Newbery Picking

I decided as part of my continuing education in YA & children’s literature to read all the Newbery Award winners. The award has been given since 1922, so you can image the breadth of genre and writing styles encompassed by this list.

I’m nowhere near done the list, but I have been enjoying the adventure. I’m reading books I might not otherwise have picked up, and I can say that I have not been disappointed in any of them so far.

While I am enjoying them as a reader, I am also noting craft as a writer. I am always trying to improve my writing, so looking at how the best of the best wrote is a good education.

So far, three things have jumped out at me:

1)     In the Chronicle of Prydain series, Lloyd Alexander wowed me with his ability to have each character sound so unique that I didn’t need to read the dialogue tags to know who was speaking. This is something I struggle with—making them sound different and making the difference sound natural. I have not been captivated by a series so completely in a long time, and Alexander’s characterizations were a large part of my enthrallment.

2)     In Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse’s description of Dust Bowl Oklahoma blew me away. I could feel the dust smothering me, gritty in my eyes, mixed in my food. When I looked up from the book and out the window, the green grass and trees shocked me—I had almost expected dunes of dust. She wrote the novel in verse, so it is hardly surprising her descriptions are poetic, but I don’t think I have ever felt a novel so physically as this one. I have improved a lot in my description, but Hesse has set the new goalposts very high.

3)     Finally, all of the books could tell a story well. Obviously. But to read book after book where the structure is so solid and complete is a great way to “feel” structure. Some books had many action scenes and a breath-taking pace. Others not much “happened,” and the pace was leisurely (but never plodding). But with every book I feel confident and sure as a reader, safe in a skilled author’s hands, trusting them to lead me to a satisfying ending. And they all have. I believe my story-telling ability is strong, and although in my early drafts the beginning and end don’t always connect cleanly in the middle, I get there by the time I’m through.

This is homework I enjoy doing, and I look forward to learning much more from the remainder of the list.

What books have you read that stand out for you as stellar examples of some part of our craft? (I’ll add them to my reading list!)

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Description in YA

Description is hard. At least, writing it well is hard. While I have come a long way from the boring, plot-stopping descriptive bombs I used to write, I am still improving my craft in that area.

I am taking a YA writing workshop with Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba, and we discussed description very early on. I found out several things about using description in YA:

1. Less is more. Trust your readers. Give the reader enough to interpret the space and place your character inhabits, but do not inundate with details. As author Patty Jansen reminds us in an excellent blog post, certain genres like historical or science fiction, where world-building is needed will of necessity have more scene-setting descriptions than those set in the present day, but be sparing in choosing your details—tell us what we need to know, and no more.

2. Description should be woven into the character’s experience, rather than an objective observation. Since most YA is written from a specific (often first-person) point of view, the Main Character (MC) will only notice details important to her at that time.

3. Any detail you mention should be important to the story. For instance, if you mention that your MC dropped a pot into the porcelain sink as a child and broke the sink, then that event must have some meaning to the core of the story. If you say that the MC loves the fact that the microwave is hidden in the breadbox, then that detail must be important later in the story. This is similar to the adage “If you hang a gun on the wall in the first act, you must fire it by the end of the play.”

4. Every detail has to multitask. Just as your MC will not notice details that do not directly concern him at that moment, he will also notice (and describe) them in a way that reflects his emotional state and life view at that moment. The way his perception of a place, object, or person changes will help build character and show emotion without “telling.” One of the best examples I found of this was in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Her descriptions of the passing seasons mirrored Melinda’s growth and healing.

5. Description can add foreshadowing and complication to a story. For example, if the reader first sees a kitchen through the MC’s eyes as warm and homey, but later sees that same kitchen as cold and menacing later in the story. The first instance builds the expectation in the reader that something bad will happen to destroy that happy, homey feeling (this is YA fiction, after all—something always happens to disrupt the happy status quo!).

6. Use description to build an image system throughout the story. Again returning to Speak, Halse Anderson’s use of Melinda’s art project (a tree) also showed her growth and return to life as Melinda wrestled with repeated mistakes but improved every time she tried to carve it.

7. Don’t info-dump. Beware of show-stopping blocks of description and layer in the information as the reader needs to know it. Have the reader ask the question and then answer it. This type of back-and-forth between the reader and the words on the page is what keeps the reader engaged and immersed in the world you have built.

I hope you found these tips as helpful as I did. I hope to apply them to my current manuscripts in the next round of edits!

Are there any other description tips you would like to share?

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