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Key Words And Phrases in Middle Grade Fiction

Some screenwriters refer to these as the ‘third track’ of dialogue (with the first two tracks being ‘melody’ and ‘harmony’.

Key words, phrases, taglines, and sounds are the third track of dialogue. These are words with the potential to carry special meaning, symbolically or thematically, the way a symphony uses certain instruments, such as the triangle, here and there for emphasis. The trick to building this meaning is to have your characters say the word many more times than normal. The repetition, especially in multiple contexts, has a cumulative effect on the audience.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

A variant on the arc phrases also occurs in a lot of middle grade fiction.

Key Words and Phrases In The Narrative Voice

In Once by Morris Gleitzman the arc phrase word involves the word Once, which explains the significance of the title.

Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once
Barney said that everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once. I have. More than once.

Related to arc phrases are ‘catch phrases’.

The hero of Once is in a dire situation — he is a Polish kid in the Nazi era, dodging murder at every turn. It would be easy for this story to turn into a sob story, so Gleitzman has him use the phrase, “You know how…” whenever he’s telling the reader something terrible about his life.

The first example occurs at the third sentence of the book, and these situations he describes only get more and more dire:

You know how when a nun serves you very hot soup from a big metal pot and she makes you lean in close so she doesn’t drip and the steam from the pot makes your glasses go all misty and you can’t wipe them because you’re holding your dinner bowl and the fog doesn’t clear even when you pray to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler?
That’s happening to me.

Likewise, Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce was written concurrently with the screenplay. Both the screenplay and the book came to fruition, my point being that the book was the first written by an experienced writer of screenplays. Naturally Cottrell Boyce made use of all he knew about screenplays when writing the middle grade novel.

In this book, the first person storyteller narrator repeats the phrase, “To get X about it…


An Unusual Phrase Associated With A Character

Sometimes the main character has a distinctive phrase rather than, as in the above examples, the (first person) narrative voice.

Judy Moody (series written by Megan McDonald) has a catch phrase — I don’t know if it’s a regional dialect but I’ve never heard it before: “Rare!” My seven-year-old started using this word only after reading it in Judy Moody, though she did use it in the general way rather than in the Judy Moody way, as an exclamation.


Unintentional Pop Culture Spoofing

Chances are that looking back on your childhood experience of reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, you remember ‘lashings of‘ in reference to the picnics — lashings of cream, lashings of butter, lashings of ginger beer. If you happen to re-read those books the word ‘lashings’ doesn’t actually appear all that often. But for some reason it stuck! Helped along by Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad In Dorset parody. ‘Lashings’ became part of pop culture mostly as a derisive comment on Blyton’s unimaginative prose, I suspect (she could pump these out one per week). I’m sure this spoof does the popularity of the series no harm.

Still, writers are often warned against word echo, which means writers shouldn’t use a particular ‘word with personality’ more than, say, once in any novel length work otherwise the word calls attention to itself. As Blyton’s ‘lashings’ demonstrates though, even (possibly) unintentional overuse of a word can become part of its enduring popularity.


1 June: When Jeremy Sams directed Wind in the Willows in Tokyo he had many practical problems … the cast were anxious to know about other characters like their own – other Moles, for instances, other Toads. ‘But there are no others,’ explained Jeremy. This the actors were unable to grasp or the fact that Wind in the Willows was not compared. All the plays in Japanese theatres are genre plays, variations on a theme or set of themes; the idea that a play might be unique seemed to them very strange indeed.

– Alan Bennett, from a diary entry, excerpted from Untold Stories

Speaking of tropes/stereotypes whatever regarding Japan, have you heard the one about honour? How every plot set in Japan has characters who do things because honour? I haven’t seen Wolverine. Others have.

There is a place for the cliched, or conventional, plot. Children’s literature is a case in point. Perry Nodelman says,”Young readers of formula books may be learning the basic patterns that less formulaic books diverge from. Perhaps we cannot appreciate the divergences of more unusual books until we first learn these underlying patterns.”

The Symbolism Of Altitude

mountains and valleys


Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?

First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death. High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.

— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor


Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.

[The mountain] is where the strong go to prove themselves—usually through seclusion, meditation, a lack of comfort, and direct confrontation with nature in the extreme. The mountaintop is the world of the natural philosopher, the great thinker who must understand the forces of nature so he can live with them and sometimes control them.

Structurally, the mountain, the high place, is most associated with the reveal.

In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her self-revelations.

Revelations in stories are moments of discovery, and they are the keys to turning the plot and kicking it to a “higher,” more intense level. Again, the mountain setting makes a one-to-one connection between space and person, in this case, height and insight.

This one-to-one connection of space to person is found in the negative expression of the mountain as well. It is often depicted as the site of hierarchy, privilege, and tyranny, typically of an aristocrat who lords it over the common people down below.

The mountain is usually set in opposition to the plain. The mountain and the plain are the only two major natural settings that visually stand in contrast to one another, so storytellers often use the comparative method to highlight the essential and opposing qualities of each.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

  • The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
  • Greek myths about gods on Mt Olympus
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Heidi
  • Cold Mountain
  • The Shining
  • The Bears On Hemlock Mountain
  • Serena


house on cliff

Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.

See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.

Mirrors and Reflections 06: The Character Change Mirror

Next time you’re reading (or writing) something, you might think of character change in the form of a mirror.

If the main character in a story doesn’t change, there’s no story.

character change mirror

ASAF The Artifacts character change


Mirrors and Reflections 05: Stories That Reflect Readers Back At Ourselves

 all-that-i-am-anna-funder-cover 1

‘It’s the same old thing, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘All that we are not stares back at all that we are.’

Sometimes the imitation is brighter than the real.

All That I Am, Anna Funder

Some books aim not only to entertain but to exist as a mirror to the reader, asking readers to turn judgement inwards after first judging the main characters.

From a Goodreads review of All That I Am:

The main effect this book had on me was a deep sense of my own lack of similar courage...This book made me realise in what privileged and easy times we live today — and how little we are challenged to face the real life-and-death issues which are still there, even though they are invisible.

Hugo had no special voice for children. When he spoke to you he made you into your best self. [As if there is another self… on the assumption there is another self.]

I wonder, now, about interrogation chambers: why do they think bright light brings the truth out of people? They should try the seduction of shadows, where you cannot watch your words hit their target. [the juxtaposition of light and shadow]

But I must say it has been, in general, a boon not to have been a beautiful woman. Because I was barely looked at, I was free to do the looking. (Ruth: photographer, observer)

I wonder if this is the point.

Which children’s books are the most adept at doing this for the reader? We might start with books described as ‘subversive’. Subverting reader expectations (of genre, of gender, etc) is perhaps the best way of encouraging the reader to turn judgement inwards.

What Was Your Mother’s Favourite Childhood Book?


This was my own mother’s favourite series of picturebooks when she was very young, and she has a hardback copy held together with yellowed sticky tape. This one before me is a much later version, which has come out since in soft cover.

I wonder if fairies will make a true comeback. The illustrations in this book are marvelous. Like many fairy books of its time, the world Pookie inhabits is magical, with woodland creatures living happily in treetrunks, and magical little creatures in mushrooms. It reminds me of the illustrations in The Magic Faraway tree, which was brought to life in colour by Georgina Hargreaves. The language is Blyton-esque, with character names such as ‘Nommy-Nee’ and ‘Primrose-Dell’, in a world where you’re likely to run into a ‘pie-man’ who easily loses his temper because you don’t have any money. Like Blyton, Wallace makes use of popular rhymes and older fairytales. Ivy Wallace was also no doubt influenced by Beatrix Potter. “Mother rabbit said Pookie was more trouble to her than Wiggletail, Swifflekinds, Twinkletoes, Brighteyes, Tomasina, Bobasina and Weeny-One all put together!” At one point Pookie meets a man who would like to turn him into a pie. It’s easy to forget that until Beatrix Potter, animals hadn’t really been personified in picturebooks. She started a trend which only now is starting to wane a little bit. Talking animals dressed in clothes are no longer novel in themselves.

As for the story of Pookie, I’m not sure it holds up so well for modern children. I think ideally it would benefit from fewer words to go with those stunning pictures. I wonder if post-war children were still interested in fairies at a slightly older age, when they could cope with all of those words, or if post-war children had longer attention spans due to an absence of television. Maybe both.

Pookie is a rabbit fairy: two cute things in one. He sets out to ‘seek his fortune’ even though he has no idea what a fortune looks like. Along the way he learns that ‘fortune’ means different things to different people. He is eventually taken in by a very kind human-looking girl called Belinda who exclaims, ‘Why, his tiny heart is broken!” She then mends him with a kiss and Pookie knows that he has found his fortune.

It would be unusual these days to find a picturebook in which a fairy rabbit is male gender, in which ‘goblin tailors sat cross-legged on their toadstools, stitching away at filmy fairy frocks made of scented flower petals’, but this story isn’t otherwise gender-bending. The working world (teachers, merchants) is of course typical of its time — populated with men —  and it would have to be a girl (a perfect wartime nurse in training) who tends to Pookie and mends his wounds, since kindness and love were not desirable traits in a man right after manly men saved us all in that war. Indeed, Belinda’s is a level of kindness I haven’t seen in any gender much, and even in modern children’s stories, kind boys are much more rare than kind girls, unless they’re also the introverted, shunned type. (The kind no boy would really want to emulate.)

And with lines such as, “Oh, Pookie, look at your wings now! All they needed was Love, Pookie! Look at them now!” this story is just a little bit twee for modern tastes. Or maybe just for my tastes. But I see why my little-girl-mum would have liked it.


Fairy books collated in the Miami University database

Menstruation In Fiction

Outside of basic instruction for adolescents, it seems adult women don’t read or talk about something that, for most of us, occurs ever single month for more than thirty years of our lives. No one ever gets her period in a novel or a film, unless it is her first period, which is typically a part of the plot if it’s shown…even the famous Kinsey and Hite reports don’t mention sex during menstruation.

Mentioning the Unmentionable, from In Context


According to some critics, the first explicit mention of menstruation in an American children’s book occurred in The Long Secret. In Sweden, a number of children’s novels in the 1960s and 1070s broke this taboo. However, this fact is as conspicuously absent from most children’s novels as other bodily functions. Although it is common knowledge that young women stop menstruating under extreme conditions, very few adventure or war narratives focus on this detail.

– Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature


Menstruation At TV Tropes

The Menstrual Menace

No Periods Period

All Periods Are PMS

As pointed out by Jezebel: The mainstream media is out to teach you that menstruation is terrifying. (By the way, fear of Menstruation= Menophobia.)

Now for the books which are well-known in The West for being About Menstruation. It’s a pretty short list?

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

As far as big, well promoted fiction went, this was pretty much it when it came to mentions of menstruation in the books that were around when I was an adolescent. And I’m not the only one to have noticed the unusualness of Judy Blume, before her time when it comes to matters of bodily functions.

The Red Tent

When we stood apart, I saw how much she had changed in the few months we had been apart. She was taller than I by a good half head, and there was no need to pull her garments tightly against her chest to see her breasts. But when I saw the belt that had declared her a woman, my mouth dropped. She had entered the red tent! She was no longer a child but a woman. I felt my cheeks grow warm with envy as hers grew pink with pride. I had a thousand questions to ask her about what it was like and about her ceremony, and whether the world was a different place now that her place in it was different.


Rebecca’s anger was terrible. “You mean to tell me that her blood was wasted? You shut her up alone, like some animal?”


“The great mother whom we call Innana gave a gift to woman that is not known among men, and this is the secret of blood. The flow at the dark of the moon, the healing blood of the moon’s birth–to men, this is flux and distemper, bother and pain. They imagine we suffer and consider themselves lucky. We do not disabuse them. In the red tent, the truth is known. In the red tent, where days pass like a gentle stream, as the gift of Innana courses through us, cleansing the body of last month’s death, preparing the body to receive the new month’s life, women give thanks–for repose and restoration, for the knowledge that life comes from between our legs, and that life costs blood…many have forgotten the secret of Innana’s gift, and turned their backs on the red tent. Esau’s wives…gave no lesson or welcome to their young women when they came of age. They treat them like beasts–setting them out, alone and afriad, shut up in the dark days of the new moon, without wine and without the counsel of their mothers. They do not celebrate the first blood of those who will bear life, nor do they return it to the earth. They have set aside the Opening, which is the sacred business of women, and permit men to display their daughters’ bloody sheets, as though even the pettiest baal would require such a degradation in tribute.”


Carrie director Kimberly Peirce tells us why tampons are still terrifying at io9

Review of Carrie from FSR

And here is Stephen King himself talking about Carrie.

Is Carrie one of the few popular novels with strong menstruation symbolism running throughout which is also written by a man?


Perhaps other cultures are more comfortable with stories about menstruation. There is Through The Red Door by Inger Edelfeldt, for example, which hasn’t been translated into English.


[H]orror has continued to provide the perfect medium to explore these themes. The female monster has been a great platform for exploring puberty and all its commensurate delights: it’s all blood, mayhem and rage, after all. Think Carrie at the prom, exploding with fear, confusion and violence at her tormentors, triggered by her menstruation.

Bad Reputation


1. Over at Jezebel some time ago, women were asked for their most horrifying menstruation stories. They weren’t quite prepared for the stories they got.

2. A childbirth educator and Doula over at Persephone Magazine keeps getting unbelievable questions from women who don’t know the most basic things about their own physiology. She takes anonymous questions.

3. Have you heard the term ‘sexually antagonistic coevolution’? If not, you can find out what it means here, in which we are told that men prefer the voices of ovulating women over the voices of menstrual women.

4. For an explanation of the term ‘gaslighting’ and why you probably shouldn’t ask a woman if she’s ‘on her period’, see this article from Persephone Magazine, in which we also learn the unfortunate etymology of ‘hysteria’. I, for one, try to avoid the word.

5. What to do if you get your period when you go camping. Handy non-advice.

6. Women Spot Snakes Faster Before Their Period – because there are people studying these things. Now I’d like to see a superheroine based on that bit of research. Instead, comic book world will probably continue with the girls in fridges trope.

7. Your Period Is A Time For Deep Lady Bonding. Some researchers at the University of Chicago made an online survey to gauge women’s attitudes about their period, and discovered that women who belonged to religious traditions that had menstrual rules felt more shame surrounding their period and had a sense of seclusion during it, but oddly they also reported that they had an increased sense of community, from Jezebel.

8. Menstruation And Shaming For Profit, from Be Prepared

9. A Brief History Of Your Period, and Why You Don’t Have To Have It, from Jezebel

10. Menstruation in SF.

11. 1946 Walt Disney Menstruation Animation Tells Us We’re Okay Just The Way We Are from The Mary Sue

12. Why We Should Be Angry About Periods by Clem Bastow

13. The Taboo Of Menstruation from The Telegraph

14. Dot Girl Products, selling kits for girls having their first periods.

15. Is PMS A Myth? from Time Health and Family (not as dismissive as the title suggests). For the flipside of that argument: PMS Is Real, And Denying Its Existence Is Hurting Women from The Conversation and Is PMS All In Our Heads? from Slate

16. The Film Festival For Movies About Menstruation, by Jezebel

17. Pretend You’ve Never Had a Period With Tampax’s New ‘Radiant’ Line, from Jezebel

18. I don’t understand all this silence around periods from The Peach

19. Fifteen Memorable Menstruation Moments In Pop-Culture from The Frisky

20. Adventures in Menstruation from Alter Net

21. Welcome to the jungle: Your First Period from Persephone Magazine

22. Do Men Have A Monthly Cycle? from The Good Men Project

23. Unhappy periods and delivery room poos – let’s tell the truth about women from New Statesman

24. Women spot snakes faster before their periods from NBC News

25. No Menstrual Hygiene For Indian Women Holds Economy Back from Heeals

26. Over at Freethought blogs, a statistically literate person breaks down why the argument that women menstruate therefore they might legitimately be paid less is a bullshit argument. Worth a read, if only to hone one’s own bullshit-o-meter.

27. You may expect a female-issues driven website such as Jezebel to have a lot to say about periods. They do say a few things about periods, and that’s a bit of a round-up.

28. Turns out bears aren’t actually interested in women’s menstrual cycles from io9

29. Girls Are Getting Their Periods Earlier and Earlier, and No One Knows Why from Jezebel. (Actually, a lot of people in the integrative health community have a theory: estrogen dominance, which we all have until proven otherwise, due to our contaminated modern world.)

30. Do Periods Really Sync Up Among Friends? from Persephone Mag

31. Menstruation from the ear? Science has advanced a bit since then.

32. A Periodic Table Of Your Period from Laughing Squid

33. ActiPearls and Having a Happy Period is a critique of a ‘sanitary pad’ commercial from Bad Reputation, in which ‘chemical stench equals sanitation’.

34. ‘Women weren’t included in the study because menstrual cycles may cause fluid balance fluctuations.’ That’s from a study on coffee, but makes me wonder — is the ‘complicating factor’ of menstruation (or menopause, or risk of damaging a fetus) part of why so often women are left out of medical trials and studies? At what point is it okay to eliminate women from a study, concluding instead that what’s true for men is also true for women? Many drugs are more dangerous than coffee.

35. What Life Is Like When Getting Your Period Means You’re Shunned at Jezebel

36. Women Aren’t Run By Their Periods, from Slate

Kitchens As Metonyms For Familial Happiness In Literature

Carrie's War book cover

The comforting image of an idealized maternal figure and environment are produced in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War. Carrie and her little brother Nick are evacuated to Wales during World War 2. They are billeted with a rather strange couple whose house is cold and austere. But they derive much comfort from visiting Hepzibah whose kitchen is “A warm, safe, lighted place … Coming into it was like coming home on a bitter cold day to a bright, leaping fire. It was like the smell of bacon when you were hungry; loving arms when you were lonely; safety when you were scared.’ Thus, the kitchen is a maternalized space, a place where warmth, the promise of food, bodily contact, and security conflate to produce feelings of comfort. When the children first meet Hepzibah she is “smiling. She was tall with shining hair the colour of copper. She wore a white apron, and there was flour on her hands. She has “a rather broad face, pale as cream, and dotted with freckles. Carrie thought she looked beautiful: so warm and friendly and kind.’ The feelings of homely, maternal comfort evoked by the descriptions of the kitchen and of Hepzibah herself are embellished and reinforced by sensuous descriptions of food. Carrie is shown the dairy where “there were speckly eggs in trays on the shelf, slabs of pale, oozy butter, and a big bowl of milk with a skin of cream on the top.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature


Do you have a favourite picturebook kitchen?

The Treasure Bag: stories and poems selected by Lena Barksdale. Illustrated by Maurice Brevannes, 1947.

The Treasure Bag: stories and poems selected by Lena Barksdale. Illustrated by Maurice Brevannes, 1947.

Brambly Hedge

from one of the Brambly Hedge books


by Tasha Tudor, illustrator

by Tasha Tudor, illustrator


The Diary Of A Forest Girl by illustrator Aeppol

The Diary Of A Forest Girl by illustrator Aeppol

Little House On The Prairie Kitchen

Little House On The Prairie illustrated by Garth Williams

Little House On The Prairie Garth Williams

Food would have been basic by modern standards, but was very important in the stories

The illustrations in this early edition of the book seem a lot more austere than the 1980s television adaptation

The illustrations in this early edition of the book seem a lot more austere than the 1980s television adaptation

Symbolic Names In Children’s Stories

character symbols

A symbol is a packet of highly compressed meaning. These symbols highlight and communicate different aspects of the characters/story world/plot.

A subcategory of the literary symbol is the ‘character symbol’.

A character’s name is a children’s story is quite often symbolic. Symbolic names are also common in comedy, but are less frequently seen elsewhere, in stories that aim for mimesis. In the real world, after all, people’s personalities are not connected to their names. (And even if your teacher is called Mrs Bellringer, that isn’t useful in a suspenseful crime novel.)

When the name of a fictional character describes their personality or occupation, it is called an aptronym.

Also known as:

  • aptonym (without the ‘r’)
  • label name
  • allegorical name


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