Tag Archives: writing

Subtext in MG

(For study purposes and maybe a potential future post, I am putting together a list of middle grade books that excel in the use of subtext. Please feel free to add any titles in the comments section that you feel belong on this list. Thanks!) 

We recently had a #MGLitChat on the topic of subtext. I signed up to co-host and was scared to death of this chat. My concern was embedded in the fact I felt I didn’t know enough about subtext and figured I needed to do a lot of research to be able to hold my own. Lo and behold, I harkened back to my own middle school days and didn’t study. Fortunately, I was able to play the comic relief to the intellect of my co-host for the night, Lee Gjertsen Malone. When the chat was over, not only did I feel a whole heckuva lot smarter, but I had a whole new appreciation for subtext, especially in middle-grade literature.

What exactly is subtext? The important part that is not there is what subtext is. The stuff which exists in space between what we perceive and is there without being told or shown it is there. I came across a cool quote from Ernest Hemingway about subtext:

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of the movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

With the iceberg image painted firmly in our reader and writer mind, we get a solid idea of what subtext is. The words we read in a story are the part floating above the water. The tips of the story icebergs act as the guideposts, while the space in between the guideposts, Hemingway’s 7/8ths, becomes the meaning and character and flavor existing below the surface which makes for a richer narrative. Subtext gives us stories that are more than they appear to be on the surface. Subtext gives us satisfying stories with more of everything.

The four basic types of subtext.

  • Privilege – The reader has information the characters don’t.
  • Revelation – Reveals a certain truth over time.
  • Promise – The story goes the way a story supposed to go and the way the reader expects it to go.
  • Question – As a story advances, the reader begins to ask questions about where the story is going.

K.M. Weiland did a recent Helping Writers Become Authors post and podcast about subtext. It is an excellent resource to assist the writer or the reader through the literary dark forest that is subtext. She presents five steps to work subtext into your writing.  

(1) Story subtext arises from the space between to known, fixed points. The writer builds a framework of dots and lets the reader connect the dots as they read. When the reader connects all the dots, a rich and full story picture emerges. The writer should tell the reader what they need to know, not tell them everything single thing. That’s not very entertaining.

(2) Story subtext must exist below the surface and (3) remain existing under the surface. The writer needs to know the whole iceberg in order to design the tip that paints the picture of the whole iceberg in the reader’s mind with telling every single detail.

(4) Story subtext is created by the dichotomy between the interior and exterior behavior. Once something rises to the exterior, it can no longer be considered subtext. In practice, it’s simply, as K.M Weiland says,  “avoid presenting characters and situations for exactly what they are”.

(5) Subtext exists in the silent spaces. Use your character’s silence to leave out things in order to make sure they don’t tell each other every single thing.

Maybe the most important thing we can do when working on the skill of subtext is to trust the reader. The reader will be able to put together the shape and scope of the submerged story information iceberg. The reader will be able to connect the dots and then put these connections together to reveal the story picture to themselves. Even a middle-grade reader is deserving of this trust and can rock at the art of subtext, as long as the subtext relates to the reader while remaining appropriate for the characters and the story.

Experiment with subtext in your writing. Learn how to spot it being used in your reading. Most of all, learn to trust your reader to connect the dots you place and see the pictures you intended them to see.

That is reading and writing magic.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=730855

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=730855

Nonfiction Books with Diverse Characters–An Interview with Author Annette Bay Pimentel & Giveaway!

Children’s books with diverse characters are in high demand these days. They should be. Every child who reads likes to identify with the character in the book, which means that they need to represent every race, creed, color, and ethnic background. Authors are responding to this need by writing about some AMAZING people who have made great contributions to our world.

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I’m happy to have one of those author with me here today. Annette Pimentel writes picture book- biographies for young middle grade readers. She loves to discover people in the corners of history and then find their stories. She writes nonfiction picture books in Moscow, Idaho.

 

Her book is Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans and Helped Cook up the National Park Service by Charlesbridge Publishing

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The true story of a Chinese American mountain man who fed thirty people for ten days in the wilderness–and helped inspire the creation of the National Park Service.

When millionaire Stephen Mather began his quest to create a national park service in 1915, he invited a group of influential men—writers, tycoons, members of Congress, and even a movie star—to go camping in the Sierras. Tie Sing was hired to cook. Throughout the trip, Tie Sing fed not just the campers’ bodies, but also their minds, reminding them to remember and protect the mountains.

Reviews:

Overall, this pencil and watercolor illustrated and eloquently written account of a Chinese American will satisfy every taste. For any library wishing to enhance its diversity and inclusion collection.
– School Library Journal

A frontier adventure that spotlights one of the many significant roles ethnic Chinese played in American history.
Kirkus Reviews

Paragraphs of straightforward text are more advanced than typical picture books, but the soft, expressive watercolor illustrations, some of which are based on historical photos, are a pleasing accompaniment. Ideal for the classroom, particularly this year, when the NPS celebrates its centennial.
– Booklist

 

 

Annette, thanks for joining me today on the blog. I have a few questions for our readers about your writing process and books.

 

Why narrative nonfiction biographies?

Fictional novels describe how people could be. Nonfiction biographies describe how people really are. I love the shiver of excitement I feel when I read what remarkable real people really did.

How do you choose your subjects for your books?
When I discover something new and immediately want to tell someone about it, I know that I have a promising topic. I’m especially interested in stories that surprise me and suggest that the way I’ve been thinking about the world is askew.

What led you to Tie Sing’s story?
I stumbled on photos of the Mather Mountain Party of 1915 while I was researching something else. I was startled to see in the photos an Asian man posing next to famous government officials and tycoons. I had always assumed that national parks, like other American institutions, were created by powerful white men. The photos suggested I only knew part of the story.

You do not have a Chinese heritage, so how did you make sure to include Tie Sing’s true voice and experiences?
I wish Tie Sing had kept a diary, but he didn’t. To be sure the secondhand descriptions of him were in historical context, I researched race relations in 1915. I also relied on experts like the book’s artist, Rich Lo, who, like Tie Sing, grew up bilingual in Chinese and English. The book’s expert reviewer was Park Ranger Yenyen Chan, who brought to the project deep professional knowledge as well as broad personal knowledge of Chinese American culture.

Can you talk about how important it is to ensure that diverse characters are given a true representation?
It’s important that every character in a piece of nonfiction is represented truly! But it’s extra tricky to accurately represent characters, like Tie Sing, who didn’t leave much documentary trace and who come from a culture different from that of the people who wrote about them. Despite the difficulties—maybe because of the difficulties–those people deserve to have their stories told! Without their stories we are left with an inaccurate picture of our shared history.

You have another book in development which features a Puerto Rican character’s life. Why do you think diverse books like these are important?

Children are in many ways marginalized in our society. I think that every child feels, at times, like an outsider. Stories about unexpected people doing remarkable things reassure and encourage kids that their own lives matter. And, of course, books about women and ethnic and cultural minorities give all of us a more nuanced and true picture of our history.

Tell us a little about how you do your research. How much time do you spend? What type of sources do you look for?
I spend hours and weeks and months on research. I interview my subjects or people who knew them when I can, but usually I rely on archival research—letters, papers, photos, etc. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find an autobiography. I love the US Census for the quirky information it gives me about my subject. And of course I use academic articles to provide historical context and to answer specific questions that arise as I research.

Why is back matter useful for readers?
Back matter extends my conversation with the reader and allows my book to speak to multiple audiences. Some readers only want the story in the main text. That’s find. But others want more, and back matter provides it. Back matter feels to me like a cozy dialogue, where I as a writer, get to share the fascinating details that didn’t belong in the story.

Anything that you are working on that you would care to share? Other books that we can look for from you soon?
In 2018 Nancy Paulsen Books will publish Girl Running, the story of an amazing female marathoner and in 2019 they will publish Ann Brooks Goes West (with her piano) the story of a feisty pioneer. I also have another book in the works that I’m very excited about, but I have to wait to talk about it.

Can you think of a few other diverse nonfiction books that would be good for young middle grade readers?
I loved Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford for its lyrical language and its sensitive handling of the theme of slavery

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Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood for its story of creativity beating back against poverty

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and Game Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game by John Coy for the most inspiring basketball story I’d never heard.

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For more great nonfiction picture books for young middle grade readers, including diverse titles, check out Annette’s blog at  annettebaypimentel.com

Annette has graciously offered a giveaway of her new book. To win a signed copy, please leave your name in the comments below.

******Jennifer Swanson is the author of over 25 nonfiction books for kids. Mostly about Science, Technology, and Engineering, because… well, STEM ROCKS!  www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com

A scientific defense of science fiction

One day when I was growing up, over dinner at a friend’s house, his parents told me they’d read some of the stories I wrote for fun. They thought I had real talent. I might even be a published author someday — if only I would stop wasting my time with all those spaceships and aliens.

I know it was meant as helpful advice but still, I was caught unprepared. I had never before considered time spent reading or writing the stories I loved to be a waste of time. I had certainly never considered my favorite genre to be inherently inferior to “more serious books.” And I absolutely rejected the implication that books on speculative topics couldn’t be as well crafted as any others.

Heinlein, Clark, Asimov, L’Engle, Wells, Norton, Bradbury, and Verne were just a few of the luminaries who happened to not be sitting at the dinner table with us that night, so it was up to me alone to defend the honor and integrity of science fiction. But I was twelve or thirteen at the time, and just mumbled something into my spaghetti.

My favorite defense these days is to imagine that we have a time machine that we can use to visit the somewhat distant past, after the invention of fire but before wheels, airplanes, and smartphones.

When our Neolithic ancestors weren’t searching for food, fighting the elements, or fending off predators, they spent their free time asking questions about the world around them.

Question: How old is the world?

Our Neolithic ancestors could ask around, but not even the oldest of the tribal elders could remember back to the start of the world.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: What is the world made of?

Our Neolithic ancestors could break chunks of stuff into tiny specks of stuff, but there was no telling what those specks were made of.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: How far up does the sky go?

Our Neolithic ancestors could throw a rock upward from a hilltop or tall tree without hitting anything, or estimate the height of a soaring bird, so at least a little higher than that.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Why do things fall?

Our Neolithic ancestors could observe that things always fall downward when you drop them. Except when you catch and release a bug. So what do the bugs know that people don’t?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Where did all the animals and plants come from?

Our Neolithic ancestors were familiar with the wide variety of forms that life takes on Earth. Some forms were similar to others—were they designed that way? If so, by whom? Was the creation of life an ongoing process, with new kinds of plants and animals still sometimes popping into existence? There were no answers.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Imagine how frustrating it must have been for our Neolithic ancestors to have so many fundamental questions about the world and so few definitive answers.

To fill the gaps, ancient peoples made up stories that were speculative but plausible, given the best-available contemporary understanding of science. Or to put it another way, every ancient culture on Earth independently developed the genre of science fiction.

These early sci-fi stories were told them around the communal fires and passed them down across the generations. They inspired the process of imagination, speculation, and experimentation that helped advance civilization forward to modern times.

Those stories presaged and created the modern world. So let’s look at those questions again, this time with all the collected knowledge of the Internet Age.

Question: How old is the world?

We now know that modern humans have been around for 200,000 years on a planet that’s 4.5 billion years old in a universe that’s 13.8 billion years removed from the Big Bang—but what happened before that? One leading scientific theory is that there was an era of cosmic expansion that took place before the Big Bang, but how far back in time does that go? And what, if anything, came before cosmic inflation?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: What is the world made of?

We now know that all objects in our world are made of atoms that appear on the periodic table of elements, that those atoms are made of electrons that orbit a nucleus of neutrons and protons, and that those particles are made from quarks and other elementary particles. But can quarks break down even further? Are there additional elementary particles we haven’t found yet? What is the nature of the dark matter that makes up most of the matter in the universe? What is the nature of dark energy that makes up more of the universe’s energy balance than all the dark matter and baryonic matter combined?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: How far up does the sky go?

We now know how far Earth’s atmosphere extends and the distances to the moon, sun, planets, and all the stars that we can see. We know that the observable universe extends 46.5 billion light years in every direction. But what lies beyond that? Does it go on forever? Does it wrap back on itself like the screens of an old arcade game? Do all parts of the universe have the same physical constants?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Why do things fall?

Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity explains a lot. Albert Einstein’s theory explains more, including the gravity waves that were only just confirmed in February, 2016. But is there a theory that explains everything we observe about gravity? Is there a particle that carries gravitational energy the way photons carry light? Is there a reason why gravity is so much weaker than the other fundamental forces?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Where did all the animals and plants come from?

We now know about genes encoded in DNA, and that all the species we see evolved over billions of years from the same one-celled ancestor, but where did that first ancestor come from? How does non-life first become life? Were the elements of life seeded from space or did they arise entirely on Earth? How rare or how common is the development of life on other worlds in our galaxy and across the universe? Did life ever exist on Mars, or does it now exist elsewhere in our own solar system?

Answer: Nobody knows.

For all the progress we’ve made, we still can’t definitively answer any of these fundamental questions about the nature of our universe. We still have gaps to fill with stories that we now tell, now in books and new media, but still meant to be passed down across the generations.

Speculative fiction is still needed as much as ever to inspire the process of imagination, speculation, and experimentation that will take us forward to the next level of knowledge.

And that is why I’m still wasting my time with all those spaceships and aliens.

Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series of sporty science fiction from Tu Books and Spellbound River Press. This article first appeared on the From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors group blog in June, 2016.