One of the writing blogs I follow is Writer Unboxed. When I find an article by one of their contributors in Writer's Digest, I pay extra attention.
Soon after completing Augusta Scattergood's middle grade novel, MAKING FRIENDS WITH BILLY WONG (Scholastic Press, 2016), I read David Corbett's article "To Change or Not to Change?"(Writer's Digest, January, 2017). Thanks to Corbett, I found a terrific template to review Augusta's book. (Quotes from his article are in bold.)
Every story implicitly asks two simple questions: 1) What happened? and 2) Why? These questions may remain unanswered, but they cannot be escaped...we need to keep in mind what Les Edgerton means when he says every story is about the same thing--trouble--or what Steven James means when he says that stories are not about what happened, they're about what went wrong. (Writer's Digest, pp. 26, 27)
For Azalea Morgan, the protagonist in MAKING FRIENDS, her life goes wrong in the first paragraph:
All it took to send my summer on the road to ruin was a fancy note and a three-cent stamp. The minute that envelope showed up, Mama was packing my suitcase. (p. 1)The reader quickly discovers the three types of problems which Corbett says characters try to answer:
- External challenges: tasks in pursuit of a goal in the physical world.
- Internal questions: doubt concerning deep-seated issues such as one's worth, purpose, nature, identity--in which characters are forced to ask, Who am I? What kind of person do I want to be?
Like it or not, I was going to meet more people than I was ever friends with back in Texas. (p. 26)**********
Would this Billy Wong boy want to talk to me? Did we speak the same language? I wasn't so great at talking to ordinary boys back home--boys who didn't look like they'd just arrived from some faraway country. Mama says I'll get over that talking-to-boys thing. I doubt I'll get over it this summer in Paris Junction, Arkansas. (p. 29)
- Interpersonal Relationships: efforts to grow closer to or distance oneself from another character or characters.
If I hadn't already talked more than I'd talked in my entire lifetime to a boy, I'd be explaining that no, I will not be exploring a creek. I will be fixing dinner and watering Grandma Clark's garden till the cows come home....Even though it was easy eating ice cream together, I had a hard time picturing being good friends with a boy. Especially one so different.
But today was fun. So I looked right at Billy Wong, and I answered, "Maybe." (p. 64)In the Writers Digest article David Corbett wrote,
When a protagonist of any kind changes, it's usually because the struggles and conflicts he has faced have forged a different understanding of himself, his abilities and/or his world, including the people in it. (p. 28)By the mid-point of the book, Azalea is calling Billy her friend. She is also surprising herself by becoming braver than she ever had been in Texas. She discovers hidden truths about Willis, the town bully, as well as about her grandmother. These discoveries spawn new actions.
Despite her fears, towards the end of the book Azalea climbs up her grandmother's tree behind Willis, who has been throwing acorns down on her and Billy. She asks:
"You doing this because you're mad at me? What'd I do?"
"This was my tree till that Chinese boy came. Now every time I climb it, he's around."
When a breeze rustled the tree's leaves, I grabbed hold of a thicker branch and held on. "Ever think about being friends with Billy?" I asked, still not quite believing I was perched in a tree with Willis DeLoach. (p. 173)
With that interaction, the reader knows that Azalea is well on the way to growing and changing.
Like Kirby Larson's LIBERTY, Augusta Scattergood inserted poems from Billy's point of view. Her sparse use of language gets to the heart of how Billy is feeling. This is one of my favorites:
Keeping Notes on Lucky Foods, My Private File
The screen door pushes open.
The bell ting-a-lings.
A white man steps inside, tall, frowning.
Hat pulled close over his forehead.
Eyes darting fast
from Kay's Cookies to Dum Dum suckers,
cash register to cigar boxes.
"Need me some garden fertilizer," he snarls.
"Near the fishing lines," I answer, nicely.
He draws his words out.
"Bologna? Cheese? Bread?"
"Right this way, sir," I say.
I reach into the cool case of cheese and lunch meat.
Weigh a thick wedge of cheddar.
Punch the cash register's round buttons.
Hand the man groceries.
Watch him leave.
He'll go in my stories.
Mixed together with
dusting soup cans,
pricing crushable cracker boxes.
And new friends.
Property of Billy Wong, Spy (p. 123)
Property of Billy Wong, Spy (p. 123)
Corbett concludes the article,
Look to your story to determine whether your main characters must change, and the degree of change they will undergo. Change is by no means a requirement--but when the story leads to self-examination, or revolves around a relationship, it is all but inevitable that the action will create the re-evaluation of self that we equate with change. (p.29)
******Teachers and home school educators: Augusta just posted her classroom discussion guide on her website. You can download it here.