Beautiful Writing

Today I want to take a deeper look into what it means to write beautifully. Obviously, it’s impossible to pin down exactly what comprises beautiful writing. It can be many, many different things, but I think that at least we can explore the subject a little.

Clearly we are focussed on writing for children––and more specifically right now, writing for the middle grade readership.

The first question we need to ask is this: is beautiful writing for children different from beautiful writing for adults––or for a general readership?

And with that in mind, is beautiful writing for middle grade different from beautiful writing for young adult or picture books?

Perhaps we could ask ourselves: is beautiful writing even required for children?

The answers to these questions are complicated by a number of factors.

I think the first thing is that beautiful writing in a novel or short story is often invisible. It doesn’t draw you away from the story by calling attention to itself, and you might only notice on a second or third reading. With that in mind I have to point out that––as a reader–– even though you don’t notice the beauty of the writing, you are still probably moved by it. 

The second factor is that I––as your teacher––am limited by my own experience of writing. Over a lifetime as a writer I’ve written and published novels, short stories, graphic novels and picture books. I’ve read hundreds of books, and thousands of poems––often more than once.

Even so my experience is still limited.

So, we are all trying to find answers to these questions together.

Is beautiful writing for children different from that for an adult readership?

In Moby Dick, Melville goes off on a rambling overview on the natural history of whales that extends for an entire chapter. It’s a beautiful passage, but I think that kind of digression wouldn’t work in a children’s book for any age range. 

So, chapter length digressions? Probably not?

Which is not to say that beautiful writing is always a digression form the story.

Take a look at this passage from ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams Garcia, which was written in the early 2000’s, but set during the civil rights era of the 1960’s:

Good thing the plane had seat belts and we’d been strapped in tight before takeoff. Without them, that last jolt would have been enough to throw Vonetta into orbit and Fern across the aisle. Still, I anchored myself and my sisters best as I could to brace us for whatever came next. Those clouds weren’t through with us yet and dealt another Cassius Clay–left–and–a–right jab to the body of our Boeing 727.

Vonetta shrieked, then stuck her thumb in her mouth. Fern bit down on Miss Patty Cake’s pink plastic arm. I kept my whimper to myself. It was bad enough my insides squeezed in and stretched out like a monkey grinder’s accordion—no need to let anyone know how frightened I was.

I took a breath so, when my mouth finally opened, I’d sound like myself and not like some scared rabbit. “It’s just the clouds bumping,” I told my sisters. “Like they bumped over Detroit and Chicago and Denver.”

Vonetta pulled her thumb out of her mouth and put her head in her lap. Fern held on to Miss Patty Cake. They listened to me.

“We push our way up in the clouds; the clouds get mad and push back. Like you and Fern fighting over red and gold crayons.” I didn’t know about clouds fighting and pushing for a fact, but I had to tell my sisters something. As long as Vonetta kept her fear to one shriek and Fern kept hers to biting Miss Patty Cake, I kept on spinning straw, making everything all right. That’s mainly what I do. Keep Vonetta and Fern in line. The last thing Pa and Big Ma wanted to hear was how we made a grand Negro spectacle of ourselves thirty thousand feet up in the air around all these white people.

“You know how Papa is,” I told them. “No way he’d put us on a plane if it were dangerous.”

They halfway believed me. Just as I had that soft plastic arm out of Fern’s mouth, those Cassius Clay–fighting clouds threw our 727 another jab.

Big Ma—that’s Pa’s mother—still says Cassius Clay. Pa says Muhammad Ali or just Ali. I slide back and forth from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Whatever picture comes to mind. With Cassius Clay you hear the clash of fists, like the plane getting jabbed and punched. With Muhammad Ali you see a mighty mountain, greater than Everest, and can’t no one knock down a mountain.

All the way to the airport, Pa had tried to act like he was dropping off three sacks of wash at the Laundromat. I’d seen through Pa. He’s no Vonetta, putting on performances. He has only one or two faces, nothing hidden, nothing exaggerated. Even though it had been his idea that we fly out to Oakland to see Cecile, Pa’d never once said how exciting our trip would be. He just said that seeing Cecile was something whose time had come. That it had to be done. Just because he decided it was time for us to see her didn’t mean he wanted us to go.

My sisters and I had stayed up practically all night California dreaming about what seemed like the other side of the world. We saw ourselves riding wild waves on surfboards, picking oranges and apples off fruit trees, filling our autograph books with signatures from movie stars we’d see in soda shops. Even better, we saw ourselves going to Disneyland.

We had watched airplanes lift up and fly off into blue sky as we neared the airport. Every time another airliner flew overhead, leaving a trail of white and gray smoke, Big Ma fanned herself and asked, “Jesus, why?”

Big Ma had kept quiet long enough. Once inside the terminal, she let it all hang out. She told Pa, “I don’t mind saying it, but this isn’t right. Coming out to Idlewild and putting these girls on a plane so Cecile can see what she left behind. If she wants to see, let her get on an airplane and fly out to New York.”

Big Ma doesn’t care if President Kennedy’s face is on the half-dollar or if the airport is now officially named after him. She calls the airport by its old name, Idlewild. Don’t get me wrong. Big Ma was as mad and sad as anyone when they killed the president. It’s change she has no pity on. However things are stamped in Big Ma’s mind is how they will be, now and forever. Idlewild will never be JFK. Cassius Clay will never be Muhammad Ali. Cecile will never be anything other than Cecile.

I can’t say I blamed Big Ma for feeling the way she did. I certainly didn’t forgive Cecile.

When Cecile left, Fern wasn’t on the bottle. Vonetta could walk but wanted to be picked up. I was four going on five. Pa wasn’t sick, but he wasn’t doing well, either. That was when Big Ma came up from Alabama to see about us.

Even though Big Ma read her Scripture daily, she hadn’t considered forgiveness where Cecile was concerned. Cecile wasn’t what the Bible meant when it spoke of love and forgiveness. Only judgment, and believe me, Big Ma had plenty of judgment for Cecile. So even if Cecile showed up on Papa’s welcome mat, Big Ma wouldn’t swing the front door open.

In this excerpt we have an extended metaphor comparing the turbulence on a plane flight to the punches of the 1960’s champion boxer, Cassius Clay––or Muhammed Ali.

Good thing the plane had seat belts and we’d been strapped in tight before takeoff. Without them, that last jolt would have been enough to throw Vonetta into orbit and Fern across the aisle. Still, I anchored myself and my sisters best as I could to brace us for whatever came next. Those clouds weren’t through with us yet and dealt another Cassius Clay–left–and–a–right jab to the body of our Boeing 727.

Then a few paragraphs later the author returns to the same metaphor.

They halfway believed me. Just as I had that soft plastic arm out of Fern’s mouth, those Cassius Clay–fighting clouds threw our 727 another jab.

Then keeping in mind that readers during the early 2000’s are probably unfamiliar with Cassius Clay, the author explains her analogy––but it’s not a literal explanation, it’s an anecdote that illustrates the explanation:

Big Ma—that’s Pa’s mother—still says Cassius Clay. Pa says Muhammad Ali or just Ali. I slide back and forth from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Whatever picture comes to mind. With Cassius Clay you hear the clash of fists, like the plane getting jabbed and punched. With Muhammad Ali you see a mighty mountain, greater than Everest, and can’t no one knock down a mountain.

Writing Prompt:

I’d like you attempt an extended metaphor.

Begin with the sense impressions you did for homework.

Now, try to connect them using metaphor and simile on a theme.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

My main character, Frank, is being chased by his arch-nemesis, Sarah. Frank is afraid for his life! Remember we’re in middle grade territory, and a ten year-old girl can be more than a match for a ten year-old boy.

Susan leapt out of the doorway like a lion charging out from behind a palm tree on the African plains.

Frank spun around, leapt into the air, and galloped off as fast as he could.

Susan roared, “Come back here you traitor!”

Susan was so close that her hot breath tickled the back of Frank’s neck. He put on an extra burst of speed, but a moment later he found himself face-down with a clump of bitter grass between his teeth.

Okay, I’m stretching the metaphor a little, and it has a humorous effect, but I hope the example shows you how this can work.

Notice that I don’t write: Frank saw, Frank heard, Frank felt…

The passage is in third person POV from Frank’s POV. Frank is the only character who can have sense impressions, so we don’t need the ‘sense’ verbs. They are a given.

Also, the passage would work equally well in first person:

Susan leapt out of the doorway like a lion charging out from behind a palm tree on the African plains.

I spun around, leapt into the air, and galloped off as fast as I could.

Susan roared, “Come back here you traitor!”

Susan was so close that her hot breath tickled the back of my neck. I put on an extra burst of speed, but a moment later I found myself face-down with a clump of bitter grass between my teeth.

Here is an excerpt from The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros.

The Monkey Garden

The monkey doesn’t live there anymore. The monkey moved—to Kentucky—and took his people with him. And I was glad because I couldn’t listen anymore to his wild screaming at night, the twangy yakkety-yak of the people who owned him. The green metal cage, the porcelain table top, the family that spoke like guitars. Monkey, family, table. All gone.

And it was then we took over the garden we had been afraid to go into when the monkey screamed and showed its yellow teeth.

There were sunflowers big as flowers on Mars and thick cockscombs bleeding the deep red fringe of theater curtains. There were dizzy bees and bow-tied fruit flies turning somersaults and humming in the air. Sweet sweet peach trees. Thorn roses and thistle and pears. Weeds like so many squinty-eyed stars and brush that made your ankles itch and itch until you washed with soap and water. There were big green apples hard as knees. And everywhere the sleepy smell of rotting wood, damp earth and dusty hollyhocks thick and perfumy like the blue-blond hair of the dead.

Yellow spiders ran when we turned rocks over and pale worms blind and afraid of light rolled over in their sleep. Poke a stick in the sandy soil and a few blue-skinned beetles would appear, an avenue of ants, so many crusty lady bugs. This was a garden, a wonderful thing to look at in the spring. But bit by bit, after the monkey left, the garden began to take over itself. Flowers stopped obeying the little bricks that kept them from growing beyond their paths. Weeds mixed in. Dead cars appeared overnight like mushrooms. First one and then another and then a pale blue pickup with the front windshield missing. Before you knew it, the monkey garden became filled with sleepy cars.

Things had a way of disappearing in the garden, as if the garden itself ate them, or, as if with its old-man memory, it put them away and forgot them. Nenny found a dollar and a dead mouse between two rocks in the stone wall where the morning glories climbed, and once when we were playing hide-and-seek, Eddie Vargas laid his head beneath a hibiscus tree and fell asleep there like a Rip Van Winkle until somebody remembered he was in the game and went back to look for him.

This, I suppose, was the reason why we went there. Far away from where our mothers could find us. We and a few old dogs who lived inside the empty cars. We made a clubhouse once on the back of that old blue pickup. And besides, we liked to jump from the roof of one car to another and pretend they were giant mushrooms.

Somebody started the lie that the monkey garden had been there before anything. We liked to think the garden could hide things for a thousand years. There beneath the roots of soggy flowers were the bones of murdered pirates and dinosaurs, the eye of a unicorn turned to coal.

This is where I wanted to die and where I tried one day but not even the monkey garden would have me. It was the last day I would go there.

Who was it that said I was getting too old to play the games? Who was it I didn’t listen to? I only remember that when the others ran, I wanted to run too, up and down and through the monkey garden, fast as the boys, not like Sally who screamed if she got her stockings muddy.

I said, Sally, come on, but she wouldn’t. She stayed by the curb talking to Tito and his friends. Play with the kids if you want, she said, I’m staying here. She could be stuck-up like that if she wanted to, so I just left.

It was her own fault too. When I got back Sally was pretending to be mad … something about the boys having stolen her keys. Please give them back to me, she said punching the nearest one with a soft fist. They were laughing. She was too. It was a joke I didn’t get.

I wanted to go back with the other kids who were still jumping on cars, still chasing each other through the garden, but Sally had her own game.

One of the boys invented the rules. One of Tito’s friends said you can’t get the keys back unless you kiss us and Sally pretended to be mad at first but she said yes. It was that simple.

I don’t know why, but something inside me wanted to throw a stick. Something wanted to say no when I watched Sally going into the garden with Tito’s buddies all grinning. It was just a kiss, that’s all. A kiss for each one. So what, she said.

Only how come I felt angry inside. Like something wasn’t right. Sally went behind that old blue pickup to kiss the boys and get her keys back, and I ran up three flights of stairs to where Tito lived. His mother was ironing shirts. She was sprinkling water on them from an empty pop bottle and smoking a cigarette.

Your son and his friends stole Sally’s keys and now they won’t give them back unless she kisses them and right now they’re making her kiss them, I said all out of breath from the three flights of stairs.

Those kids, she said, not looking up from her ironing.

That’s all?

Here’s another example from HOEY POKEY by Jerry Spinelli.

All night long Seven Sisters whisper and giggle and then, all together, they rush Orion the Hunter and tickle him, and Orion the Hunter laughs so hard he shakes every star in the sky, not to mention Mooncow, who loses her balance and falls–puh-loop!–into Big Dipper, which tip-tip-tips and dumps Mooncow into Milky Way, and Mooncow laughs and splashes and rolls on her back and goes floating down down down Milky Way, and she laughs a great moomoonlaugh and kicks at a lavender star and the star goes shooting across the sky, up the sky and down the sky, a lavender snowfireball down the highnight down . . .

down . . .

down . . .

down . . .

. . . to Hokey Pokey . . .

. . . where it lands, a golden bubble now, a starborn bead, lands and softly pips upon the nose of sleeping Jack and spills a whispered word:


and then another:


Something is wrong.

He knows it before he opens his eyes.

He looks.

His bike is gone!


What more could he have done? He parked it so close that when he shut his eyes to sleep, he could smell the rubber of the tires, the grease on the chain.

And still she took it. His beloved Scramjet. He won’t say her name. He never says her name, only her kind, sneers it to the morning star: “Girl.”

He runs to the rim of the bluff, looks up the tracks, down the tracks. There she is, ponytail flying from the back of her baseball cap, the spokes of the wheels–his wheels–plum-spun in the thistledown dawn.

He waves his fist, shouts from the bluff: “I’ll get you!”

The tracks curve, double back. He can cut her off!

He sneakerskis down the gullied red-clay slope, leaps the tracks, plunges into the jungle and runs–phloot!–into a soft, vast, pillowy mass. Oh no! Not again! He only thinks this. He cannot say it because the front half of himself, including his face, is buried in the hippopotamoid belly of Wanda’s monster. This has happened before. He wags his head hard, throws it back, and–ttthok!–his face comes free.

“Wan-daaa!” he bellows. “Wake up!”

Wanda stirs in a bed of mayapples.


The moment Wanda awakes, her monster vanishes in a puff of apricots, dropflopping Jack to the ground. He’s up in an instant and off again.

Every other step is a leap over a sleeper. All is quiet save thunder beyond the trees and the thump of the sun bumping the underside of the horizon.

He hoprocks across the creek, past the island of Forbidden Hut, and pulls up huffing at the far loop end of the tracks. He looks up, looks down.


He slumps exhausted to the steel rail. He stares at his sneaker tops. He gasps, reflects. She said she would do it. “I’m going to take–” No, to be accurate, she didn’t say take, she said ride: “I’m going to ride your bike.” And who knows? Maybe if she had said it nicely . . . maybe if she wasn’t a girl. But she is a girl and she said it with that snaily smirk, but there was no way she was ever coming within ten long spits of his bike.

But she did.

And he hates her. He hates her for taking the thing he loves most in this world. But maybe even more, he hates her for being right.

He pushes himself up from the rail. Once more he casts forlorn eyes up and down the tracks that no train travels. He cries out: “Scramjet!” This is too painful to bear alone. From the black tarpit of despair he rips his Tarzan yell and hurls it into the jungle and over the creek and across the dreamlands of Hokey Pokey.

Finally, let’s tae a loo at ORPHAN ISLAND by Laurel Snyder


Bell and Boat

Jinny heard the bell. She threw down her book, rose from the stale comfort of the old brown sofa, and scrambled for the door. When she burst from the cabin into the evening air, Jinny ran.

Along the beach, everyone was running—bolting for the cove, summoned by the golden clatter of the bell, so bright in the dusk. Eight kids, sprinting from the fire circle or the outdoor kitchen, emerging from their cabins, racing for the bell and the tall boy ringing it by the water’s edge.

It was like this every time the bell rang.

At the cove, they lined up, breathless and staring out to sea, to watch the boat come in against the sunset. They stood waiting like uneven fence posts. There was Deen, who towered beside Jinny and now leaned to set the bell gently back on its hook, and little Sam, beside him. There was thin Eevie, frowning at the lapping water as though it had done something wrong, and Oz and Jak, jostling each other. Joon stood tall and straight at one end of the line, her gaze intent on the sea, and Nat waited patiently beside her, a book clutched in her hands. Then there was Ben, just a year below Jinny and almost exactly her height, smiling his easy smile as he stared out at the water patiently.

Deen had been the one to spot the small green boat, appearing through mist that wreathed the island, cutting through the whitecapped waves. Deen had lifted the bell and rung it to summon the others. Deen had been alone, briefly, with the knowledge that it was time again for a Changing.

Jinny didn’t think that was fair to Deen. After all, it was his turn to leave. He shouldn’t have had to ring the bell too and stand there on the beach, waiting alone. Jinny edged closer to him now. She took his cold hand, and Deen gripped her fingers tightly, laced them with his own, but didn’t turn to look down at her. He kept his dark eyes trained on the boat in the distance, so Jinny did the same. She wondered what he was thinking. He seemed strangely calm, unsurprised, almost like he’d been waiting for the boat. But his jaw was clenched firmly.

In a handful of silent minutes, the boat slipped into the cove and nestled its green prow in the sand at their bare feet. Then came the empty before moment. The strange heartbeat of time when the nine kids on the shore peered into the boat. Before anybody said a word. They all stared.

At the shivering child staring back.

Jinny knew she should be the one to speak first, to reach out a hand and help the kid onto the island. This one would be hers, after all. Her Care. Jinny was oldest after Deen, and would officially become Elder the moment he stepped into his boat. But she couldn’t seem to move her feet. She didn’t feel ready. Jinny curled her toes into the damp sand and squeezed Deen’s fingers. He squeezed back but then let go. Leaving Jinny’s hand lonely. She dropped it to her side.

Last year there had been a boy in the boat, yellow-haired Sam, who now stood on the other side of Deen, sniffling. Always sniffling. Sam had belonged to Deen, had stumbled along after him like a shadow wherever he went. Sam had shared Deen’s sleeping cabin and been always underfoot, learning the island from the tall boy who would be leaving now, so suddenly.

This new arrival was a girl, of course. It was a girl year. Her eyes were huge in her face, stunned. Her chin trembled, and her black curls were damp with sea spray. The girl was pretty, but that didn’t matter. Really, kids all looked the same sitting in the boat. Boy or girl, fat or thin, dark or light. They looked damp, lost, and snot faced. The salt spray made their noses run.

Now everyone was waiting. Waiting for Jinny to say something. She was taking too long and she knew it, but it was hard to speak. She was frozen in the moment she’d been dreading for hundreds of sleeps. At last she forced herself forward. Her feet stuttered in the sand as she reached one arm stiffly into the boat, hand open, palm up.

“Hey!” she called too loudly. Her own voice rang in her ears. “What’s your name?”

The girl stared at Jinny’s hand. She opened her mouth and looked around, out and down the beach, then back at Jinny and the line of curious kids. The new girl shook her head ever so slightly.

“Oh, come on,” said Jinny. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Get out!” She didn’t want to have to reach in and grab. She didn’t want to scare the girl any more than she was already scared. Everything would be so much easier if she stepped out on her own.

The new girl stared at Jinny for a few frightened breaths, a few ripples in the shallow surf. Everyone waited. At last she spoke. “Mama?” she asked, staring wide-eyed at Jinny.

Jinny shook her head. “No,” she said. “No mama. We don’t have mamas here. But it’ll be okay. I promise. You just need to climb out. Now.” She didn’t mean to sound heartless, but the new arrivals always did this at first. Soon enough, the girl would forget about mama. She would come to understand—the island was instead. The island was better.

The girl squeezed her eyes shut. So Jinny took a deep breath and stepped forward, leaned in. She put a foot in the boat, and the girl cried “Ah!” as the boat shifted and shook slightly with Jinny’s weight. But it didn’t drift. The boat never drifted.

Nobody had any idea how the boat worked. It arrived at this same spot, through the thick mist. As if pulled by an invisible string. Then it left again, a few minutes later, the same way. The boat was as reliable as anything, as sure as the stars.

Jinny reached for the girl. Gripping her under her thin arms, Jinny dragged her forcibly from her spot on the plank seat and up over the green side of the boat, and then swung the girl up onto her hip, so that she could carry her awkwardly back to the line of children, where she plunked her down heavily in the sand. Harder than she meant to, so that the kid let out a startled “Uhhf!”

After that, Jinny pushed the girl from her thoughts, because it was time. The boat was empty. Waiting. Jinny turned to look at Deen and frowned. “Are you . . . ready?”

Deen nodded. His lank hair shook in his face. “Guess so,” he muttered. “I guess it’s time, huh?” He stepped forward and turned around to face them. He glanced up and down the line—at all of them.

“Well,” Deen said. “So . . .”

Jinny heard a choking cry as Sam broke from the line and ran forward, burying his face in Deen’s belly. Deen reached down and placed a sturdy hand on Sam’s head but kept talking. “Hey, hey—I’ll miss you, buddy. But there’s no need to cry. I’ll see you all again, on the other side. When your turn comes. Right?”

Nobody answered him, but behind Deen, the boat rocked impatiently. Deen crouched down to hug Sam. “I have to go, Sam-man,” he said. “But you’ll be okay. The others will take care of you.” He looked back over his shoulder at Jinny, as if for help. But his voice was flat, as it had been so often lately. As though he was reciting the words. They didn’t feel true, exactly. They didn’t feel like he meant them, not the way he should.