The Boy on the Porch

Newbery Medal winner Sharon Creech breaks a cardinal rule of children’s literature in The Boy on the Porch.  The main characters of this story are adults!  The main child character even steps out of the picture for part of the story!  But you know what?  It works!


Marta and John walk onto their porch one morning to find a young boy sound asleep on a chair.  He comes with a note asking the couple to take care of Jacob and stating that whoever dropped him off would return to get him.  Unsigned and unspecific as to when they will return, the couple hesitantly agrees.  Oh, and Jacob doesn’t talk, he taps.

Why it appeals to children: The events of the story are so outside of the ordinary, it compels the reader to stay engaged.  Children will be captivated by Jacob.  His quietness.  His talents.  His journey.  Children will also fall in love with the compassionate dedication of Marta and John.  Additionally, it has great appeal to reluctant readers.  Most chapters are just three pages long, some are longer, and many are just two pages!  The story starts with a shocking discovery and demands the reader to turn the page again and again.

Why it appeals to adults:  The story will especially appeal to educators, social workers, and foster parents.  It highlights the multiple intelligence stance – it’s not “How smart are you?” but “How are you smart?”  And it portrays being a foster parent through a very pure and appealing light.  While this book is not a “foster parent book,” it is an important thread that is subtly weaved.

It was a little odd to read a children’s book that focused on a married couple.  Adult readers will identify with the dilemmas John and Marta face.  What I appreciated most was the simpleness of their deep love. Completely different than the convoluted life of middle America.  They didn’t have much to offer, but they gave everything they had. Not to mention how it tenderly brings in heavy topics like an abandoned child and loving a child that is not like all of the other children.

Creech trusts her readers to create their own mental movie and does not overwhelm with details.   The story is written in an easy going way, but it profoundly communicates the simpleness of John and Marta’s love for Jacob and meeting his deepest needs.

As a writer: Yes, Sharon Creech broke a few rules in writing this story.  She’s a Newbery Award winner and she in entitled to that freedom.  For the rest of us pre-published authors, we have to stay in the lines for now.  (I know what you’re thinking.  Give it a try.  I hope your unique idea works for you and you break new literary ground!  Honestly.)  We can, however, let books like this inspire us to dream of something different while we hone our craft and work on getting that first one published!  We can also take note on how to write succinctly.  Who? Me?

To Sharon Creech I say, thank you for this lovely story.  It left me with a lump in my throat. It is one that will stay with me.  And I am so very glad it is one that was written.

Number the Stars

Number-the-StarsNumber the Stars by Lois Lowry is my all-time favorite children’s book ever!  It’s a historical fiction novel intended for an audience of 9-12 year old children.  It’s the story of Annemarie Johansen living in Copenhagen, Denmark during the Nazi occupation of World War II.  Her best friend, Ellen Rosen, is Jewish. When the story starts the Nazis stop merely standing ominously on street corners and prepare to relocate the Danish Jews.  The lives of the two girls are about to change drastically.  One will be forced to go into hiding while the other’s courage will be put to the test.

It is the winner of the 1990 Newbery Medal.  Though it rightfully received this award, it’s true accolades come from how it stands up to its toughest critics, children.  I have taught this book with two fourth grade and five fifth grade classes across a variety of ethnic groups and spanning the socio-economic bridge.  I have read this book with reluctant readers and avid readers.  The most challenging part of reading it was being told they weren’t allowed to read ahead!

Why children like it

The pace is quick.  The beginning of the story grabs hold of you and you don’t want to let go until the very last page.   The events of WWII are so unbelievable that the setting is both intriguing and mortifying.  The real stronghold is how relatable the characters are.  Annemarie and Ellen are very much like the children in the classroom, but are called to do extreme things.  And the themes of the story are the themes of most children’s lives: friendships put to the test, needing to be brave when it would be easier to run away, coming of age and learning the truth of the world around them.  I’ve had so many great conversations with my students because of the events in this book!

Through a writer’s eyes

Every time I have read this book I got something new from it.  And I’ve read it a lot!  (I am not one for rereading books, but this is a clear exception! – remember I’m a reformed reluctant reader).  This is a book that should be studied by every aspiring fiction writer.  It’s a study of doing it all right!  Characterization, plot, sub plot, intrigue, plot twists, symbolism, voice, show-don’t-tell.  What makes this an even more impressive feat is that the setting of this story, WWII, is one of the most written about topics.  What’s equally amazing is that it is all done in 132 pages!

Give Ms. Lowry a visit at and be sure to enjoy this book that I am glad was written!

On Dialogue

dialogue bubblesThere is much for me to learn!  So very much to learn!  The more I read about writing dialogue, the tougher it seems to do well.

So here is what I’ve figured out so far.

What dialogue isn’t:

  • a way to relay information to your reader.  That really stinks, because we aren’t suppose to “tell” our readers either.  Somehow we are suppose to sneak information into the text without being obvious about it.
  • a recap of street dialogue.  Real conversation often gets heavy in the kind of details that would bore a reader to no end.  We can probably think of a friend that could use adding commas and periods when they talk.
  • natural.  Alice LaPlante said, “You want to make it sound natural, but that doesn’t mean that it is.”
  • filler space

What dialogue is:

  • reader friendly.  Dialogue quickens the pace, puts white space on the page, and gives the reader a little relief.
  • balanced with action and description.  You are not writing a play (talking to myself here).  Dialogue cannot stand alone.  The full picture is painted when dialogue is followed with action and description.
  • moves the story forward.  It has to have a purpose that is related to the plot.
  • filled with subtext.  Trust your reader to be able to read between the lines.
  • built on the history of the characters.  Consider the things that you don’t need to say when talking to your best friend that you would if you were talking to an acquaintance.  Or when you are meeting someone new, the guarded superficial dialogue still carries a tone.  There is hidden dialogue built on history, intentions, and hopes and that will be true with characters.
  • conveys emotions without telling the emotion.
  • elliptical.  I heard Lin Oliver say this before, but I’m not super clear on it.  What I understand this to mean is speakers respond not just to what was said, but also to what wasn’t said.  They interpret the line, the subtext, the history, the intentions and tone, and reply with all of this in mind.  So the characters are filling in the gaps in the conversation in their minds and reply to each other in this form.  Is this right?
  • unique to each character.  Each character must be well defined in your head so the dialogue sounds like him/her.
  • brief
  • what is said is a glimmer of what isn’t.  And sometimes it is a complete fabrication.  Our characters are far more mysterious than most people are in real life.  But if we write dialogue that is true to how people really sound, our characters are flat, puppet-like, and the veil that has been hiding the author is ripped to shreds.

I think there is a giant asterisk over this whole thing.  Know your reader.  If you are writing for young readers, even as old as middle grade,  a little more needs to be transparent.  We don’t want to frustrate our reader to the point they put down the book.  Especially when they may only be reading because it is SSR (silent sustained reading) time and they have to read, so they picked your book off the stack.  Writing for kids is tough.  There are many who are resistant to reading for many reasons.  We want to intrigue, but not frustrate.

That was the ol’ teacher slipping out.  But as I write, I keep in mind very specific students who struggled to read, would never do it on their own, but nonetheless enjoyed literature circle.

So with that it mind.  Next time: Making your story worth talking about.

Til then, enjoy playing with words!

One more thing – What children’s book has great dialogue that is worth studying?

The One That Did It For Me!

This is the book that did it for me.  I was in fourth grade and I read words well, but I didn’t pay attention while reading so my comprehension was less than impressive.  We went to library every week and the miniscule library at my Catholic school did not excite me.  But I remember coming along Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman by Dorothy Sterling.Image

I had this unique feeling of not wanting to put the book down as I read page after page of this amazing woman. Prior to reading this story, I don’t recall learning much about the underground railroad.  But this stuck and it made me want to read more.  (A good book can have a greater power than a good teacher.  Sorry to say, but true.) The excitement for reading did not continue, even though I volunteered regularly at the local public library.  But this planted a little seed in me that has grown, many years later, into an enjoyment for reading historical and realistic fiction, and now an aspiration to write one of my own.

Here’s to you, Dorothy Sterling.  Thank you for inadvertently planting that seed.

Hmm, I think it is time to read that story again! Time to head to the library 🙂

Which one did it for you?