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    April 11, 2014:
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    A peek at forthcoming middle grade books (as well as picture books and YA books) in a round-up from Publisher's Weekly. First printed in the February 22 issue, but now available online. Time to add to your to-read list. Read more ...

    April 9, 2014:
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    March 28, 2014:
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    February 14, 2014:
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    January 27, 2014: And the Newbery Medal goes to ...
    Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery Medal for "Flora & Ulysses"; Rita Williams-Garcia won the Coretta Scott King Author award for "P.S. Be Eleven." Newbery Honor awards to authors Vince Vawter, Amy Timberlake, Kevin Henkes and Holly Black. For all the exciting ALA Youth Media Award News ... READ MORE

    November 12, 2013:
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    September 19, 2013: Writer-in-Residence program at Thurber House

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    September 18, 2013: Vermont College of Fine Arts Scholarship opportunity

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    Sept. 13, 2013: Spring preview
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    August 21, 2013:
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    March 28, 2013: Big at Bologna

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    March 10, 2013: Marching to New Titles

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    March 5, 2013: Catch the BEA Buzz

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    A Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates #1: Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson

    Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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    Nick and Tesla's High-Voltages Danger Lab by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith

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    February 20, 2013: Lunching at the MG Roundtable 

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    February 10, 2013: New Books to Love

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    January 28, 2013: Ivan Tops List of Winners

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    The Coretta Scott King Book Award went to Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney.

    The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award,which honors an author for his or her long-standing contributions to children’s literature, was presented to Katherine Paterson.

    The Pura Belpre Author Award, which honors a Latino author, went to Benjamin Alire Saenz for his novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which was also named a Printz Honor book and won the Stonewall Book Award for its portrayal of the GLBT experience.

    For a complete list of winners…

     

    January 22, 2013: Biography Wins Sydney Taylor

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    January 17, 2013: Erdrich Wins Second O'Dell

    Louise Erdrich is recipient of the 2013 Scott O'Dell Award for her historical novel Chickadee, the fourth book in herBirchbark House series. Roger Sutton,Horn Book editor and chair of the awards committee, says of Chickadee,"The book has humor and suspense (and disarmingly simple pencil illustrations by the author), providing a picture of 1860s Anishinabe life that is never didactic or exotic and is briskly detailed with the kind of information young readers enjoy." Erdrich also won the O'Dell Award in 2006 for The Game of Silence, the second book in theBirchbark series. 

    For more...

     

    January 15, 2013: After the Call

    Past Newbery winners Jack Gantos, Clare Vanderpool, Neil Gaiman, Rebecca Stead, and Laura Amy Schlitz talk about how winning the Newbery changed (or didn't change) their lives in this piece from Publishers Weekly...

     

    January 2, 2013: On the Big Screen

    One of our Mixed-up Files members may be headed to the movies! Jennifer Nielsen's fantasy adventure novel The False Prince is being adapted for Paramount Pictures by Bryan Cogman, story editor for HBO's Game of Thrones. For more...

     

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How to Give Your Readers a Hand…and a Foot…and a Face…

Writing MG Books

Don’t get me wrong. Words like angry and happy and nice are perfectly good words that are long-standing members of the English lexicon. It’s nothing personal. I don’t dislike them. Really. It’s just that those words are about as energized as a solar-powered calculator in a cave at midnight—they won’t be lighting up a reader’s imagination any time soon. So authors work hard to follow the oft-repeated mantra: “Show, don’t tell.” But what does that mean exactly? And how is it achieved? I make no claim of mastery, but I do have a trick I’d like to share. And it’s a trick that may zap a bit of new life into your writing.

One way that authors “show” the underlying emotion in a scene is through characters’ dialogue—the words they say and how they say them. That’s not what I want to explore. I want to focus on three ready-to-use body parts virtually all characters bring to a story: their faces, their feet, and their hands. Because by focusing on just those three little things, you can give your readers’ imaginations a hand, too.

Double Dog DareInstead of starting with an explanation, I’ll start with an example from Lisa Graff’s middle-grade novel Double Dog Dare. In the midst of a “dare war,” one of the main characters, Francine, had to dye her hair green. When Francine’s mother attempted to speak with Francine about her hair, this is what happened:

Her mother stared into her mug for a long minute, silent. Then she got up, walked to the sink, and poured all her tea slowly down the drain. When she turned around, she leaned against the sink, arms jutting out from her sides, and studied Francine. (p. 116)

What’s going on here? Does Lisa Graff have to tell us that Francine’s mother is trying to figure out what to say? Nope. She’s used the mother’s face, feet, and hands to show us the mother’s hesitation, and she trusts us as readers to accurately infer what’s going on. Let’s examine the excerpt a little more deeply to see how it works:

  1. The Face: Her mother stared into her mug for a long minute, silent.
  2. The Feet: Then she got up, walked to the sink…
  3. The Hands: and poured all her tea slowly down the drain. When she turned around, she leaned against the sink, arms jutting out from her sides…
  4. The Face (again): and studied Francine.

The mother’s face sets the scene right away. As she stares at her tea, the slow, deliberate pace of the mother’s actions is established. When her feet carry her to the sink, we already know she’s not in a rush. Then the mother’s hands join the show, slowly pouring the tea down the drain, cementing our certainty about the mother’s cautious approach to discussing her daughter’s hair. And finally, we end back at the mother’s face as she studies Francine.

Sure, Lisa Graff could have written something shorter: “Francine’s mom didn’t seem to know what to say.” But she didn’t. Thanks to her character’s face, feet, and hands, Lisa Graff showed us instead, greatly increasing the vividness of the scene in the process. So the next time one of your characters needs to be angry or happy or nice, don’t tell your readers—show them. Then trust the power of inference to take care of the rest.

Wanna post a comment? How about starting with a one- or two-sentence glimpse at a character’s face and feet and hands? Try to “show” some emotion…and see if others can figure out what you’ve decided not to “tell.”

13 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Dianna Winget  •  Jul 20, 2012 @7:55 am

    Mama stood with her back to me, her forehead tipped against the window, her arms pulled tightly across her front.

    “Mama?” I said. “You all right?”

    She didn’t turn around, but she raised her head. Then she fumbled with a tissue and blew her nose two times, hard, before turning to face me.

    (I love trying to show character emotion without actually naming the emotion. This short excerpt is from “A Smidgen of Sky,” to be released on November 6.)

    T. P. Jagger Reply:

    Let me guess, Dianna . . . Mama’s happy ’cause she won the lottery? (Just kidding! Great example. Thanks for sharing!:)

  2. Karen B. Schwartz  •  Jul 20, 2012 @8:36 am

    My personal favorite: He threw his hands up in the air.

  3. PragmaticMom  •  Jul 20, 2012 @6:49 pm

    Yes, brilliant. That show don’t tell is a lot harder than it sounds!

  4. Michelle Schusterman  •  Jul 20, 2012 @6:57 pm

    Great post! And great snippet, Dianna. :)

  5. Michele Weber Hurwitz  •  Jul 20, 2012 @10:00 pm

    Love the post! Great food for thought (or face, hands, and feet for thought) !

  6. Greg Pattridge  •  Jul 20, 2012 @10:06 pm

    One would think we were staring at a stack of gold bars. Our eyes are unable to move off the sight.

    T. P. Jagger Reply:

    Greg,
    Sure makes me wonder what you were staring at. Thanks for sharing the “facial show.”

    T. P. Jagger

    Greg Patttridge Reply:

    @T. P. Jagger,It is a stack of home DNA kits and an 11 year old boy’s dream of identifying his father might become reality. Here is a bit more:

    I pick a box off the top row. “It says here to allow 7-10 days for any results.”
    Jonson’s eyes sparkle. “Just what the doctor ordered. We can swab both of you tonight, yours first, and then Matt’s. If he drools it’ll be easy.”

  7. Linda Andersen  •  Jul 22, 2012 @5:30 am

    Thanks for the body part explanation of how to show what’s going on in a scene. Concrete examples are excellent teaching tools.

    T. P. Jagger Reply:

    Linda,
    It sounds like you may be a teacher, so I wanted to let you know that I’ve used the hands-feet-face idea as a basis for teaching “show, don’t tell” to students ranging from grades 4-8. You can even do a charades-type game to introduce the concept, selecting a student to act out an emotion without words, and then having the rest of the class guess what the emotion is, focusing on the student’s hands, feet, and face. (One of these days, I plan to share the specific lesson plan via our “For Teachers” page. . . .)

    T. P. Jagger

  8. Ruth Donnelly  •  Jul 22, 2012 @11:57 am

    Great advice. These simple actions convey emotion and make the characters more real to readers.

  9. Linda Andersen  •  Jul 23, 2012 @5:58 pm

    T.P. Jagger,

    Thanks for even more information about using this technique to teach show and not tell. I am a former educator and I may do some substitute teaching this coming year; so the more tricks in my bag the better. Thanks again.