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Posts Tagged ‘Lizzie Demands a Seat’

Untold stories will remain untold if we can only tell those with a complete historical record. (1)

A big thank you to Beth Anderson for sharing her wisdom with us. In this fabulous guest post, she walks us through how she found the theme and heart in two of her true-story picture books.

REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT (Illustrated by Susan Reagan 2/1/22) and FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE (Illustrated by Caroline Hamel 5/3/22)

prudence and franz together

WRITING TRUE STORIES WITH THEME AND HEART

by Beth Anderson

One of the topics that Alayne wanted to explore on her blog is theme, the big universal ideas we find in stories. When I explore a person or event for a potential story, I look for themes that kids can relate to—themes are “connect-ers.” As I write, more emerge, and I need to choose my focus. For me, themes are the easy part. But it’s the “heart”—that golden nugget I’m after—that’s the hard part. It’s a unique angle, frame, or lens that filters the story through me to find special meaning. That’s the piece that will make my story different than someone else’s and resonate at the end for the reader.

With REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT (2/1/22) and FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE (5/3/22), important themes naturally sprang from the stories as I researched. But with both, I had a problem. Limited information. And then the decision—do I abandon the story because I can’t verify or obtain all the details I need? This decision really rests on the potential “heart”—the thread that makes the story matter.

I discovered so much goodness with theme and character in both stories that I didn’t want to let them go. Untold stories will remain untold if we can only tell those with a complete historical record. I believe the heart is the vital part of any narrative, whether purely nonfiction or not. So if I can find a heart that rises above any missing details, I go after it and let the story be historical fiction. For me, what matters most is the story.

In REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT, I found a number of minor themes, but the most prominent theme is that of gender equality. You see it set up in the epigraph, before the story even starts.

These are the times that try men’s [and women’s] souls.”  – Thomas Paine

intro quote

That theme appears in the opening spread with Prudence as a child, expands when the women resist British rule with boycotts as weapons, and is reinforced by the women taking on the men’s work when they march off to Concord. Gender equality is also reflected in choices Susan Reagan, the illustrator, made. An early spread shows the men voting at the town meeting with a chorus of “Ayes,” and later, when Prudence rallies the women, we see their chorus of “Ayes.”

quilt min women

Though that theme is strong, it’s not the heart. My path to the heart started with examining “choices.” As I narrowed that idea, it moved toward rising above roles and breaking traditions to see possibility and one’s own capableness and agency. Personal independence requires throwing off confining expectations imposed by society—self-determination. I realized the most important take away from her story is, literally, the power of her story, a microcosm of the larger one of gaining independence. I’d seen that her story continues to inspire people today, despite the missing proofs. While passing down Prudence’s lantern makes me say “wow!” and contributes to the reality of her as a real person, it’s her story that makes that artifact significant and her story that carries forward her conviction and courage to empower others.

One look at the cover of FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE tells you it’s a very different story than PRUDENCE’s. But actually, it’s another story that deals with seeing possibility. My immediate connection to Franz Gsellmann’s story was that I was also a child who loved to “tinker, putter, and build.” I wanted to see inside objects, create, and figure out how things worked. To this day, I can’t help but ask, “What’s going on in there?”—the question that echoes through the book.

The twin themes that carry FRANZ’S story are joy in creativity and the power of curiosity and wonder. Clearly, I love epigraphs, because this book has one, too, setting up theme.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”  -Albert Einstein

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FRANZ was one of my early stories on this writing journey, and I hadn’t learned about the importance of finding the unique heart, vital idea, so what?, or take-away when I started it. But somehow, a heart idea was lurking in my mind all along. I revised this story over several years as I learned more about craft. The heart thread emerged as a question, so appropriate for a story about curiosity.

In FRANZ’S story, I was fascinated by the intersection of science/technology and art. As all sorts of questions popped in my head, the heart of the story, the driving question, took shape. While I don’t want to provide any spoilers, I’ll share this much: Does a machine have to produce a physical object? Is the value of an effort or idea in fulfilling expectations?

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While themes are universals, the heart is personal. It’s the job of the writer to select one or two themes, and then to define and support them with word choices, imagery, and focus. Theme is not the same as “heart,” but the two ideas are connected. Each enhances the other. I see theme as up front and out there, and heart as more stealthy, blossoming at the end.

My first choice is to bring heart to a strictly nonfiction story. But if I can’t have both, I’ll let the uncertainty of a few details be explained in back matter and go for the heart. In my experience as a reader and a writer, all the verifiable details in the world can’t make up for a story without heart.

Beth Anderson hi res squareBeth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. With linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and a penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, ponders, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. She’s the award-winning author of TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE (10/2021), “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES, LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT!, and AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. Beth has more historical gems on the way. Learn more about Beth at bethandersonwriter.com Signed copies of Beth’s books can be found here.

 

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kid-lit writing wisdom

This month, I asked our wise authors to share thoughts on the importance of powerful first lines along with some tips for writing an outstanding beginning or outstanding first lines. I’m excited to share our many fabulous tips, examples, and mini-lessons. These tips can also be used for revising your stories’ beginnings, so you get double the treasure with these posts. Some authors have shared first lines of books in Part 1, Part 2, and now Part 3 on this topic. Study them and see if you can find some of the techniques mentioned in the two parts for this topic. Also notice if they inform you and draw you into the story–hook you. And if so, why? For those of you who are working on nonfiction picture books, Vivian Kirkfield’s first line examples and some of mine are from nonfiction picture books. However, they are good examples for works of fiction as well.

This is such an important topic that we will have three parts for this topic. This is part two, and just in case you missed it, you can read part one here and part two here.

WE HAVE A BONUS!

writing for children webinars and courses

I will give away free access to my webinar HOW TO WRITE POWERFUL FIRST PAGES LIKE A PRO to one lucky winner. To enter for a chance to win, please comment on one of the three posts about writing outstanding beginnings and share the link on Twitter or FB. Please tag me when you share the link, so I can make sure I get your name in the drawing. Now for some great words of wisdom.

Words of Wisdom

HOW TO CUT AN ORIGINAL 304-WORD BEGINNING TO 76 WORDS

by Michelle Nott

Often when we sit down to write a new story, our beginnings are like Fred Flintstone’s feet scurrying fast underneath his car before it really gets going. But what the reader needs is not all the revving up, but the final kick that sets your story in motion.

As you begin to write, let your mind spin, write everything down. Then, once your manuscript is complete (not necessarily done, however), go back to the first words, paragraphs, pages, and see where your story really gets going. It may sound painful but go ahead and delete whatever doesn’t really jump-start your story.

What should be left is:

A hook – a detail about the setting, an interesting fact about your character, a catchy phrase, anything that will literally grab your reader’s interest and make them to want to read more.

An inciting incident – the hook will lose its grip on your reader if something doesn’t happen to your character. This moment should motivate your reader to want to see how events play out.

Here is an example from my upcoming picture book, TEDDY LET’S GO!

The absolute very first draft went like this… (and you don’t have to read it all to see it was entirely too long!)

“Many, many winters ago, a little girl was born. Her grandmother sat by her hospital window. She looked at the tiny hairs on the baby’s head and started to thread a needle. She touched the baby’s cheek and cut some shapes out of cotton fabric. She giggled seeing the little baby’s tongue slipping through her tiny lips and snipped a piece of red felt. The baby’s eyes were often shut, so Grandma picked some wide-open eyes from her craft box. She sat for hours threading, stitching, cutting. With every paw sewed, she smiled. With every arm attached, she laughed.

Then, with the strength of stiff fingers, she stuffed me with all the love she had. Up into my ears. Around my belly. Down to my toes. The opening was just under my bum. She patched it with a label.

‘Specially hand-made by Grandma’.

What a relief to be done! We left the hospital. Grandma gave me a final squeeze and packaged me up for Christmas. I peered out of a corner of the wrapping paper. The sun came and went several times. Lots of people came to visit and stood around a big tree with bright lights and colors. I could see Grandma’s mouth wide-open laughing. I could see a baby’s mouth wide-open crying. A bigger girl sat under the stockings. Her mouth was closed. She was combing her doll’s hair. Who will unwrap me? Grandma’s voice came closer, then I felt like I was flying. From my view, the baby was no bigger than I was. A lady whispered to her, “Look at this. It’s your first Christmas present. Let Mommy open it for you.”

That’s how it started…and how the crying ended. I lay down next to the baby. She rubbed her nose against my cheek. We were made for each other.”

A much later draft that caught the attention and interest of my agent and editor went like this… (a much tighter version of 76 words from the original 304!)

“The wavy-haired woman with love in her eyes pulled me close and whispered in my ear. Then she wrapped me up. And I floated.

The smell of pine drifted through my paper. I drifted from one pair of hands to another.

My head spun. My tummy clogged up with cotton. I pushed through the packaging.

“Teddy,” she said, “for you.”

[ILLO: A patch on the bear reads, “Specially hand-made by Grandma.”]

A nose as small as mine rubbed against my cheek. We were made for each other.”

By cutting out all the “revving up,” the story is more interesting, and the reader gets hooked much quicker. But all that preliminary spinning is often necessary for you, as the writer, to understand your characters and to be able to write the best version of their story. So, write as much as you need when you start, all the while knowing that you will go back and tighten in a way that serves your story best.

As for the final version of Teddy Let’s Go, it is slightly improved yet again. And that, you’ll be able to read as soon as it releases in 2022.

HOW TO USE MENTOR TEXTS TO GUIDE YOU WHILE WRITING BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS

by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

I usually study beginnings before I write a beginning. This is where I turn to mentor texts. When I’m studying comp titles for a particular book I’m working on, I often keep a spreadsheet of things I want to keep track of. For more of how I keep track of mentor texts on spreadsheets, you can read my post here.

When I look at beginnings, I look at how the author bookended the first and last lines. When they are right next to each other on a spreadsheet, it’s easy to see how they fit together or diverge. I also notice what the author included on that first page. What are the things they wanted the reader to know right away? What did they leave out? Then I look at how they fashioned the beginning lines. What is the construct of those lines?

Then I look at my own work. I might try on first lines in various styles. I try out various starting points for the story. I sometimes even set a timer and write as many first lines as I can. Are there any gems? Are there ways I can combine? I realize it might take me lots of tries to get my first lines just right.

BEGINNINGS ARE A HUGE CHALLENGE, BUT WHEN YOU FINALLY GET THERE, THE STORY IS TRANSFORMED

by Beth Anderson

Thanks for this great topic – beginnings are such a challenge! Here are my thoughts….

Beginnings are difficult, require LOTS of work, and can make or break a story for an editor and readers. They have to be strong—they have a lot of heavy lifting to do. Pressure! I have to push myself to just dive in and know that I’ll be working on that beginning later – after I know the arc, the heart thread I want to resonate, and where I end up. Beginnings and endings are integrally related. Here are my essential elements for beginnings with the kind of stories I tell (narrative NF and historical fiction) and some examples from my books.

> The hook: kid friendly invitation to readers that sets up the story question to be answered at the end, often it sparks an emotional response in the reader. Readers are pulled in by that question and read to find out the answer. In “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses we get the superhero kid hook and, literally, a question. The opening of An Inconvenient Alphabet addresses the reader and offers the promise of something puzzling—a battle with the alphabet.

> The essentials: What do you need to know about the character and setting? (nothing extra!) The main character and their goal/want/need should be up front. The setting can be implied by illustrations with specifics added later—we don’t need to start with dates and places, but we need a sense of time and place. While you want to ground the reader, you don’t want anything that’s not essential to bog it down. Fill in needed back story and context as needed later, interwoven with action. Examples: I open with Tad Lincoln’s wriggle from birth, clearly involuntary; Prudence Wright’s (2/1/22) spark of independence; a bit about Ben Franklin and Noah Webster (but without names) and the American Revolution as rejecting the rule of England to set up the context and conflict.

> “Plant” seeds: What items or ideas will you need to support for later? What idea do you want to resonate at the end? I had to set up “Smelly” Kelly smelling water and recognizing the odor of elephants, and also the heroism “heart” of the story. On the first spread, Prudence Wright is visually connected with the antagonist that comes later. Sometimes the illustration on the title page or an epigraph (quote) with an illustration, as in the case of Tad Lincoln’s story, strengthen the opening by providing essential information and/or a few seeds.

> Action ASAP: What’s your inciting incident? How can you get to the action, the problem, the emotional response immediately? Often when sharing manuscripts, a critique partner will point to the spot where we first see characters in motion and conflict, and say, “This is where your story really starts.” There’s nothing better than beginning with action. That’s what pulls a young reader in, though that’s often a challenge. It’s harder to get the essentials, the seeds, and the hook embedded immediately in the action. But…I think it’s the most powerful. In Lizzie Demands a Seat!, the first spread has Lizzie in motion, heels clicking, in a hurry, purposeful. Also streetcar, horses, NYC, the pieces of setting we need right away. We get the heat, the stress of being late, and BOOM inciting incident. The shocking unfairness of what happened is obvious – kids recognize unfairness. Then after that emotional hit, we get more context to fully understand society of the time—incentive to keep reading.

Beginnings are a HUGE challenge, but when you finally get there, the story is transformed. The test is to see if you can keep crafting it until you’re there. I think it takes a lot of practice, ongoing learning, to learn how to embed all this information in a short, powerful opening. How can you embed key points without devoting a sentence to each of those pieces? How can you interweave the essentials within the action? The best way to learn about beginnings is to analyze those you consider effective. Good luck!

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