craft review by Lindsay Lackey
It’s no surprise that a two-time Newbery medalist is a master of her craft. Kate DiCamillo’s books are international bestsellers and have garnered numerous awards. She’s known for writing complex and compelling characters, rich Southern settings, and crisp, clear prose—all of which are on display in her 2018 middle grade novel, Louisiana’s Way Home.
DiCamillo’s books are not very long, but they are always pitch-perfect and richly crafted. One of the questions I ask myself again and again as I read her work is: how does she do it? How does she write such complex yet simple stories? Stories that are bursting with memorable characters, stories woven with universal emotions and themes, yet stories that also feel intimate and unique?
The answer—or one of them, anyway—is specific, significant detail.
Louisiana’s Way Home is a mere 227 pages long, with plenty of white space and semi-large font. According to the Accelerated Reader Bookfinder, it has only 31,222 words.
In other words, this book doesn’t take up a lot of real estate. Yet, DiCamillo manages to build Louisiana’s emotionally complex and rich world through the use of details that serve a dual purpose: they illuminate as well as foreshadow.
CHOOSING SIGNIFICANT DETAILS
Building a solid setting depends on details, but it is all too easy to go overboard here. Many writers pack in setting details, perhaps believing that it is the number of details that matters in building a rich world.
DiCamillo, however, is usually quite spare in her description of setting. She proves that the number of details do not matter—but the significance of them does.
SIGNIFICANT DETAILS THAT ILLUMINATE
For example, when Louisiana describes the Good Night, Sleep Tight Motel, where she and Granny are staying, she only mentions a handful of things: the vending machine, the shag carpet, the alligator, the cleanliness of the place, and the curtains in their room.
First, the vending machine in the motel office:
…it was stocked with the most amazing array of things. There were toothbrushes with little tubes of toothpaste attached to them, and candy bars with caramel and nuts, and also bags of peanuts, and rain bonnets that were folded up into neat little squares, and packages of crackers with orange cheese in the middle of them.
Her observations of the vending machine not only give us a sense of the type of place this motel is, they also illuminate, giving us crucial insight into Louisiana’s situation and soul. She firsts notes the toothbrush and toothpaste, which are practical necessities. We can’t help but wonder if she even has a toothbrush with her, considering how quickly Granny pulled her out of bed and put her in the car.
Most of the details she notes in the machine are food related, reminding us that Louisiana is hungry. She’s hungry in body—for Granny never does stop to feed her on the road—and she’s hungry in spirit. Things like caramel and nuts and orange cheese are such novelties to her that she is actually excited about them. For many children, this paltry selection of food might be unappetizing, or at the very least, unexciting. For Louisiana, it is “a miracle.”
SIGNIFICANT DETAILS THAT FORESHADOW
When Louisiana describes the rest of the motel office, the details she relays foreshadow what’s to come. She notes the enormous taxidermy alligator who is “dead in a ferocious pose.” She also notes that the curtains in their room don’t seem to fit. The palm tree pattern is incongruous with the Georgia setting. She believes the curtains should have peaches on them instead. “Curtains should be state appropriate,” she says. “Lots of things, in fact, should be different from how they are” (64).
Since the Good Night, Sleep Tight Motel is where Louisiana is later abandoned by Granny—which is frightening (like the alligator) and should be different (like the curtains)—these significant details of setting act as small moments of foreshadowing, while also illuminating Louisiana’s needs and desires.
In contrast to the uncomfortable details of the motel, Louisiana observes very different things about Burke Allen’s house.
We see that the Allen house is a place that feeds her before we learn anything else about it. She and Burke share bologna sandwiches on her first visit, and Louisiana is so comforted by her full belly–the first time her belly has been full the entire novel–that she tells Burke the entire story of her family’s “curse of sundering.” We learn later that the house often smells like cake. And, as Louisiana says, “‘cake’ is a very good word in general” (134).
However, Burke’s house is the only house in the woods, which also reflects how the Allens are a bit outside of the norm. But considering that the “norm” in Louisiana’s life, and in this small town, has so far proven untrustworthy, the fact that the Allens are slightly on the outside is a good thing. Perhaps being on the outside of the chaotic and often cold world she’s known so far will bring Louisiana more security than she’s felt before.Again—the detail illuminates.
We also discover that the house is painted “pink as cotton candy.” Louisiana is a great admirer of beauty and color (and food), so it’s reasonable to assume she finds the color of Burke’s house to be a comfort.
For Louisiana, the association to and experience of good food she has at the Allens’ is vitally important. This is the first time her body has been well-fed in the book, and the Allens later prove to be a source of complete nourishment for her as well—in body and spirit. The detail of food is another one that foreshadows what is to come for our heroine.
DiCamillo’s use of significant detail provides a rich setting as well as important illumination of character and foreshadowing of events. Considering how much punch each detail packs, it’s no wonder her books—which contain such vibrantly crafted settings—can be as few words as they are.
Action: Consider how the details of your setting both illuminate your characters and foreshadow coming events. What details of setting are most significant to your character? How can you infuse a sense of foreshadowing within your setting? What details will make a place seem like home to your character, or warn the reader of coming trouble, or add to your character’s sense of agency?
Check back next week for Part 2: Significant Detail of Character.
Lindsay Lackey has trained as an opera singer, worked in children’s and teen services at the public library, and for a major publishing house in publicity and marketing. Now, she writes magical novels for middle grade readers. Born and raised in Colorado, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their spoiled dog.
Lindsay’s debut middle grade novel, ALL THE IMPOSSIBLE THINGS, is coming Fall 2019 from Macmillan’s Roaring Brook Press.