“The Journey of Little Charlie” by Christopher Paul Curtis

Charlie Bobo is an oversized twelve-year-old boy, the son of sharecroppers living in 1858 South Carolina in “The Journey of Little Charlie” (Scholastic 2018) by three-time Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis. Because Curtis is African American and has always written black characters, I was taken aback when Little Charlie bartered with the sheriff.

Eventually, you catch on. Charlie is white. Curtis has him speaking in dialect, which is slightly challenging for the reader. Fortunately, he lightens his touch once the boy’s voice has been established. And we get Curtis’s overall humor throughout.

Charlie describes his huge strong father, Pap, laying ax to tree when the ax head flies off and gashes Pap’s head. “Pap’s backbone went ramrod stiff, standing him straight as a soldier . . . then keeled o’er backward. . . Didn’t nothing bend on him; he jus’ falled straight back like his foots was hinged to the ground.” And the sheriff tells Little Charlie: “[you] look like a man and a half. It’s easy to forget you ain’t nothing but a boy.”

Charlie’s Pap is dead, his sharecropping mother can’t get out of bed, and the overseer, Cap’n Buck, arrives to say they owe him $50. Buck insists Charlie come with him—as pay back—to round up some “darkies” who he says stole $4000 from the Tanner plantation. Poor Charlie says, “I ain’t never been more’n ten mile from Possum Moan.” In South “Caroliney.”

But off Buck and Charlie ride on horseback up to Michigan. Not only is Buck just about the cruelest human you can imagine, he hasn’t bathed in what seems like years. He stinks bad.

Charlie might seem a trifle dim, but he’s learning fast out in the wild. He remembers Pap saying, “Even dimwits can teach you if you listen careful and pick out the kernels of corn from the horse cr*p they’s dishing out.”

Some pretty horrific things happen, but it’s tempered with humor. Buck finds the two “offending” escape slaves in Michigan, has them jailed, and discovers that they have a grown son in Canada who they could take back to the plantation. Buck and Charlie are advised to clean themselves up because Canada protects its black citizens. Buck has to go through repeated barber latherings before “the cap’n’s skin which went from being brown as any slave you’d see to all the sudden being so white you was tempted to shield your eyes. The whole top of his head looked like a huge chicken had laid a egg there and flewed off.”

You wait for Charlie to see the light of what he’s doing. But when? Canada is a challenge for the slave catchers, but they manage to capture their prey. Now they have three slaves to drive back south. The reader knows, and finally Charlie catches on—the $4000 the slaves were purported to have stolen is the price of their working bodies, their enslaved selves. Simple, impoverished, uneducated, white Charlie gets it: this is very unfair.

And Charlie acts heroically. It’s a simple and devastating story sprinkled liberally with great humor and told so well that it’s a National Award Finalist for 2018.



Patricia Hruby Powell is author of Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz; Loving vs. Virginia; and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker talesforallages.com

Facebook Twitter Email

“How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals” by Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery, author of “How To Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2018) shows that humans who love other species learn love, forgiveness, and grief, among other necessary human traits. The award-winning author writes for both children and adults and is a naturalist and adventurer. This is an adult book that young adults will love.

Starting with Molly, her childhood best friend, a Scottish terrier, Montgomery says, “I—standing there helplessly in the frilly dress and lacy socks in which my mother had dressed me—wanted to be just like [Molly]: Fierce. Feral. Unstoppable.” Molly inspired the author’s destiny.

Next Montgomery takes us to Australia where she studies three emus and is “caught by their grace and power and strangeness.” She says, “To begin to understand the life of any animal demands not only curiosity, not only skill, and not only intellect . . . but also my heart.”

Christopher Hogwood (like Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web”) starts as a runt pig and grows into a 750 pound hog over the dozen years he lives with Montgomery and her husband in New Hampshire. “He taught us how to love . . . what life gives you. Even when life gives you slops.”

In the jungles of French Guiana in South America, on a National Geographic expedition, she learns to love a quarter pound spider, Clarabelle. “The huge spider thundered out of the hole . . . her head was the size of a small kiwi and her abdomen was as big as a clementine.” The reader learns: “If a leg was injured, she could pull it off, eat it, and grow a new one.” (She’s as loveable as Charlotte). And “The world . . . [is] rich with the souls of tiny creatures who may love their lives as much as we love ours.”

There’s a pure white ermine, who steals one of their Ladies—that is—a hen. But it is “ablaze with life,” and instead of anger, Sy feels awe.

Then there’s the first of three border collies, Tess, who ages until: “Never before had anyone relied on me so completely . . . loved me more deeply. And never before had I experienced grace so profound.” The love of a mother. And her grief at the loss of Tess and Chris the pig nearly brought her down.

But off she goes to the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea to study the elusive tree kangaroos, where she finds “the wildness that keeps us sane and whole.”

Sally is so different than Tess, the next border collie, but one accommodates the inevitable difference in personalities. “This is the gift great souls leave us when they die. They encourage our hearts. They leave us a greater capacity for love.”

Then there’s Octavia, a short-lived octopus at the Aquarium who endures a false pregnancy, loving and protecting her unfertilized eggs. The author says “love never dies, and love always matters.” “Love is the highest and best use of a life.”

Her present border collie, Thurber, teaches us, “You never know, even when life looks hopeless, what might happen next. It could be that something wonderful is right around the corner.”

You’re going to love this book.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of Struttin’ With Some Barbecue; Loving vs. Virginia; and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker talesforallages.com

Facebook Twitter Email

“The House in Poplar Wood” by K.E. Ormsbee

Felix and Lee Vickery, 13-year-old twin boys, live in “The House in Poplar Wood” (Chronicle Books 2018) by K. E. Ormsbee. The book opens with, “The last day of October was creeping into Poplar House. It came through fissures in the gables and mite-sized holes in the floorboards, bringing with it the scent of burnt oak branches.” If you guess that you’re entering an alternate universe—a spooky one, you’d be correct.

The boys live in the same house—but not together. On one side, Felix lives with his father, the town doctor. Father and son serve Death. Felix’s job as apprentice-in-training is to brew herb broths such as rose petals and nightshade as an antidote to flu. On his sixteenth birthday Felix will sign the contract to be Death’s apprentice. Felix may not go to school. In fact no one in town knows he exists.

On the other side of the house Lee lives with his mother, the town psychologist, and they serve Memory. As apprentice-in-training, Lee bottles memories of the townspeople. The bad memories are labeled Forget and the good ones Remember. Lee does go to school and whereas the boys’ mother and father cannot see each other, the boys are close and hang out daily.

Felix is blind in one eye—but this eye sees Death, tall and elegant in a black suit and top hat. Lee is deaf in one ear—the ear that hears Memory. Overall, Lee has a much gentler life than Felix who confronts Death frequently, whenever Death takes the soul of a patient—or when he punishes Felix for some wrongdoing. Both boys want a united family. But the “Agreement” denies them that.

A teenage girl, Essie Hastings, has just died in an accident by falling off Boone Ridge and into the gully. Gretchen Whipple, the second child of the town’s mayor, overhears her father discussing the matter and realizes this was no accident. Gretchen is a go-getter kind of gal and she’s going to get to the bottom of this. Gretchen’s father, the mayor is the town’s Summoner, and his job is to take care of the townspeople. But is he doing his job?

Gretchen isn’t even in line to be the next Summoner. Her rough-edged brother, Asa, as firstborn, gets the job. This irks Gretchen. She knows she can cast a spell, if they’d only teach her. The determined girl goes to Poplar House to see her classmate Lee and discovers the little-known Felix. After some ups and downs the three become allies, if not friends. Gretchen wants to know what happened to Essie Hastings and the twins want to break the Agreement, if possible.

Oh yeah, Death and Memory are Shades and so is Passion. It was Passion who got the boys’ parents together in the first place—and is probably responsible for the divided house.

I’m not normally drawn to fantastical stories, but this is so wonderfully spooky and so well written. Highly recommended.



Patricia Hruby Powell’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz (Charlesbridge) releases December 11, 2018 just in time for Christmas.     talesforallages.com

Facebook Twitter Email

“All That I Can Fix” by Crystal Chan

Ronney, fifteen years old, takes care of his little sister Mina. He repairs the damaged wall, reseals the driveway, and has the carpet changed because it’s soaked in blood. Why? His depressed father rarely gets out of his bedroom or even his pajamas, since he lost his job, and attempted suicide. And Ronney’s mother is busy supporting the family and popping pills to calm herself in “All That I Can Fix” (Simon Pulse 2018) by Crystal Chan. “We’re the mixed-race family with two helpless parents, the genius kid sister, and the fix-it son.”

Ronney’s world is falling apart in Makersville, Indiana. What’s more, a keeper of exotic animals has released them all—lion, cheetah, tiger, python, wolf, and others—then shot himself. Not only are the animals loose in town, but so are gun rights activists who say they need guns to protect themselves and gun control activists who are horrified by the pro-gun people shooting the animals. Adults clearly cannot be trusted here.

Ronney’s best friend Jello suggests a suburban safari to make his name as a wildlife photographer. Ronney, thinking this is childish, muses, “Maybe having normal parents means you get the privilege of being a kid.” Ronney’s mother “deemed [Jello] ‘a good influence on me,’ which illustrates her total lack of judgment.”

Ronney yearns for George, a girl on the valedictorian track. Ronney notes her problems: “It has to be pretty precarious, to have only perfection or the abyss as your two real options in life.” George allows Ronney to comfort her, but he’s not her boyfriend. That’s painful.

Then a mysterious little kid Mina’s age—about nine—starts following Ronney. The annoying little kid, Sam, wants Ronney to “fix” his broken family. Sam’s big brother Nick disappeared months ago. Sam sobs, “Like . . . the end of the world is upon us sob. And what could I do?” Ronney sees that “the love that [Sam] had for Nick was big enough to hold up the sky.”

Ronney used to feel that way about his dad, but after a year of disappointment, that big love for his father seems to have snapped off. When his father says, “My life had gotten too heavy.” Ronny calls him pathetic, a hypocrite, and “you’ll like the new carpet I just installed. . . don’t mess it up again.” Ronney’s cruel and honest, after all he’s been through.

The animals have killed area livestock and family pets and now they’re going after people. Gun-toting residents are going after the animals. Everything is a mess and it’s pretty dark. Yes, that shooter might have saved a woman’s live, but “forty-four bullets for one cheetah was a bit much.”

The boy repartee of sarcastic profane Ronney with Jello is a riot. Take my word for it and read the book. It’s wickedly funny. But loyalty and love prevail. Complicated issues invite discussion. This is a winner.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of Loving vs. Virginia; Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker and the forthcoming Struttin’ With Some Barbecue   talesforallages.com

Facebook Twitter Email

Wiki: “9 Wonderful Historical Novels for Young Readers”

“Getting kids interested in history isn’t always easy. Reading dry textbooks and memorizing dozens of dates can make even the most exciting era seem boring. Luckily, historical fiction has the power to bring the past to life. Kids and teens who read the nine novels listed here might find that they’re suddenly a lot more invested in history class.”

Watch 9 quick reviews of Wiki’s chosen historical novels. I look forward to reading those I haven’t read. The nine are:

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Beyond the Bright Sea

Hamilton & Peggy

The Woman in the Photo

The Dirty Cowboy

Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel on the Landmark Civil Rights Case

Navigating Early

The Last Suppers

The Dollmaker of Krakow



Facebook Twitter Email

“Hiding” by Henry Turner

A love-sick teen wandering his neighborhood finds himself in his ex-girlfriend Laura’s backyard. He slips into her basement and is trapped there overnight due to the alarm system, in “Hiding” (Clarion 2018) by Henry Turner. The next morning the family members leave but the maid arrives. And there’s a large dog in the house. He’s got time to think.

He thinks about his close friend Suzy who knew everything about him, but Laura had let him hide, keep his secrets, so the mystery held, which had to do with why he couldn’t get over her. Besides discovering things about himself while trapped in the house he discovers plenty about Laura and what seemed like her perfect life.

Why had Laura, a popular talented girl, chosen him when he was such a loser? Maybe she was attracted to a life that didn’t have to look perfect. Maybe her life wasn’t as perfect as she’d claimed. Is that why he was here? That’s one of his major questions. Why was he here?

Why did Laura love his house and all the “dopey” artwork he’d done that his mother put up on the walls? He wishes his mom would tear them down. But he remembers Laura saying, “Don’t ever do that. She loves you. You’re so lucky to have that.” Ahah. He sees that Laura’s perfect house has no personal touches—it looks expensive and unused. Is that why Laura had never invited him over? Not because she was embarrassed by him, but because she was embarrassed by her own home?

He’s good at hiding. Lots of teens are. “Growing up like I did, there was a lot to tell me that I was just a sort of total nobody . . .” but he actually feels that he’s better than that. However, no one would agree with him, he tells us, “because people don’t actually see me, or see any real value in me, which was probably the best reason I ever had to just start hiding all the time.”

He describes a past experience when he pretended to be a rich boy—a day of lies. He says, “I’d made myself feel like nothing by not being me.” He’d sensed that there was something deep and dark in Laura, and in her house he discovers the truth of that. That’s perhaps why they were initially drawn together. Laura had hidden from herself. “That’s the most dangerous kind of hiding. Everybody knows you, but you’re not really there, even for yourself.” There’s a lot to discuss in this book.

The humor is wry. He’s upstairs wandering and avoiding the maid, and we readers are nervous for him. The living room furniture is reddish so he grabs a reddish tablecloth and hides behind it so the surveillance camera doesn’t detect him skulking through the house.

I found his teen voice refreshing at the outset. Eventually all the repeated phrases such as, “if you know what I mean,” “sort of,” “you know,” “in my opinion,” grew annoying but made it a great candidate for practicing speed-reading. “He” is named only in the surprise twist ending, in the last lines of the book. Good for thoughtful readers.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of Loving vs. Virginia; Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker and the forthcoming Struttin’ With Some Barbecue   talesforallages.com

Facebook Twitter Email

“Price of Duty” by Todd Strasser

When Jake Liddell returns home wounded from a tour of duty in the Middle East, everyone says he’s a hero. Jake says, “My body may have returned home, but my brain is still wired for war.” He needs pills to sleep. His grandfather, a war hero called The General, is already urging Jake back to the battlefield. Jake waits—and questions—the Silver Star he will be awarded.

Acclaimed author Todd Strasser examines military service in his new novel, “Price of Duty” (Simon & Schuster 2018). Jake visits his former high school JROTC and is asked, “What’s it like?” He answers, “It’s hard.” What he can’t say to them is, “. . . you’ll wish to God that you’d never come. . . you’ll lie in bed at night so scared and trembling and sick with fear that you’ll be a hair’s width from bawling loudly for your mommy.”

Jake shows us the camaraderie among soldiers, the irreverent pranks and nicknames like Morpiss, Skitballs, Magnet; the unlikely friendships with the likes of Brad, the corporal who is married to Jake’s middle school girlfriend. He shows Brad’s over-the-top jealousy, how normal tensions grow in the light of daily shelling, bombings and the ongoing threat to life. There’s plenty of graphic battle scenes here—and legs being blown off.

You learn about “hillbilly armor,” welded extra iron plating to the undercarriages of their vehicles, because some of the gear was badly made. Morpiss says, “Never forget, my friend,” . . . “Your life is in the hands of the lowest bidder.”

Once home Jake has a girlfriend to visit—a girlfriend who wants to know if she should wait for him when he returns to duty. And there’s Brandi, who writes for the Franklin High School newspaper, Brandi, who is making an anti-war video. She claims that JROTC is military preparation. She says that 40% of its members go directly into the military versus 2% from the general population—20 times more. She tells us that 12% of America’s population is black, but 30% of the U.S. Army is black. She tells us that 50% of JROTC are black or minority. She says, “Wouldn’t you say that sounds a little disproportionate?”

At first Jake argues. He comes from a military family, particularly on his mother’s side. Plus, he has a paternal uncle who said the Vietnam “war was immoral, nothing more than mass murder,” was called a “draft dodger” and jailed for refusing to fight. Jake has to be careful of the historic shame this caused his family. But he’s considering not going back to battle. His grandfather, the General, would be disappointed but could pull strings to keep him from returning.

And what about that? He has special care. Jake says that the US tells the world we have an “all-volunteer Army. We just changed the method of conscription…” He asks, “Why should it be the poor and minorities, the disadvantaged and luckless, who have to bear the burden of risking their lives for our country.” And what about “guys like me who are seduced by the action ads and unethical recruiters.”

There’s so much here to think about. And talk about.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker among other books   talesforallages.com

Facebook Twitter Email

“We Are All That’s Left” by Carro Arcos

The voice of Zara, an aspiring teenaged photographer in Rhode Island, alternates with the story of her mother, Nadja who survived the 1990s Yugoslav War in “We Are All That’s Left” (Philomel 2018), a novel by Carrie Arcos.


The Yugoslav War led to the breakup of the former nation of Yugoslavia. Serbs and Croats were bent on “ethnic cleansing” and ridding their country of Muslims. Nadja’s family, non-practicing Muslims, were all shot and killed as teenaged Nadja watched—hidden. She managed to escape to war-torn Sarajevo with the help of her non-Muslim boyfriend Marko. But he was gone now.


In Sarajevo, Nadja heard people screaming. “She decided if she were to get shot, she would not scream. She would not make a sound. She would be . . . silent and strong, like a large willow tree near the river.” It was no wonder she’d closed off. But after some harrowing years, she made her way to the U.S. and married an American physician. Considering her background, it’s clear to see why Nadja’s mothering skills were less than stellar. Zara is not close to her mother, but she longs to be loved.


Arcos begins the book with terrorist attacks in Rhode Island and around the U.S. Zara and Nadja happen to be at the farmer’s market when a terrorist’s bomb explodes, seriously injuring Zara and putting Nadja in a coma. Zara has the shrapnel excised from her back and face and returns home to her brother and attending grandparents. Her father spends much of his time in the hospital keeping busy and checking on his comatose wife.


Almost a universal experience among survivors, Zara says, “I think of . . . the people who lost limbs. Those who died. Why did I survive? . . . Nothing makes sense . . .” Not long before the attack Zara had refused to talk to her seemingly cold mother. “I wanted to be mad because I felt like it was justified, like anger gave me a strength to fight the loneliness and hurt I felt.” At the time her mother had the wisdom to say to her daughter, “It takes a stronger person to let others in.”


But now Nadja is in a coma. Zara longs to let her mother in—to know her. She wants to know about the war years. In her mother’s closet, Zara finds a box filled with mementos from the war—objects we have become privy to, as we read Nadja’s story.


Wise, handsome Joseph befriends Zara at the hospital. He studies world religions in order to deal with his own traumatic life experience and paraphrases Rumi, the Muslim mystic, saying, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”


Zara is wounded inside and out. Eventually she realizes, “Scars . . . don’t diminish our lives, but make them richer somehow.” This is a story of mother and daughter, of love and bonding, as well as of survival.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker among other books   talesforallages.com

Facebook Twitter Email

Writing Tip #1 Show-Don’t-Tell

File box

Writing Tips

Show-Don’t Tell

By Patricia Hruby Powell

Show-Don’t-Tell is a writer’s adage and a technique that allows readers to experience a text through their senses and emotions—which is how most of us want to experience text. We want to be drawn into the story and to empathize with the characters. There are various ways to do this and those ways overlap. I’ll describe a few here.

Tip #1A Word Bank: Senses

Writing is a sensual medium. Mostly it’s a visual medium, but all the senses can be used to make your writing come to life. I love author and workshop leader Darcy Pattison’s exercise of drawing an icon for each of the senses: eye, ear, nose, mouth, hand (for tactile). Then you make a word bank or phrase bank for your story. If you’re writing a picture book, your word bank might be a page long. If you’re writing a historical novel, your word bank might extend to hundreds of notecards.

Look at the opening of Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case. (Forgive me for using my own work, but it will exemplify the tips I’m highlighting. For the sake of space, I do not include all the line breaks).

Garnet and I walk in the grass alongside the road
to keep our shoes clean,
but Lewis doesn’t care.
He’s shuffling through dust in the middle of the road.
Garnet’s hand-me-down lace-ups have the most life left in them,
so they’re the best.
She gets the best ’cause she’s oldest and has the feet to fit them.
I wear her way wore-out saddle shoes from last year
but painted and buffed till they nearly glow.
To me, they’re the best—being saddle shoes—
even though I can feel every stick and pebble through the thinned-down soles.
Lewis wears boots so wore-out—
looks like Nippy chewed them soft in the barn.
Being the youngest of seven brothers—
no telling who wore those boots before him.

As the scene continues, the siblings insult each other, laugh, argue, then the two big sisters grab Lewis’s elbows and fly him over the dirt road . . .

with him pedaling mid-air and hollerin’ and that’s how we arrive at Sycamore School.

This scene is mostly visual (you see the grass, the various shoes, the road). But you also hear the aural (hollerin’). You experience the tactile, as when Mildred feels every stick and pebble through the thinned-down soles.

Tip #1B Word Bank: Pithy Details

Whether you develop details in word banks or on the run, you want them to pack a punch. The dusty road shows that the setting is rural. The hand-me-down lace-ups show that they’re poor. The saddle shoes date the piece. The writer doesn’t have to tell us that the kids are poor, that this is historic, or that the kids get along, are lively, and live a good life. The writer shows it.

It usually takes more words to show rather than tell, but if you show well, then you’re doing double duty and conveying facts, gracefully—such as, Garnet and six brothers are older than Mildred and Lewis is younger—without those bits sounding like clunky facts being dropped into the story.

Tip #1C Word Bank: Verbs

Good verbs are the powerhouse of good writing and good showing. And they’re great to develop in the Word Bank exercise. Lewis is shuffling, Mildred painted and buffed her saddle shoes. Nippy chewed the boots soft. Lewis arrives pedaling and hollering.

Look at a couple of scenes from Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker.


Off the street and onto the stage,
Josephine danced like she was
She arched her back and flipped her tail like a rooster,
she flapped and pumped,
dancing the “turkey trot”
that the Dixie Steppers asked her
to step along with them.


So long, Jones family. Josephine was steppin’ out.


YESSIR, she soared over the stage as Cupid,
god of love, with leaping legs and little wings.

Hooked on wires,
she held bow and arrow.
But her wires got crossed.
Couldn’t get down. Hanging in midair,
she rolled her eyes like shooting marbles,
flailed those long legs.
The audience laughed themselves to tears.

Josephine arched, flipped, flapped, pumped, soared, and flailed—giving a kinetic boost to the text. Hopefully the verbs make you feel the dance. It was really fun to dance the dances in order to find just the right verbs—and those verbs are pretty razz-ma-tazz. Unless it’s called for, you don’t want to overdo the verbs. Elsewhere in the book:

…rich white flappers and sleek gentlemen
strolled the UPPER decks . . .

Using accurate verbs keeps you from using unnecessary adverbs. The elite strolled rather than “walked leisurely.” Can’t you see them arm-in-arm, owning the world, in their privileged manner? That adverb “leisurely” would have detracted from the succinct activity. They strolled. I can’t think of a better verb. Even ambled is not quite right. They strolled.

Verbs must fit the mood of an individual piece. Loving vs. Virginia is a quieter book than Josephine,and the vocabulary overall must convey a sense of quiet people. Mildred Jeter’s people were farmers, so they plant, slaughter, butcher, pluck, and sugar. Mildred is lyrical, gentle, and imaginative, so she describes her rolling hills and woods—threaded with creeks.Threaded.

Richard Loving is also gentle, but has a bit of an edge. He describes the cruel sheriff as chewin’ on his teeth . . . trying to figure out what mean thing he could do. Or Richard spat out the harsh moonshine—words that show a little defensiveness.

Tip #2 Create Scenes

Whether for picture books, MG, or YA, for fiction or nonfiction, scenes invite your readers into the text by allowing them to visualize your story—like they’re watching the scene of a movie. You set your character in a place, your character moves the story forward by some action, and then the scene closes. You might create a “bridge” of necessary information and then begin your next scene.

The first sample above is a complete scene from Loving vs. Virginia. The scene opens on the children walking to school on a dirt road. You see the characters, get to know them, discover information about their lives. When they arrive at school, the scene closes. Besides being drawn in by this “movie clip,” are you drawn in by the pithy and sensual details and accurate verbs?

Background: I’d researched this subject intending to write a nonfiction book. I visited the Lovings’ rural Virginia section, spoke to family members and friends. I studied the nine-year case. And then my editor called and asked if I’d be willing to write Loving as a documentary novel. “Sure,” said I. (I wasn’t yet under contract.) “What’s a documentary novel?”

Loving vs. Virginia book cover

Answer: As in Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood, which is the story of a real murder. Capote interviewed the murderer, police, and neighbors and read the news reports. He told the story from the point of view of the murderer. This is an informational book using a fictional element, also called a nonfiction novel.

The fictional element in Loving vs. Virginia was my writing it in the voices of the two real plaintiffs, Mildred and Richard Loving. I studied existing news and documentary footage of the couple from the sixties until I felt I knew them well enough to write scenes about their childhood, their falling in love, their exile, and their fight to return home.

What a gift this turned out to be—writing it as a documentary novel or nonfiction novel.
I used what I knew and created scenes from my imagination. However, everything in the historic record or told to me by an interviewee remains factual.

This prompts the question: can you make scenes writing actual nonfiction? Yes. It’s more challenging than it is in fiction, but aren’t we all up for a challenge? Josephine is straight nonfiction, written in verse. I have labeled the above passage “scene, bridge, scene” to help you identify the parts.

If I were telling (rather than showing) that first scene, I might say:
Because she was seen dancing in the street, Baker was invited to dance in a theater. Her execution of the popular dances of the day, such as the “turkey trot,” was so lively that professionals, the Dixie Steppers, asked her to join their troupe.

That is not a scene. It doesn’t open. And it doesn’t quite close. The facts are the same as those in the scene. But it doesn’t run like a movie clip. It doesn’t evoke much in the way of visuals or emotion.

Whatever your genre, writing in scenes will lift your writing out of the telling category and into showing. Yes, you can also TELL information within your story, but the more scenes you create, the deeper you’ll take your reader into your story so they can empathize with your characters.

Show, don’t tell. Use pithy details chosen from your word banks (which include great verbs) to write scenes. In the next issue maybe we’ll look at the sound of words or metaphors and similes or some such. Please e-mail me with questions or subjects you might want covered.


Patricia Hruby Powell, formerly a dancer, storyteller, and librarian, is the author of Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle 2014), which garnered Sibert, Boston Globe Horn Book, and Bologna Ragazzi Honors; and Loving vs. Virginia (Chronicle 2017), a Junior Library Guild Selection and Arnold Adoff Poetry Honor. Forthcoming are books about Lil Hardin Armstrong, Ella Baker, and women’s suffrage. She has been a mentor for a WNDB and SCBWI-MI. Visit Patricia at talesforallages.com.

Facebook Twitter Email

“Moonrise” by Sarah Crossan

Joe Moon is seventeen and hasn’t seen his older brother Ed in ten years in “Moonrise” (Bloomsbury 2018) by Sarah Crossan. Joe is nearly penniless, but he leaves New York to go to Wakeling, Texas. Ed is on death row and his execution date is set.


Angela, his sister, stays in Staten Island to earn money for the family, slinging burgers. Joe’s father is not in the picture. His junkie mother left and who knows where she is. Aunt Karen helped out as long as Joe and Angela would denounce their brother. In this novel-in-verse, with great economy, Crossan shows the deep emotional story. “But Ed’s crime put us in another league,/ and that’s where Aunt Karen stepped in—/she spat on us and shined us up to look/ like a decent family . . .” And when they couldn’t denounce their brother any longer, Aunt Karen left.


Ed was almost a father-figure to Joe ten years earlier when Ed was 17. But now? Joe hardly knows him. But Ed’s his brother.


Ed says he didn’t do it. The justice system is well known to want a conviction when a police officer is murdered. Teenagers like Ed don’t know not to speak without a lawyer present. Police are known to bully a “confession” out of minors by means of abuse and fear tactics. There’s no DNA at the scene that links Ed. But in the end, does it even matter if Ed is guilty or not? Is the death sentence reasonable? Especially when the justice system might have chosen the wrong perpetrator?


Ed is on the news and made to look vicious. But Ed isn’t vicious. And being related to a convicted murderer? Joe is shunned. He says, “ . . . Newscasters love revealing the beauty of the victims—/like they’re the only ones who got slammed./Reporters don’t give a damn about our family./ We’re not a story. We’re dirt.”


Joe says to Angela “God. It’s better to be guilty and rich,/ I reckon . . .” But Joe gets himself to Wakeling, finds a filthy slum room to live in, tries to line up a job as a mechanic and screws up the nerve to visit Ed on the row. Joe is searched and led down the corridor. “From somewhere close by comes a holler—/a laugh, barbed and desperate.” One feels the culture on the row. Joe speaks to Ed through plexi-glass via a phone. It’s not easy to communicate.


In the meantime, Joe finds Nelly. He needs a friend. He needs support. But, is Nelly a good match for Joe? Will Angela come like she promises? Has anyone seen their mother? These kids need help pretty badly. But maybe they’re the best support there is.


And how do you say goodbye? Time is ticking. The emotion pulls you along and the situation invites discussion on life, death, and love. What’s more important?


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker among other books   talesforallages.com

Facebook Twitter Email
Malcare WordPress Security