Monday, February 20, 2012

Ingredients of a prize-winning middle grade novel

I recently read on a well-known publishing blog that it takes a person hearing about a book at least 5 times before they'll remember it (and that's just remembering, not necessarily buying or reading).

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, got on my To-Read list because it won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2010, and I'd heard of it probably about 5 times.What bumped it up from the To-Read list to Currently Reading was when I saw another recent mention of the book saying it had a time-twist mystery in it (I love time-twists because they can be such mind-benders).

One of the neat things about When You Reach Me was how it worked one of my all-time favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle, into the story. And because it was a Newbery winner, after reading it I went back and analyzed the first 20 pages to see if I could figure out how it won the medal.

Obviously, the ingredients of a prize-winning book span the entire book, not just its first twenty pages. But if I don't have time to analyze the whole thing (who does?), I at least try to analyze it up to the "First Plot Point" - the event that rocks the main character's world (in this book, that event began on page 20).  By the time the First Plot Point happens, a good book will have introduced you to all of the main characters and their goals, motivations, and issues (e.g. "things that need fixing").

My method for analyzing a book is to copy the pages and then get 6 or 7 different colored highlighters. I start looking for the four basics and highlight them whenever I find them:

Goal or motivation (there were 9 separate instances in the first 20 pages) 
Example: Mom has to win this money.

Characterization (13 instances) 
Example: Every time she calls him Mr. Perfect, Richard taps his right knee. He does that because his right leg is shorter than his left one.

Voice (12 instances) 
Example: So Mom got the postcard today...There's the date she's supposed to show up, scrawled in blue pen at the bottom of the card: April 27, 1979. Just like you said. 

Tension: usually conflict but can include other things, like a race against time (18 instances) 
Example: “Are you mad about having to wait at Belle’s? I was super busy – I couldn’t just leave.”
“No, I like it at Belle’s.” I wondered whether she’d done her nails before, after or during her super busy afternoon.

After my first highlighting pass, then I went back and looked at the sentences I hadn't highlighted yet. I suspected there were more important ingredients, but I wasn't sure what they were, exactly.

After my second pass, I had identified three more ingredients: 

Funny or quirky tidbits (not character-related) (12 instances in the first 20 pages)
Example: On the postcard there’s a list of things to bring. She needs some extra clothes in case she wins and makes it to another show, where they pretend it’s the next day even though they really tape five in one afternoon.

Foreshadowing or dropping hints pertaining to a mystery (4 instances)
Example: You asked me to mention the key. If I ever do decide to write your letter, which I probably won’t, this is the story I would tell you.

These two ingredients (and the main character's voice) are what set the tone of the book: a quirky mystery full of amusing asides with the main character, 12 yr old Mira, sort of teasing us, the readers.

Mini-stories to fill in backstory and build emotional ties (3 instances)
Example: Flashback to how close Mira and Sal were in preschool: they always put their sleeping mats next to each other at nap time; once when Sal was home sick, Mira laid out their mats side by side, pretending he was still there, but she couldn't sleep.

Mira's love of the book A Wrinkle in Time is also introduced in the first 20 pages, and the author masterfully threads some key parts of this book-within-a-book to hint at and explain the time-twist that Mira experiences.  I don't think you need to be familiar with A Wrinkle in Time to "get it" (but if you have read it, it just makes it that much more fun seeing how it ties in).

I immediately decided, upon finishing When You Reach Me, that I was going to weave a famous book into my book-in-progress, too. Do you have any favorite books that you've found referenced in other novels?

Note: I won't have a post for Teen Tuesday this week, but I will next week. Promise.

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