I first “met” Anne Nesbet through the wonderful historical novel, Cloud and Wallfish, becoming a fast fan of her work. Her latest novel, Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen (Candlewick) completely captured my heart and, in fact, I still think about the characters and the enchantment of the story itself, reeled out in true melodramatic fashion. Anne’s thoughtful essay below speaks to using form as one storytelling element; enjoy one very graphic example of this on the spine of Daring Darleen. And head over to my Instagram feed to listen to the replay of my Write Space chat with Anne!
There is a special hum that rumbles through me when I stumble upon a book or story whose form reflects, in some way, the very thing it is talking about. The dance of form and content is something children’s stories and rhymes and books have long played with: even babies like to find an actual hole to poke at in a board book about holes, and long before we can say or spell “onomatopoeia,” we can surely hear the tick-tock echoing at work in “Hickory, dickory, dock/The mouse ran up the clock…..”
Another mouse–the one whose “sad tail” captivates Alice in her Adventures in Wonderland–introduced me to the magic that can happen when text and illustration leave their respective corners and blend together:
Lewis Carroll’s tale/tail example reminds us of the energy that can be generated when the ordinary rules separating words and pictures are broken.
But what about our novels? Can longer stories for young readers experiment with form? Of course, they can–and fairly often do! There are diaries that look like diaries and notebooks that look like notebooks (Marissa Moss’s wonderful Amelia books come to mind). There are many beautiful nonfiction books for children that manage to be “story” and “archive” at the same time (Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White is just one of many thrilling examples). There are stories in which images and words collaborate on a revolutionarily equal footing, such as The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (2018) created by M. T. Anderson in delirious and brilliant collaboration with illustrator Eugene Yelchin–or Brian Selznick’s classic Wonderstruck (2011). In both of these examples, the images tell a different version of the story than the text; in fact, the pictures reflect another character’s vision of the world.
Even those of us not yet lucky enough to be collaborating with illustrators can find ways to blur the boundaries between form and story in our writing. My most recent book, Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen, tells the story of a girl working in the film industry in 1914, when movies were silent and audiences were wild for “adventure serials,” films in which, week after week, young women faced peril with pluck, climbed buildings, jumped on and off trains, and flew in lighter-than-air balloons.
To keep audiences coming back to the movie theaters, these serials often ended in a figurative–sometimes even literal–“cliff hanger.” So when writing Daring Darleen, I tried to bring to the story something of the flavor of these early films, by allowing my villains to be melodramatically villainous, by introducing some wild coincidences (and the occasional tell-tale locket) into the plot, and by trying, when possible, to end each chapter on a kind of cliff————
I also played with form in Cloud and Wallfish, my friendship-and-spying story set in East Germany in 1989.
I knew that I could not assume my readers would know anything about the aftermath of World War Two, about the division of Berlin, or about the Cold War. How to convey this necessary information in a vibrant way? Well, spying and file-keeping were hallmarks of life in East Berlin–and if you think about it, learning about history is a way of “spying” on the past–so I created “Secret Files” to come at the end of every chapter, containing some of the juicy historical secrets that underlay the events in my story.
It seems to me that experiments with form can open up a wonderful range of possibilities for our fiction. Let us be brave and bold and daring, in our reading and in our writing!
Anne Nesbet’s novels for young readers have explored many different times and places. Her first three books wandered the magical streets of Paris (THE CABINET OF EARTHS and A BOX OF GARGOYLES) and an imaginary universe at risk of implosion (THE WRINKLED CROWN). Her historical fiction is often set in divided corners of the real world: 1989 East Berlin in the case of CLOUD AND WALLFISH and rural Maine in 1941 for THE ORPHAN BAND OF SPRINGDALE. Her most recent novel, DARING DARLEEN, QUEEN OF THE SCREEN, takes its readers on an adventure through the wild and creative world of the silent film industry in 1914. When not teaching film history or writing, Anne enjoys hiking, playing violin and viola, and working on puzzles of all kinds.