“The plot thickens.” It is a famous quote made famous by the fact that good literature must have a well-devised plot. But what is plot anyway? Excellent question! And in honor of National Novel Writing Month (see http://nanowrimo.org), I will answer it.
Plot is the progression of a story, and it is composed of six parts. The first part is the exposition, which exposes the situation and characters to be developed. The exposition should be quickly followed by the hook, the circumstance that engages readers, making them want to keep reading. In a brief legend about a door, the exposition and hook might be something like this:
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a door. For as long as anyone remembered, the door had remained tightly closed, and no efforts of man could open it.
Readers know from this that the door is central to what will happen and are (hopefully) intrigued by the door’s mysterious state. After the hook comes the rising action, the events that gradually build in intensity to lead readers further into the story. The rising action ends with the story’s climax, the most important moment that forces a decision to be made, turning the story one way or another. In our door legend, the rising action and climax could go as follows:
Certainly, men had tried to open the door. In fact, it was rather a rites of passage endeavor that every young man in the kingdom valiantly attempt to pry the door from its secured positioned. Children sometimes lined up, the first holding to the door’s handle and each one after holding to the other as they chanted, "Hold fast the door! Loose its lock! With all your might, 1, 2, 3, plop!"—whereupon they fell to the ground in a laughing heap before jumping up and scampering away to their next adventure.
Of course, some in the kingdom feared the door. Stories spread that it led to realms of the dark world that snuffed out the light in a person's soul...or that it guarded the tomb of an ancient enemy of such vile nature that a curse had been placed upon his deathbed to entrap his spirit, lest it slip from Hades back into the earth. One myth claimed the door could only be opened by the one whose heart was pure and that others who dared to touch it risked the true state of their hearts being revealed, imprinted upon their skin for all to see.
Whatever its secrets, the door kept them steadfastly...until, one day, a girl passed by and found the door ajar. She stopped, breath catching in her throat, heart fluttering. A quiet thing, the girl was far more timid than brave at heart, but something within her longed to know the truth of the door—as if knowing who she herself was depended upon discovering that truth. Slowly, she crept toward the door, glancing nervously about.
As she stood before the opening, nothing but darkness visible, fright turned her heartbeats into wild discordance. She knew, of course, that to venture through the door alone—into an unknown—was foolish. Something sinister could be present in there, waiting for her. It would be far wiser to pass by the open door, to take the news of its open state to those in authority—or to at least go home and fetch a lantern whereby to light her path through the black of dark inside.
"But what if the door closes while I'm gone? What if this is the only moment to go through it?"
Her whole frame trembling, the girl stepped inside—just as a boy skipped past and caught glimpse of the open door for himself. He halted, mind reeling with every story he'd ever heard of the evils that lay behind that door. Terrified, he ran to the door and pushed it closed.
Hearing the door slam, the girl jumped so violently she felt as if her breath and blood had jolted out of her. She stood absolutely still, then turned toward the door behind her. Closed did not mean locked. It wasn't certain she was trapped in here. Feeling dizzy from the fear swirling within her, she knelt down, clutching her bowed head.
What will she do? That is the decision that must be made. At this point, the story is close to its conclusion. All that remains is a short portion of the plot called the falling action and then the resolution. Falling action includes what happens after the climax—which direction the story consequently goes; and resolution, appropriately, resolves the story: Determinedly, if somewhat unsteadily, the girl stood to her feet. And facing away from the door, she started on her journey.
Of course, in this instance, the resolution might leave us at the end of our story—if we consider the girl’s decision to go forward sufficient conclusion. Or it might set us at the beginning of the girl’s tale…in which case, the plot thickens. (Oh, that was ornery of me!)
It was amusing enough it stole my attention from my book. We were following this little red convertible, driven by a man who was listening to music that had him drumming wildly on the steering wheel, dancing in his seat, and swerving to and fro in his lane. All these years later, I can still picture it and remember how we laughed. That was part of our summer vacation to Florida the year I was twelve. Now, going on summer vacations is rather impossible—but that is one of many reasons (children’s) books are so wonderful. They take us places we cannot otherwise go.
They take us up into the air. The book Wind Flyers by Angela Johnson tells the story of a boy from Alabama who loves to fly and ends up as a Tuskegee Airman in Europe. Hot Air: the (Mostly) True Story of the First Hot-air Balloon Ride by Majorie Priceman gives the perspective of the duck, sheep, and rooster who were the passengers on this flight. Oliver Jeffers’s Stuck almost makes it into the air; it begins with a kite…and ends with all kinds of things that are, indeed, stuck. (Oh dear.)
Books take us under the sea. Robert Burley draws us into the tale of the woman scientist who first successfully mapped the ocean floor in his book: Solving the Puzzle under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor. The book Plastic Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Patricia Newman reveals the explorations of a team of scientists as they study an undersea collection of millions of pieces of plastic. And if that is not a little odd enough, Freaky Stories from beneath the Sea by Caitie McAneney gives all kinds of unusual glimpses into life under the sea.
Books take us into scientific discovery. Jodi Wheeler-Toppin’s Edible Science: Experiments You Can Eat provides scientific investigation that truly satisfies. The man who invented the telescope and changed the way we understand the universe is the subject of Who Was Galileo? by Patricia Brennan Demuth. Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery That Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff tells the fun story of how the scientific method made sense of some magic. (Science--voila!)
Books take us to faraway places. One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul reveals the true story of a woman and her friends who helped transform her West African community. Ji-li Jiang in Red Kite, Blue Kite offers the tale of a boy and his father who are separated during the Chinese Cultural Revolution but who find a way to communicate with each other through kites. And if Africa and China are not far enough away, Angelica Banks extends the travels of possibility to an imaginary land in her book A Week without Tuesday in which two friends must find the one man who can stop real and imaginary worlds from colliding.
Books take us to other times. Alexandra Bracken throws character Etta Spencer unexpectedly back one hundred years in time in Passenger, where Etta finds herself in the midst of mysteries and a dangerous journey to return home. The book Time Travel by Lisa Arias meanders through time as it provides fun illustrations of how time itself works. Characters are moving both forward and backward in time in Linda Buckley-Archer’s The Time Thief as a villain from the past menaces the future and protagonist Kate battles to rescue her friend Peter from the history in which he is trapped.
Books take us from where we are to where we want to be. Reading is the foundation of learning. It not only expands our knowledge of words and history and science; it increases our capacity to think beyond our own borders, introduces us to new ideas, inspires creativity, and influences who and what we become and where we go in our life journeys. Maybe we read our way to the presidency like Abraham Lincoln. Maybe we travel to the lands we first discovered in books. Maybe we go driving down a road, dancing to the music in our seats as twelve-year-old girls in neighboring cars look up from the books they are reading to watch and smile.
“For what is literature…?” That is how the quote starts. The question rolls around in my head like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. Poor Alice. That girl has to fall down that rabbit hole every single time someone tells that story. If only the tale were less loved, Alice could be less bonked, bruised, and confused. But Alice is, of course, a classic—which begs the question, “What is a classic?”
I can recite the “classic” definition (pun intended) that it is literature that has some universal theme and has stood the test of time. Personally, though, I find that definition severely uninspiring, and whatever else classic literature should be, it should be inspiring. It should inspire us to think “bigger,” to see the world from a broader perspective. It should inspire us to take courage, to find strength. It should inspire us to feel deeply, to war through pain.
That it inspires us does not mean it makes us happy. Most classic literature is not happy. Even in Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte dies; and in the fairy tales, happily ever after only comes after grievous plights and suffering. And there is no happily ever after at all in one of the most classic love stories, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There is only a love that is worth fighting for against all opposition, only the message that, in the midst of hatred and prejudice, love can still be found—and though it may not ultimately overcome all it wars against in their story, its very existence declares that love has the power to rise fiercely even when nothing nourishes it and it is violently defied. That is inspiring.
Then there is one of the most ancient classics, Homer’s The Odyssey. How many perils can one man face in his thwarted attempt simply to return home? He is held hostage, attacked by angry men, tossed on the seas by storms, threatened by a one-eyed giant, cursed by one god and opposed by another, seduced, and faced with loss and grief—only to at long last make it home and find that his house has been overtaken by men trying to woo his wife. Ye gods! And we like this story because…? We like it because it argues that we can face anything—and everything—and not be defeated. It stirs the will to persist, to endure, to hope against hope and not lose faith. That is inspiring.
What about, say, a dark classic such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies? This is the story of human nature at its basest. The strong prey upon the weak. The need to be strong preys upon the heart, twisting it into something vile. Innocence is lost. That is not inspiring, is it? I dare to say yes, it is. It provokes thought, pushes us to look at ourselves and recognize that we in our humanity—though able to face anything and everything and not be defeated—are not invincible. It urges us to come face to face with our own weaknesses, to reevaluate in fact what weakness is, to dare to be strong enough to admit our vulnerability and let humility triumph over pride. That is inspiring.
On a very different spectrum, one of the most treasured children’s classics is Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Ah. There is a story. A child who is lonely and hurting discovers a walled-up garden, hated by its owner because it is a reminder of all he has lost. The child risks the owner’s wrath by bringing the garden back to life, nurturing beauty in place of sorrow. And beauty heals hearts. That is inspiring.
In all of these stories, if we look, we see ourselves, come to understand ourselves. Italo Calvino says in his book Why Read the Classics, “‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.” It is not necessarily that a classic is a favorite story. It may, like Alice’s rabbit hole, leave us bonked, bruised, and confused. But it does for us what Alice’s Wonderland did for her: stretches us, shows us our smallness, challenges our perspective, threatens us, intrigues us, changes us. “For what is literature,” the quote by the unknown author asks, “and what is its purpose if not to open our eyes to truth and help us find our own souls?”
That is inspiring.
She bribed me. If we want to make it sound better, we can say she provided me with incentives; but the real truth is that she bribed me. That is how my mother got me to read as a child.
Love of reading did not come naturally to me. The skill of reading did. But the love of it remained elusive at first—and a strong reader must have both the ability to read and the desire to read. Why? …because if a reader does not like to read s/he will not read…and if said reader does not read s/he will not progress in reading skill. This means that, even if a child initially learns to read and excels in it academically, the child will lose ground over time in both reading and academics, as reading is critical to academic advancement.
So how do we produce a love of reading in children? One of the first ways is that we exhibit excitement ourselves about books. We also help children search out books that interest them personally. The moment I learned to love reading was the moment I became invested in the lives of the characters I was reading about—and the truth is, I still read (fiction) books primarily for the characters. My interest in reading stems from my interest in people, in understanding people, in relating to people.
Not all children are like me. Some of them want to read about specific topics: dinosaurs, horses, ships, trains, superheroes, bugs. These children may enjoy stories about these topics, or they may be more inclined toward nonfiction books. Ideally, they will be drawn to both because the two kinds of books require two different skill sets, both of which are important. Early on, though, it’s not as much a matter of what they read so much as it is a matter that they read, that they discover the awe of reading.
In college, I took a class that required me to write my philosophy of reading. Attempting to figure out that philosophy, I remembered how in grade school we would have to read something and then answer questions about it (on this slick workbook paper that was hard to write on and that I strongly disliked). The questions were basic comprehension questions, such as, “What color is the main character’s coat?”
While being able to answer that question may be important, that aspect of comprehension is about skill; it fails to engage the reader. My philosophy, I concluded, was that I did not want readers merely to know the color of the main character’s coat; I wanted them to know what it was to wear that coat themselves. This is what happens when reading evolves from task and skill to discovery and awe.
A good way to encourage this evolution is to read aloud with children. I tutored a boy once who struggled with reading. The two of us would sit down together, side by side do we could both see the book. Going a paragraph at a time to start with, we would take turns reading out loud. This gave him opportunity to read but did not overwhelm him with having to read too much at one time.
When we finished a chapter, I would ask him questions about what he might have felt if he were in the main character’s situations; or I would have him draw a picture of a scene from what we had read that stuck in his mind. (A key to reading is being able to visualize the images the words produce. Often, struggling readers get bogged down in the work of deciphering the words. Getting them to see the concepts created by the words is critical.)
In addition to reading with him, I made a point of talking with him, laughing with him, sharing my own thoughts about the book, and fostering interaction. As a former teacher, I can attest that the most educational growth occurs when the teacher and students communicate with one another. This includes giving feedback to children (e.g., “Look! That was a hard word, and you got it right on the first try!” or “Last week you had a hard time with this word, but today you aren’t struggling with it at all. See how you’re getting better!”)
Something that is important to remember when working with children who do not yet love to read is that patience makes a world of difference. Children tense up and become resistant under pressure. We need to keep giving them opportunities to read, to keep reading with them; but we need to give them time too. And maybe, sometimes, we need to bribe them (I mean, offer them incentives).
Books That Work Well with Reluctant Middle-grade Readers
Christa is the Head of the Young People's Department. She came to the library with a background in education, having spent ten years as a teacher, and believes firmly in the Young People's Department vision, "Libraries=education--empowering minds through creative investigation."