Writing Activity: Describe A Bedroom

Pets for Peter, 1950, Aurelius Battaglia, Italian American Children's Book Illustrator

Lectrology, the study of the bed and its surroundings, can be extremely useful and tell you a great deal about the owner, even if it’s only that they are a very knowing and savvy installations artist.

Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals

Each of us has three lives: public, private and secret. We are rarely afforded glimpses into the bedrooms of other people, a room which, in the West, bridges the private and secret selves.


Canopy beds can be cosy, or anything but.

The Little Golden Funny Book, pictures by J.P.Miller, 1950
The Little Golden Funny Book, pictures by J.P.Miller, 1950

But fiction lets us all the way in. In fiction, the bedroom can be a representation — perhaps ironic — of a character’s inner world.


Alice Munro is master at describing the ordinary, and so she shows us here, in her descriptions of bedrooms described as ‘Spartan’ or as bachelor pads.

My father slept in what had been a pantry, off the kitchen. He had an iron bed and a broken-backed chair he kept his stack of old National Geographics on, to read when he couldn’t sleep. He turned the ceiling light off and on by a cord tied to the bed-frame. This whole arrangement seemed to me quite natural and proper for the man of the house, the father. He should sleep like a sentry with a coarse blanket for cover and an unhousebroken smell about him, of engines and tobacco. Reading and wakeful till all hours and alert all through his sleep.

Alice Munro, “Queenie

The ceiling of [Delphine’s] room sloped steeply on either side of a dormer window. There was a single bed, a sink, a chair, a bureau. On the chair a hot plate with a kettle on it. On the bureau a crowded array of makeup, combs and pills, a tin of teabags and a tin of hot chocolate powder. The bedspread was of thin tan-and-white striped seersucker, like the ones on the guest beds.

Alice Munro, “Trespasses

He stood aside for Robin to enter the big front room, which had no rug on the wide painted floorboards and no curtains, only shades, on the windows. There was a hi-fi system taking up a good deal of space along one wall, and a sofa along the wall opposite, of the sort that would pull out to make a bed. A couple of canvas chairs, and a bookcase with books on one shelf and magazines on the others, tidily stacked. No pictures or cushions or ornaments in sight. A bachelor’s room, with everything deliberate and necessary and proclaiming a certain austere satisfaction. Very different from the only other bachelor premises Robin was familiar with—Willard Grieg’s, which seemed more like a forlorn encampment established casually in the middle of his dead parents’ furniture.

Alice Munro, “Tricks

The room was almost square, perhaps a little longer than it was wide, with only
one window that filled almost the entire far wall. So far, completely blank and
empty, it was expectant, almost curious, and Natalie, standing timidly just inside
the door, in the walls opposite the window, looked at the bare walls with joy; it
was, precisely, a new start.

Shirley Jackson, “Hangsaman”

Square, one windowed, blank and empty, Natalie’s space is not quite the lavish palace setting one might hope for in a new start. Yet, this clinical style space is perfect for the girl “standing timidly” right at the threshold. Natalie’s apprehensive joy is mirrored in the room, personified in its “expectant, almost curious” reaction to its new owner. The space’s barrenness can be filled with Natalie’s belongings, thoughts, and feelings.

Repeatedly, Natalie’s “joy” comes from staring at the bare walls, and a projected potential. Newness creates safety. Though the walls are tan, the ceiling decorated “in the proper institutional bad taste, so uninspired as to be almost colorless, and the dark-brown woodwork and the smallness of the room made it seem cell-like and dismal” with one single bulb hanging over Natalie’s head, her impression is of comfort.

Though the “bad taste” and “uninspired” decor should be confining and “dismal,” Natalie’s first gaze into the room leaves her feeling satisfied and content. Her new space gives the impression of “setting her in a sort of package, compact and square and air and water-proof, a precise, unadulterated, fresh start…a new clean box to live in”.

This insular, sectioned off aesthetic equivalent of a jail cell instills contentment in entrapment. Natalie’s previous life in her stifled suburban space becomes a distanced version of her self (and, by extension, trauma) escaped through creating a sense of new and explorable setting.

The other side to Natalie’s expectations is a sense of dread that the room enforces. Not only does Natalie have her ideas for the room, but it is as if the room has always been waiting for her entry.

Its personified expectancy and curiosity lead into its “setting her in a sort of package,” coming alive to meet its new occupant. The room is as sentient as its new owner. […]

The struggle between what belongs in and out manifests in Jackson’s attention to smalL architectural symbols. Doors are a means to access the space in between, a threshold that creates the eerie connection between reality and non reality.

“Homespun” Horror: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Doubling by Hannah Phillips


She woke in the night with the vibrating pink lights of the restaurant sign across the street flashing through her window, illuminating the other teacher’s Mexican doodads. Pots of cacti, dangling cat’s eyes, blankets with stripes the color of dried blood. All that drunken insight, that exhilaration, cast out of her like vomit. Aside from that, she was not hungover. She could wallow in lakes of alcohol, it seemed, and wake up dry as cardboard, flattened. Her life gone. A commonplace calamity. The truth was that she was still drunk, though feeling dead sober.

Alice Munro, “Fiction


Upstairs in her strange little room Harry dropped her pack on the floor, pleased to be up there, still hearing family voices but not having to answer them. Though the attic was called Harry’s room, it as not really a romm at all, simply a floor laid over the ceiling joists and insultation, a space fitted in under the pointed “A” of the roof. Its dormer window looked out to sea across curved wands of bougainvillaea, and she shared the space with boxes of Christmas decorations. A little mirror without a frame hung on a nail in one of the diagonals that supported the iron roof. She could see tents, ground sheets, rolls of wallpaper left over from previous home improvements, and many other spare things that just might be needed some day. Here at night, over many years, the house had groaned and murmured to her…

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy


The forest is symbolically rich for storytellers, multivalent in its associations — a place of refuge and a place of terror at once. The forest is basically the subconscious. That is how it functions in fairytale.

The bedroom from Beauty and the Beast (1945) is interesting because Beauty’s bedroom spills over into the forest. This is a story which delves into the deep subconscious. (The text below has been auto translated from French.) For ane xample of forest as bedroom in Sleeping Beauty see 12 Films Inspired by the Art of Gustave Doré.

The bedroom without walls, blending with surrounding landscape has been utilised by contemporary picture book illustrators, for instance Anthony Browne in Just A Dream. (In that post I offer other examples.) There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild blends a child’s bedroom with the sea.


Can you think of one from your own life?


Robert McCloskey wrote and illustrated Homer Price, published in 1943


The illustration below is by English-Australian writer/illustrator Inga Moore and is set on a ship, but the bed is very similar to those in Scandinavian cottages.

Inga Moore illustration of Captain Cat

In English they’re called Scandinavian box beds.

Omar Rayyan - Rimonah of the Flashing Sword A North African Tale bedroom
Omar Rayyan – Rimonah of the Flashing Sword A North African Tale
Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1956 beds
Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1956.

The Bed: Laurie Taylor explores the social history of the bed and considers the chequered fortunes of the twin versus double bed at the Thinking Allowed podcast (BBC 4).

Richard Hollingdale – A Bedtime Story 1878
Illustrations for Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' painted in the 1950s by Soviet artist Andrey Sokolov
Illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ painted in the 1950s by Soviet artist Andrey Sokolov
Original 1931 Judge magazine with Dr. Suess illustrations 1931 bedroom
Original 1931 Judge magazine with Dr. Suess illustrations 1931


A typical home-away-home children’s story takes place over the course of a single day, and ends when the child is tucked safely into bed at night. No surprise, then, that Western children’s books feature many examples of illustrated bedrooms.

Note that tucking a child into their own bed at night is a specifically Western thing to do. Many non-Western children co-sleep with their parents until adolescence.

A character’s room can contribute to characterisation… Setting is frequently used to symbolize the character’s moods as well as power position. The bright sunny morning in the beginning of Anne of Green Gables corresponds to her hopeful expectations. A change of setting can parallel the change in the character’s frame of mind. A storm can symbolize the turmoil in the character’s psyche.

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

1. How is Asaf’s new bedroom different from his old one?

2. Describe the colour symbolism.

Mouse's House - written by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, illustrated by Richard Scarry (1949)
Mouse’s House – written by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, illustrated by Richard Scarry (1949)
Katie Country Mouse Goes to London by Philip Mendoza
Katie Country Mouse Goes to London by Philip Mendoza
"How to treat a rooster" by Alexey Krylov Illustrator Vladimir Lubarsky
“How to treat a rooster” by Alexey Krylov Illustrator Vladimir Lubarsky
Zdenek Miller (Czech) mole series 1957-2002
Zdenek Miller (Czech) mole series 1957-2002
Richard Scarry (1919-1994), American author and illustrator. The bunny book, 1955
Richard Scarry (1919-1994), American author and illustrator. The bunny book, 1955
What Do People Do All Day (1968) by Richard Scarry
What Do People Do All Day (1968) by Richard Scarry
The Surprise Picnic 1976 John S. Goodall bedroom
The Surprise Picnic 1976 John S. Goodall
Lullaby, Illustrator Yuri Vasnetsov
Lullaby, Illustrator Yuri Vasnetsov
Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever bed pram
Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever
Mumfie. Illustrations by Katherine Tozer
Mumfie. Illustrations by Katherine Tozer
Tom Vroman, 1964
Tom Vroman, 1964
From Lucy and Tom From A to X B is for Books before bed by Shirley Hughes
Elisabeth Brozowska, Isidore L'Hippopotame, 1969
Elisabeth Brozowska, Isidore L’Hippopotame, 1969
Eddie Elephant Written and illustrated by Johnny Gruelle. Volland Sunny Book Series. Chicago P.F. Volland, 1921
Eddie Elephant Written and illustrated by Johnny Gruelle. Volland Sunny Book Series. Chicago P.F. Volland, 1921
Marco Somà
Marco Somà
Yevgeny Meshkov's illustrations for The Cat and the Whale. These ones were for the 1964 Filmoscope release 2
Yevgeny Meshkov’s illustrations for The Cat and the Whale. These ones were for the 1964 Filmoscope release 2
Christian Roux
French postcard 1913 cat in bed
French postcard 1913 cat in bed
Arthur Rackham 1905 bedroom
Arthur Rackham 1905


Walter Frederick Osborne (1859 – 1903)
Elizabeth Shippen Green, Candle Light, 1908 bedroom
Elizabeth Shippen Green, Candle Light, 1908 bedroom
Bubbling Love Of Fun! Art by Roy Frederic Spreter pillow fight bedroom
Bubbling Love Of Fun! Art by Roy Frederic Spreter
Edward Radford (British, 1831 - 1920) The Song of the Shirt 1887 bedroom
Edward Radford (British, 1831 – 1920) The Song of the Shirt 1887
Carl Larsson (Swedish, 1853 – 1919), “Lisbeth with Gold Tulip,” 1894


CRADLE TRICK: A sub-category of the “bed-trick,” this is a folk motif in which the position of a cradle in a dark room leads one character to climb into bed with the wrong sexual partner. It appears prominently in Chaucer’s “The Reeve’s Tale.” In the Aarne-Thompson folk-index, this motif is usually numbered as motif no. 1363.

Literary Terms and Definitions

A Study of Beds and Bedrooms

Teenage Bedroom is a Tumblr with photos of … well, it’s pretty self-explanatory. What vibe do you get from each of these bedrooms? Can you associate any with characters from novels you have read?

Rolled over: why did married couples stop sleeping in twin beds? A new cultural history shows that until the 1950s, forward-thinking couples regarded sharing a bed as old-fashioned and unhealthy from The Guardian

In the Year of the Virus is an innovative graphic comic book inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic. The story revolves around several characters affected — and infected —- by the viral outbreak. The text by award-winning writer Felix Cheong, adapted beautifully by artist Eko, examines our humanity as our lives are upended and ended.

This is a ground-breaking work that marries text with artwork and aptly captures the wild swings of emotion we all felt after the pandemic hit and the lockdown began.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Header illustration: Pets for Peter, 1950, Aurelius Battaglia, Italian American Children’s Book Illustrator

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Use of long words: sesquipedalianism

Sesquipedalianism is a linguistic style that involves the use of long words. It might be characterised as polysyllabic holophrastic verbalism.


Some well-known authors advise against making use of words which draw attention to themselves.

Words in prose ought to express the intended meaning; if they attract attention to themselves, it is a fault; in the very best styles you read page after page without noticing the medium.


Then you have the opposite view:

Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit.


Some authors draw deliberate attention to words as a matter of style and as part of character-building.

An example of a character in children’s literature who speaks in a wordy style is Owl, from Winnie-the-Pooh, who tries (in vain) to make himself sound intelligent.

Saki (H.H. Munro), the short story writer, made use of highfalutin prose; this was his style, and it serves to amplify the effete lives of his characters.

Without running all the way to sesquipedalianism, authors often make use of an articulate narrator in order to tell a story. Child and young adult first-person protagonists often show extraordinary insight of the kind they couldn’t possibly have. They make use of wide vocabularies, they write clearly and with mature insight. Of course, they must. Anything less wouldn’t be worth reading. Readers expect this from a book — this is an amazing story and that’s why it’s been made into a book. But every now and then, if we as readers think too hard about it, the maturity of a young narrator fails to draw us into the fictional world of the story.

This is an excerpt of a review, from someone who doesn’t like Inkheart, a YA fantasy novel (widely loved by many):

I think it’s a case of the author not wanting to be limited by a 13 year old’s language and perceptions, so he’s come up with the excuse that the boy is smart and loves learning new words. It’s not just the language either, it’s also the character’s mature insights into how the world works, insights that only come with age and experience.

So there we have it, the children’s author’s tightrope: Narrators who are smart and articulate, but not too smart. Literary critics call this dilemma ‘double address‘.

There are ways of getting around it. One of those ways is ‘consonant psychonarration’ (figural).

This means that there’s little privilege on the narrator’s part. The narrator doesn’t know much that the child protagonist doesn’t either. One author who is well-known for doing this well is Katherine Paterson, who wrote Bridge To Terabithia.

Mark Haddon also does consonant psychonarration very well by making use of a narrator on the autistic spectrum.

from Thinking Fast and Slow
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Lookism and Physiognomy in Children’s Fiction

Physiognomy is the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his outer appearance, especially the face.


There are plenty of books about this subject, which encourages readers to judge people based on how they look. (Here’s a list on Goodreads.)

If you read classic children’s literature you’ll encounter descriptions of character which exist not only to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, but to encourage the reader to make inferences about their personality.

I’m not talking about the really old stuff, though. Looks haven’t always been important. You don’t find many physical descriptions in ancient dramas. It’s found rarely in the epics. Authors started going on about looks around the time of the classic novel. This coincided with the pseudoscience of physiognomy and phrenology (the shape of the cranium).

For instance, Anne Shirley has red hair. To modern readers (even in an age of red-head discrimination), Anne’s hatred of her hair seems extreme. But when the book was written, red hair in women was still somewhat connected to witchcraft. Anne Shirley’s fictional counterparts would indeed have been judging Anne based on the colour of her hair.

Anne Shirley played by Megan Follows

“You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair,” said Anne reproachfully. “People who haven’t red hair don’t know what trouble is.”

Anne of Green Gables

People with red hair are still judged today: I’ve heard it said that red-headed people have ‘hot tempers’, as if pigmentation could somehow influence brain chemistry.

Contemporary writers of fiction are less likely to rely on the tenets of physiognomy when describing the appearance of their characters. (But we do have our own set of contemporary biases, which will become more and more apparent as time goes by.)

Contemporary fiction is less likely to include a ‘block description’ of a character at the beginning of a story, as if describing a photo. Modern authors tend to focus on a single trait (such as Harry Potter’s scar) and then build on it, embedding further description into the story.

Some questions to consider

  1. In modern children’s fiction, does beauty correlate with goodness, or vice versa?
  2. Are people of colour more likely to be depicted doing certain things?
  3. Are there ways creators of picturebooks can avoid teaching children to judge others based on physical appearance? (One common way is to depict animals, not people. Are there others?)
  4. In children’s fiction, which physical characteristics are associated with ‘evil’? And with ‘goodness’?
  5. Think of some modern children’s books you have read. What were the distinguishing physical characteristics of the main characters?
  6. Is there a general difference between the way girls and boys are described in children’s fiction?
  7. Where a character is not described, what sorts of things do we assume about them? What colour is their skin, for example?



There are various ways of trying to work people out from various different things that people do. Handwriting is another faux-psychological way of working a person out.

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The Science and Pleasure of Reading

Guy Pène du Bois (1884 - 1958) Girl Reading a Book

Silent Reading Isn’t So Silent — At Least Not To Your Brain, from Neurotic Physiology. ‘Many people who read silently do so by imagining a voice speaking the words they are reading…This could be because when we learn to read, we associate symbols with verbal sounds until the association is effortless…What’s particularly new about this study is that it not only shows that silent reading causes high-frequency electrical activity in auditory areas, but it shows that these areas as specific to voices speaking a language.’ I find this article interesting because my experience of native Japanese readers, with their highly complex orthography, aren’t as bothered as we native English speakers about whether they are able to voice any given character, as long as they can understand what it means.

I Hate This Book So Much: A meditation from Time

Why What You’re Reading Matters from Book Riot

What are your self destructive reading habits? from io9

So Many Books, So Little Time from Salon

When Do You Abandon A Book? from Reading Matters

The Upside Of Dyslexia from The NYT

Scientific Speed Reading: How to Read 300% Faster in 20 Minutes from The Four Hour Work Week

Hans Rosling: How the Washing Machine Sparked the Reading Revolution, a TED Talk

Lifetime of Reading Slows Cognitive Decline from PS Mag

How Reading Makes Us More Human from The Atlantic

It seems shameful to confess it now, but I didn’t always enjoy reading to my children when they were little, from The Guardian

Novels don’t have to be “good reads.” Sometimes, the best book is the one you throw across the room. From io9

Kids in Deere Park didn’t hang out on the street, at least not thirteen year olds, so Justine didn’t meet anyone the entire summer. This didn’t bother her. She drifted into a pleasant world of television and magazines which led, to her surprise, to reading books. Each book was an invisible tunnel leading to a phantom world that existed silently parallel to real life, into which one could vanish then emerge without anyone knowing. Hardy, Dickens, Poe, Chekov — she could barely understand the way the characters spoke, but it only made the experience more exotic, more secret, something to which no adolescent social rules applied. How had the hard-edged furniture, neon signs, and minimal hot-colored clothes evolved from the baroque book world, the complex, multilayered universe populated by people who spoke so elaborately and died of tuberculosis? It frightened her to think the world changed so quickly.

Mary Gaitskill, Two Girls, Fat And Thin

The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought unique and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

Alan Bennett, from Art, Architecture and Authors 
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Header painting: Guy Pène du Bois (1884 – 1958) Girl Reading a Book

Book Apps And Print Books: Advantages Disadvantages


  • Can exist in larger size, enabling the reader to linger for a long time over each page. e.g. Animalia by Graham Base, Where’s Wally.
  • No backlit screen, so possibly more suitable for bedtime reading, especially for children who are sensitive to light.
  • Well-bound objects can be handed down to children and grandchildren, with no compatability issues.
  • Don’t need to own an expensive device.
  • Expensive device can be broken (though not easily) by young hands.
  • No privacy risks to consumer.
  • Any in-story advertising is the exception rather than the rule.
  • Can try before you buy — even read the entire thing if you want.05


  • Although an expensive device is necessary, the stories themselves are much cheaper than printed versions.
  • Auto-narration. This helps younger readers or the visually impaired. While reading is undoubtedly best as a share experience most of the time, auto-narration can save parents from reading childhood favourites so many times they feel like they’re going crazy.
  • No dog ears and ripped pages — the copy remains pristine (even if the screen doesn’t).
  • The limitations of storyapps are dependent mainly on developer budget and memory usage, not on binding. So a storyapp doesn’t have to be 32 or 24 pages, unlike a printed version. This leaves more artistic freedom. A book ends where it needs to end.
  • Dialogue can be rendered more succinctly. Instead of lengthy ‘He said’, ‘She exclaimed’ paragraphs, dialogue can pop out from characters, cartoon-style.
  • Can get a refund from Apple for simply not liking the story, though this is not well-known, and requires a number of annoying steps.


See Also: Print Books Vs eBooks:  a look at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center research.

Three Ways Of Looking At Character

There are many ways of looking at character: flat vs rounded, static vs dynamic and stylised versus natural. These distinctions are explained below.



Is this character more ‘flat’ or more ’rounded’?

This distinction was first made by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, who said that a round character is one who is capable of surprise.

I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood. My characters—I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional…. My characters have a profession, have characteristics; you know their age, their family situation, and everything. But I try to make each one of those characters heavy, like a statue, and to be the brother of everybody in the world.

Georges Simenon

In any work of literature there is a place for characters of both orientations.

  • Are by nature 2D and without colour
  • Typically have one stand-out trait or none at all
  • Are often either ‘good’ or ‘evil’
  • Actions are predictable
  • Common in formulaic fiction
  • The characters in Winnie the Pooh are all flat, but collectively make up parts of a single character (Christopher Robin), who is not flat
  • But a flat character is not necessarily artistically worse than a rounded one — whatever serves the story is good.
  • Respond in predictable, mechanical ways. This makes flat characters very useful in comedy or in suspense stories (e.g. horror and thriller).
  • More closely approximates a real person
  • Possess a number of traits
  • We can’t predict their behaviour
  • Protagonists aren’t necessarily rounded, though are more likely to be so
  • Secondary characters aren’t necessarily flat, though are more likely to be so
  • In children’s literature, the rounded characters are generally less complex than they would be in real life, for simplicity’s sake

Basically, rounded characters are individuated characters. Individuated characters are detailed.

I want each character to be as unique as possible. I want them to reflect something of who they are in the way that they move and in how their bodies work. That was foremost in my head when I was writing Salvage: I wanted every gesture, every little movement, to really carry meaning and communicate meaning to the reader. I was very conscious of that when I was writing.

Jesmyn Ward



Dynamic characters change over the course of the story.

Static characters remain the same.

What about the characters in the books you’ve published so far? Here are mine:

Asaf of The Artifacts changes. Therefore he is of ‘dynamic orientation’. He stops collecting material items to make himself happy and begins to broaden his mind with experiences.

Roya of Midnight Feast changes a little, but ultimately chooses to ignore the realities right outside her window. She is closer to the ‘static’ end of the continuum.

Hilda of Hilda Bewildered undergoes an entire character arc from overwhelmed to able to cope.

Allegra of Diary Of A Goth Girl also undergoes an entire character arc, from prickly and mean to loving.

  • Both main characters and supporting characters can be static or dynamic.
  • Old didactic (moralistic) children’s literature is more likely to have static characters.
  • But static characters aren’t necessarily worse  than dynamic characters — it depends on the story.
  • Contemporary children’s literature commonly depicts inner growth, and therefore needs a dynamic main character.
  • Rounded characters can be either dynamic or static — these are two different continua
  • There’s kind of a rule of kidlit that a good kid can’t turn evil, but the opposite often happens, even if the ending is left ‘open’, and we’re encouraged to assume redemption
  • Oftentimes, if a character were to change too much we’d be disappointed. We’d be disappointed if Anne of Green Gables lost her optimistic attitude, for example.



This distinction is important in children’s fiction.

  • Stylisation is a commonly used didactic device. (Stylised characters are used to teach the reader something.)
  • A stereotype is a kind of stylisation (as well as tropes and stock characters)
  • Contemporary psychological novels tend to feature natural characterisation


I don’t use people I know at all. I really value the shorthand, the compression of suggesting a whole life while actually having to render up very little of it. I feel tired of exposition and backstory; the more you can suggest without spelling out, the more you can encompass in the same space. Fiction writing is always about compression and suggestion.

Jennifer Egan

Goodreads to Anne Tyler: You are noted for your skill in writing character-driven novels. Do you consider yourself a student of human behaviour? When working on character, do you turn to people watching or daydreaming—looking outward or inward for inspiration?

Anne Tyler: I figure we’re almost all students of human behaviour. That’s how we get along in the world—by trying to make sense of the people we have to deal with.

When I’m working on character, I search my memory for telltale traits or gestures that I may have noticed in some random passerby. For instance, the other day I met a delightfully scatterbrained woman who was wearing a plastic bracelet the size of a giant bagel. When she tried to write a note, her bracelet was so thick that her fingers couldn’t reach the pad of paper she was resting her wrist on. I loved that; I thought it said reams about her.


Here’s what Robert McKee has to say about characterisation in stories:

  • Characters are not people. Whereas people constantly change and are difficult to pin down, characters in stories stand for things about human nature that are unchangeable through the ages.
  • Be mindful of the difference between ‘characterisation’ (age, looks, job and other individuating details.) and ‘true character’ (that behind the mask). (It is a Western idea that there is such a thing as true character.)
  • True character can only be expressed through choice in a moral dilemma. How a character chooses to act under pressure will reveal the most interesting things.
  • Make sure you understand your character’s desires.
  • Don’t reduce characters to case studies. ‘Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more they diminish the character in the audience’s mind.’
  • What other characters say about your character is more revealing than what main characters say about themselves.
  • To create 3D characters, what you do is give them complexity by contradiction. The trick is to make the contradictions of their character consistent.
  • The main character must be the most complex character in the story.

Catherine Tate was asked once, ‘Where do you get your characters?’ She told the journalist that there was a shop on such-and-such-a-street.

As Dean Norris said of his character Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad: “I knew all about my character before I’d read a thing.” (He’d heard his character was called ‘Hank’.)

From an acquisitions editor: Here is a problem I find in my own writing and one I see in a lot of submissions: Characters so focused on their own agendas that they don’t react like normal human beings to what is going on around them.

Cardboard Characters from Novel Rocket


  1.  25 Things You Should Know About Character
  2. Why it’s not enough to simply fill out a character sheet from Edit Torrent
  3. Creating Authenticity in Fiction – Where do authors draw the line? a thought-provoking article from Carly Watters
  4. 25 Things You Should Know About Protagonists, from Chuck Wendig
  5. What Is Character? Books which debunk the myth of fixed personality from Brainpickings
  6. Under Development: Ways to Create Characters, from The Other Side Of The Story
  7. Take Your Characters To Therapy from Writer Unboxed
  8. Four Things You Need to Understand about Character Emotion from Women On Writing



The realisation that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own. (The inverse of solipsism.)

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Header photo by Basil Samuel Lade.

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The Features Of Chapter Books

boy reading

If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between chapter books and middle grade books, or picture books and chapter books, you’re in luck.


Kate De Goldi talks to Kim Hill on RNZ Saturday Morning With Kim Hill and makes a very good job of explaining what makes the ‘Chapter Book’ a separate category in the world of children’s literature.

The notes below also come from Writing Blueprints webinar. (Starts after 11 minutes)

Here’s a transcript of an interview with Cheryl Zach about the difference between chapter books, middle grade novels and YA novels, from the Institute of Children’s Literature

Chapter books are better able to be defined than other types of books because they are for quite a narrow developmental process so you can say certain things about what most children will be capable of when introduced to chapter books.

The reading progression: Picture books, more complex picture books, chapter books, novels.

Chapter books are ideal for building confidence in reading without help.

Walker Books have been fantastic in how they publish and pitch chapter books at the right age.


They’re not readers that you’re learning to read on — they’re a different thing again, because they have a carefully calibrated vocabulary. This is not what’s happening in chapter books. Chapter books have a wider vocabulary. Different authors explore the width of that vocabulary in different ways.

Chapter books have a sustained narrative. You also get episodic stories, such as Milly Molly Mandy.

They can be read to the child, or the child may read chapter books themselves. Both.

There is a certain simplicity about chapter books, and a certain ambit (scope) in the storytelling. The readers are now entering the wider world, so characters in chapter books include people you meet at school and out-and-about. But it’s also a period in a child’s life where friendships are developing and readers are learning to co-operate. Children in chapter books tend to have more agency than they might have in a picturebook (bearing in mind there is a huge range of picturebooks out there now), but in a chapter book the main character does not have complete agency because they are 6, 7, 8, 9 years old. So the progress of a story can be aided by the child’s agency but also with assistance of someone else, even though this assisting character is often another child.

They’re often school stories/family life/holidays, and there will be a problem to be explored, maybe something to do with dealing with things in the world, or something stopping the child from having they really desire etc. There is often an animal that is important in the child’s life.

Chapter books often feature black and white or colour illustrations.

Text is written in short paragraphs. Plots are clear, simple and fast-paced. Strong narrative drive. Lots of dialogue.

One major aim is to make the young reader feel accomplished so they go on to read more books.

Most readers are 6-9 but the entire range of chapter books can serve readers from 5 to 10.

Early chapter books

Early chapter books are also called transition books are for younger readers 5-8. Or perhaps the parent is reading them to a 4 year old. 2500 to 7000 words long. Chapters are 500 words or less. Colour illustrations fill up a lot of these books. There’s a lot of space for the reader’s imagination. Unlike in a picture book, the illustrations aren’t really going to add information to the story that isn’t apparent in the text. (Low ironic distance between the text and picture.) The reason being, the reader is going to look to the illustration to help them decode the words. e.g. The Princess In Black. Illustrations and text support each other. The Kingdom of Wrenly is another excellent example of an early chapter book. Early chapter books are written at about the second grade reading level but some children in first grade can also read them.

At the end of the early chapter book category the illustrations are a bit fewer and tend to be black and white. With Eerie Elementary there are 96 book pages, 6000 words. (When you write it yourself it won’t be 96 pp long — this is including the illustrations.) This series from Scholastic has a bit of a spooky feeling. It includes friendship dynamics.


Older/later chapter books are for 7-10 year old readers, sometimes all the way up to Year 4. Texts are 7000 to 12000 words. Generally black and white illustrations, not necessarily on every page. “Spot illustrations” — mostly text with a little picture. Clementine by Sara Pennypacker is an older chapter book. Lots of depth in terms of character but not complication in terms of plot. Ivy + Bean is about 120 book pages, 8000 words. These girls have a wonderful dynamic on the page. They go on very minor but delightful adventures. They tend to have slightly larger than spot illustrations. The pictures might add a bit of extra information, telling a secret, but it’s not carrying the plot. Lots of dialogue, conveying lots of story in a really fast way. 12000 is the upper limit but quite long for a chapter book. The Time Warp Trio: Your Mother Was a Neanderthal by Jon Scieskzka is 80 book pages, 10,500 words. There’s a trio, a time warp. 8 year olds are interested in time warps and Pokemon and similar. Lots of text, one small illustration which adds story movement/humour. A child isn’t getting frustrated trying to picture something before moving along with the story. This book has excellent dialogue. There are three boys and everybody’s dialogue sounds different.

Every publisher classifies chapter books slightly differently. There’s some crossover in ages. Countries also do it differently. The story itself will determine what kind of chapter book it is. If mainly action and dialogue it’s probably an earlier chapter book. If it shows some of the protagonist’s internal thoughts and feelings or has a strong secondary character central to the plot it’s probably a later chapter book.

They can have interesting, creative, super fun formats. Graphic novels, a mixture of graphic novel and text on a page (Captain Underpants).

Certain subject matter crops up time and again in chapter books. For example, a character sees a ghost becomes the main plot of Owl Diaries: Eva Sees A Ghost and Ivy + Bean And The Ghost That Had To Go.

Young readers fall in love with characters which explains why chapter books are published in series. They tend to tell their friends about their favourite books.

Characters can be kids, animals, adults or anything else you can think of.

Humour is key.

There’s not much interiority in chapter books compared to young adult and adult books.

Chapters in chapter books tend to be titled. (Maybe this is partly why — or because — they’re called chapter books?) That appears in the table of contents.

Either present tense or past tense is used in chapter books.

How does a really good writer stitch together something with a very prescribed word length?

1600 word stories – heavily illustrated, though not as much as a picturebook. (e.g. Walker Shorts, Scholastic Branches.) Many chapter books are part of the Accelerated Reader assessment program used by schools to track students’ reading progress, which helps teachers, who are increasingly required to provide data to prove they can teach these days. Various different companies provide Accelerated Reader programs to countries around the world. (There are various opinions on the AR program.)

It’s probably slightly easier to get a chapter book published than other kinds of books because there are fewer being submitted, especially if it’s one of the earlier chapter books. Those earlier chapter books are perhaps not quite as fun to write, or maybe it’s just that an active knowledge of vocabulary usage is required, and this skill is not common. There are programs you can run your text through to give you the reading level of your book, like the function in MS Word, but these aren’t especially accurate. If you’re using lots of commas in a sentence you’ve probably got too much going on in that sentence.

Many chapter book authors make use of the Children’s Writer’s Word Book.

Is there a risk of being too formulaic? Yes, but in the hands of a really good writer, a fixed structure can be enormously liberating.

Anna Branford

Children’s author and maker of things (Melbourne based)

Published by Walker. Mostly English writers in the Walker series but also some Australian and New Zealand writers in this short series. 1500 words is almost too short. But Violet Mackerel is lovely, especially with the black and white drawings running all the way through. The pictures are an important part of the story, setting tone and mood. This book has a proper hard back and nice pages and feels like a proper, grown-up book. The story is perfectly paced, the relationship between Violet and her friend Rose is really nice.

De Goldi recommends Violet Mackerel for 6, 7, 8 year olds, girls probably. Of course there will be some boys that this appeals to but the stories are aimed at girls in every possible way. There’s a lot of gender division at this age.

Hilary McKay

British author

Almost 5000 words. Hilary McKay is a very good writer of middle grade and YA books.

Hilary McKay chapter books

Ursula Dubosarsky

Writer for children and young adults (Australian)

Boys would like this book. It’s got two guinea pigs. One of them is a policeman in Buenos Aires.

Sally Sutton

New Zealand children’s author

Annie Barrows

Writer for both children and adults (American)

Similar to Violet Mackerel, with black and white line drawings throughout but much more text.

As you may have noticed, Annie Barrows also makes stuff for adults (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, with Mary Ann Schaffer)

Amy Marie Stadelmann

Olive and Beatrix are twins, but they are very different from one another. Olive loves science, and Beatrix is a witch!

Best friends who are very different from each other make for popular chapter book dynamics, even though in real life it’s almost a rule that best friends in primary school have to pretend they’re they have the same interests. (Birds of a feather.)

Jan Mark

Was a British writer

Jan Mark was very good at writing stories of about 2500 words. This is a masterly book to unpack from a writerly point of view. Five chapters, a very simple story about Jane and her cat Furlong. It deals with bullying. This story is very suburban, with a strong sense of place. What’s remarkable about it is the psychology of the characters, the plot, the resolution, the setting, all that is caught in 2500 words. Mark knows what to leave out and what to embellish. There is a pleasant old-fashioned feel to this, even though this book was written in the 90s.

So why does a book published in the 90s feel slightly old-fashioned? It might partly be to do with the regional accent and therefore the word choice, but this book is also written in the past tense from third person point of view. These books are almost always written in the third person — and there is a good reason for this. Take a slightly different kind of book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is written in first person. Why aren’t books of this length written in first person? It must have something to do with the fact that the child hasn’t developed a strong sense of ego. Instead, they’re planted in a world where they’re part of a general sort of organism/community.

Perhaps this is happening less now, with first person fiction creeping down into this length chapter book now, and it seems we’ve entered a phase where the child must be the agent all the time. Individuals assert themselves even in quite early children’s fiction.

Noah Z. Jones

Jones writes for television and seems to have gotten started with illustration, later moving into both writing and illustrating his own stories.

Princess Pink And The Land Of Fake-Believe: Moldylocks and the Three Beards was both written and illustrated by Noah Z. Jones. The series is funny fractured fairy tales. The Princess Pink stories are part of Scholastic’s early chapter book line called Branches.

Plot of Moldylocks and the Three Beards
In the Land of Fake Believe, Princess meets a strange girl named Moldylocks. When Princess’s stomach grumbles, Moldylocks takes her to the home of the Three Beards. The girls sit in the Beards’ chairs, eat their chilli, and jump on their beds. The Three Beards are not happy when they get home—and they are very, very hungry! Will Moldylocks and Princess go into the chilli pot?

This book is about 80 book pages, 2,200 words. There’s a focus on repetition. Lots of illustration and fun and humour.

The main character’s main point is that she is despises pink, which I guess is meant to be ironic since her last name is Pink. However, Princess Pink’s hatred of anything associated with girls comes across to me as femme phobic, especially when you take a look at the thumbnail character sketch of Princess Pink which occurs at the beginning of every new book — in each story it is revealed that Princess Pink hates yet another girly thing.

Rebecca Elliott

Rebecca Elliott is the author and illustrator of Just Because, Mr Super Poopy Pants, Sometimes, and Zoo Girl, for which she was nominated for the 2012 Kate Greenaway Medal. She both writes and illustrates the Owl Diaries.

Owl Diaries is a chapter book series by Scholastic.  This is another series in the Branches imprint.

It is written in diary format from the point of view a young owl girl, Eva Wingdale. She has a best friend called Lucy. Sue Clawson is the enemy. In her diary, Eva records all of her likes and dislikes, relationships with family and friends, and her daily routine, as well as her experience trying to plan a spring festival for her “owlementary school.” (Treetop Owlementary.) She has strong opinions and is thoroughly likeable. Puns and illustrations abound. Designed to appeal to girls ages 5 to 8.

In book #4, a new owl named Hailey starts in Eva’s class at school. Eva is always happy to meet new people, and she’s excited to make a new friend! But the new owl befriends Lucy instead of her. So Eva gets jealous. Lucy is Eva’s best friend! Will Eva lose her best friend? Or can Eva and Lucy BOTH make a new friend?

(I think in cover copy, the answer to a rhetorical question is always ‘yes’.)

There are two plot threads in this one.

Plot One: Eva’s class has started a newspaper. Eva is a reporter. Other classmates have other jobs for the paper.

Plot Two: Eva’s class will be welcoming a new owl, Hailey. Eva really, really, really, really wants Hailey to be her friend. In her mind, the two are already close friends. Eva makes her a welcome necklace and a special drawing—a map. But when her plan to change seats so that Hailey can sit by her backfires—Hailey chooses to sit in Eva’s old seat, the one by Lucy, Eva’s best-best friend, Eva is left confused and frustrated. No matter how hard she tries, Hailey is not becoming her best friend. And Lucy and Hailey are becoming closer and closer and closer. Eva finds herself alone but all is resolved in the end.

The life lesson is “never overlook your old friends when trying to make new friends. Adult gatekeepers love it when chapter books contain life lessons, which is a problem Ivy + Bean sometimes has because those two are sneaky little shits at times and go completely unpunished.

Don’t use animal characters to get out of more interesting things young readers might be interested in. This series is about owls, but actually they are girls. Bad Kitty is another series using animals as protagonists. The only thing to remember is that no matter the ‘skin’ of your protagonist, you have to do the work of character development.

Jane O’Connor

Fancy Nancy is a 2005 children’s picture book written by Jane O’Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser.

Lauren Tarshis

The I Survived Series is also from Scholastic. This non-fiction series tells stories of young people and their resilience and strength in the midst of unimaginable disasters such as the September 11 attacks, the destruction of Pompeii, Hurricane Katrina, and the bombing of Pearl Harbour. She has to stay true and real but also has to tell a story.

These are good examples of how to keep a reader engaged, by bringing them into the scene.

Mary Pope Osborne

Magic Tree House series has been around for a long time.

The earlier ones are early chapter books but they get more complex and the later books are for older chapter book readers. The Merlin Missions are much later chapter books.

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For Mushroom Lovers

All mushrooms are edible. Some only once.

Lithuanian proverb

I live in a part of the world where deadly poisonous mushrooms grow rampantly under certain conditions. The Amanita phalloides is also known as the Deathcap mushroom.

Unfortunately, these deadly poisonous mushrooms look very similar to tasty and nutritious mushrooms that grow in other parts of the world, for example Asia’s popular straw mushroom.

In 2012, two people died after eating these mushrooms at a New Year’s Eve dinner party in Canberra, and in 2014 four people were seriously poisoned.

Food Safety News

Death by poisonous mushroom must be a harrowing way to go, because you don’t die immediately. Rather, you feel worse and worse, and no doubt realise at some point that you have eaten a deathcap. However, by the time you start to feel ill, it is too late.

Emily Dickinson’s Poem About Mushrooms

Art by Jane Newland for Emily Dickinson's poem about mushrooms
Art by Jane Newland for Emily Dickinson’s poem about mushrooms

The Mushroom

By Emily Dickinson

The mushroom is the elf of plants,
At evening it is not;
At morning in a truffled hut
It stops upon a spot.

As if it tarried always;
And yet its whole career
Is shorter than a snake’s delay,
And fleeter than a tare.’

T is vegetation’s juggler,
The germ of alibi;
Doth like a bubble antedate,
And like a bubble hie.

I feel as if the grass were pleased
To have it intermit;
The surreptitious scion
Of summer’s circumspect.

Had nature any outcast face,
Could she a son contemn,
Had nature an Iscariot,
That mushroom, — it is him.

Mushrooms in Hayao Miyazaki Films

Food is important to Hayao Miyazaki, and mushrooms are an important part of Japanese cuisine, so naturally mushrooms feature heavily in his animated films.

Mushroom Men

Witch with mushroom men' by Austrian painter and graphic artist Franz Wacik (1883-1938)
Witch with mushroom men’ by Austrian painter and graphic artist Franz Wacik (1883-1938)
Make and Make-Believe by Arthur I. Gates and Miriam Blanton Huber, Macmillan, 1931 mushroom
Make and Make-Believe by Arthur I. Gates and Miriam Blanton Huber, Macmillan, 1931

Mushroom and Toadstool Shade Umbrellas

Ray Harryhausen (1920 - 2013) 1961 unused illustration for "Mysterious Island" by Cy Endfield
Ray Harryhausen (1920 – 2013) 1961 unused illustration for “Mysterious Island” by Cy Endfield
illustration by Leon Carre, (1878-1942) for the 1924 edition of 'Au Jardin Des Gemmes' (In the Garden of Gems) by Leonard Rosenthal
illustration by Leon Carre, (1878-1942) for the 1924 edition of ‘Au Jardin Des Gemmes’ (In the Garden of Gems) by Leonard Rosenthal
"Travelers" by Petro Kozlanyuk Illustrator Ivan Kryslach mushroom
“Travelers” by Petro Kozlanyuk Illustrator Ivan Kryslach
Elsa Beskow
Gyo Fujikawa mushroom
Gyo Fujikawa mushroom
Yelena Polenova - Illustration for the fairy tale War of the Mushrooms (1889)
Yelena Polenova – Illustration for the fairy tale War of the Mushrooms (1889)
Madison Safer owl with mushrooms
Madison Safer
JUFFROUW SPITS OP REIS [c. 1948] Piet Broos
JUFFROUW SPITS OP REIS [c. 1948] Piet Broos
German artist Martin Wiegand 1867-1961 gnomes meeting a grasshopper mushroom
German artist Martin Wiegand 1867-1961
The Toast by British children's illustrator Angus Clifford Racey Helps, who uses a mushroom as a table.
The Toast by British children’s illustrator Angus Clifford Racey Helps, who uses a mushroom as a table.
H. Eichhorn, in Die Pflanzenwelt [The Plant World] by Otto Warburg. Published 1913 by Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig
H. Eichhorn, in Die Pflanzenwelt [The Plant World] by Otto Warburg. Published 1913 by Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig

For Mushroom Haters

from the Truffle entry at Wikipedia
from the Truffle entry at Wikipedia

Header illustration: ‘Periwinkle Painting the Petals’, by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite 1923

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Why Boys Don’t Read Books About Girls

Why don’t boys read books about girls? Well, first of all, many boys do read books about girls. As for the ones who won’t? They understand that gender is a hierarchy, and their position at the top is tenuous.

Also, the adult book buyers in their lives probably aren’t buying them books starring girls, under the common but misguided assumption that girls will read about anyone, but boys can only be expected to take interest in other boys.

This is not just an assumption held by bourgeouis book buyers. This attitude is baked right into how stuff gets made, about who. Disney clearly buys into this attitude. As evidence? Lilo & Stitch.

After the success of Lilo & Stitch, Disney released several franchise movies, the first of which was titled Stitch! The Movie (2013), followed by Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch has a Glitch (2005) and Leroy and Stitch (2006). Disney’s attempt to repackage the films as a recommodifiable product meant the downplay of Lilo herself, the girl character, emphasizing the focus on Stitch, the boy character, presumably to follow the industry’s old gendered adage that girls will watch a boy character but boys will not watch a girl character, even though the success of the original film had already proven otherwise.

Touching Queerness in Disney Films Dumbo and Lilo and Stitch

Especially interesting to me is the fact that Jeff Kinney, creator of hugely popular but gender problematic middle grade graphic novels, grew up with books centring girls, though he himself, as a contemporary creator of stories for children, consistently others the girl characters across his Wimpy Kid series.

Q: Who were some of the authors you read when you first got into books?

A: I really liked Judy Blume, and my favourite book was Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I liked the main character, Peter Hatcher, because he seemed like an ordinary kid I could relate to. And I liked the humour, which was realistic and not outlandish.

Interview with Jeff Kinney, author of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series

The attitude that boys won’t read books about girls is so entrenched that woman storytellers are frequently asked to comment about the gender of their own readers.

MELISSA SEYMOUR: Do you agree with the statement “Girls will read books with female and male protagonists but boys will only read books with male protagonists”?

LOIS LOWRY: No, I don’t.  One of my books, NUMBER THE STARS, is very popular with boys, though the two main protagonists are both girls.  It may be a bit of a leap for a boy to pick up such a book…and it has a picture of a girl on the cover….but the important element for a reader of either gender is a compelling story.



Guys Read Judy Blume Too, and Not Just for the “Dirty Bits” from Jezebel.

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Before Bedtime iPad Stories

There are people in this world — some who I tend to trust — telling us with increasing frequency that our insistence on using a backlit screen before bedtime is disrupting our sleep. So I was super self-disciplined (for a couple of evenings) and turned the computer off a full hour before hitting the sack.

To be honest, I’d need to continue this n=1 experiment if I’m to draw any conclusions about my quality of sleep, but here’s what did happen:

  1. The dishes got done
  2. Paper books got read.

Because if you take away the TV and the computer as possible evening entertainment, your options narrow. The other thing that happened was I felt more peaceful. So now it’s just a matter of organising my day. In order to turn the computer off one hour before bedtime you have to keep a regular bedtime and your eye on the clock.

Here’s a satisfying image, from 1879, proving once and for all that people have always dilly dallied before going to bed. (It’s not just the screens keeping us up; we’ll find anything to avoid it.)

Harper’s Young People (1879) artist G Francis, poem sometimes called Greedy Nan

Let’s say backlit screens do have an effect on sleep. What does this mean for children? Are picturebooks for iPad best kept for earlier in the day? And if backlit screens are bad for sleep, should we be turning off overhead lighting as well?

Where does it end????

Related: Bedtime story apps for little readers at USA Today

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