Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dear Ms Cleary - Thanks for Reminding This Writer About Writing in Youth Voice

image from thesmartkitchenblog.org

Sixth grader Leigh Botts has to write a report on an author. Naturally he chooses Mr. Henshaw, an author with whom he'd already established correspondence. When Leigh sends Mr. Henshaw a series of questions, Mr. Henshaw replies back with questions for Leigh.

In Beverly Cleary's Newbery winning book, Dear Mr. Henshaw (1983), the reader is given insight into the mind of Leigh by glimpsing into the letters he writes to Mr. Henshaw and the journal he starts keeping at Mr. Henshaw's suggestion.

Because the entire book is written in this style, it is crucial that the reader believes that a pre-teen boy is writing this and not a well-established author trying to assume a character's voice. Fortunately, it works. Cleary's writes with simplistic language - occasionally with deliberate misspellings - and captures what feel like the real thoughts and concerns of a twelve-year-old boy.

Leigh worries about things that could plague any kid his age - having his lunch stolen, making friends, and when will he see his dad again. The mix of the more trivial with the big issues like wanting a relationship with his largely absentee father give a nice insight into the character.

As always, I read this book with an eye on what I can learn as a writer. While Newbery's typically have a pre-teen at the heart of the story, most don't truly tell the story from that character's perspective. Instead, an adult narrator is telling the story on behalf of the child. As I work on Abigail's Atlantis, my current middle-grade fiction, this is a crucial consideration. While Abigail is not the narrator of the story, she is the pre-teen character at the heart of the action and it is crucial that readers feel like they are truly getting insight into how Abigail thinks and feels.


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