “What’s New in Sixth Grade?” e-newsletter. Those who actually read the newsletter have had a full three weeks’ notice about the concert dress code. I didn’t want to have to bring this up, but because of the electronic tracking system, I can tell that only one-third of the recipient list took the time to open the newsletter. Perhaps in the future, more of you will at least glance at the updates that your children and I work hard to prepare.

Second, others of you seem to believe that we at Evergreen Middle are “stifling the creativity,” “banning the freedom of self-expression,” and/or “suffocating the inner light” of our sixth graders by prescribing a limiting dress code for the concert (which, I will remind you, is one evening only).

Please know that your children’s creativity, self-expression, and inner light are very important to all of us at Evergreen Middle. We are simply attempting to create a cohesive and visually appealing look for the winter concert so that the audience can focus on the beautiful music your children will be creating.

Thanks in advance for understanding!

Ms. P

Hello.

We all now know that Madison G’s grandmother feels that black is an inappropriate color for children to wear because it is too “adult” and “sexy” (which is difficult to understand in light of my explicit comment that no one should wear spaghetti straps and/or skirts without tights). In addition, Tyson’s babysitter has shared with us all that, in her opinion, nothing could be more visually appealing than a stage full of children wearing festive, colorful holiday outfits that “welcome Baby Jesus into the bleak, wintery world.” I do want to reiterate that this is a holiday concert, and not a Christmas concert.

However, contrary to what seems to be the accepted belief, especially among those of you—I won’t name names—who think it is appropriate to accost me at the ShopRite deli counter to question a grade on a spelling quiz, I cannot give over all of my time to debating every minute detail of your children’s education.

Therefore, fine. Let your children come to the concert in ugly Christmas sweaters, bumblebee costumes, Eagles jerseys and sweatpants—whatever they feel like. God forbid I attempt to enforce a rule every now and then.

-Ms. Peridot

Dear Sixth Grade Parents,

Ms. Peridot has been asked to resign from her job as lead sixth grade teacher, effective immediately. We all wish her the best in the next chapter of her life. The assistant teacher, Miss Lucy, will take over, with help from Madison G.’s grandmother, a retired teacher with thirty-two years of experience, and Decker’s father, who is currently taking some time off from his job as a corporate lawyer, until we can hire a replacement.

Looking forward to seeing  you at tomorrow’s concert!

Eugenia Wharton, Head of School

Exceeding My Expectations: A Great Author Visit at a Hectic Time

Last Friday morning as I was having breakfast before school, I read this blog post entitled “The Paradoxical Extremes of Middle Grade Students: A Holiday Memory,” and I teared up a bit. In the post, Braden Bell, a choir director and author, describes his experience with a talented but silly group of eighth graders and the lovely, unexpected gift they gave him at a winter concert. It’s a touching post that you should definitely read, and Bell’s story captures the most frustrating and wonderful part of my job as a middle school teacher: the way middle school students can be goofy and rambunctious one moment and then amazingly thoughtful, mature, and—as Bell puts it—magnificent the next.

When I read that blog post on Friday morning, I didn’t realize that I would get to experience a similar kind of moment, when students would surprise me with their compassion and interest, at school that very day. You see, it had been a long week for me and for the sixth and seventh grade students. They’d had a big day on Wednesday, when they’d presented major social studies projects during the day and again in the evening, and the weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break are always hectic with concerts and assemblies and general excitement.

My friend, author Lyn Miller-Lachmann, was visiting my sixth and seventh grade classes on Friday, and I was nervous. We’d scheduled the visit for that day because Lyn was already going to be in the Philadelphia area for a bookstore event in the evening, but now it seemed like really bad timing. The sixth and seventh graders were tired and preoccupied. When I’d read them the first four chapters of Lyn’s middle-grade novel Rogue the day before and reminded them about the visit, they hadn’t seemed very enthusiastic. None of them had told me that they were coming to the optional Q and A I’d arranged during lunch, even when I said there would be candy. I wanted the students to be invested and energetic so that they’d really get something out of Lyn’s visit. I wanted Lyn to have a good experience at my school. I wanted to feel like the time and energy I’d put into planning the visit had been worth it. But as I headed to school on Friday, I thought I might be disappointed.

When the sixth graders came in a little late from P.E., cutting short the already brief time they had with Lyn, I was discouraged. But then, sure enough, they participated in the discussion Lyn led and did a really nice job with her writing activity. That was a relief…but the seventh graders were the ones who’d seemed especially exhausted. And there was still that lunchtime session. What if nobody showed up?

Sixth graders working on Lyn's writing activity.

Sixth graders working on Lyn’s writing activity.

And then something wonderful happened. The first class of seventh graders came in—this group of students who had barely reacted when I’d read them the first chapters of Rogue the day before—and one student put her hand up immediately to ask Lyn a question. After Lyn answered it, more students raised their hands. One student informed Lyn that he’d read the whole book the night before and that it’s awesome before asking her some great questions about which parts of the book are based on her own experiences. Lyn could barely even get to the writing activity because so many students wanted to ask questions and tell her about their experiences.

Seventh graders eager to participate!

Seventh graders eager to participate!

I had to cut things off with that class so that Lyn and I could go down to the cafeteria to get lunch, and when we came back up to my classroom with our food, there were already a few students there. Phew, I thought. This is a respectable turnout. This is actually going okay. Then more students came in, so we pulled over another table, and then even more came in, so we added more chairs. Eventually, we had to start another table because we couldn’t fit everyone around the first two. And, okay, the students were eager to accept the candy I offered, but they were also eager to talk to Lyn!

One tricky thing about teaching is that the outcomes often don’t feel like they match my input. There are times when I put a lot of work into planning a lesson or a field trip that feels like it flops, and that can be demoralizing. But last Friday reminded me that I don’t always know what students are getting out of what I am offering them. Sometimes they might seem checked out when they are actually very much checked in. And it’s worth it to try to give them experiences that I think will be meaningful because sometimes, they will throw themselves in and take more out of those experiences than I could have hoped.

Planning Ahead

On Monday night, my fiancé and I went to see The Day of the Doctor, the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, at a movie theater nearby. On our way home, we ended up talking about a question that’s come up several times before: How far ahead do the Doctor Who writers plan? When each new Doctor has been introduced, how precisely have the upcoming story lines been plotted out?

13-FEMK-338_-DrWho_Theaterflyer-Alt1Mike has a hunch that the writers plan out most developments pretty far ahead of time, but I’m not so sure. Yes, the stories are complicated and “timey-wimey,” so it makes sense that some plans would certainly have to be laid out in advance. But my writing experience leads me to believe that the best-laid plans don’t always pan out. Plus, the kind of fun, creative storytelling that makes Doctor Who enjoyable seems to result from a balance of flexibility and structure that’s heavy on the flexibility.

I’m no Steven Moffat, but one of the biggest writing lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is that I can’t plan my stories too carefully. This has been a difficult lesson for me to accept, because I love to plan ahead. Uncertainty stresses me out. Slowly but surely, though, I am beginning to trust that uncertainty is a crucial part of the writing process.

I still think it’s helpful to have some idea of where I’m going. In both of the manuscripts I’ve worked on recently, I’ve spent some time early on figuring out a crossroads scene—a scene near the end of the book in which the external and internal story arcs cross and the main character must make an irrevocable choice—and that’s been hugely helpful. (Caroline Carlson, a talented writer, lovely person, and fellow VCFA alumna describes the crossroads scene in more detail in her post on how she plans a story, here.)

Then, to give myself what my VCFA advisor Shelley Tanaka called another “goalpost” to 417097write toward, I’ve figured out one or two other pivotal scenes, too. In my YA manuscript Rebound, I found it helpful to think about the story in three acts, and I drew upon a section of Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children called “The Throughline as Lifeline” to plan a pivotal scene. Lamb explains, “Somewhere at the closing of the second act of a screenplay, or the end of the middle of the book, the character’s conscious desire breaks down. […] This breakdown exposes a deeper motivation that propels the character forward, a motivation he was originally unaware of” (63). In Rebound, I knew what would happen in this end-of-the-middle scene, in which my character would give up on her conscious desire. (Well, I basically knew. I had to change the location and circumstances when I substantially revised my first draft and rewrote most of the second half of the novel from scratch, but the basic event stayed the same.)

In the manuscript I’ve been plugging away at this fall, I couldn’t come up with an end-of-the-middle scene in which the protagonist’s conscious desire breaks down, so I drew upon one of Martha Alderson’s ideas from The Plot Whisperer and figured out a pivotal midpoint scene instead. Alderson posits that the midpoint of a novel should be the second major turning point, or the second energetic marker. At this point in the story, Alderson explains in this blog post, “Something happens to force the protagonist’s willing and conscious commitment to the successful completion of her goal.” This month, I made it to the midpoint scene, and now I’m going to give the book a little bit of room to breathe before I read back over the first half and come up with my next goalpost to aim for.

But as helpful as it is to have planned out a scene that I can write towards, I continue to be struck by how many details and plot lines I never could have come up with ahead of time. In Rebound, the two things that people who have read the book consistently seem most enthusiastic about are things that surprised me when I figured them out. In my new project, I wrote one seemingly unimportant line of narration, in which the main character compares a school year to a pregnancy because both last for nine months, and when I read that over, something clicked. I decided to see what would happen if I made the protagonist’s mom pregnant and let her write her whole story as an extended letter to the miracle baby, and suddenly the project felt a lot more exciting.

So how far ahead do the Doctor Who writers plan? I have no idea, and judging by the number of hardcore Whovians out there, I’m sure many other people can make a more educated guess about that question than I can. But in my own writing, I’m glad I’m gradually learning the lesson to plan strategically, but plan out less than I think I should.

Safe Spaces

L. Marie invited me to write a guest post for her blog series on space, so I reflected on safe spaces, both real and fictional. Check out my guest post, the rest of the space series, and all of the other terrific stuff on L. Marie’s inspiring, entertaining blog!

http://lmarie7b.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/safe-spaces/

Fanfiction?

Last year, after we finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I gave my eighth grade students a creative writing assignment. “Write your own chapter,” I instructed them. “It could be an extra scene that takes place during or after the events of the novel. It could be a secondary character’s take on an event that’s in the novel, or it could even be a secondary character’s take on an event that isn’t in the novel.”

“So basically, we’re writing To Kill a Mockingbird fanfiction,” one student said.

I paused for a moment. She had told me before about how she posts fanfiction online. “I guess you are,” I agreed. “Yeah.”

That wasn’t an unusual assignment for me to give a class. I love having students write something creative that is in some way inspired by what we are reading together. Sometimes, especially with poetry, we’ll mimic the style or format of a model text. Other times, I’ll ask students to write a letter or journal entry from the perspective of a character, or I’ll have them re-tell a scene from the perspective of a secondary character, or write an epilogue if they don’t like the way a book ends. Recently, I’ve given both seventh and eighth grade students the option of writing a fictional story they make up completely or using characters or events from a book we are reading. Some students love the chance to create characters, a setting, and a plot from scratch. But for other students, beginning with the characters, setting, and even events from a published story frees them up to do their best, most vibrant writing.

FANGIRL_CoverDec2012-725x1075It had never really occurred to me until last spring when my eighth grade student made that comment that I might be encouraging students to write fanfiction. And I still didn’t think much about what fanfiction is or why people write it until I read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

In Fangirl, the main character, Cath, is a dedicated and accomplished fanfiction writer. She’s obsessed with the Simon Snow series—and in particular, Simon’s relationship with his roommate, Baz—and she has a massive audience of online readers.

I loved many, many things about Fangirl, but I especially adored one passage, in which Cath explains why she’d rather write fanfiction than “original” fiction. “I know Simon and Baz,” she tells her creative writing professor. “I know how they think, what they feel. When I’m writing them, I get lost in them completely, and I’m happy. When I’m writing my own stuff, it’s like swimming upstream. Or…falling down a cliff and grabbing at branches, trying to invent the branches as I fall” (262). Her creative writing professor responds, “That’s how it’s supposed to feel” (262).

I can certainly relate to Cath’s description of how difficult it is to write her “own stuff.” And I think it’s pretty easy to feel that, if writing your “own stuff” is so exhausting and terrifying, then you must not be cut out to be a writer.

I’ve read research about how struggling readers often don’t enjoy reading, and therefore they don’t read much, and therefore their reading skills don’t improve. I think it might similarly be true that people who find it difficult to write creatively (…which is probably pretty much everyone…) might not go out of their way to do much creative writing, even if they might ultimately be great at it.

Reading Fangirl reminded me that writers of all ages and experience levels can benefit from writing tasks that don’t feel like falling down a cliff and grabbing at branches that may or may not exist. Sure, as Cath’s professor cautions, fanfiction generally can’t be published in a traditional way (although retellings of fairy tales, Jane Austen novels, and Shakespeare plays sometimes can). And for students who are really interested in writing, there probably is a point at which they should be pushed to write something truly original.

But luckily, as Cath’s writing professor also points out, writing one’s “own stuff” doesn’t have to mean creating a world from absolutely nothing. Professor Piper encourages Cath to start an original story with “something real.” “With one day from your life,” the professor suggests. “Something that confused or intrigued you, something you want to explore. Start there and see what happens. You can keep it true, or you can let it turn into something else—you can add magic—but give yourself a starting point” (307-308).

With something as disorienting and frustrating and exhilarating as creative writing, I think it’s important to find some kind of grounding—some kind of starting point, which could be a moment from real life, or, at times, inspiration from another story—before “falling down the cliff” of a new project. You’ll still be grabbing for branches on the way down, but at least maybe you’ll have some sense of where they might be hanging…or where you should put them, if you have to invent them yourself.

Works Cited:

Rowell, Rainbow. Fangirl. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013. Print.

Engagingly Fallible Narrators Strategy 5: Secondary Characters

Today I’m back with the final post in this series about creating an engagingly fallible first-person narrator. We’ve gone over four strategies for helping readers to recognize a first-person narrator’s fallibility; writers can incorporate narrative distance, construct an audience and purpose for the narrative, make the most of syntax and diction, and have the narrator omit details or emotional reactions.

Now we’re ready for my final strategy! Authors can also create secondary characters that act as measuring sticks for the main character’s behavior and views.

Last week, I described Chris Lynch’s novel Gold Dust, which takes place in 1975 Bostonimgres and tells the story of Richard, a boy who loves the Red Sox and wants his new friend Napoleon, a black boy from Dominica, to ignore the racism he faces and embrace the sport of baseball. Lynch uses two secondary characters, Beverly and Butchie, to make readers think twice about accepting Richard’s views at face value.

Beverly is an enlightened girl who acknowledges the racism in her neighborhood and becomes Napoleon’s girlfriend. Throughout the novel, she points out the problems with Richard’s behavior, both to Richard and to the reader. When Napoleon gets sick after spending too much time playing baseball outside with Richard, Beverly says, “Napoleon is from a tropical climate. […] You could kill him, forcing him to be like you” (132). On the surface, Beverly just means that Richard could hurt Napoleon by forcing him to spend so much time in the cold, but her statement suggests to readers that Richard could also damage Napoleon by encouraging him to forget his heritage and pretend that racism doesn’t exist.

While Beverly is different from Richard because she is more open-minded than he is, Butchie provides another kind of contrast. Butchie’s actions and statements throughout the novel confirm that Napoleon is right: it is impossible for him to block out racism because he cannot escape it.  While Richard is well-meaning but misguided, Butchie is downright cruel.

Lynch uses these two secondary characters as foils, to show contradicting reactions to Napoleon’s presence and to provide a gauge for Richard’s behavior. Readers can better evaluate Richard’s reliability by comparing him to Beverly on the one hand and to Butchie on the other. If you are writing a first-person narrative, think about whether you might develop secondary characters that function as gauges for your narrator-protagonist, as well, and be on the lookout for such secondary characters in your reading.

That brings us to the end of this series on how to clue readers in to an engaging first-person narrator’s fallibility. As I’ve said before, I love the intimacy of a good first-person narrative, and I think it’s a powerful reading experience to identify with a narrator while also recognizing his or her limitations. When readers see a narrator’s limitations, that doesn’t mean that they won’t identify with the narrator. If anything, I think readers can feel even closer to characters they recognize as fallible because they can see those characters’ “invisible selves.”

imgres-1In her lovely essay collection The Invisible Child: On Reading and Writing Books for Children, Katherine Paterson explains that a character in a novel has both a visible self and an invisible self. Internal narration allows readers to see characters’ invisible selves—the parts they keep hidden from others, and maybe even from themselves. Paterson suggests that the writer’s job is to see deeply into a character’s invisible self and to depict that character honestly and lovingly. Paterson explains, “It is my hope, of course, that children will […] be able to see themselves in [these characters] and then as they come to love and forgive these people on the page to be able to love and forgive their deepest selves” (48).

Paterson isn’t talking specifically about first-person novels, but this quote gets at the heart of what I like most about a nuanced first-person story. When readers experience a story through the eyes of an engagingly fallible narrator, they can see beneath the surface of the narrator’s account. They can understand, connect to, and accept that fallible character, and that reading experience can help them to understand and accept other people and even themselves.

 Works Cited:

Lynch, Chris. Gold Dust. 2000. New York: Scholastic, 2002. Print.

Paterson, Katherine. The Invisible Child: On Reading and Writing Books for Children.  Dutton’s Children’s Books, 2001. Print.

“Why are we allowed to read this…?”

Pretty soon, I’ll post the final installment of my series on engagingly fallible first-person narrators, but in the wake of Banned Books Week last week, I wanted to post something else while it’s fresh in my mind.

After A.S. King visited my school last spring and gave three amazing presentations to grades 7-9, several students read one or more of her books. The other eighth grade English teacher and I love her novel Everybody Sees the Ants and wanted to capitalize on students’ excitement after the visit. We got permission to teach Everybody Sees the Ants in eighth grade English this year, and we just started the book at the end of last week.

Students are very enthusiastic about reading the book, but a couple of interesting comments from students have gotten me thinking. Yesterday, an eighth grader who is not in my class told me that she really likes Everybody Sees the Ants so far “even though it’s kind of inappropriate.” When I pressed her on what she meant by “inappropriate,” she referred to some curse words early in the novel. And then one student in my class came in today and asked, “Why are we allowed to read this when there are some curse words and stuff in it, but we get in trouble for swearing and we’re not allowed to play songs with curse words at school dances?”

That’s not an easy question to answer, but I think it’s an important one to address. So I ended up dropping part of the lesson I had planned today and asking the student to pose his question to the class. Here’s what my eighth grade students came up with:

  • Audience matters. Dances include 6th-8th graders, but our English class only includes 8th graders.

  • What you read is different from what you say. It’s not okay to direct curse words at other people, but when you’re reading a fictional story that includes curse words, that’s not the same as directing those words at other people, and that doesn’t encourage you to direct curse words at other people.

  • Most middle schoolers have seen and heard “worse” than what’s included in edgy YA novels.

  • The topic/message/theme matters. Some songs have negative messages that are demeaning to women, for example, but YA books usually have positive messages.

  • Language should match content. Certain stories are going to need curse words in order to be realistic. A.S. King couldn’t have believably written about Nader McMillan, the bully character in Everybody Sees the Ants, without including some swearing.

  • Context matters. You can’t take the curse words in a novel out of context; you need to look at why they’re there.

  • It’s different to read a book in English class, when the teacher has some control because he/she has read the book before assigning it and can lead discussions, than to play a song at a dance, because teachers wouldn’t have time to listen to each song beforehand and decide if each one is okay or not.

What do you think? Anything you’d add to my students’ list of reasons why they are allowed to read a book like Everybody Sees the Ants (or John Green’s Paper Towns or Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, both of which they’ll read later this year) when they aren’t allowed to use or play songs with curse words in other situations? Any other thoughts on the challenges of giving books with mature content or language to adolescent readers?

Also, my eighth grade students were primed for this discussion because last week, in honor of Banned Books Week, they read this article about Rainbow Rowell’s novel Eleanor and Park, which was challenged by a group of parents in Minnesota, and this report from the Parents’ Action League that was behind the challenge. I highly recommend checking out both links.

And, um…don’t get used to me updating this blog daily. I’m not sure what got into me, posting two days in a row! But I’ll soon get back to my every-other-week-ish schedule.

Engagingly Fallible Narrators Strategy 4: Omission

Happy last day of September! After a busy couple of weeks that included an author Skype visitImage for my seventh and eighth grade students with Katie Quirk, who wrote our summer reading book A Girl Called Problem; a two-part interview about my YA novel on L. Marie’s wonderful blog (here’s part 1 and part 2); and the purchase of a new car, I’m (finally) back to share the next strategy for crafting an engagingly fallible narrator.

In recent posts, I’ve gone over how writers can use narrative distance, audience and purpose, and syntax and diction to reveal the limits in a first-person narrator’s perspective. Today, I’d like to talk about omission. It turns out that writers can encourage readers to see our first-person narrators as fallible through what we leave out as well as what we include.

imgresIn his historical novel Gold Dust, Chris Lynch uses omission to emphasize his narrator Richard’s vulnerability and to show distortions in Richard’s point of view. (Warning: this discussion of Gold Dust is going to include a spoiler, so if you want to remain spoiler-free, you shouldn’t read the sixth paragraph. Although if you’re anything like me, being told to skip a paragraph probably ensures that you’ll read it, and immediately. Oh well. At least I tried to spare you.) Anyway, Gold Dust takes place in 1975 Boston, where the government has instituted a plan to desegregate schools by busing students out of district. The book opens when Napoleon Charlie Ellis, a black boy from Dominica, joins Richard’s school and doesn’t exactly receive a warm welcome from many of his white classmates. Throughout the novel, Richard wants Napoleon to embrace life in Boston and Richard’s favorite sport: baseball.  He criticizes Napoleon for seeing racism everywhere and claims that Napoleon could be happy if he did not insist upon looking for negatives.

However, Lynch equips readers to realize that Richard’s views aren’t quite reliable, in part by omitting any real discussion of Richard’s family. When Napoleon asks Richard about his family, Richard resorts to self-deprecating humor and distancing sports talk: “Oh, no, this was really not my idea of chat.  No batter, no batter.  Humm, baby.  I got it, I got it.  That’s my idea of a personal statement” (52).  This internal monologue shows that Richard uses baseball to connect with other people and is uncomfortable opening up.

Richard not only refuses to tell Napoleon about his family, but he also refuses to confide in the reader.  By the end of the novel, we know countless details about Richard’s approach to hitting and his devotion to the Red Sox, but all we know for sure about his family is that he lives with only his father. We get the idea that Richard’s father might be racist because Richard doesn’t think his dad would want to meet Napoleon, but we don’t get any details.

Lynch also leaves readers to infer that Richard’s mom has died in an accident based on one indirect comment.  Richard tries to articulate how he felt when Napoleon forced him to acknowledge that the crowd at Fenway Park cheered more enthusiastically for a white player than for a black one.  He explains: “You know the moment.  Like when an important paper comes back with a large F on it.  When your father tells you he has searched everywhere but it seems the dog just won’t be coming back.  Or there’s a phone call and you’re the only one home, and the person on the other end is sorry but there has been an accident” (185).  Up until this point, Richard has not mentioned his mother or offered any reasons for her absence, and even here, he distances himself from the revelation, posing it almost as a hypothetical situation and then returning to his talk of baseball.

Lynch’s omissions of family details make Richard a sympathetic character: a wounded boy with little adult guidance.  But these omissions also signal that readers should be wary of Richard’s views because Richard is not always able to open up and he doesn’t like to confront what is difficult.

If you are writing a first-person novel, consider whether your narrator might have hot-button issues that are too intense for him to get into, and be on the lookout for hot-button issues as you read first-person novels.  When writers keep a topic off-limits, that can alert young readers to a character’s emotional wounds, making the character sympathetic while also encouraging readers to consider the accuracy of his perspectives.

Works Cited:

Lynch, Chris. Gold Dust. 2000. New York: Scholastic, 2002. Print.

Engagingly Fallible Narrators Strategy 3: Taking Advantage of Syntax and Diction

Well, I’ve made it through the first full week of the school year, and I’m back to continue my series on strategies for creating an engagingly fallible first-person narrator. In the last two posts, I’ve covered two big-picture strategies for showing readers that a character’s perspective is not entirely reliable: writers can incorporate narrative distance or create an audience and purpose for the narrator’s story. In this post, I’ll focus on a sentence-level strategy. Writers can also use syntax and diction to help readers evaluate the soundness of a narrator’s perspective.

images-1Basically, syntax is word order and sentence structure, and diction is word choice. Bruce Brooks uses syntax and diction to suggest his narrator Jerome’s fallibility in The Moves Make the Man, which I also mentioned in my last post. At the very beginning of the narrative, Brooks makes effective syntactical choices when Jerome explains that he snuck into his friend Bix’s room to find a notebook and saw Bix’s baseball glove discarded in a corner:

[It was] tossed in the front corner of the room, and you know I had to pick it up and sniff it and then I couldn’t help but started to cry, first time I ever cried about Bix, feeling like I had lost something and then feeling like I did not know if I ever had it.  Bix was gone and worse the Bix I used to dig was gone even before he went and I didn’t know where either of them was but he left his glove behind, which he must be unhappy about regardless of being the old Bix or the new. (9)

In this passage, Brooks uses two heaving run-on sentences with grammatical blips such as “I couldn’t help but started to cry” to convey Jerome’s confusion.  The syntax in this passage—in which ideas and feelings pour out, one rushing into the next—suggests that Jerome is wounded and desperate, grasping about for understanding.  After these two long sentences, Jerome regains control.  He finishes narrating his trip to Bix’s old room with clipped, active sentences: “When I smelled the glove I could tell it was oiled the right way.  I chucked it back in the corner and climbed out” (9).  Here, Brooks uses syntax to reveal Jerome’s method of coping with things that upset him. Jerome lets his emotions pour out but then reins them in and resumes his usual self-assurance.

Brooks also uses diction to help readers understand more about Jerome’s emotions than Jerome articulates.  Jerome often peppers his sentences with “man,” “baby,” “jack,” and references to himself in the third person. But this smooth talking usually occurs just after Jerome has felt insecure. After he describes breaking into Bix’s room to get the notebook, he writes, “I am not a trespasser. I am not a thief either. I am Jerome Foxworthy, and that’s it, jack” (9). The first two sentences here are technically false; Jerome has just trespassed on private property and taken something that is not his. But because he wants to emphasize his own virtue, he punctuates his self-justification with the cocky last sentence.

To hint at your first-person narrator’s buried emotions and defense mechanisms, consider giving him verbal tics that come out in tense moments, and let the emotion of difficult scenes shape the prose you write, whether that means halting fragments, heaving run-ons, or something else. Or if you are reading a first-person novel, pay attention to the syntax and diction to see what they reveal.

 Works Cited:

Brooks, Bruce.  The Moves Make the Man. 1984. New York: HarperTrophy, 2003. Print.

Engagingly Fallible Narrators Strategy 2: Using Audience and Purpose

Welcome back to my series of posts about how to create an engagingly fallible first-person narrator! Last week I defined fallible narrators and offered one strategy for helping readers recognize an engaging narrator’s fallibility: incorporating narrative distance. Today I’ll move on to another effective technique: setting up an audience and purpose for a first-person narrator’s account.

images-3In her excellent book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose admits that she “tricked” herself into writing her first novel and her first published short story by writing what she calls “framed” narratives: stories within stories that one character tells another character as the reader “eavesdrops” (85). According to Prose, this strategy worked because it helped her figure out the answers to some important questions: “Who is listening?  On what occasion is the story being told, and why?” (85). The answers to these questions are important, according to Prose, because they determine the voice and tone of the narrative and they suggest which details the writer should linger on and which details don’t belong.

In addition, I would add that when writers specify a narrator’s audience and his purpose for telling a story, we give young readers tools to evaluate how honest the narrator is being—both with himself and his listener—and what important information he might be leaving out.

In Bruce Brooks’s The Moves Make the Man, the thirteen-year-old narrator-protagonist images-1Jerome Foxworthy reveals his purpose and audience right at the start: he is writing his story to make sense of why his friend Bix ran away and to silence the people who are criticizing Bix.  In the first chapter, Jerome explains that he, a black teenager, went to Bix’s stepfather’s white church and heard the preacher suggest that Bix was “bad and crazy.”  That sermon motivated him to write Bix’s story.  He says:

When I came home from that church I was angry at the lies being told.  Not just that they told that Bix was bad and a runaway—because there was some bad growing in Bix, and he did run away and that is that.  But those people did not understand worth a penny.

That is when and why I decided to write this story of Bix.  Of Bix and me, mostly, I guess it has to be.  I may not understand it all yet myself, but I got all summer ahead of me […]. (5)

From the start, readers know that Jerome is angry with Bix’s stepfather and the other people who do “not understand worth a penny.”  His anger and his determination to prove those people wrong shape his voice and influence what he includes in his story.

In an article about the irony of first-person narrators in YA fiction (which I referenced a couple of posts ago), scholar Mike Cadden discusses this novel and points out that young readers might not realize that Jerome doesn’t seem to tell the whole story of what happened with Bix. But I’ve had seventh grade students read The Moves Make the Man, and they haven’t just taken Jerome’s words at face value; they’ve understood that he exaggerates his own strengths and might not share every detail. I think this clearly stated purpose at the beginning of the novel helps young readers to look out for the gaps and exaggerations in Jerome’s account.

images-2Writers don’t have to be quite as specific about the audience and purpose as Brooks is in The Moves Make the Man; we can also simply hint at the audience and purpose of a narrative. Katherine Paterson hints at the audience and purpose in her novel Preacher’s Boy.  Paterson clues young readers into her narrator Robbie’s fallibility in part by having him address an unnamed audience. Early in the novel, after Robbie has mentioned his father, the preacher, he explains his family dynamics.  He says:

I have Ma and Beth, who’s fifteen and practicing hard at being grown up.  Then there’s Letty, who’s only five but who always loves to think she’s helping.  And…Elliot.  It’s hard to tell you about Elliot.  If you could see him…But you can’t.  He’s almost two years older than me and about a foot taller, but, well, Elliot’s simple in the head.  That’s the best I can explain it. (6)

This passage hints that Robbie has a clear audience in mind for his story, so readers are left wondering, if only on a subconscious level, to whom Robbie addresses the story, why he feels motivated to tell it, and how his audience and purpose influence what he shares and what he leaves out. Also, the direct address and halting sentences in this passage show how difficult it is for Robbie to tell his story. Robbie often seems very sure of himself, but Paterson uses direct address to reveal that he’s not as together as he’d like to be.

I am playing around with the strategy of specifying an audience and purpose in the project I’m working on now. I’m doing this partly so that readers can understand more about my sometimes-prickly protagonist’s feelings than she is able to admit; partly because one of my VCFA advisors, Franny Billingsley, pointed out that invoking an audience can add to the sense of urgency in a story; and partly because I wanted to make sure that this first-person narrator sounds different from the narrator in the other book I’ve been working on.

This technique brings with it its own challenges, and, like the strategy of using narrative distance, it’s sort of a macro-strategy. If you want to use a narrator who’s looking back from a distance on the events of the story or addressing a specific audience, you probably need to decide that early on because those choices will shape a lot of what you write. In the next posts, I’ll address some micro-level techniques you can use at any point in the writing process.

Works Cited

Brooks, Bruce.  The Moves Make the Man. 1984. New York: HarperTrophy, 2003. Print.

Cadden, Mike. “The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 25.3 (2000): 146-154. Project MUSE. Web. 28 July 2011.

Paterson, Katherine. Preacher’s Boy. New York: Clarion Books, 1999. Print.

Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. New York, N.Y: Harper Perennial, 2007. Print.

Engagingly Fallible Narrators Strategy 1: Narrative Distance

Last Monday, I shared some information about the rise of first-person novels for children and young adults and some thoughts on the challenges and benefits of writing in the first person. As promised, today and in my next few posts, I will be offering some ideas about how writers can create engagingly fallible first-person narrators.

Fallibility

First, let me explain what I mean when I talk about a fallible narrator. Scholar Greta Olson makes a helpful distinction between an untrustworthy narrator, who distorts the truth on purpose, and a fallible narrator, whose perceptions of herself, others, or events are in some way limited or misguided. A fallible narrator isn’t lying to the reader, but she may have some defense mechanisms or blind spots, or some feelings she hasn’t processed yet or can’t quite admit to having.

For instance, in the project I’ve recently started working on, the main character, Whitney, defines herself by her academic achievements and spent her first year of high school getting herself on track to get into Princeton, so she is devastated when her parents pull her out of her elite private school before the start of her sophomore year. Whitney has to switch to public school because because her mom is pregnant and her parents are having some financial struggles, so they can no longer afford her tuition. But for a number of reasons that have to do with long-standing family dynamics, the difficulties of her mom’s pregnancy, and her extremely successful older brother, she feels like her parents have given up on her and no longer care. She fixates on winning a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school and doesn’t give her new school or anyone she meets there much of a chance.

Now, I love Whitney and I feel for her, but I also know that some of her impressions of her parents and the people at her new school aren’t entirely accurate. I want readers to feel close to her and understand where she is coming from…but I also want them to recognize the limitations in her perspectives and root for her to grow. I don’t want them to take all of her thoughts at face value and think, “Yep, this poor girl’s parents really hate her, and every single person at her new school is a moron. Sucks to be her.” So how can I, as a writer, make sure I am giving tween and teen readers enough guidance to spot the flaws in Whitney’s perspective, even as they (I hope) identify with her, sink into her world, and see things through her eyes?

I’m not alone in facing the challenge of creating an engagingly fallible narrator. Most first-person narrators are fallible in some way, and I would venture to guess that most writers don’t want readers to take everything their narrators say at face value. Luckily, kids and teens are pretty savvy, so we can be subtle, and there are many techniques that writers can use (and teachers can tune students into) to help readers pick up on the fact that a narrator-protagonist is fallible. In this blog series, I’m going to focus on five.

Narrative Distance

First up: narrative distance. One way that an author can help readers evaluate a narrator’s perspective is to build in a gap in time between when the narrator experiences the events of the story and when the narrator tells the story. That way, the writer can let the now-older narrator-protagonist’s insights peek through.

imagesSara Zarr uses this strategy in her novel Sweethearts. Zarr’s narrator-protagonist, Jennifer Harris, was a lonely, overweight child. She only had one friend, Cameron Quick, but Cameron disappeared long ago. By the start of the novel, Jennifer has lost weight, acquired a new stepdad, transferred to a different school, and reinvented herself as Jenna Vaughn. When Cameron reappears during Jennifer/Jenna’s senior year of high school, he disrupts her seemingly perfect life, and she has to confront the parts of her past that she has struggled to keep buried.

At the very end of Sweethearts, Zarr reveals that Jennifer/Jenna has been looking back on the events of her senior year in high school from several years later, after she has been to college and had other life experiences. Even though Zarr doesn’t specify when Jennifer/Jenna is telling her story until the end, she uses the distance in her narrator’s perspective to ensure that readers won’t take Jenna Vaughn’s words at face value and believe that she is perfectly happy before Cameron returns. This excerpt from the beginning of the novel suggests the precariousness of Jenna’s happiness:

Jenna Vaughn had made it.  I had made it.  It was my last year of high school and no one had ever found me out.  I even had a boyfriend, Ethan, who picked me up for school every day and liked to snuggle and was only sometimes impatient with me.

The problem was that Jennifer Harris didn’t always cooperate, and there were still days I could hear her scratching at the coffin lid, particularly on her—my—birthday. (15)

If you look at this passage carefully, you can see the temporal distance shaping the narrator’s perspective, especially in her description of Ethan. Jenna the high school senior likes Ethan because he gives her rides to school and cuddles with her—nice attributes in a boyfriend, certainly, but nothing earth-shattering. Lurking behind those descriptors is the sense that the older narrator now realizes that a boyfriend might offer something more. And then there’s the most poignant part of the passage: the fact that Ethan is “only sometimes impatient” with her. This phrase shows how hard high-school-senior Jenna has to work to make sure that she is always acting in a suitable, Jenna Vaughn fashion.  Just in those few words, Zarr gives readers the sense that Jenna thinks she’s lucky to have found someone who will put up with her, and she’s going to stay on her guard, striving to keep herself from doing anything annoying, so that she won’t elicit her boyfriend’s justified impatience. Thanks in part to her distance from the events of the story, the narrator is able to make Jenna’s insecurities very clear to the reader.

Incorporating narrative distance doesn’t mean that the reader won’t feel close to the main character. Writers can still focus on the narrator’s in-the-moment impressions, and readers can still identify with the main character. Other novels that feature a first-person narrator who looks back on the events of the story from a specified point in time (some closer to the events and some further removed) include Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied, and Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved.

If you are writing (or reading) a first-person novel, ask yourself whether your narrator is recounting his or her story as the events play out or after they have happened, and, if after, how long after. Then consider how the narrator’s distance from or proximity to the story would shape his or her point of view.

Using narrative distance can be an excellent way to suggest limitations in a fallible narrator’s perspective, but I wanted to write Whitney’s story from a more immediate vantage point. Soon, I’ll share some strategies writers can use when writing the stories of characters who are closer to the events they are recounting. I hope you’ll tune back in then!

Works Cited

Olson, Greta. “Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators.” Narrative 11.1 (2003): 93-109. Project MUSE. Web. 28 July 2011.

Zarr, Sara. Sweethearts. 2008. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.

First-Person Narration

Last week, I recommended five books that I’d especially enjoyed reading this summer. Looking back on that post, it occurs to me that my five recommendations have something in common other than my admiration: they’re all written in the first person.

I know that isn’t unusual, especially since most of those books are contemporary young adult novels. And I’m not complaining. I’ve heard plenty of people say they get impatient with seeing one first-person YA book after another, but I love the intimacy of a good first-person story, and I usually write from that POV, too.

Recently, I finished (for now) working on one first-person contemporary YA novel and shifted to another. One of the biggest challenges for me right now is making sure that the voice of the main character in my new project rings true and stays distinct from the voice of the main character in the project I was working on before.  Because I have first-person narration on my mind, today I’m going to share some thoughts on the rise of the first person in fiction for children and young adults, its challenges, and its possibilities.

When the “I” Trend Began

I did some research on the history of the first person in fiction for young(ish) people a couple of years ago, when I was beginning my critical thesis at Vermont College of Fine imagesArts.  I learned that writers of young adult fiction began to embrace the first person in the 1950s, after the publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. According to the late children’s book editor Jean Karl, before then, the consensus was that books for young readers “must never be told in first person” because first person was “too difficult for children” to negotiate (200).  But in the years after The Catcher in the Rye came out, first-person point of view became the default choice for what scholar Lois Kuznets calls the “problem-oriented domestic story,” in which the adolescent narrator defines himself “in direct opposition to surrounding adults” (188-9).

Limitations of the First Person

Lots of people raise valid concerns about first-person narration. Sometimes first-person narrators provide too much internal narration, and then a story can drag or the protagonist can come across as self-centered. Sometimes first-person narrators sound too much like other first-person narrators. Sometimes they lose credibility if they notice details during heated moments that nobody would be likely to pay attention to.

There’s more, too. Henry James scorned the use of first person, especially when the protagonist is a child or adolescent, because young people “have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them” (qtd. in Kuznets 190).  So in Henry James’s view, when writers confine themselves to the thoughts a young person can articulate, they sacrifice richness of language and restrict their ability to capture what that young person thinks, sees, and feels.

Also, Kuznets points out that when writers use first-person narrators, they encourage readers to feel a “quick, relatively unquestioning identification” with the protagonist, and Kuznets is concerned that this unquestioning identification reflects a “naïve” way of reading because readers should learn to think critically about what they read and to see beyond one protagonist’s point of view (189).

Scholar Mike Cadden has a similar concern. In his article “The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel,” he points out the paradox of first-person YA novels: authors strive to capture an authentic and engaging adolescent voice, but unless they are, in fact, adolescents at the time of writing, their first-person teen or tween voice can never actually be authentic (146).  The problem here, for Cadden, happens when an adult narrator knows that her narrator-protagonist has some limited or misguided views, but she conveys the narrator-protagonist’s perspective so convincingly that the target readers accept that perspective fully without seeing any of the flaws in it.

Sheesh. When there are so many challenges for people who want to write first-person fiction, why bother?

Benefits of the First Person

For me, there are a few main reasons. First, I love the intimacy of a first-person novel, and kids and teens do, too. Second, it’s a lot of fun to craft and to read a distinctive first-person voice. I’m not saying a third-person voice can’t be idiosyncratic and engaging, because it certainly can. But I adore first-person voices that capture the essence of a specific character and let me, as a reader, get to know/admire/worry for/love that 9780385732079character in a deep way. (Some of my favorites include E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver from The Boyfriend List and the other Ruby books; Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicolson from Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging; and Jaclyn Moriarty’s Lydia and Emily from the Ashbury/Brookfield books.) As a writer, I like to try to create characters whose voices capture their distinctive, charming, and—yes—sometimes limited ways of seeing the world.

Third, as I said last week in my notes about Lisa Graff’s Umbrella Summer, I love books that feature fallible narrators, who are some way limited or misguided in their perceptions, especially when readers know that the narrators are fallible. This can happen in books that are written in other POVs, too. But it’s especially powerful to identify intimately with a first-person protagonist and to recognize the flaws in that protagonist’s ways of seeing herself, others, and/or the world. It’s a moving reading experience to know and love the character deeply, while also rooting for that character to change or grow more self-aware.

In both my critical thesis and my graduate lecture at Vermont College, I considered ways that writers of middle grade and young adult first-person fiction can help readers to see the limitations in their narrators’ perspectives so that readers both identify with and see beyond the characters. Inspired by Ingrid Sundberg’s excellent series on organic architecture in fiction (which you should check out if you haven’t already), I’m going to feature some of those strategies in my next few blog posts. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on all things first person: pet peeves, favorite first-person narrators, challenges you’ve faced, and more!

Works Cited

Cadden, Mike. “The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 25.3 (2000): 146-154. Project MUSE. Web. 28 July 2011.

Karl, Jean. “The Process of Finding the Voice in Realistic Fiction for the Middle-Aged Child.” The Voice of the Narrator in Children’s Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics. Ed. Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. 199-205. Print.

Kuznets, Lois. “Henry James the Storyteller: The Development of a Central Consciousness in Realistic Fiction for Children.” The Voice of the Narrator in Children’s Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics. Ed. Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. 187-198. Print.

 

Recommended Summer Reading

Recently, I was looking through my credit card statement and was surprised (and a little bit concerned) to see how many books I had downloaded to my Kindle this summer.  I used to live close to the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, so I often popped in there to stock up on books, and during the school year, I borrow lots of books from our school library.  But for a stretch of this summer, I was averaging one new Kindle book a week. Oops.

I bought so many Kindle books this summer partly because I got hooked on the convenience and immediate gratification of purchasing a book with just one click, and partly because I have sped through a lot of very engaging books recently. So while we still have a bit of summer left, here are some recommendations for summer reads* brought to you by my excessive Kindle purchasing. (*I have a feeling they would be just as enjoyable in any other season, too.)

Young Adult:

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura BuzoImage

Fifteen-year-old Amelia is in love with her co-worker, Chris.  He’s charismatic, funny, easy to talk to…and twenty-one years old.  This smart, humorous book offers sections from Amelia’s perspective and excerpts from Chris’s journals.  It’s fun to get both of their takes on some of the same events and to observe the difference in how Amelia and Chris see themselves versus how they come across to each other. Buzo offers a fresh take on first love and the gradual transition from childhood into adulthood.

Image45 Pounds (More or Less) by K.A. Barson

Ann Galardi is determined to lose forty-five pounds before she has to stand up in front of a crowd of people wearing a bridesmaid’s dress at her aunt’s wedding before the end of the summer.  Ann is easy to root for because she is an active character with a great sense of humor and a clear goal.  Her journey is triumphant, but her struggles to lose weight and feel more comfortable in her own skin definitely aren’t sugar-coated.  K.A. Barson includes endearing secondary characters, rich friend and family dynamics, and a touch of romance in this debut novel.

Nantucket Blue by Leila HowlandImage

Last summer, I went to Nantucket for the first time since I was a kid.  I’m not going to make it there again this summer, but at least I got to revisit the island alongside Cricket, the main character of Nantucket Blue.  Cricket gets a job as a chambermaid so that she can spend the summer in Nantucket, where she plans to support her grieving best friend and pursue her long-time crush, but nothing goes according to her plan.  I enjoyed the book’s vivid setting, the romance that catches Cricket by surprise, and the way Howland weaves in some of Cricket’s mother’s journal entries from a summer she spent in Nantucket as a teen and doesn’t shy away from having Cricket make major mistakes and then confront the consequences of them.

ImageGolden by Jessi Kirby

Golden is part mystery, part romance, and part coming-of-age novel. Parker Frost has done everything she was supposed to do all throughout high school, and her hard work has paid off: she’s gotten into Stanford, and now she’s one of the finalists for a scholarship that would make it financially possible for her to go.  The scholarship was established in memory of Julianna Farnetti and Shane Cruz, a “golden” couple everyone adored, who died in a car accident after graduating from high school ten years ago.  When Parker gets her hands on the journal Julianna kept during her senior year, she becomes fascinated with finding out what really happened to Julianna and Shane.  I have a soft spot for stories about single-minded, studious types rethinking what’s most important, and I like the way Kirby includes Julianna’s journal entries within Parker’s story.

Middle Grade:

Umbrella Summer by Lisa GraffImage

Ten-year-old Annie Richards is worried about all of the bad things that could happen to her.  She bandages up her ankles to prevent sprains, makes a game of riding her bike as slowly as possible rather than racing, and spends her free time reading a book about diseases.  Other people try to get her to lighten up, but Annie knows she’s right to be cautious, because nobody was cautious enough to save her brother Jared, who died.  This is a beautiful, sad, and funny book about Annie’s process of dealing with her grief and re-engaging with her life.  I love books with fallible first-person narrators, who strongly believe something that the reader knows is a bit misguided.  It’s such a poignant reading experience to understand where a character is coming from and come to love that character, but also root for her to get past a belief that is holding her back, and Annie is such an endearingly fallible main character.  This book made me wish I taught younger students because I would love to use it as a read-aloud with upper-elementary-school kids.

Swearing and Drinking in YA Novels

When one of my wonderful writer friends recently read the revised version of my YA novel-in-progress, she had a lot of insightful things to say.  Most of her comments helped me problem-solve small places in the novel where something wasn’t quite working so that I can finish making the book as strong as it can be.  But two of her marginal comments especially got me thinking, not just about my work-in-progress but about young adult literature more generally.

In one place, she circled a curse word and asked if it was the only place in the book where my main character swore (it wasn’t exactly, but it was stronger than words she’d used other times).  And in another place, she noted that the main character never drinks throughout the novel, which might make her seem kind of young.  My friend wasn’t suggesting that I should haphazardly throw in a handful of curse words and some teenage drinking; she was simply making an observation so that I could reflect on how I want the character and novel to come across.  But it’s true that the absence of swearing and drinking might be conspicuous, especially for readers who read a lot of contemporary realistic YA and have developed certain expectations for the genre.

First I had to think about why I hadn’t included cursing and drinking.  The cursing part was pretty simple.  The main character in my novel is a fairly innocent 16-year-old, and curse words wouldn’t fit her voice, unless she was trying to impress someone by talking tougher.   I toned down the one word that had stood out and moved on.

images

Marissa and Summer from The O.C.

The teen drinking thing was a little more complicated.  Because I teach middle school students, I am aware of how many 11-13 year olds read young adult novels instead of or in addition to middle grade books.  While I believe that kids and teens generally do a great job of choosing books they’re ready for, I sometimes worry about how drinking (and drinking and driving) is normalized if there is alcohol in everything that adolescents watch and read.  When teen alcohol use feels authentic to a character and is important to a character’s journey, I have no objections to it, but I don’t like the idea of having characters pound beers or swig cocktails for no particular reason.

I also didn’t drink when I was a teenager, so drinking doesn’t immediately come to mind as part of the universal teen experience for me.  Although when I really think about it, the fact that I chose not to drink in high school really didn’t mean that alcohol wasn’t part of my teen life—I had some fear and discomfort around alcohol that impacted what I did and who I hung out with and would probably come into play if somebody were going to turn teen-me into a character in a YA novel.

After some reflection, I decided that I think it’s important that there are books out there that will appeal to middle school students who are advanced readers and ready to read about teenage experiences, but maybe not quite ready for all of the content in some YA books.  I imagine my tween/teen self and some of my students reading my work, and that probably does influence which characters I choose to focus on and which stories I want to tell.  But on the other hand, I can’t just say, “Well, I don’t want my main character to drink because I don’t want young readers to get the idea that everybody drinks in high school.”  I need to be true to the characters I’ve created.

So I spent some time thinking about how the main character in my novel would feel about alcohol, and then I needed to determine whether there were any places in the story where she would be likely to have a drink.  I knew she wouldn’t be a big drinker—she’s pretty cautious and likes to be in control—but I also knew that she would have drank a little bit at parties with her ex-boyfriend, because she wanted very badly to fit into his world, and she would probably test out drinking some of her dad’s alcohol at a certain point in the story (her dad’s job is actually related to alcohol) when she is annoyed with him and trying to become a more daring person.  When I tried bringing her dad’s vodka into a particular scene, it added to the tension and awkwardness and felt like the right choice.

It was a helpful exercise for me to think consciously about the role that swearing and alcohol should or should not play in my YA novel, so I invite you to think about how drinking/swearing/sex/etc. come across in your own writing or in the books you’ve read.  How do you decide whether or not to include these things, and have you been struck by books you’ve read that include gratuitous curse words or references to partying or that steer clear of these references entirely?  Do you think about your intended audience as you write or wonder about the appropriate audience for books you read?  And have you ever felt that your affection for and desire to protect young readers is at odds with your ability to tell or recommend a good story?

Choosing the Novel

I thought I would finish revising my novel-in-progress a while ago now.  But the last couple of months of the school year included two multiple-day school trips to chaperone, a few weddings and a bunch of other special events to attend, and hours and hours of grading.  Then, two days after my last meeting at school, during an amazingly fun and special weekend away, Mike and I got engaged and soon began looking at places to get married next June.

So summer was here and it was time to get back to writing—I’d promised myself I would—but instead I was visiting wedding venues, going to doctors’ appointments I didn’t have time for during the school year, seeing people I hadn’t spent much time with lately, and completing my scuba certification dives.  Lots of fun, lots of excitement, but still not much writing.

When I lamented the fact that I’d wanted to finish this revision by July 10th  (a self-imposed deadline I’d already pushed back from May 1st, June 1st, and then July 1st) and now I wasn’t sure I’d be able to, Mike said something that made me stop and think.

He said, “Sometimes, you have to choose your book.”

He was right, of course.  I often struggle to choose my book over other things now that I’ve finished my MFA program and no longer have deadlines that somebody else set for me.  It can feel selfish and antisocial to prioritize writing.  It can feel scary to commit to something I’m not always sure I’m all that good at.  And slogging through revisions usually isn’t as rewarding as working with students, or as fun as meeting up with friends, or as entertaining as watching Doctor Who on the couch, or as exciting as looking up wedding stuff online.

But if I never choose my book over other things, then how can I expect to make progress with it?  How can I beat myself up about not finishing my novel when I consistently let it fall to the bottom of my priority list?

So for the past week, I have chosen my novel.  I opted to stay home and work rather than going away for the Fourth of July weekend.  I sat my butt in a chair, turned off the internet, and wrote for two hours at a time, at least a couple of times a day.  By Sunday night, I had finished my revision, and yesterday I sent it off to a couple of generous first readers.  But finishing that revision took making a conscious choice and a sacrifice.

When I was a kid and went to Sunday School at a Presbyterian Church, a Sunday School teacher once told my class that we had a choice in everything we did, even showing up at Sunday School.  (I’m not sure if this statement was linked to a Bible story we were discussing or if people were misbehaving and the teacher was trying to convince everybody that deep down they wanted to be there or what.)  Most people in the class were very vocal in their disagreement.  They insisted that they didn’t choose to do their homework, or to go to school every day, or to come to church on the weekend.  They had to!

“You always have a choice,” the teacher repeated.

“Well, maybe,” some kids reasoned.  “But if we chose not to do our homework we’d fail and get held back, and if we never went to school we’d be breaking the law, and if we refused to come to Sunday School we’d be in major trouble with our parents.”

“Those are still choices,” the teacher maintained.

Looking back, I see that the teacher was right, in a literal sense.  But as there were back then, there are still plenty of choices that really aren’t on the table for discussion.  I don’t feel like I’m making a choice, for example, when I turn in my grades and comments when they’re due at school.

The tricky thing, though, is that it’s easy to lose track of the fact that we’re making choices all the time.  It’s easy to begin to feel like there just isn’t time for writing (or exercising or dating or sleeping enough or whatever it is) without recognizing all of the moments when we make choices that prioritize other things.  We’re not going to be willing or able to reconsider many of those choices.  But we might need to think twice about some of them.

I’m not going to choose writing every time.  I’m often going to choose my relationships or my teaching job, and I’m okay with that.  But it seems like a manageable goal to choose my writing some of the time, so I am going to try to be brave enough and self-aware enough to do just that.

The Challenge of Being Present, with Eyes Wide Open

Yesterday, I met my friend Miriam for happy hour.  Afterward, we walked up the street together toward my apartment and the theater where she was going to see a play.  We’d shared a half-priced individual pizza as an appetizer, and I was holding a to-go box with the leftovers inside.

In front of us, there was a guy asking people for money and food.  He wasn’t sitting or standing still, making requests as people passed, and he wasn’t taking no for an answer.  He was walking alongside an older man, who was moving slowly and leaning on his umbrella.

As we overtook them, the guy switched his attention from the old man to us.

“Excuse me,” he said.

“Sorry,” we mumbled, walking faster.

“Will you just listen to me before you walk away?”  His voice was loud.  Exasperated.  Vaguely threatening.

“We’re in a rush, sorry,” I told him.  “She’s on her way to a play.”

He matched our quicker steps and leaned in toward us.

“I’m not even asking for money,” he said.  “I’m starving.  I’m asking for some food.”

I looked at the box in my hand.  I didn’t need those extra two slices the way he probably did.  I was meeting another friend for dinner in an hour and had a fridge full of food at home.  Plus, if I gave him the pizza, he’d leave us alone.

“Here,” I said, thrusting the box toward him.  “You can have this.  It’s pizza.”

“Is it really?” He did let us go then.  But he turned back toward the old man.  “You see?” he said.  “At least someone cares.”

That wasn’t really fair, I thought.  I didn’t give him the pizza because I cared more than someone else.  I gave it to him because I had it right there in my hand, and because I was a little bit scared, and because I wanted to be able to walk away.

And then we heard a thunk.  Like cardboard connecting with pavement.  I thought it was the pizza box hitting the ground.  I thought the older man had had enough of this guy following him down the street and now taunting him.  I thought he’d knocked the pizza box out of the guy’s hand.

Miriam and I both turned.  It hadn’t been the pizza box.

The older man was on the ground, his umbrella lying next to him.  The other guy, still holding the box, was stepping backwards as he asked if the man was all right.

Two other images rushed into my brain.  A woman, probably in her seventies, on the ground in Reading Terminal Market last week after she slipped on a wet patch between a cheese shop and a produce place.  And my grandfather, stumbling and falling in the stone courtyard outside my brother’s high school graduation twelve years ago.

“Do you think that guy bumped into him?” Miriam asked.

The older man was starting to stand.  Other people were asking him if he was okay, too, and he nodded or said yes—did something to convey the affirmative—but I don’t remember what.  Less than 24 hours later now, I don’t know what his voice sounded like and I can’t picture his features.

Miriam and I turned around and continued heading up the street.

When I got back home, I felt sad and antsy, so I called my fiancé, Mike.  We talked about other things—happy things—and then I told him what had just happened.  As I said it out loud, it blurred into a story instead of an experience.  The exactness of it was already pixelating.  The two men’s faces were hazy.  I held onto some of the dialogue, and I knew what I had been thinking, but I’d already lost access to my gut-level feelings.  When I wrote out the scene just now, I fell into telling rather than showing when I tried to describe the guy’s voice (loud, exasperated, threatening) and my own emotional state (a little bit scared) because those details weren’t clear enough for me to show.

“That’s just wrenching at every angle,” Mike said when I was done telling him the story yesterday.

And it was.  I hadn’t let myself be fully present in the moment and I’d been content to let the details go fuzzy because I’d found the experience troubling and gut-wrenching on so many levels.

But in his book From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler quotes Akira Kurosawa, who said, “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.”  A good writer (or visual artist or actor or whatever) can’t avert her eyes to things that feel too uncomfortable.  Or, on the other hand, too thrilling.

Two years ago, as I began my third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I worked with Mary Quattlebaum, who required that I freewrite, even just for five or ten minutes, every day.  Sometimes I freewrote about character dynamics or plot ideas in the novel I was just beginning, or I wrote about things that made me anxious.  But sometimes I captured little scenes that had provoked an emotional reaction in me, like the one I tried to write above.  Because I wrote these snippets every night, I got better at keeping my eyes open and staying aware of my feelings during the day.  As I wrote the beginning of the first draft of my novel-in-progress, I drew upon those freewrites a lot.  My novel has a first-person narrator, so it was helpful to realize what I noticed, thought, and did during emotional moments so that I could keep her reactions realistic. I think I need to get back to freewriting a little bit every day again, to re-train myself to keep my eyes and other senses open, and to give myself more material to draw upon as I try to finish revising my novel.

I’ve been struck lately by how distractible I am when I sit down with my manuscript open on the computer—how easily I give into the impulse to check email or Facebook or to Google something I suddenly wonder about.

If I can get myself back to a place where I can really be present for moments, both positive and negative, both in life and in the last chapters of this novel, then maybe I’ll make some real progress toward finishing this revision.

Two Novels to Savor: I’LL BE THERE and PARCHED

When I was in high school, I first read a novel by the writer Alice McDermott and was blown away.  I shared it with a friend and was surprised when she still hadn’t finished it a few weeks later.  Did she not like it?  She assured me that she did.  “I have to read it slowly,” she explained. “It’s too beautiful to read fast.”

Back then, I couldn’t relate to the idea of reading a beautiful book slowly, unless I was reading it in school and the teacher parceled out chapters each night.  The more I liked a book, the later I stayed up reading it and the faster I was done.  Now, though, I understand what my friend meant about savoring a beautifully written book.  I recently read two books that I had to take slowly, partly because I haven’t had as much reading time lately as I would like, but partly because I found myself wanting to linger, even though both books are suspenseful.

First, Holly Goldberg Sloan’s I’ll Be There tells the story of Sam and Riddle Border, I'll Be Therewho have been on the run with their disturbed, abusive father since he took them away from their mother when they were very young, and Emily Bell, whose life is as stable as Sam and Riddle’s are unstable, and who believes that everything is connected and everyone is part of a ripple effect. Emily and her family members become attached to the Border brothers, but then Sam and Riddle’s father, Clarence, finds out about his sons’ new friends and tries to ruin everything.

I’ll Be There is Holly Goldberg Sloan’s first novel, but she has written and directed several films.  I wasn’t surprised about her screenwriting background because the novel has a cinematic feel.  The omniscient narrator dips into many, many characters’ psyches—from Clarence Border to Emily’s family members to an elderly motel maid and a cattle farmer—and Sloan gives readers an interesting blend of detail and restraint.  At the beginning of the novel, she describes Emily Bell as having “some kind of magnet that pulled at someone’s soul” and “allowed someone to look at her and feel the need to share a burden.”  Throughout the novel, it feels like the omniscient narrator holds such a magnet up to each character that is in some way connected to Sam, Riddle, and Emily, pulling that character’s thoughts and desires up to the surface of the narrative.

At the same time, Sloan chooses not to share some of the main characters’ feelings and experiences.  When Sam and Emily are getting to know each other, for instance, she stops chapters just as they begin interacting or summarizes interactions rather than depicting them in scenes.  For me, these moments of narrative restraint drew me into the story because I liked the characters and trusted the competency of the writing enough that I imagined and inferred what happened in those scenes.

The novel has an almost magical, fable-like feel to it.  Even though Sam and Riddle endure horrible traumas, the story is imbued with hope, humor, and the sense that things will turn out right in the end.  A.S. King recommended I’ll Be There when she visited Friends Select as a young adult book that is appropriate for sixth and seventh grade readers in content and themes, and I agree with her recommendation.  For younger middle school readers who are eager to read “older” books but might not be quite ready for the content of some YA novels, this book is an excellent option.  My wonderful colleague Maureen will be offering this book as one of the choices in her summer book pair, and I hope many students read it and enjoy it as much as I did.

imagesAnother great book for middle school readers is Melanie Crowder’s Parched, which just came out this week!  Melanie is a fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts alum, and I got to hear excerpts of her debut novel when we were both in graduate school.  Parched takes place in a drought-ridden place and follows three viewpoint characters—a girl named Sarel, her protective dog Nandi, and a boy named Musa—as they try to find water and survive.

I borrowed an ARC of this book before it came out and brought it with me on the 8th grade class trip to New Mexico last month…and then realized that this was a book I wanted to bring home and read when I could give it my full attention.  The prose seems simple on the surface, but I knew I would miss a lot of the novel’s richness if I read it too quickly or when I had any distractions.

I knew from hearing Melanie read parts of this book that the writing was gorgeously spare and poetic, but I didn’t know how attached I would feel to the three main characters.  Melanie makes powerful use of actions and gestures to show (rather than tell about) the affection between Sarel and Nandi and then the gradually building connections between Sarel and Musa and Musa and Sarel’s dogs.  As a result, I felt affection and concern for all three characters, too.

As in I’ll Be There, the multiple viewpoint characters create suspense, because the reader sometimes knows more than individual characters do.  Melanie provides enough background information about the characters and their world that readers know what Sarel, Nandi, and Musa are up against and can picture the setting, but she uses a lot of restraint in her depiction of this world.  This restraint encourages readers to consider where and when the story might take place and to think critically about the similarities and differences between this world and their own.

Parched is a book that absolutely lends itself to slow, careful reading.  Because of its relatively short length and the way it sets readers up to make inferences and connections, it would be an excellent read-aloud novel.  I plan to use it as a sixth-grade read-aloud next year.

How about you?  Any books you’ve found yourself lingering over lately?

Crafting Likable Characters Who Make Mistakes (with Lessons from Lyn Miller-Lachmann)

My seventh grade students recently finished reading Riot by Walter Dean Myers, which is set in New York City during the draft riots of 1863.  Because the students had studied immigration and visited the Tenement Museum and New York Historical Society during a trip to New York, they were familiar with the setting of Riot, understood the tensions between Irish immigrants and black people, and even recognized some of the photographs in the appendix at the end of the book as things we had seen during our trip.

My students and I appreciated the way Myers brings a historical situation to life in a 6450024compelling way by focusing on a (fictional) family who find themselves in an especially difficult situation: the Johnsons are a biracial family—half-black, half-Irish—so when poor Irish people, who can’t afford to pay $300 to get out of being drafted, begin to riot because of their fear that black people will take their jobs if the North wins the war, the Johnsons’ light-skinned teenage daughter, Claire, feels that the two sides of her identity cannot possibly fit together and no longer understands who she is.

Students enjoyed the book and were engaged throughout the unit.  However, they had one interesting reaction: they were annoyed with Claire.  “She whines a lot,” some of them pointed out.  “It’s annoying.”  “She puts herself in danger for no reason,” others added. “Nobody would even know she was half black if she didn’t insist on telling them all.  She’s bringing all this drama on herself!”

It wasn’t a bad thing that they reacted this way to Claire.  We were able to talk about why the circumstances would have shaken Claire so deeply, and we noted that people don’t always react rationally when they are upset.  But I was struck by how definite and unified they were in their response, especially since I’ve been noticing similar responses in  reviews of various young adult books on Goodreads and Amazon.  Recently, I’ve read a bunch of reviews of different books in which the reviewer comments on being “annoyed” or “bothered” by a character when that character makes mistakes or shows questionable judgment.

I get a bit discouraged by these reviews.  I am the kind of reader who cringes when a character makes a bad decision, so, as a writer, I have to force myself to let my characters mess up and then learn from their mistakes.  But sometimes it seems like writers are stuck in a no-win situation.  There isn’t enough tension or action if characters don’t make mistakes, but then readers get annoyed with them when they do!

I asked my students if there were any main characters from books we’d read together who hadn’t annoyed them, and they gave me three: none of them had been annoyed by Matt Pin in Ann E. Burg’s All the Broken Pieces, Doug Swieteck in Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now, or Curzon in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Forge.

I started thinking about what these three likable, un-annoying narrator-protagonists had in common.  They all certainly make mistakes.  But they don’t engage in much introspection, and they are active characters with clear desires.

images-2Meanwhile, the same day I talked about character likability with my seventh grade students, I finished reading my friend and VCFA classmate Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s wonderful middle grade novel, RogueRogue tells the story of Kiara, a girl with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, an obsession with the X-Men, and a desperate desire for a friend.  Lyn wrote an insightful guest post on fellow VCFA alum Melanie Fishbane’s blog about the challenge of making Kiara a likable narrator.

I can see how narrator likability would have posed a challenge in Rogue.  After all, Kiara is a girl who feels unliked by many of the people around her.  Lyn wrote about two strategies she used to encourage readers to sympathize with Kiara: she included secondary characters who like Kiara, and she gave Kiara “a strong desire” to “pursue […] against all odds.”

Lyn does a great job of developing secondary characters whose affection for Kiara builds Kiara’s likability.  In addition to the two characters Lyn mentions in her blog post, a six-year-old neighbor and an elderly woman, there is also a charismatic older teen whose acceptance of Kiara encourages readers to accept her.  In addition, Lyn also uses secondary characters who are unkind to Kiara to make readers relate to and feel protective of her.  Lyn makes especially effective use of a flashback during which Kiara heard one of her brothers speculate on what’s wrong with her and what might have caused her “mutations.”  This scene elicits great sympathy for Kiara, and readers can relate to the experience of hearing someone close to them say something hurtful (especially middle school readers, many of whom often worry about what others are saying about them).

Also, as Lyn notes, Kiara’s strong desire, to find a friend and to discover her own “special power,” plays a major role in making her likable. Kiara ends up discovering a talent for making videos, and her video talent reveals a confident, competent part of her character.  Furthermore, her desire for friends is so poignant and so consistent that readers will understand her motivation when she makes a few misguided decisions rather than feeling annoyed.

I think these two strategies worked beautifully in Rogue.  Lyn made me love Kiara, worry about her, and admire her, all at once. (Plus, I already passed the book on to a 7th grader, who has recommended it to others and didn’t have any “annoying character” complaints.)  I learned a lot from Lyn’s novel and blog post, as well as from my students’ reactions to characters that have annoyed them.  As I finish up revisions on my current novel-in-progress and then return to another writing project, which features a rather prickly and occasionally bratty narrator, I’ll keep these lessons from Lyn and my students in mind.