Author Archives: Suma Subramaniam

Writing Quest Stories

  My fascination for quest stories began when I was in middle school.  At the time, our bespectacled young boy named Harry Potter wasn’t born yet. However, because I lived in India, I had the exposure to fantasy quest stories based on Indian culture. I read  Ramayana and Mahabharata epic novels, and stories from other Hindu texts. Those fantasy stories have been in the world for centuries, even millenia in some cases.

I often compare what I grew up reading to the middle grade quest novels of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. My brain is hardwired to pay attention to the common themes in the characters’ growth, and appreciate the similarities and deeper meaning in the journeys of the characters.


Quest stories make the characters seek something, and we as readers get to join them on the ride. In her book, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones describes a quest as “a large-scale treasure hunt, with clues scattered all over the continent, a few false leads, mystical masters as game-show hosts, and the dark lord and the terrain who make the quest interestingly difficult”(153). Therefore, the hero leaves her comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into a challenging, unfamiliar world where she encounters conflicts with antagonistic, challenging forces before achieving her goal.

In this post, we will take a look at two fantasy quest novels:

Where the Mountain Meets The Moon by Grace Lin    


The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz by Frank L. Baum

We will focus on some of the common themes around plot, conflict and change that made these quest stories timeless reads.


If you’ve been writing fiction for even a short while, you have probably heard or used the word “plot” in your critique conversations. In his book, The Plot Thickens, Noah Lukeman writes that “plot is not just about having a single great idea; on the contrary, a good plot is an amalgamation of many ideas or elements of writing, including characterization, journey, suspense, conflict, and context” (xv). Therefore, while an idea is important, a plot doesn’t exist without the supporting elements that make up the story.

In Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, the main character Minli sets off on an extraordinary journey of adventure and folklore to find the Old Man on the moon to ask him how she can change her family’s fortune.

In the Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy and her dog Toto are swept away from a Kansas farm to the Land of Oz by a cyclone.

Minli’s quest is to find the Old Man on the moon. Dorothy’s quest is to return to her home in Kansas again.

In both the stories, Grace Lin and Frank L. Baum spend considerable amount of time at the beginning of the book establishing their main characters’ normal life before they take off on their journeys. The authors introduce the readers to the secondary characters and set up the cultural context. The settings create a vivid contrast with the strange new worlds Minli and Dorothy enter. All these elements together make strong plot structures for the stories.


Story plots must always involve conflicts.  Philip Athans writes in his book, The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction that “unless your protagonist comes into conflict – in the broadest sense of the word – with someone or something, you have no plot, no story, and no novel” (25). Therefore, it is exceedingly important to put the characters in difficult situations that cause conflict.

In Where the Mountain Meets The Moon, the central conflict for Minli is that her family’s fortune is very weak. So she goes on an adventure to have a better fortune, make friends and bring green to the Fruitless mountain.

In The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, the main conflict is that Dorothy thinks that life will be better someplace else (i.e. over the rainbow). She runs away from home, gets caught in a tornado, and ends up in another world. Finally, she is desperate to find her way back home.

Baum and Lin put their characters in conflict arising circumstances, and raise the stakes to increase the importance of their story goals. How Dorothy and Minli deal with the conflicts show us a great deal about their traits and personalities. They force the reader to take sides and keep reading.


In Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, Minli has a lively and impulsive spirit that is different from her parents. She makes friends along the way in her journey. She even befriends a dragon. But when Minli finally reaches home from the Never-Ending Mountain at the end, she realizes that all her questions are answered. Minli’s village is prosperous again, and she is thankful for her family.

In The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, there’s an inherent change in Dorothy’s character when she meets other characters like the scare crow, the Tin Man, the lion, the wicked witch of the west and the wizard. In the end, Baum shows the change in Dorothy by having her realize that the special world of Oz must eventually be left behind if she has to get back to Kansas. This marks her decision to return to her home where Uncle Henry and Aunt Em live. The quest becomes meaningful when Dorothy returns to Kansas with a lesson from Oz. Dorothy finally returns to Kansas with the knowledge that she is loved, and that there is no place like home.

Even though The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz and Where The Mountain Meets The Moon were written and published at different time periods (1900 and 2009) and have different cultural references and symbolisms, Baum and Lin have made their characters embark on profound journeys that eventually lead them to self-realization and change from within.

Minli’s and Dorothy’s quests sum up themes that center around courage, coming of age, exploration, and family. The novels take us on fascinating journeys that emphasize similar quest elements of plot, conflicts, and change, which in turn give the characters growth and meaning.

And now, to jump into the world of quest stories, here’s a quick list of some recent books:

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Fish by L.S. Matthews

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

My Side Of The Mountain by Jean Craighead George

Fog Magic by Julia L. Sauer

What are your favorite quest novels? What do you like about them? Share with us in the comments below.


Animal-Human Connection: Creating Compelling Animal Characters

Over the last twelve years, my husband and I adopted and raised three rescue dogs.

After spending more than two decades of my life in India without pets, it began to occur to me that animals could become our family, teachers and healers when we were thousands of miles from our dear ones.

My reason for writing a thesis on this topic for my MFA program at VCFA was because of my growing desire to understand their emotions and incorporate them into my own fiction.

Let’s take a look at some books that show us these things:

  1. Can animal characters in novels lead rich emotional lives?
  2. How do authors draw a line between imagination and reality?
  3. What makes readers care?

Animal stories fall into at least three different categories –

1. Where animals act just like humans like E.B. White’s Stuart           Little.




2. The second category is where animals are secondary characters and behave more like themselves like because of        Winn-Dixie.


3. The third category is where animal characters stretch                   believability, and the reader feels the inner life without               turning the character into a human like Charlotte’s Web.


In these three categories of books, the animal characters make a connection with the readers and show us their behaviors in the environment they evolve in.

Now, we will look at three contemporary middle-grade novels –


The gorilla in The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate



The pig in The Adventures of A South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz



The hound dog in The Underneath by Kathi Appelt



I will focus on some of the tools these authors use to draw the reader into the emotional core of the animal characters.

What do the three novels have in common?

  1. In many ways, they are a close reflection of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web.

First, like Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, Ivan, Flora and Ranger are held captive by their human friends. Second, like Wilbur, Ivan, Flora, and Ranger have minimal or no conversations with human beings. Third, Ivan, Flora and Ranger have best friends outside their species, just like Wilbur trusts Charlotte, the spider. Fourth, all these stories have animals as main characters.

  1. These books have also gotten a strong reception from readers, reviewers, and other critics. They have been nominated for state lists and won prestigious awards, and have received starred reviews from well-acclaimed review journals in children’s literature.

Making readers fall in love with a character isn’t easy, especially if the author is avoiding turning the animal into a substitute human.

So, how do these authors make readers care?

  1. The authors put their animal characters in extreme conditions.

Ivan is forced out of his natural habitat and is kept in a strange, unfriendly enclosure with no access to nature.

Flora is displaced from the security of her barnyard to the extreme living conditions in Antarctica.

Ranger is tied and chained underneath the porch by his cruel human owner.

  1. The authors use metaphors to help the reader feel the inner life of the character.

Through various metaphors, the reader discovers how Ivan might see the world and his sensibilities through his point-of-view, the deeper emotions and struggles of Flora, and the tender emotional core of Ranger.

  1. The authors also show the characters’ feelings using real animal characteristics including these:
    1. Odors
    2. Vocalizations
    3. Body Language

Ivan uses odors to understand the humans around him. He also watches TV, draws pictures and sometimes he throws me-balls at the humans coming to see him. Ivan knuckle-walks and uses his movements, bared teeth expressions and chest-beating to communicate his intentions.

Flora uses odors to form perceptions about her environment. Flora also responds to feelings of surprise and shame with her sounds. Sniffing objects, nosing, massaging, nibbling, scampering, rubbing, stretching and yawning are her common body language signals.

Ranger’s use of smells shows us how he feels around his friends and his abuser. His vocalizations show us his suffering in isolation of living in the underneath. Ranger also exhibits feelings of love towards his kitten through the process of licking.

Applegate, Kurtz, and Appelt had three different animals to work with, and they use methods and tactics that give Ivan, Flora and Ranger their own actual stories.

Ivan’s story is one of empathy, empathy for humans and animals with hope that we can all commit to changing our world.

Flora learns to be the best at being herself. Kids struggle the most when they must be popular and liked by everyone to be successful in school, so they connect with the theme, which is being who you are while stretching for what you long for, and watching out for the help that will come along to help you on the path to your dreams.

The Underneath is also a story of empathy. It is a moving story that brings an unusual family of animals together in unity and danger, and the reader feels huge empathy for these animals and relates with them at a human level.

These novels belong to a beloved category first developed by authors like E.B. White where these craft elements provide opportunities to develop empathy, respect, sympathy, and make the readers care for the animal characters. Most importantly, they intensify the emotional pathways – between animals and humans, between the animal characters and the readers. They help writers create work that is memorable and makes a true animal-human connection. Do you have a favorite book that fits into any of the categories discussed above? Share with us in the comments below.