Creating Characters in When You Reach Me

The last week has been a big week for everyone—for the pets, it marks the one year anniversary of the day they became the second cutest things in the house.  Peter celebrated by looking pathetic; Kerry, by looking even more pathetic than usual; Oscar, by throwing up on the ottoman.  We all have our ways of commemorating the big events in our lives.

This week’s blog talks about a book that has had a big year itself—the current Newbery Award winner, When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.  As I mentioned in my last blog, I had the honor of meeting Stead at a reading in February at the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont.  One thing she talked about was how hard it was trying to nail down the title for her book; I totally feel her pain.  Recently, I’ve been working with my editor on the title for my upcoming series, and HOLY BANANAPANTS is it hard.

Back to the blog:  I want to talk about Stead’s ability to create her characters in a few deft wordstrokes.  As I read When You Reach Me, I was struck by how effectively Stead managed to express the unique, quirky details of each of her characters.

Before getting to the specifics, there is a layer of complication to identify.  WYRM is told in the first person, meaning that the whole story is told from the point of view of one character:  Miranda, an eleven-year-old girl.  This means that when we, the readers, hear about a character, we are hearing about that person from Miranda’s point of view.  Any words used or insights given are Miranda’s, which means that we learn things about Miranda from how she talks about others as much as we learn about others from the information she gives.

So now to the nitty-gritty:  One of my favorite characters in WYRM is Miranda’s mother.  Her sarcastic wit jumps off the page.  My favorite detail:  “Then Mom bought a box of strawberries, even though I know she thinks Belle’s strawberries are overpriced and not very good.  She calls them SSO’s, which stands for ‘strawberry-shaped objects.’” (p. 9).  I love SSOs!  This detail gives us a sense of Miranda’s mom’s sense of humor, but also how honest and up front she is with Miranda about her feelings.  It’s a very specific moment, which makes it memorable; it’s a detail about Mom that I carried with me throughout the whole book.

In the beginning of the novel, Stead conveys Miranda’s feeling of loss at Sal’s abandonment of her by using a flashback of their having been in day care together, and him missing a day because he stayed home sick.  Miranda recalls a detail about naptime that day: “And then I lay on her floor not sleeping because Sal wasn’t there to press his foot against mine.” (p. 17)  BOOM.  Fist to the gut; I felt Miranda’s pain.  I knew how close she and Sal were (they needed to physically touch each other to be able to sleep) and thus sensed the hugeness of the loss.  It was the specificity of the memory—pressing her foot against his—that made it so powerful.

I don’t mean to keep swatting a dead fly here, but lemme put it plainly: description works when it’s specific.  If Miranda had only said, “I was sad because Sal had been a really good friend of mine and now he wasn’t,” I don’t think I would have cared all that much about him not being her friend any more.  It wouldn’t have mattered—it happens at the beginning of the book, we never really see them as friends in the action of the story—and that would have ruined WYRM’s ending.  I’m not going to give any spoilers, but it’s important that we care about Sal as much as Miranda.  Because their relationship is not the focus of the plot, Stead needed to make us feel the relationship in the few quick strokes she gave it, and I think she succeeded.

In many ways, this rant is an expansion upon that most basic writing rule:  Show, Don’t Tell.  But I often find that bland statement of the rule unhelpful.  Perhaps this corollary would help:  Be Specific.  Don’t tell me she’s sad, tell me how she’s sad.  If you’re looking for some great examples of this kind of writing, read When You Reach Me!

To learn more about Rebecca Stead or When You Reach Me, check out herwebsite.

Next post:  I discuss the question of choice of narrator in more depth as it relates to 2004 Newbery winner The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo.  I hope you’ll check out the book and then read my next blog!