Stopping Readers in Their Tracks

By Laura Backes, Children's Book Insider

If you love books, you can probably think of several occasions when you've been stopped in your tracks by a unique turn of phrase or a magical description. "How did the author do that?" you wonder. "It's so simple, and yet so profound."

Authors get involved in the big picture when creating a book, and rightly so. We need to think about aspects of character, plot, setting, conflict, development and resolution. We must view the overall structure to ensure that it's sound. But once that story's down on paper and we know it's not going anywhere, we can start concentrating on the words. The forest is planted; now take a look at the trees.

Think again about those track-stopping experiences you've had when reading. What else do you remember about the book? If occasional groupings of words overshadowed the story, then the author was struggling to sound writerly at the expense of the plot. However, if individual words and phrases melded seamlessly together to create a satisfying experience from beginning to end, then the words and the story had equal weight.

As a children's book writer, how do you entice readers with your words, the essential building blocks of any type of writing, without overshadowing the other elements that make up your book? The answer: Keep it simple.

Skilled authors use everyday language in new, exciting ways. One of my favorite picture book examples is from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Max is sailing across the ocean to meet the wild things for the first time. Instead of telling us the ocean is "very big" or Max travels for "a long time," Sendak takes advantage of young children's budding fascination with calendars:

...and he sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year
to where the wild things are.

It's a poetic description of time, and fits perfectly with the poetic tone of the rest of the text.

Memorable description happens when the writer pairs disparate images to create a new picture infused with emotion. The feelings make the place seem familiar to the reader. Here's the opening paragraph from Paul Fleischman's middle grade novel The Borning Room:

Four small walls, sheathed with pine, painted white. A window. A door onto the kitchen, for warmth. Two chairs. A bed, nearly filling up the room, like a bird held in cupped hands. Standing by the bed, squire beside his knight, a table bearing a Bible and a lamp. I'm certain you've stood in many such rooms.

Even if the reader has never stood in such a room, she can see it. The words Fleishman uses are accessible to every reader, and invite her in. The text is not complex--most second graders can read it easily--yet it is rich and interesting. The unadorned language reflects the straightforward nature of the narrator.

The Prologue of Natalie Babbitt's novel Tuck Everlasting begins with a metaphor that sets the stage for the tale to follow. Babbitt likens the first week of August to the seat at the top of a Ferris wheel: ...The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. She goes on to describe that time, her verbs building the tension: sunsets "smeared with too much color"; lightning that "quivers all alone." And then the kicker: These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.

Surprising the reader is good, and Babbitt jolts the reader out of his dog-days reverie with that last sentence. Joyful images of Ferris wheels and hot summer days are abruptly replaced by the promise of a story about bad decisions. This, then, is what you want your reader to notice about your writing. Not the individual words, not the fancy descriptions, but the overall feeling of being taken for a ride through the story. Pay attention to your words, but don't let them take control. The only way to keep the words from overpowering the story is to always keep it simple.

About the Author: Laura Backes is the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers. For more information about writing children's books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children's Book Insider's home on the web at

Copyright 2005, Children's Book Insider, LLC.
Reprinted with permission.