craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
As writers for children, we’re constantly being told to make sure our stories are centered on our child protagonists and to limit adult interactions. There are many ways to do the latter, from the Disney trick of killing off one or more parents at the beginning to having adults merely in the background. But there are times when having an involved adult secondary character is the key to your main character’s growth.
In the middle grade novel-in-verse Emmy in the Key of Code, author Aimee Lucido keeps child characters front and center. But she also includes Emmy’s parents and teachers in the mix. Emmy is a recent transplant to San Francisco from Wisconsin, and she’s having trouble fitting in at her new school at the same time she’s a non-musician in a musical family. When Emmy ends up in a computer coding class for her elective, she finds friendship, confidence, and her own voice.
A key figure in Emmy’s growth is Ms. Delaney, the computer science teacher. In addition to using the content that Ms. Delaney teaches to frame Emmy’s growth, Lucido smartly establishes commonalities between Emmy and Ms. Delaney, creates a character that Emmy admires, and uses Ms. Delaney to influence Emmy through what she does more than what she says. Ultimately, Ms. Delaney is an ally for Emmy.
A teacher Emmy likes and connects with
The first time readers (and Emmy) meet Ms. Delaney, we immediately know this will be a good relationship for Emmy.
The teacher crescendoes in
with a smile painted candy-apple red.
A color so joyful
so dolce and vivace
that it spills onto the rest of her face
and when she sings:
“Welcome to Introduction to Computer Science!
You can call me Ms. Delaney
and I am SO excited you’re here!
I actually believe her. (50)
This poem signals the first time in the book that Emmy has felt like she belongs somewhere. She’s a misfit in her family of musicians and she sits by herself at lunch, but with this one teacher’s welcoming smile and words, Emmy finds her place.
The road in CS class is not always smooth, but that welcome persists. Late in the book she says that Ms. Delaney is the person “who for the first time ever / make[s] me feel like I belong” (336).
We find out early in the story that Ms. Delaney had a high-powered Silicon Valley job, but quit a couple of years before and is new to teaching. While the rest of the class has questions about Ms. Delaney’s old job, Emmy reports,
But I hardly notice the answers
because I’m still stuck
on the part
where Ms. Delaney is just as new here
as I am. (61)
This realization that Ms. Delaney is new too makes Emmy feel a kinship with her and find comfort in the fact that she’s not alone. This connection with Ms. Delany is not her primary connection–more words and attention are focused on Emmy’s budding friendship with Abigail–and that authorial decision helps keep the focus on Emmy and how she grows and solves her own problems rather than on an adult saving the day.
Content that connects to Emmy’s emotional growth
It is important to the story that Ms. Delaney is teaching computer science to Emmy and her friends. It matters that she is enthusiastic about her subject and her students. If Ms. Delaney were a grumpy old history teacher, Emmy’s growth would be different. The existing Ms. Delaney enables Emmy to learn about herself and the world from a new perspective.
Lucido weaves the subject of coding into Emmy’s emotional journey. Emmy learns to think in code, and many of the poems are formatted in code. The terms she learns have computer-y meanings and emotional meanings. Lucido uses callbacks to specific coding terms to create emotional resonances in later poems.
By making the influential adult a teacher, who teaches a relevant subject to Emmy’s growth, Lucido has compressed the roles of relevant-subject-matter teacher and influencer into one character–always a good thing.
Teacher as an ally
Ms. Delaney serves the plot later in the book and the situation proves that Emmy has grown, but early in the book Ms. Delaney becomes an ally for Emmy. A boy in the class, Francis, seems to roll his eyes at everything Emmy says and does. Abigail points out that he does it to Ms. Delaney too. When Emmy finally tells Ms. Delaney what is happening, Ms. Delaney doesn’t let Francis get away with it anymore.
We don’t know all the details, but Ms. Delaney teaches the whole class that women were the first computers, defending girls’ right to code, and then speaks to Francis in the hallway, after which he apologizes to Emmy, though Emmy’s not quite sure she’s ready to forgive him.
By taking this action, Ms. Delaney teaches Emmy that she has allies, that she has a right to code in peace, and that Ms. Delaney cares about her. It bolsters her for some difficult ups and downs in family life and in her new friendship with Abigail. Through this action, Ms. Delaney also empowers Emmy to pursue her interests and engage with the world on her terms.
Other roles for teachers
Not every book uses teachers as allies. For instance, in Kate Messner’s BREAKOUT!, the teacher assigns the class to write letters to future residents of their town to submit to the town’s time capsule project, but school is already out for the summer, and readers never see the teacher in action. The main characters, Nora and Elidee, both mention the teacher in their letters, so she exists as a character, but she is off-stage and mostly serves as a mechanism for the time-capsule-letter structure of the book. She does have an impact on Elidee by encouraging her to read and write poetry, but again, we hear about her encouragement after the fact, in Elidee’s letters.
In Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, Holling Hoodhood is convinced that his seventh-grade English teacher hates him through a good portion of the book. He believes she sees him as an antagonist because he has inadvertently ruined her Wednesdays by being the only kid left in her classroom during the time other students leave for religious instruction. He then sees her as an antagonist because she assigns him onerous chores to do and Shakespeare plays to read. While the story includes a wider world of friends and family conflicts, the relationship between Mrs. Baker and Holling is central to the book. In The Wednesday Wars, the teacher-protagonist relationship differs from that in Emmy; it changes more and is at first an adversarial relationship.
What to consider in creating impactful teacher characters
Ultimately, adult secondary characters need to serve the story and the change and growth necessary for the main character. With teacher characters, as with other adults, you have a wide range of options–from allies to antagonists. As you think about the teacher characters you have in your story, or when you’re considering including them, ask yourself the following questions:
- What does the teacher teach and why does it matter to the character?
- What will they learn from the teacher through the content?
- What will they learn from the teacher outside of the content?
- What elements can be in ACTION rather than DIRECT INSTRUCTION?
- How can the teacher be aligned with the main character? Or opposed to the main character?
- How does your main character feel about this teacher? About other teachers they have?
- How does what the character learns in the student-teacher relationship help in other areas of growth and other relationships?
Find more about secondary characters in our post Secondary Characters and Dramatic Irony in Kate O’Shaughnessy’s The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane.
Read our recent interview with Aimee Lucido!
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.