Motherhood & Words

plot, narrative urgency, and children’s lit

The other day Stella went to the library with my mom and she came home with The Boxcar Children. When she pulled it out of the library bag, I started to squeal, “Oh that was one of my favorite books growing up. I can’t wait to read it to you!”

I could tell she was pleased by my excitement, and I was excited to read the book with her, but I was secretly nervous that I wouldn’t like it as much as I had as a child. It was the first book that grabbed hold of my imagination. I remember spending hours and hours sitting in the pink beanbag in my room with it propped in my lap, thinking about where my sisters and I would hide if we became orphans and had to take to the woods to flee an unloving relative.

D and I alternate putting the girls to bed. (If I read to Zoë one night, the next night I’ll read to Stella.) So I made Stella promise that The Boxcar Children would by my book and that she would read a different book with D. (I hate it when I’ve read the first three chapters of a book to her and then I two nights later I have to pick up at the 7th or 8th chapter. I feel completely lost.)

She promised, and as we cuddled into bed with the book the other night, we were both giddy. As I began to read—“One warm night four children stood in front of a bakery. No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.”—I was immediately swept back in time, to the excitement I felt the first time my mom read me this story.

And the book moves! Talk about narrative urgency, from that first sentence. I didn’t want to put it down, but I could tell Stella was exhausted, so I stopped after four chapters.

I remember that Julie Schumacher, a wonderful fiction writer who has been primarily writing young adult novels in recent years, said that she turned to YA fiction because she felt she needed to work on plot and structure, and that because YA novels are very plot-driven, she thought she’d try it out. You can read an interview with Julie here.

The Boxcar Children is all plot. (I remember certain plot details from when I read it, almost 30 years ago, which is extraordinary.) But as we made our way through the first chapters, I kept getting the siblings confused. I know I’ll be able to differentiate them as the book goes on, but I was surprised that we weren’t given a few more character details in those first chapters. But then maybe I spend too much time thinking about character development. (I’ll admit that I’m a little obsessed lately.)

Do any of you out there write for children or young adults? I’d love it if you’d weigh in on plot and character (or really anything else that you’d like to share about writing for young people.)

In the meantime, I’m going to try to sneak away with Stella to read the next chapter of The Boxcar Children.

Posted in ,


I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Pia on June 17, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    As you know, I do neither, but allow me to weigh in with a very 'non-professional writer' but child development position. Generally speaking, I think plot-driven stories work for children's stories because they are (developmentally speaking) in a 'zone' to understand and be responsive to the if-then and sequencing events that are provided by plot driven work. Plot driven stories are very external…. you see the action, and the events tend to be very concrete. As children hit adolescence, you see a change in the stories to more internal character development. I would imagine that mirrors the development going on internally…. a discovery of a sense of self, of being different from others, and attempting to really understand the motivation of others… that younger children do not yet appreciate or necessarily understand yet cognitively.

    Of course, I could just be talking out of my a**. 🙂

    BTW, I LOVED the Boxcar Children!!

  2. cath c on June 17, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    plot certainly is important, but for me, character development is what the plot supports, in my writing anyway. i think that's important for the young reader, too. what does the character learn from the situations he/she is in or how do they respond in the situation one finds him/herself. i am talking for middle readers.

  3. Elizabeth on June 17, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    I loved The Boxcar Children, too, and so did both my boys! That was a relief to me because I sometimes think it's more of a "girl" book, despite the two boys in the story. I have found that, for the most part, both of my boys have enjoyed the same books that I loved as a girl, especially if I read them aloud. When they read by themselves, they tend to pick out more boyish things — sports biographies, graphic novels, etc.

  4. Ines on June 18, 2010 at 8:13 am

    Oh I agree with your insight, Kate. Some of the children's books tend to confuse the characters in the beginning. I am experiencing this reading Mismantle with Milagros (she is reading it now!). But maybe this happens only in the beginning? I will get the Boxcar Children book. I am sure we would love it since you like it so much.
    One more thing, when I started reading, I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez maybe this is what gave me a different perspective….hmmmm.

  5. kristenspina on June 18, 2010 at 8:43 am

    We also loved The Boxcar Children. I read a few of the books aloud to my son and yes, it was the plot, the circumstances of what was going to happen next, the suspense, the outrageousness of these kids setting up "house" on their own that drew him in.

    And when I think about the books he's reading now on his own–Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants and any graphic novel he can get his hands on–I would have to say it's still about what's happening more than anything else.

    I wonder, if like Pia says, this will evolve as he enters his pre-teens…

    No matter what, he's reading. And I'm happy.

  6. Andrea on June 18, 2010 at 10:29 am

    I loved that book! I read it walking home from school (I glanced up once in a while to make sure no cars were coming when I crossed streets). I loved how they found all of the things they needed–spoons, cups, a little jar to put flowers in–in the nearby dump. I read it to M a couple of years ago, and loved it again (not sure if he got as into it as I did…) and soon will be able to read it to the twins!

  7. kate hopper on June 18, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    I love that so many of you loved this book, as well! (Not that I'm surprised…)

    Pia, that makes a lot of sense (and just so you know, I've never known you to talk out of your a**!)

    Ines, I love that you starting reading with Garcia Marquez!

    Kristin, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the book that Stella is reading with D!

  8. Carrie Pomeroy on July 13, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    We love "The Boxcar Children," too. The first book is so different and so much more atmospheric than the later mystery-oriented books in the series that have come out by the hundreds and are quite formulaic. My kids and I have taken to saying, "Oh, here's the Grump" within the first few chapters of each book, because there's ALWAYS a meanie who treats the kids rudely. Sometimes the Grump turns out to be the villain, and sometimes the Grump is a red herring meant to keep you from discovering the real villain. But the Grump is always around in one form or another.

    I agree with someone who commented on your FB profile that there's something so cozy and wholesome about the way the kids treat each other in these books, as well as their solid work ethic and their desire to help other people.