PICTURE BOOKS

MIDDLE GRADE

YOUNG ADULT

Oct 15, 2020

Embedding Practical Lessons in Your Novels: A Craft Analysis of The Startup Squad Series

by Kristi Wright

Every novel (and series) has its own unique journey to publication. The Startup Squad series by Brian Weisfeld and Nicole C. Kear is an excellent case-in-point. Inspired by his experience as a business person (discussed in this Q&A), Weisfeld wanted his daughters–and girls everywhere–to have an empowering series that encouraged them to be entrepreneurs, by embedding practical business lessons into engaging, funny, and lively stories. This isn’t just a middle-grade series, it’s also a brand “that promotes the belief that entrepreneurship can empower young girls to develop important life skills, follow their passions, and reach their potential.” And there’s always an underlying growth mindset. Failures happen, but that doesn’t stop the squad from trying bigger things and improving their game.

Here are three techniques you can use in your own stories that Weisfeld and Kear apply in the Startup Squad series to teach, but not preach.

Anchor your story with a problem that can only be addressed via the lessons you want your characters to learn

In The Startup Squad (the first in the series), the story hinges on the sixth-graders competing to raise money for their class trip to a local amusement park. Their teacher, Ms. Davis, explains:

“This is an expensive trip. You’ll need to raise the money to pay for it. So the whole grade will be taking part in a fundraising contest. You’ve been grouped into teams, and each team will run a lemonade stand. All the proceeds will go toward the trip.” (7)

Then she reveals the stakes:

“The team that earns the most money will win VIP tickets to Adventure Central.” (7) 

To win, the main characters, who have been grouped into one of the teams, must learn how to a) make a great product, b) be profitable, c) determine the best location for their sales, d) market and sell, e) provide a positive customer experience, and f) think out of the box when it comes to problem-solving. There is no other way for them to succeed.

In The Startup Squad: Face the Music, there’s a slightly more complex set-up that leads to the squad starting a t-shirt business. Harriet, a member of the Startup Squad, has three brothers who together make up a popular band: Radical Skinks. They are heavy favorites for a local battle of the bands, but there’s a big problem: Harriet broke her brother’s guitar and there’s no money to replace it.  

“What better way to raise money for the Radical Skinks than to sell Radical Skinks merchandise? And who better to do it than the Startup Squad?” (14)

In this second installment of the Startup Squad, the girls must continue to improve their skills on all fronts. Because they are trying to do something bigger than a lemonade stand, their problems are even bigger and their financial stakes are higher. 

NOTE: each book has back matter that explains core business concepts in more detail. These sections reinforce the embedded lessons in each story.  

Seed your characters with flaws that will offer them opportunities to fail, leading to teachable moments

This is a technique The Startup Squad uses to great effect. In each book, a different main character takes center stage as a primary (though not exclusive) viewpoint character, and that character has to grow through the course of the story. 

In the first novel, Resa is the viewpoint character. She is driven and hates to lose. She is easily frustrated and generally thinks that her ideas are the best ones. She’s also a born leader, but her impatience and lack of respect for her teammates keep her from realizing her potential. The other girls become frustrated with her, which leads to them losing motivation and initiative. She must grow into her role as team leader before the business can be successful. 

First, the team argues over the right approach:

The next two mornings at homeroom went like this:
▪︎ Resa announced a Big Idea.
▪︎ Amelie announced that the Big Idea would never work. 
▪︎ Arguing. Lots of arguing.
▪︎ Didi jumped in with compliments and jokes to stop World War III.
▪︎ Harriet walked in, ten minutes late, just before the bell rang. (24)

As Resa becomes more desperate to make things work, her best friend and fellow teammate calls her out on her behavior:

“You’re on some kind of power trip,” said Didi. “You’re being rude. You’re not listening to anyone. You’re ordering us around like we’re your servants!”

After that, Resa does her best to listen, but then overcorrects and doesn’t give her own opinions anymore, which leads to a lack of leadership. After some excellent mentorship by a high schooler who works at the ice cream shop, Resa realizes that she needs to be decisive and take risks, but she also needs to trust the people on her team, to listen to their ideas and jump on the best ones. 

In Face the Music, we watch impulsive, make-everyone-happy Harriet jump head first into their t-shirt adventure, but have failure after failure because of these same qualities. She makes decisions without thinking things through. That coupled with a desire to make everyone happy keeps her from negotiating with her t-shirt supplier and also to make some bad deals with customers too. She rushes into getting a design printed without considering whether it’s one that customers will like. And worse, once the team is flustered by these initial mistakes, they all become extremely disorganized and start losing their cool with their customers. 

Bottom line:

“We are hemorrhaging money,” Amelie moaned to Harriet and Resa as Didi helped the next customer. “We haven’t sold even one extra shirt tonight, and we’ve had to give refunds on four.” (93)

Once the team takes a moment to debrief on what mistakes they made, they are able to start rebuilding. Harriet has to be willing to negotiate with their t-shirt supplier. And she has to be willing to stick to the team plan and stay organized instead of impulsively improvising.  

Give your characters different and complementary natural abilities so that they become unexpected mentors for each other

Resa is good at Big Ideas and is a born leader, Amelie is excellent at finances and has a natural business sense. Harriet is charming with everyone and an amazing salesperson and Didi is an artist, a peacemaker, and very methodical. Over the course of each novel, they have opportunities to mentor each other. 

In the first Startup Squad, Harriet gives Didi tips on how to sell. 

“First problem!” Harriet announced. “You’re too quiet. Try it again, louder this time. And start off with something peppier to get people’s attention! And more fun! Like ‘Hey! Love your shirt!’ or ‘What lousy weather, huh?’” (64-65)

In the second one, Amelie, with her natural business acumen, has lots of great course corrections that Harriet and the rest of the team can learn from:

“We should’ve asked for sample shirts, too,” said Amelie, her mouth full of chocolate marshmallow ice cream. “The logo printed out super small and squashed; we would’ve fixed that if we’d gotten a sample.” (115)

And…

“I love Lucy and all, but we should’ve negotiated with her. We had to make our prices too high to make any profit, and since the shirts were so expensive, not that many people wanted to buy them. Especially since they were, um, fashion-challenged.” (115)

Over and over again, the Startup Squad proves that they are stronger as a team than as individuals, something any good business knows–that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  

Weisfeld envisioned a book series and a brand that encouraged and taught girls to be entrepreneurs through engaging, adventurous stories. Together, Weisfeld and Kear have delivered on this vision. 

Now it’s your turn

Think about life lessons that you might want your readers to glean from your stories. How might you seed these? Consider:

  • Does your story’s problem require your characters to learn valuable life lessons before they can solve it? 
  • Do your characters’ flaws offer them opportunities to fail, leading to teachable moments?
  • Do your characters have different and complementary natural abilities that allow them to become unexpected mentors for each other?

LINKS (related craft posts):

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