As I work with students and encourage them to add specific setting details, I’m reminded of my early days of publishing. I’d sold two picture books and the photo-essay for older readers and decided to try my hand at a middle grade novel. It was about bullying, I remember, and called, “Standing Up to Sixth Grade.” My agent liked it and sent it on to my editor at MacMillan. She wrote saying that the book was too episodic, then added, “Sally, is this boy blind?”
Ah, no. I’d intended for him to be sighted. I had 26 years of vision and planned to draw on that visual memory. Both my picture books had sighted protagonists, as well.
But the protagonist in the sixth grade novel never looked out the bus window, never described the playground, and only responded to tactile and auditory stimuli. Gulp!
On further scrutiny in my picture book, “Maggie’s Whopper,” the great uncle expressed affection never with a wink or a smile, but always with a tug to Maggie’s braid, a tweak to her nose, a pat. The uncle could see well, but expressed his fondness for Maggie exactly as I expressed love.
So I’ve learned that I have to be fiercely diligent about adding visuals to settings and relationships unless my characters are blind. But I noticed that students, too, need to be nudged to write fiercely from their own perspectives, but also to do a check within their characters’ shoes to see if they’re speaking that character’s experience or only their own.