My name is Cheryl Klein
Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books
Theme of this conference, as you know, is “Through a Child’s
So when Marilyn asked
me for the title of my talk, I gave her this: “Morals, Muddles, and What
I Learned: Journeys for Children and Writers.”
And I promised to talk about “emotional points and perspectives, the kinds of authorial and character choices that create a
compelling story, and the classical rules of plot (so you can know how to break them)”
Well, that was all before I actually wrote
So I’m going to cover some of those things, but not all of them.
o False advertising, I know.
And I’m revising my title to: “Muddles, Morals, and Making
It Through: or, Plots and Popularity.”
Finally, to give credit where credit is due, this talk was inspired and
guided by a wonderful lecture by the novelist Zadie Smith about the writing of E. M. Forster, called “Love, Actually”
So I’m going to begin by telling you a story. In fact, you can think
of it as the opening of a middle-grade novel
The setting: a small town
Once upon a time (or rather, in 1988), there were three girls named Alyssa,
Nicole, and Cheryl
o Alyssa was the tallest and wisest, the one most likely to come up with a smart solution for any problem
o Nicole was the prettiest and funniest,
o And Cheryl was the most solitary and the most bookish, the one most likely to come up with obscure
facts or information on any given subject
All through third grade with Mrs. Schenck and fourth grade with Mrs. Walton,
these girls were best friends.
o They swung on the monkey bars at recess
o Alyssa and Cheryl held a joint birthday party
o And when Cheryl wrote a story for the local young writers’ festival, it was about three girls
named Suzanne, Lynn, and Beth—the friends’ middle names—who went on fantastic adventures together.
But in fifth grade, things changed
o Cheryl was assigned to Mrs. Uppman’s class; Nicole and Alyssa to Mr. Ardenn’s.
o And suddenly Nicole and Alyssa weren’t interested in swinging on the monkey bars. They wanted
to play foursquare and tetherball, or sit at the edge of the blacktop and talk to Stacey Smith and Jenny Cooper.
o When the girls got together outside of school, Alyssa and Nicole scorned the whole concept of “playing.”
They read magazines like “Teen” and “Seventeen,” and talked about who was cuter, Doug Ford or Jeff
o They found things laugh-out-loud funny that Cheryl could only smile at. They whispered together at
lunch and didn’t fill her in, till eventually she sat at a different table altogether.
o Once, Cheryl thought, they looked at her and laughed, and she immediately worried: Was it her glasses?
Her shirt? Her jeans? Something she said?
o And thus it went for all of Cheryl’s fifth-grade year.
So that’s our opening situation—and I admit, it is a true story.
I was ten years old.
But let’s pretend it’s a middle-grade novel-in-progress.
I’ve set up my characters; I’ve established a conflict of Cheryl
vs. Nicole and Alyssa.
o What do you think is going to happen next? Suggestions?
This is, you will have seen by now, the time-honored story of the outsider
who doesn’t fit in.
Outsider stories usually follow one of two plot structures:
One is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
o Someone who is different is scorned, reviled, made an outsider. “They wouldn’t let poor
Rudolph join in any reindeer games.” But the outsider sticks to whatever it is that makes him different—usually
because he has no choice—and eventually that difference ends up saving the entire community. “Then how the reindeer
loved him, and they shouted out with glee—Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you’ll go down in history!”
o This is also a Christ story, you’ll notice, someone suffering at the hands of the community
and coming back to redeem them all.
o And at the same time a story about Darwinistic evolution—the community at first resisting an
odd mutation and then adapting to and benefiting from it.
The other outsider story is the Ugly Duckling—the reverse of Rudolph.
o Here the outsider is again scorned, reviled, tormented inside and out. But rather than saving his
community, he leaves it, to find another group that truly understands him and appreciates his talents.
o In other words, when the community rejects him, he finds a new community.
Now, there are other directions an outsider tale could go
o The outsider could make direct and declared war on the community—the beat ’em path
o The outsider could give up what makes him different and become part of the community once and for
all—the join ’em route
But these latter two stories are not the ones we tell children again and
again and again.
We tell the Ugly Duckling and Rudolph. And what fascinates me about these
two story structures is that they do not offer the option of change.
o The Ugly Duckling never tries to pluck its feathers out to be like the other ducks in the yard.
o In the cartoon version, Rudolph paints his nose black—but it washes off again in a snowstorm.
These stories say, You can only be who you are. You can change outwardly,
you can hide that glowing red nose of yours, you can pretend to be interested in clothes and boys, but the nose is still a
nose and clothes are still boring.
So when I said the conflict in this novel was Cheryl the Outsider versus
Nicole and Alyssa the popular girls, I wasn’t being quite accurate.
o I wasn’t against Nicole and Alyssa; I still really wanted to be their friend.
Rather the conflict was within me:
the parts of me that wanted to keep my connection with them, and perhaps even be popular myself, versus the parts of
me that really didn’t give a damn about the same things they did—that wanted just to read and play and keep on
being a kid.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted or what was the right thing to do; how
to behave, or even who I was
In other words, I was in a muddle.
A muddle is a concept I’m borrowing from the writer E. M. Forster,
who wrote Howards End and A Room with a
View among many other lovely novels
And it’s the point at which your vision of yourself and your purpose
in the world is clouded by other things—by other people’s opinions, by the fact that you don’t know who
you are or if you have a purpose in the world.
o An identity crisis, essentially
o Forster’s characters are all grown-ups, but they spend a lot of time in muddles, trying to figure
out how they should live and who they really love.
o One can enter a muddle at any age.
But I would say the prime time for muddle, the world capital, the Mount Everest of muddles, happens in middle school
o Your body is changing.
o Your view of the world is changing—you’re becoming self-conscious for the first time,
really aware of other people perceiving you
o And you really care how these people perceive you, because you can figure out who you are and who
you should be based on their reactions
o And everyone else your age is going through these changes too, so there’s very little respite
Writers can spend a lot of time in muddles too
o When we don’t know which direction to turn next
o What our story should be
o Whether we should listen to our writing group about that plot development or whether it’s perfect
just as we envisioned it
o And as we become more and more aware of the morass, we sink further and further into it.
Muddles are pretty much hell
o And I don’t think I’ve met anyone ever who enjoyed middle school.
But if we’re defining a muddle as not knowing what you want or how
to get it—the paralysis caused by infinite self-consciousness, or infinite choices—there’s only one solution
And that’s action. Making a choice.
o Right choice, wrong choice, whatever—it’s going to be a
choice, and that gets things started
o For a writer, making a choice gives you something to work with. You make a choice, get the words on
the page, see if it feels right. If it doesn’t, you edit it.
o For middle schoolers, it’s testing out an identity—am I a Goth? A jock? An art kid? You
feel your way into it.
o In a book, when a character takes action, that not only moves the plot forward, it demonstrates to
readers who that character actually is
You don’t have to tell us about your character’s fine and upstanding
qualities; rather, their actions and choices show us every step of the way.
And if they back away from making a choice, why, that’s a choice
John Gardner says, “Real suspense comes from moral dilemma and the
courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damned thing
o I love this quote, and this concept. Moral dilemma: Where
a character has to choose between two people he loves; or between two values (honesty vs. loyalty); or between what is right
and what is easy, to quote Harry Potter; or between who s/he is and fitting in with the group
o And once that choice is made, it has consequences that lead to the next choice—not just “one
damned thing after another”
My moral dilemma in the Nicole, Alyssa, and Cheryl story I set up: I could choose to keep being who I was, unpretty, uncertain, loving books and school,
not really that interested in boys and clothes as yet; or I could choose to try to be part of the popular crowd, pretend to
care about New Kids on the Block, attempt to sculpt my bangs into that perfect early-nineties puff.
I have to do something. I have to make a choice.
I mentioned moral dilemmas, so I’d like to pause and think for a
moment about the word “moral”
When most of us think of “moral,” we think of rightness or
o The Moral Majority, moral values
But the first definition of “moral” in Webster’s is “of
or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior: ethical”
o Ethics: “the principles of conduct governing an
individual or a group; a guiding philosophy”
o And that’s the sense in which you should hear the phrase “moral dilemma” here: as an ethical dilemma, a choice between two competing philosophies or priorities—what
will be the right one.
All authors put forth an ethical philosophy through the way they treat
their characters, from how much “screen time” they get in the plot, to the author’s attitude toward the
characters while they’re on the page, up to of course the fates they all receive in the end
In less skilled children’s books, the author’s ethical philosophy
gets said outright. And that brings us back to the more common definition of moral:
“a passage pointing out the lesson to be drawn from a story”
o If you study the history of children’s literature, it begins with morality tales.
There’s a set of German children’s stories called “Struwwelpeter” about little Peter, who wouldn’t cut his fingernails or his hair, and Pauline, who burnt herself up by playing
But as children’s fiction has evolved through the last 150 years
or so, it’s taken on the literary and psychological complexity that adult fiction has had for centuries
o Away from the moral and heavy-handed, toward the complex, the nuanced, the real
Till we’re at a point where most editors and reviewers dislike stories
with clearly defined morals, or at least stories that were written to put forth a moral
o When I see the line “_____ learns a lesson about _____” in a query letter, it’s
almost always an X against it, because it sounds so flat and didactic
This is not to say I’m opposed to characters learning lessons—in
fact, learning is at the heart of most good fiction.
In Millicent Min, Girl Genius,
by Lisa Yee, Millicent Min is a child prodigy who lies to a new friend about her intelligence. This eventually backfires,
of course, and Millicent learns a lesson about the value of brains without heart and the true nature of friendship.
But note—the lesson is effective not
because Lisa set out to educate her readers about not lying to their friends
o Rather, it works because we’re interested in Millicent, we care about her, we suffer with her
through her mistakes and regrets
o So when she recognizes those mistakes and learns and grows from her experiences, we learn and grow
right along with her
The most effective morality in fiction is that which is dramatized in the
lives of your characters.
I saw a worksheet in a writing book recently that was headlined “Create
And then it listed a number of categories you could fill in for your character
o Some factual categories, like name, physical description, family
o Some taste categories, like their hobbies and favorite foods
o And then some values categories: LOVES, HATES, DREAMS
Now, it’s definitely good to have all this information about a character—what
he’d carry in his pockets and all that
But I think it’s the values categories that really give a character
personality and psychology and life, because they most directly reveal who he is, what he wants, and how he will behave
in the novel
Aristotle said “Character is that which reveals moral purpose.”
And if I were making up a character worksheet, I’d try this:
o And then under each of those categories—WHY?
What these things add up to is your character’s morality—her
ethical philosophy, her worldview
o What she wants most in life
o What she will or won’t do to get it
(or what can tempt or scare her into doing something)
o And how she developed that philosophy, those loves, hates, needs, wants, etc.
And that’s a plot right there:
motivation; action, and backstory.
We’re going to pause for a little digression on plot now
Aristotle defined plot as the “Change from good fortune to bad, or
bad fortune to good”
And that means simply that things are different at the end than they are
at the beginning
These changes can be big and external
o The characters have moved to a new home, they’ve gained a new group of friends, they’ve
defeated the evil Dark Lord and saved the world forever
They can be subtle and internal
o They’ve come to understand why their mother ran away, they’ve developed the courage to
talk to their crush
But there must be some change.
o If your character isn’t going anywhere, if all the circumstances are the same at the end of
the book, you’ve just wasted the reader’s time.
o Now there are adult books where nothing really changes—often that’s the author’s
o But narrative children’s books, I’m going to say, have to show change, have to
show growth, to be at all worthwhile.
o Our audience is experiencing nothing but change and growth, and our books provide models—both
good and bad—for how those changes happen
There is a lovely quote from Richard Peck:
“A young adult novel ends not with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life
left to be lived.”
At the end of your book, your main character should be better equipped
to live the rest of that life, because of the change and journey they’ve gone through in the course of the book.
So the changes could be big and external, or subtle and internal
And these types of changes are the two main kinds of plot in your book
o Action plot: the external change; what physically changes for your characters in the course of the
In the Ugly Duckling, the duckling’s travels from the farmyard to
the cottage to the peasant’s house to the pond are the action plot
Action plots usually follow one of three formulae:
Conflict—one character versus another character, or one character
Lack—a character needs something to be complete, to live a full life
And Mystery—a form of Lack where what the character needs is a piece
Most action plots will end up interweaving these three elements.
The Harry Potter series is a masterful combination
of Conflict and Mystery: The overarching plot of the series is a conflict, Harry
vs. Voldemort, but the driving plot of each book is a piece of information Harry must discover: Who wants the Sorcerer’s Stone? Who put his name in the Goblet of Fire?
Plus Harry Lacks a home and friends until he
goes to Hogwarts—and then his desire to keep them safe is what makes the conflict matter.
o So that’s action plot
o Emotional plot: the internal change; the moral and emotional development of your characters as a result
of the external action
In the Ugly Duckling, the duckling’s suffering leads him to a point
where he just wants to give up. And that’s the moment he recognizes himself as a swan.
Emotional plots always involve suffering, in the teeth of an moral dilemma
or in the quicksand of a muddle. That’s what gives the happy ending its value—you’ve come at last out of
Going back to that Character worksheet, your action plot will usually be
driven by the character’s WANTS, and your emotional plot will usually be driven by the character’s NEEDS.
o And when those two things have been fulfilled, the story’s over.
o A warning here: Your character will usually not be aware
of what she truly needs emotionally, and you should avoid at all costs saying outright in the text what she truly needs emotionally
Being obvious is the quickest way to be dull.
Books with lots of action plot but no emotional
plots, or obvious or familiar emotional plots, often get called “flat” or “noisy”—sure, stuff
is happening, and the explosions are cool, but it doesn’t really mean anything to anyone. Think any Jerry Bruckheimer
Books with lots of emotional plot but little
action plot often get called “quiet” or “subtle”—for instance Criss Cross by Lynn Rae
Perkins, which just won the Newbery.
There are readers and editors for both kinds
So coming back to the Nicole-and-Alyssa novel. I’m still in that
moral dilemma about being popular. I have coke-bottle glasses, terrible hair, no fashion sense, and a body encased in a back
brace for scoliosis.
You don’t believe me? Take a look at my fifth-grade picture.
I would like to say, If some grown-up had entered the novel at this point—my
mom or a librarian or a gym coach or someone—and fed me a moral, told me to “Be myself,” I would have stabbed
them with a spork.
There wasn’t anyone I wanted to be less than I wanted to be myself.
And this was pretty much the case from fifth grade up until the very end
of eighth grade
My moral philosophy at this point was really this:
o LOVES reading, drawing, riding my bicycle
o HATES team sports, spiders, math, loneliness
o NEEDS . . . better glasses, to start with
I don’t know, this is hard to say about oneself. I guess I needed
a group of friends who shared my interests and values
I had some individual friends like that, certainly. But I wanted a whole
group the way the popular kids had a whole group, so I’d have some sense of identity
Someone to define myself as, instead of just against.
o WANTS to be pretty, to be accepted
o FEARS tornadoes, spiders again, being made fun of
So out of all this . . . I left off at a point in our action plot where
I was in a muddle, and I said I needed to make a choice, right? Did I want to be popular, or did I want to be myself? Because
I obviously couldn’t be both.
Well, the choice I made was not to make a choice.
o (This is not a story with a great deal of action plot.)
I feared being made fun of. So I tried to be Rudolph, and paint my nose.
o I asked for “Guess?” sweatshirts. I learned to curl my bangs. And I developed an opinion
about which of the New Kids on the Block was cutest—Jonathan—so I could talk about it if it came up.
But I never gave up my essential self of being one of the top ten students
in my class, of going to gifted classes, of reading every chance I got.
As the stories say: I could
not be anyone other than who I was.
o I was teased—not too badly, but a little
o I grew further and further away from Nicole and Alyssa
We still hung out sometimes, but that gap always hurt
o I read lots and lots of books about outsiders
Particularly I loved Buffalo Brenda
by Jill Pinkwater and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
And I made it through middle school to high school and college, where I
found the friends I needed and accepted my identity as a smart reader
o I joined the quiz bowl team and the theatre kids in high school. I went to Carleton College in Minnesota, full of intellectual book-loving weirdos like
myself; and then I moved to New York City, also full of intellectual book-loving weirdos like myself.
o And I have to say, I got contacts and better hair.
So the plot changed to the Ugly Duckling.
And this is the route I think most outsider kids take—the popular
group doesn’t fit, so they join the theatre geeks. Or the theatre geeks don’t fit, so they join the stoners.
If there’s a moral to it, it’s that there are communities out
there for everyone
o When you’re a kid, the hardest thing is just being patient and enduring long enough to find
o But if you can . . .
“But what did he see in the clear stream
below? His own image; no longer a dark, gray bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan. .
. . He now felt glad at having suffered sorrow and trouble, because it enabled him to enjoy so much better all the pleasure
and happiness around him; for the great swans swam round the newcomer, and stroked his neck with their beaks, as a welcome.”
The happy ending. Or as Richard Peck said, a new beginning.
As an epilogue, Nicole is now a pharmacist in Houston, Texas. Alyssa lives in Kansas City and manages a construction
company, I think.
o They visited New York together a couple years ago, and we had dinner and I showed them around
o We aren’t best friends; we never were best friends again after that fifth-grade year
o But we stayed cordial acquaintances, social friends, all through middle school and high school
o And I’m glad they’ve had happy endings too.
Three more points, and then I’ll be done.
One, stories should always start with and be driven by character.
o You may not be able to fill the values chart out from the very beginning—usually you will discover
those things about your characters as you’re writing along. But once you have a first draft, you might use the chart
to better define who your character is and where you want him/her to go.
o And once you have those values set up, see what happens when you bring different characters together.
The woman who needs relentless affirmation with the boy who’s never
spoken a kind word in his life.
The Southerner with bone-deep languor and charm versus the Virgo who only
wants to be efficient and get stuff accomplished
o Or mix up those qualities—suppose you have a Southerner who’s a Virgo. How’s that
going to work?
(No offense to Southerners or Virgos, of course.)
o Writers say sometimes, “Oh, I have these great characters, but I don’t know how to develop
o As I said earlier, a character is a plot. You just have
to find the other characters, and the moral dilemmas, that will force him to change and grow.
Creating the muddles, essentially, that make her question who she is and
who she ought to be.
o In early drafts of Millicent Min, Girl Genius—another
outsider story—there was a character named Frederick who was also an eleven-year-old child prodigy. My boss Arthur and
I were editing the manuscript together, and I said to him, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if Frederick and Millicent became friends?”
Arthur said, “No, that would be boring, because it wouldn’t challenge Millicent.”
o And he was so right. Frederick had the same values and the same interests as Millicent; he reinforced everything she already was.
He and Millicent would get along great, but there was nothing there to make her change or create dramatic action.
The real challenge for Millicent came from Emily Ebers, the new non-genius
girl in town, and Stanford Wong, the very non-genius boy Millicent tutored.
o So Lisa dropped Frederick and focused the plot around Stanford and Emily. And that’s partly how it became the book it
o Another take on character as plot: The science-fiction novelist Lois McMaster Bujold, whose books
are huge fun, says she thinks of the absolute worst possible thing she can do to
her characters, and does it to them. The same for the wonderful Patrick O’Brian.
Again, this comes back to that character worksheet—what the character
LOVES, HATES, NEEDS, WANTS, and FEARS
If you’ve developed the LOVES, HATES, and FEARS, but you’re
still not sure about NEEDS or WANTS, take one of the LOVES away. Have the HATE or the FEAR move in next door. See how your
character reacts, and go from there.
But your story shouldn’t just deal with what your character loves
and hates—you want to be excited about it too.
So two: Put those characters
in situations that fascinate or trouble you personally—problems you want to write about, conflicts that move you in
o What were the things you struggled with most as a child? What scared you then? What thrilled you?
o As an adult—what’s hurt you? Delighted you? Is there some way you can use that situation,
that emotion, in your character’s life?
o When I look back, the Nicole and Alyssa situation stands out as pretty much the single most painful
experience of my childhood
It hurt with what I think of as an “electric-fence hurt,” where
I couldn’t touch my feelings with words.
o And it ended up being one of the great turning points of my life, really shaping who I became as I
I lost a lot of confidence in myself and my ability to connect with people,
particularly “cool” people
Spent many, many years huddling in the kitchen at parties
And I’ve never had much faith in my fashion sense.
But that disconnect also freed me from needing to be cool, which was a
great blessing: I just accepted that I wasn’t popular, or ever going to
be popular, so I went on and did the things I loved instead—being an intellectual book-loving weirdo etc.
o All these years later, you can see, I’m still thinking about what happened then, because it
raises some of the Big Questions that fascinate me most
The way two people can make a connection, or lose a connection
The relationship between consciousness and growing up
How we define coolness and happiness
o So maybe someday I’ll write a novel about it.
I’ve already written a talk. J
o The writer David Lodge said, “A novel is a long answer to the question
'What is it about?'”
o Think about the things you want your book to be about, a question you want to answer (not a question you already have the answer to), the electric-fence emotion you want to touch at last
And then build the characters and the action plot that would address those
And three, remember: Art
is about emotional connection and response
Aristotle said the point of drama was to effect catharsis in the audience
§ “Catharsis” is a Greek term that means “purgation or purification of the emotions through art”
§ And it was meant to lead to renewal and restoration
You’d identify so closely with the main
character, all the terror she was experiencing in her situation, all the pity you had for him
That when the drama was over, those feelings
were purged right out of you
Leading to a renewed sense of appreciation
for living and for the possibilities of the world
o And this is exactly what great writing does, whether it’s a novel or picture book, an essay
o Your job is to create that emotion
Through fascinating characters
Questions that excite you
And always showing not telling
We need books—and I want to publish books—that
reflect the whole range of a child or teenager’s emotional experiences, and take us through those experiences with them.
So the stories come not just “Through
a Child’s Eyes,” but through a child’s heart, and speak to a child’s heart
So they have the bravery and honesty to look
at a muddle and acknowledge its pain;
not to be moralistic or easy;
And, in the end, to help us all make it through.
Postscript: the Character Values Chart revisited