PICTURE BOOKS

MIDDLE GRADE

YOUNG ADULT

author:

Anne-Marie Strohman

Some great stories make use of what Melanie Jacobson calls the emotional antagonist. The emotional antagonist is on the protagonist’s side, but the protagonist doesn’t have their approval or support.Jacobson believes emotional antagonist can be a powerful addition to a book because it gives a story an extra satisfying ending–a resolution with the emotional antagonist. We can see the emotional antagonist in action in Eddie the Eagle (2015).

Margaret Chiu Greanias’s new picture book, Amah Faraway, illustrated by Tracy Subisak, matches the reverso form with the story of a girl and her grandmother who begin worlds apart (one in the US and one in Taiwan) in a way that enriches both the story and the form.

Since I began writing picture books, I’ve longed to tell the story of my relationship with my Amah (grandmother, in Taiwanese). Even though we saw each other infrequently, I adored her. But like Kylie, my main character in Amah Faraway, I always felt a bit shy at the start of our visits–due to my own cautious nature, the distance, language barrier, and cultural differences.

Knowing where my book would sit on a shelf and what books it would be friends with helped me think more clearly about my revision. When I’m faced with a choice, I can consider what would sit well in the spot I found for it.

This blog grew out of a middle grade book group for writers, held in Menlo Park, California, and we’re still going strong. Each month, we discuss a middle grade book with an eye to craft. (Last year, I wrote about strategies for starting your own craft book group.) Here’s our list of books from 2021, with a sneak peek at our first few books of 2022. We hope they inspire your reading!

Rita Williams-Garcia masters the crowd scene–a dinner at the midpoint of the book. In a movie, it’s easy to see the crowd and feel the energy in the room. In fiction, it’s more complicated–you need to balance the minute and individual with the group so that readers feel grounded in the environment and in the particular characters’ interactions.

I fully transport myself from my reality into the world that I seek to create. In a word, I daydream. Deeply. I put myself with the character, close to the character, sometimes in the character, to taste the dirt when they’re in the dust storm or feel the scratchy bristles of cane stalk whip my face. Then I write it. Later, I make adjustments, because what I have to understand is different from what the reader should feel. Sometimes I have to rein it in or pull back. It’s not always the point that the reader should feel each and everything—but the writer must!  

As writers, we hear all the time that you absolutely have to develop your characters’ backstories. We can spend a lot of time laboring over our characters’ pasts–creating, inventing, discovering–only to have someone read a draft and tell us: “Take out all the backstory!” Too much backstory can drag the pace of a story. Too little, and characters seem unmoored and unmotivated. So what to do?

In Secrets of the Sea, Evan Griffith keeps the story active by providing context to explain how important her work was, providing detailed descriptions and examples to prove his points about Jeanne, and employing effective sentences at the ends of spreads that make readers want to turn the page. In each instance, he sets up expectations, context, or questions that lead readers through a delightful story.

“This isn’t specific to PB writers, but I would just say to any writer: Be kind to yourself and your drafts. Many writers, myself included, struggle with self-criticism or perfectionism, so I try to give myself this advice daily. First drafts can and should be messy. Second and third and seventh drafts, too. There is beauty in the mess. Writing is mostly re-writing. When you’re feeling discouraged, reach out to some writer friends for support. Seek community.”