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opening your story–where to start your novel

Alrighty then. You need a whiz-bang a-number-one first sentence that draws your reader in. Makes him/her sit up and and say, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

That’s a given.

But where, exactly, in the story, do you start?

HINT: Not at the very beginning.

Little Red Riding Hood does not start with the first time Little Red takes a basket to her grandmother, or the first time The Wolf eats a kid.

Harry Potter doesn’t start with Voldemort killing Harry’s parents.

Catcher in the Rye doesn’t start with Holden Caulfield’s arrival at Pencey Prep.

Your reader does not want to wade through all the backstory to get to the interesting bits. That’s your job.

Begin your novel on the day that is different.

Look at the point in the story these kidlitters chose to start:

In the Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith: The day Jonah and Simon leave their home to meet up with their brother and father.

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Reaping Day

Escaping the Tiger by Laura Manivong: The night Vonlai and his family cross the Mekong River to escape Laos.

Plunge your readers into the thick of it, and don’t explain everything.

Give them a reason to turn the page.


finding an audience–how old is your heart?

I’ve been asked to post this article I wrote for the Institute of Children’s Literature, online. They bought the rights for one year, and the year is up. But geez, why should the world be denied my genius? *cough*




Lisha Cauthen

You’ve wrestled with your demons, angsted online, joined six critique groups, and finally decided that you are a Novelist for Children. TA DAAAA!

I regret to inform you that you still have a decision to make.

Publishers often divide children’s novels into three genres according to age level: Early Chapter, Middle Grade and Young Adult. And they want to know where your work will fit on their list. Do not tell them your arresting, yet accessible novel appeals to folks 8 to 80, or you’ll find yourself sitting on the curb with a big shoe print on your keister.

Try this exercise and find out where your writing fits: Write the same fairy tale as an Early Chapter book, a Middle Grade and Young Adult novel. I used a scene from Little Red Riding Hood:


Little Red Riding Hood rapped on the door.

“Who’s there?” asked the wolf.

Little Red Riding Hood thought her Grandmother sounded funny. “You sound hoarse, Grandma. Are you sick?” she asked.

The wolf cleared his throat. “I’m not a horse, Dear Child. I’m your grandmother. Come in.”

Little Red Riding Hood tiptoed into the room. Someone hairy was in her grandmother’s bed. Little Red Riding Hood didn’t get too close. “Grandma, what big eyes you have,” she said.

“My Dear, why are you so timid? What do you think I’ll do? Bite your head off?”


Red Riding Hood loved her grandmother, but she didn’t want to be here today. She had a soccer game in less than an hour. She banged on the door.

“Who’s that?”

That doesn’t sound like Grandma, she thought. Grandma always sounds sweet, even if her bunions are acting up. “It’s me. Red Riding Hood.”

“Come in!” called the voice.

I don’t like this one bit, thought Red Riding Hood, but she went in anyway.

She almost fainted when she looked into the rumpled covers. Red Riding Hood didn’t know who this was, but it sure wasn’t her grandma. “Uh—uh—gosh, Grandma. Your eyes are poppin’ out of your head today.”

The wolf snuggled its snout under the blankets. “Don’t question your elders, Kid. Shut up and do what you’re told.”


“My mother sucks,” said Red. “I can’t believe she’s making me take this craptaculous stuff to Gram. Doesn’t she know that Edward is waiting for me? Hiding in the shadows in my room, ready to hold me tenderly while I sleep?” Red kicked the door.

“MMMMmmmmm,” said a strange voice.

Stupid grandmother. She doesn’t like Edward. Just because he’s undead doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. He does care! He loves me just for me! Not because I smell tremendously delicious and have super-special blood pulsing in my neck that stretches the limits of his self-control.

Red shoved the door open. Before the wolf could speak, Red said, “I don’t care what you think! Edward would never hurt me! He’s good! And I want him to bite me and make me one of the undead too!”

“Don’t talk to me about Edward,” the wolf growled.

Red stepped closer, closer. “Why, your eyes…they’re so brown, so wild…”

“Think so?” he whispered.

“Oh, Jacob…”

Maybe you can tell that writing the Early Chapter and Middle Grade excerpts was a chore for me. But the YA. Ah, that spurted from my fingertips like—like blood from a severed artery.

While you’re sampling the genres, remember:

  • Children’s writers are supposed to write as if THEY are the age of the audience they’re writing for. Do not dwell on whether it’s proper for a 30-year-old mom to feel like a 9-year-old boy.
  • Your natural genre is the one that is easiest for you to channel from your subconscious. Figure out what age you feel like when you’re writing. Writers often discover their work in progress belongs to a different genre than they originally thought.
  • Find books similar to what you want to write. See which age genre appeals to you. Children’s books have evolved tremendously, so be sure the books you read are no older than 5 years. Once you know your audience, read 1,000 books in that genre. That is not a typo. 1,000. See what the norms are and why they work. Then study the exceptions and when to use them.

Before you retire to the mud room and pull your lawn chair up to the ironing board you use as a desk, look over these brief descriptions of the three age genres of children’s novels:

EARLY CHAPTER (ages 7-11)

  • First books that kids read completely on their own.
  • They want to read about a character who’s like them, or in situations like theirs.
  • ACTION! The act of reading itself isn’t intoxicating anymore.
  • Sentences are a bit complex, but paragraphs run 2-4 sentences.
  • Usually, a thread runs from chapter to chapter.

MIDDLE GRADE (ages 8-12)

  • Main character focuses inward. These readers are working on their own identities, who they are and what they think, while their relationships and bodies change.
  • Conflicts often involve friendships, school, siblings.
  • The main character must grow and change during the course of the book, but these changes are internal.
  • Don’t worry about word choice or sentence structure. Middle graders are good readers. Stories may involve subplots involving secondary characters woven through the story.
  • This audience gets addicted to characters. Consider writing a series with the same cast of players.
  • Use hooks at the end of chapters to keep the reader turning the page.


  • Complex plots with several major characters, though one emerges as the focus of the book. You must make the reader identify with your main character right away. That’s why so many YA novels are first person.
  • Everything is HUGE! EPIC! Teens have no perspective, no sense that bad times will pass and the world will go on. Every situation is new.
  • YA readers are stepping outside of their hearth and home, and they want to read about characters whose internal change comes from external events. They want to see how the conflict affects the main character, and how the main character affects the world.
  • Be subtle. YA readers are smart enough to figure things out for themselves.
  • Be ruthless. Impale your main character on the merciless horns of a dilemma. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)

Experiment and find your best age genre. You’ll access your creativity faster, your writing will be stronger and I’m pretty sure bluebirds will light on your shoulder.

….aaaand SCENE!

Let’s talk a bit about writing today, shall we?

I’ve been working on an exercise for a master class Kansas SCBWI will be hosting in May. I wrote paragraphs summarizing each scene in my novel.

That was a lot of frickin’ scenes.

I haven’t even had the class yet, but I can tell you a few things I’ve learned about scene just from doing the exercise.

In every scene:

  1. Something has to happen–Sounds like a “duh” statement, doesn’t it? But how many books have you read that drone on and on and on with nothing happening except the polishing of the author’s ego? You might get away with that in adult literature, but not kidlit. Your reader will toss you so fast you’ll be in the remainder bin before you can say “Pulp me, baby.”
  2. The story has to advance–Plot must be propelled forward. It’s not enough to have noise and chaos, there’s got to be purpose. How are you going to get to the end if you don’t point your compass and go? Meandering does not intrigue, it BORES YOUR READER TO DEATH. Remember when your great-uncle would tell you a story about fighting in muddy, rat-infested trenches in World War I and then your great-grandmother would interrupt to say, “While you were off in Gay Paree I was home rolling bandages. I’d take the train to the Red Cross Center. Cousin Wally drove a yellow car but he wrecked it when he got drunk one night and drove through Frank and Lana’s Dry Goods. Calico everywhere, I tell you…” Yeah. Same thing.
  3. The characters should reveal themselves–Every word characters utter and action they execute reveals information about them. Do not squander these tools.
  4. There has to be a climax–Not only does the novel have a story arc, not only does the chapter have a story arc, but the scene has a story arc too. I know. It’s ridiculous, but true. I could hardly believe it myself. Look in one of your most dramatic scenes. Note the rising action. Then spot the point where things come to a head–and afterward, the tension ebbs. Yup. Climax. Make your own jokes.


Who said that? Don’t say that.

Human beings are natural story tellers. For the most part, IF YOU WRITE AND WRITE AND WRITE, you will fall into a rhythm of writing scenes in story arcs.

Sometimes it’s good to study what you’re doing right, even if it comes to you naturally. Because sometimes you screw up, and how are you going to know how to fix it if you don’t know what you’re doing in the first place?

how to dress for success

So I went shopping yesterday with my BFF from the old days, when I was in the PTA and had to pretend I was a pillar of the community. We ended up snagging my Kansas SCBWI Conference toggery.

It was a tussle.

Seems the word “conference” confused the stuffing out of my non-children’s-writer friend. I tried on various permutations of blouses, tank tops, jackets and sweaters.

“That looks good. Very slimming,” said BFF.

“Meh. Boring.”

“Oh I like that one. You look so professional,” said BFF.

“I do? Forget it!” I don a goth t-shirt with flowing wrap. “Oooo. This one. Do they have it in blacker?”

My BFF said, “…”

It’s not her fault. She’s a grown-up. Works in a real office, with a boss and budgets and all that drudgery. Wears pantyhose and lined jackets.

I can’t imagine.

Next, the purse. I won’t bore you with the particulars. Suffice to say, BFF pushed really hard for this:

And I ended up with this:

By the time we got to the reading glasses at the bookstore, BFF swore off giving me any more opinions. (Oh, please. Pull the other one. You done stretched this one as far as it will go.)

I had it down to two: a royal blue pair that made my sunken green eyes pop strikingly, and a bizarre pair of aqua steampunkish glasses crafted in awesome.


“Lisha, you’ve got to get the blue ones. They make your eyes shimmer!” BFF looked at me like I’d eaten her last tic-tac. Which I had, but that didn’t have anything to do with the glasses.

“Nope.” I took the steampunkery glasses to the register.

“You’re making a mistake,” BFF said, all Jacob Marley.

“I can look gorgeous, *cough* or I can look like I’ve got a million stories to tell.”

I paid the cashier and walked out the door with the price tag dangling from the nose piece.

My BFF loves it when I do stuff like that.

master writer # 5-david almond, the savage

The Savage is a YA novel by David Almond, author of Skellig. It’s the fifth, and latest in my series of kidlit books in which the author demonstrates an incredible mastery of one aspect of the writer’s craft.

Blue Baker’s father has died. To cope with his grief, he writes a story about a savage who lives in the woods. But fiction and fact somehow overlap, and the savage becomes much more than words and pictures on a page.


To make the subconscious, physical.

1. Kids can understand the most complex concepts, if you MAKE YOUR IDEAS VISUAL. David Almond has Blue express his subconscious feelings about his father’s death through a story he writes. The unnamed, wild savage in his notebook tells us everything we need to know about Blue’s journey of pain, about his love for his mother and little sister, about who he is as a person.

Here, Blue’s character, the savage, writes about a bully who’s been bothering Blue:

“Why was the kid puffin smoke like he was burnin inside? What was the point of that? So the savage new the kid was stupid. He wanted the kid to come closer, so he cud kill him and chuck him down the pit shaft.”

Later, the savage describes Blue, himself:

“…and the savage seen the boy’s eyes and he seen he wasn’t a evil kid like the last one that had been up here.”

Here, the savage talks about Blue’s little sister:

“He opend Jesses door in silens. He stud over her, then he reached down and rested his hand on Jess’s brow, and there was tears in his eyes.”

2. It’s not enough to have this phantasm come to life just for your main character.* THE EXPERIENCE MUST BE VERIFIED BY OUTSIDE CHARACTERS. This way, the story grows from a personal dream or fantasy into a universal myth.

“Jess was crying. Mam brought Jess into my room. ..We cuddled her and tried to soother her, but she was sobbing hard. ‘Daddy,’ she gulped. ‘Want Daddy.’….So I showed Jess the pictures of the savage and I made a funny savage face and I did a funny savage grunt and Jess giggled through her tears…We all sat close together again, and Jess slowly went to sleep….’You’re a brave and clever boy,’ she {Mam} said. She winked. ‘And you’re a savage, too.’ “

3. As much fun as the savage is, the moment has to come when Blue owns his savage side, and THE SUBCONSCIOUS AND THE CONSCIOUS PARTS OF THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST REUNITE. If they don’t we have a permanently wounded character.

“We stood there, two lads together, and we peered one more time into each other’s eyes, then suddenly I was on the outside, at the ruined chapel, and I couldn’t see the way back in again. But the chicken feathers were in my hair and the savage was in my heart and my dad was in my soul.”

Please read The Savage by David Almond. You can do it in less than an hour. It is fabulously illustrated by Dave McKean. It is visceral, gut-wrenchingly true, and dense with love–all leaking from Blue’s subconscious. For that reason, I present DAVID ALMOND, Master of Making the Subconscious Physical.

*Mr. Snuffleuppagus, in his initial incarnation on Sesame Street, was only visible to Big Bird. Everytime Big Bird would try to prove his existence to someone else on Sesame Street, Mr. Snuffleuppagus would disappear. It was pretty funny. But this running joke ended up driving little kids insane with frustration. Moral of the story? KIDS DON’T WANT THEIR HEADS MESSED WITH. They’re still learning the rules of reality.

master writer #4–jay asher, 13 reasons why

13 Reasons Why, the debut YA novel by Jay Asher is the fourth in our series of kidlit books in which the author demonstrates an incredible mastery of a specific aspect of the writer’s craft.

Clay Jensen finds a strange package on his porch. Inside, there are cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker–his dead classmate. He will spend an evening crisscrossing town, listening to the tapes to find out the 13 reasons why Hannah committed suicide. Clay is one of those reasons.


Each character is completely differentiated, a difficult task with so many teen characters.

1. Throughout 13 Reasons Why, Hannah tells her story to Clay through the tapes–intimately, in his ear. Jay Asher has found a seamless way to mesh their two points of view. This way, A TENSION DEVELOPS BETWEEN THE REVELATION AND RECEPTION OF THE CHARACTERS’ SECRETS.

For instance, we find out about a girl “…known for being a good listener, and sympathetic…” who agrees to come over and help Hannah when she’s being terrorized by a Peeping Tom.

“She smiled and raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you think he’ll come back?’…This girl’s got a twisted side that very few of you know about.”

“To catch our Peeping Tom, we knew we needed to keep the talking quiet. We needed to hear that first…Click… Her mouth dropped open. Her eyes, I’ve never seen them that happy….”

” ‘You know what I could use?’ she asked. ‘A nice, deep, back massage.’ “

“She pulled open the drawer, looked inside, and covered her mouth. What? There was nothing in my drawer worthy of a reaction like that. There was nothing in my whole room worthy of that. ‘I didn’t know you were into this.’ she said, nice and loud. ‘We should use it…together.’ “

“So who was this mystery girl? Should I tell?”

Well, you and Clay are going to have to flip the cassette over to find out if Hannah does tell. Oh, and in the scene, Jay also gives us a mountain of information about the Peeping Tom. And Hannah. And Clay, of course.

2. Jay reveals his characters almost entirely through VIGNETTES. We get to see the characters in action and draw our own conclusions. Sometimes our conclusions agree with Hannah’s and/or Clay’s, but sometimes, they don’t.

“I just sat there, in the booth where Marcus left me, staring into an empty milkshake glass…”

“When up walked Zach. I pretended not to notice him. NOT because I had anything against him, but because my heart and my trust were in the process of collapsing…”

“He offered to buy me another milkshake, but I gave no response…”

“…Zach left a few bucks on the table and returned to his friends.”

“…and before I left, I listened in on you and your friends. They were teasing you for not getting that date you assured them was in the bag.”

“…you took the teasing.”

” {but}…you chose to get back at me in the most childish of ways.”

3. Jay Asher’s characters are fully rounded because they aren’t stale stereotypes gleaned from previous fiction. They seem to have been kidnapped straight from his neighborhood high school, because they BEHAVE LIKE REAL PEOPLE, NOT IN WAYS CONVENIENT FOR A PLOT OR LESSON TO BE LEARNED.

Up until this point in my Master Writers Series, I have chosen examples that weren’t exactly spoilers for the novels being discussed. But in this instance, I feel the best example has to be this spoiler. If you haven’t read 13 Reasons Why, I beg you to read it before you go on to my third point. Fair warning. Here we go. No turning back.

Throughout the novel, Hannah fights her undeserved slutty reputation. Things come to a breaking point after a terrible night:

“…someone called my name…a head poked up. And whose head would that be? Bryce Walker’s.”

{Clay} “God, no. This can only end one way. If anyone can shovel more shit onto Hannah’s life, it’s Bryce.”

“{and}…Miss Courtney Crimsen…She’s the one who left me stranded with no one to talk to. And there I was, at her house, where she had nowhere to hide.”

{Clay} “That’s not why you did it Hannah…You knew it was the worst choice possible…You wanted your world to collapse…”

“…I was right not to trust them…but I was done. I was through fighting…”

“Bryce, you had to see my jaw clench. You had to see my tears…then, just like that, I let go…My legs fell apart. I knew exactly what I was doing. Not once had I given into the reputation you’d all set for me. Not once…Until Bryce…I let my reputation catch up with me–I let my reputation become me–with you.”

Boy. The easy author choice would have been an out-an-out violent rape. Good-girl Hannah kills herself because nobody would have believed her. Bad boy Bryce. Eh. We knew he was no good. Tragedy. *Yawn*.

Honest to Murgatroyd, I think this is the most heartbreaking, dead-on, brilliant scene in the whole book. If you think Hannah was asking for it, or could have gotten away, I submit that you’re missing the point.

She has been trying to get away from the reputation the student body has pegged her with for the entire book.

She can’t.

Hannah has been disappointed, degraded, embarrassed, debased, time and again. She was through fighting–she had fought it so long and so hard, obsessed over her reputation, she became what she feared most.

She made a choice. Or did she? Bryce certainly didn’t overpower her. But did the actions of the other students over the school year  “brainwash” her?

Layer upon layer. Each character sharp, distinctly individual.

13 Reasons Why is an important contribution to teen literature. There’s very little action, mostly character study, but oh! how fascinating! For that reason I give you Jay Asher, the Teen Character Master.

the secret–writing the perfect picture book

Technical difficulties, my little doves, kept me from posting on ye olde blogge yesterday. And today, for that matter. I will make this short and oh-so sweet.

I found Flip Footage from our last KSCBWI workshop, in March. Sandy Asher did a humdinger of a job speaking on picture books. Sandy is a jack-of-all trades, as you will find out in this brief clip. (Also, you will see she is soft-spoken. Press thine ear unto your speakers.)

First she tells us the secret of success in the publishing business:

Now, Sandy has chosen to eschew this advice. (Bless you. Handkerchief?) But I think I’m going to more or less employ it.

I went to this picture book workshop not because I write picture books–(A-HAHAHAHAHA!)–oh! my side–but because I want to be a better critiquer for my group. I took copious notes and really tried to wrap my head around what makes a great picture book. And then…


Sandy dropped the words that made the heavens open.

She shared the advice that Sue Alexander had shared with her, when Sandy was just starting out.

Picture books have to appeal to the littlest listeners,

older kids and the adults who have to read the damn

things over and over and over again.

There it is, in one sentence. The litmus test to know whether or not you have produced a great picture book.

master writer #3–nancy werlin, the rules of survival

Today we look at the YA novel,  The Rules of Survival, by Nancy Werlin, continuing my series about kidlit books in which the author has achieved amazing heights in some facet of their writing.

[unofficial trailer]

Brutally honest, The Rules of Survival depicts big-brother Matt’s day-to-day struggle to make sure he and his sisters make it through life with their vicious, unpredictable mother. Things look up when Murdoch starts dating their mom and she tries to appear normal, but when he leaves, things are worse than ever. Matt is going to have to take action if they’re all going to stay alive.


She has written the perfect first chapter.

Bold statement, I know. But in seven little pages, Nancy Werlin gives us the setting, the five major characters, (two of whom aren’t even in the scene) and the dilemma.

The book is written as a memoir to Matt’s youngest sister, telling her what happened one fateful year when she was too young to remember.

1. The only reason a reader sticks with a book is the author MAKES US CURIOUS TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS TO THE MAIN CHARACTER, usually because we like him. Nancy establishes immediately how seriously Matt takes his responsibility for his little sisters:

“It was hard to figure out what would be the safest thing to do, for all three of us, all the time. But it was my job.”

“I was thinking that in a year–a year and a half–I could maybe go out by myself at night and trust Callie with you…I’d still be careful that you weren’t alone with her {their mother} when she came home after her Saturday night outings.”

2. Nancy cleverly and without telling, lays out the atmosphere, characters and problem. This adds up to ESTABLISHING A READER’S CONTRACT that you can count on to let you know what you’re in for. Look at these select lines from the first chapter of The Rules of Survival:

“…it was a date night for our mother–Saturday–so we’d been locked in.”

“Once Callie and I heard you snoring…we slipped out a window onto the back deck…”

“…My dad was afraid of our mother. He kept out of her way…I understood. She was unpredictable.”

“The big man…shook him hard, and kept doing it…And then the other man, the one I later knew was called Murdoch, was between the father and son. Murdoch snatched the little kid away from his father…”

“But Murdock talked directly to the kid. ‘It’s wrong for anybody ever to hurt you. No matter who does it, it’s wrong. Can you remember that?'”

From these snippets you can see that Nancy lets her readers know that this book is going to be about hard-core child abuse. Not only is the mother described leaving her children unattended, but her former lover, a grown man, is afraid of her. But there is hope! Her children are resourceful–they know how to slip out of the locked apartment.

But then, interestingly, Matt witnesses a father abusing his son in public, and a stranger steps in to put a stop to it. He says the amazing words: “It’s wrong for anybody ever to hurt you.” This isn’t a random event. This is a signal of the code Matt and the girls are going to learn to live by.

3. Of course there’s no point in reading a book if you know everything that’s going to happen, so Nancy gives us THE MYSTERIOUS TWIST. In this case, It’s a character, Murdoch. He’s introduced in the very first line:

“For me, the story begins with Murdoch McIlvane.”

He isn’t mentioned again until page four, after you understand the dire straits Matt and his sisters are in. Murdoch turns out to be sort of a hero, and just when you think he’ll swoop in to fix their lives, he walks out the door. On page seven.

How in the heck is this all going to work out?

Well, honey, turn to the second chapter and READ!

Get a copy of  The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin–study that first chapter. You will be amazed by everything you know about the characters, the situation, the story by the end of the first chapter–and everything you want to know. For that reason, I dub Nancy Werlin the Perfect First Chapter Master.

belated escaping the tiger launch party post

So when I edited the footage of Laura’s interview last week, I realized I never posted the stuff I took at her launch party.

Ye Gods.

It was pandemonium.

Held at the fantasmagoric Reading Reptile, we stuffed the joint. Laura had a spread of Laotian food: BBQ’d chicken legs, sticky rice, some kind of coconut rice pudding stuff, and frankly, I don’t know what all she had because the place was PACKED TO THE RAFTERS WITH PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE. I had to wait in line to get in. Where I ran into the fair Carrie Dienhart: (Warning: Her blog is for grown-ups, only.)

Well, I couldn’t wait outside forever. I WAS MISSING IT.

So I *ahem* made my way to the front to catch these snippets of Laura’s reading and Q and A for you:

Then ran into a few more writers, like Kim Peek, RA of Kansas SCBWI, Jenn Bailey, Editor of In the Wind and Social Media Maven, Jennifer Brown, author of Hate List, Bridget Heos author of What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larva, (due 2011) Colleen Ryckert Cook, author of three non-fiction books for Rosen on cancer, social networking and Kentucky, Lisa Wade McCormick, author of numerous books for Capstone Press in the Mysteries of Science series among a ton of other things, and Vickie Dixon, who recently won first place in the Sandy Writing contest!

As you might guess, they ran out of books. Since I am lucky enough to only live a few blocks from Reading Reptile, I ordered mine and waited for the next batch. Here is the lovely Debbie:

And now to get back to my own WIP. Because I’d like to have one of these little get-togethers, myself, one of these days.

master writer #2–laura manivong, escaping the tiger

Last Friday I started a blog-series in which I look at kidlit books whose authors have mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.

This week it’s Laura Manivong’s Escaping the Tiger:

Straddling the Middle-Grade /Young Adult market, Escaping the Tiger tells the story of one family’s escape from communist Laos. 12-year-old Vonlai, his sister Dalah and his parents risk their lives to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. There, they discover life in a refugee camp is anything but pleasant. They will have to conquer hunger, violence, boredom and despair in their quest to build a future where they can be free.


She makes you feel as if you are physically present in her setting.

Maybe you’ve been in a refugee camp in southeast Asia, but I haven’t. After reading Escaping the Tiger, however, I feel like I visited there for a very long time.

1.  A great way to establish setting, especially in an exotic locale, is to USE DESCRIPTIONS THAT ARE ROOTED IN THE CULTURE WHICH YOU ARE DESCRIBING. Laura does this here, where Pah tells Vonlai on the night of their escape how quietly he must walk on the way from their house to the Mekong River.

“Walk like a tiger hunting a meal. Understand?”

Notice that Laura isn’t even describing “the setting”, per se, but this one line lets you visualize an entire jungle, and  Vonlai walking silently through it. As a bonus, the ferocious image of a tiger lets you feel the anxiety of carrying this order out successfully. It means life or death.

2.  Laura has the distinct advantage of being married to Troy Manivong, who escaped from Laos and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand as a young man. She had access to USE DETAILS  SO SPECIFIC ONLY SOMEONE WHO HAD BEEN THERE WOULD KNOW THEM.

“His bike that had a rolled towel wired and taped on for a seat.”

Even novels that are pure fiction contain details so well thought-out they appear to be true.

3.  An effective way to draw in your readers is to SHOW HOW THE SETTING AFFECTS YOUR CHARACTERS. Laura doesn’t describe the weather or living conditions anywhere in this passage:

“Inside the building, Vonlai tried to sit upright on the bench that lined the wall. Pah and Meh filled out paper-work. Dalah slouched over her own lap, her face buried behind a wall of hair that should have been washed a week ago. An oscillating fan pushed a blanket of air toward them every few seconds….

Vonlai swept palmfuls of sweat from behind his knees…

Vonlai rubbed a hand across his leg. A streak of clean skin appeared and a muddy drip of sweat fell from his hand.”

I would like a bubble bath and loofah sponge immediately, please. Ick.

Of course Laura Manivong has a lot of tricks in her bag. Pick up Escaping the Tiger to learn from her, my candidate to you as Setting-the-Reader-In-The-Book Master.

Did you know Escaping the Tiger started out as a Picture Book? What does Laura’s Manivong-family think of the book? Watch a mini-interview:

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