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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.

DAVID ALMOND’S SUPERPOWER

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.

JAY ASHER’S SUPERPOWER

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.

a word from our sponsor

I’d planned another Master of Writing post today about Jay Asher and his book, 13 Reasons Why, but it will have to wait.

I can’t get my hands on it.

I’ve had my request in at the library for a month, but I’m still waiting. Guess that’s pretty good testimony to its popularity.

I only have two more books planned for my “Masters” series, which kind of hurts, but I’m going to be a stickler. The criteria are:

  • The author has to be so tremendously amazing at one aspect of writing that when I finish the book I sit down and ponder whether or not they are mortal.
  • I can decipher at least some of their little tricks.
  • These tricks are repeatable.

So you can be sure when I write a Masters post, I really have something to say.

Unlike today.

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.

LAURA MANIVONG’S SUPERPOWER

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:



master writer #1–jennifer brown, hate list

I have a brilliant, new idea.

No, no, come back!

For the next weeks I’m going to profile different kidlit books whose authors have mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.  These are the books I go to when I’m stuck in revisions and need a refresher course.

First up:

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown

A gut-wrenching YA, The Hate List is about the aftermath of a school shooting. Valerie and Nick, two high school outcasts who find each other, are bullied by just about everyone else in the school. As a way to blow off steam they keep a running list of people who treat them badly–the “hate list”. Near the end of junior year, Nick cracks. He shoots up the school, killing kids, using the hate list as a guide. Even though Valerie saved a classmate she’s implicated in the deed. She helped write the hate list. She loved Nick. How responsible is she? How much guilt does she bear?

JENNIFER BROWN’S SUPERPOWER

She can make you feel sympathy for her villain.

Can you imagine a more unsympathetic character than a mass-murderer?

Don’t get me wrong, Jennifer doesn’t excuse Nick’s actions. Or blame them on society. But she does give us a reason to lament the loss of his soul. Nick is by turns repulsive and endearing.

1. The poor, misunderstood villain is a great way to stir up sympathy. Jennifer does it here, by CONTRASTING WHAT SOCIETY BELIEVES ABOUT THE VILLAIN vs WHAT THE NARRATOR KNOWS

How could Valerie have loved such an awful monster? Jennifer takes us back to when Nick and Valerie meet:

  • Society sees: “His clothes were ratty, sometimes too big, and never stylish.”
  • But Valerie looks beyond that: “He had these really sparkly dark eyes and a lopsided smile that was adorably apologetic and never showed his teeth.”

2. Just when you think you’ve got this guy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks pegged, Jennifer gives Nick AN UNEXPECTED INTEREST OR TALENT.

Valerie visits Nick’s room for the first time and stumbles upon his stash.

“…To you yourself, to us, to everyone”

“Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answer’d?” Nick said, quoting the next line before I had a chance to read it.

I sat back and looked at him over the top of the book. “You read this stuff?”

That’s right, Nick is somewhat of a Shakespearean scholar. All on his own. Now, I find that awfully endearing, don’t you?

3. And as you might imagine in a book about bullying, there is more than plenty of UNEARNED SUFFERING.

“I could almost feel the embarrassment and disappointment radiating off of him, could almost see him crumple into defeat before my eyes.”

Note that the most effective use of unearned suffering comes AFTER you have established your villain’s likability.

This has been a mini-crash course. Pick up Hate List to learn from Jennifer Brown, my gift to you as The Sympathy-for-the-Villain Master.

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