Monday, October 8, 2012

The Gut Shot: Hitting Readers Where it Counts

Okay, disclaimer time: Kelly Bennett is one of my favorite people. She was one of the first published writers who treated me like a equal (when I was a naive newbie). And she's enormously talented, having written acclaimed, fun and charming books like Your Mommy Was Just Like You, Not Norman, Dance Y'all Dance...and many more, including her most recent release One Day I Went Rambling. Plus, she's a Vermont College grad! 

Check out her website at and all her fabulous books.

So when Kelly agreed to write me a guest post I told her to have at it, and she suggested writing about...FOOD. 

Who doesn't like food? (Silly question.) But, how can food be used in story? Here's what Kelly has to say:

Children know food. Eating is something they’ve been doing all their lives. By middle childhood most have accumulated a trove of textural, olfactory, visual, and aural food memories: the crunch of celery, the stinky sock stench of ripe cheese, the sticky spicy-cool sweetness of candy cane, the rasp of dry toast against the roof of a mouth, the slurp of spaghetti, to name a few. They’ve formed opinions about foods and, through the media and stories, have knowledge of foods they’ve never experienced personally. Additionally, they’ve amassed food memories, some with strong emotions attached (think mother’s milk, birthday cake, “clear your plate” and “no dessert until you…”). Why not draw on what readers already know—food—to connect them with your characters and spice up your stories? In other words: Aim for the gut!

Here are some examples to get you Thinking Food:

Plot: Each of us spends “more than fifteen full days a year doing nothing but eating” (Food Rules by Bill Haduch), so at its most basic food plays a central role in reader’s lives. Use it in character’s lives, too. Food issues, the quest for food, preparation of food, lack, need, or abundance of food, can serve as a plot points.
  •       Perfect by Natasha Friend, teens with eating disorders.
  •       James Cross Giblin’s The Boy Who Saved Cleveland, a survival story all about corn.
  •       Joan Bauer’s Close to Famous and Sprinkles and Secrets by Lisa Schroeder both center on cupcakes. 

Characterization: Consider the immortal words of J. Wellington Wimpy “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Thoughts, attitudes, and opinions about food add flesh to our character’s bones.
  • In Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look, this description of the new girl says it all: “When the ice-cream truck came down the street, Christina was always the first in line.”
  • Tracing the Stars by Erin Moulton, stars Indie Lee Chicory who loves chowder almost as much as she does her golden cola drinking lobster.
  • The Chocolate Touch, John Midas is a nice boy with “one bad fault: he was a pig about candy.”

Mealtimes:  Back-story and motivation are revealed, stories unravel, and secrets are shared.
  • Who’s coming to dinner? Meals are an excuse to bring all manner of characters together.
  • What’s for dinner? Mealtime fare reveals economic situations and informs readers about other times, places & cultures.
  • Where’s dinner? The place and table establish setting

Descriptions: Food is often used to describe color, especially skin color: white as cream, honey golden, mocha, Joe’s face “pale as an onion” (How to Eat Fried Worms, Thomas Rockwell). At best, food references create multi-sensory descriptions.

  • Sid Fleischman describes the prince’s face as “lobster-red from running” in The Whipping Boy. Readers unfamiliar with lobsters will visualize a reddish face and read on. Those familiar with lobsters will round out the image by picturing the prince’s face as hard and crusty like a lobster shell, and a whiff of sea salt.
  • Richard Best calls a classmate’s legs “Slim Jim pretzels” (The Candy Corn Contest by Patricia Reilly Giff) –long, thin, pretzel salt, bumpy, too.
  • Ruby Lu’s ink “as lumpy as tempura batter” (Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look)—Look is a master of food imagery. Here’s more:
  • “At night the rain was a lullaby of a billion grains of rice falling on the roof”
  • Ruby likens her father’s fast knitting to “a starving man’s chopsticks at a feast
  • Her brother was “wrapped up like a burrito”

Food names serve double duty as they conjure a multi-sensory image while giving name to a person, place or thing:

  • The island of “Tangerina” and port of “Cranberry” (My Father’s Dragon, Ruth Stiles Gannett)
  • Dogs “Fudge-Fudge” and “Marshmallow” (The New Animal by Emily Jenkins)

One of Kelly's inventive Halloween costumes...

Emotion: To quote Pillsbury:  “Nothing says loving like something from the oven.”

  • When disappointed in her brother, Ruby “felt all her love for him drying up like spilled soda on a hot sidewalk.”
  • When Ruby’s mad she feels “hotter than microwave popcorn.”
  • Lowji, Candace Fleming’s Indian character in Lowji Discovers America gets mad, too, he turns “hot, hotter than Bape’s curry sauce.”

Final Words on Food:

If it speaks; it eats. Therefore, as plot, character, description, or emotion, there’s room for food in every story. Bon appetite!

Warning: Food references are like wine and chocolate: as much as we’d like to think otherwise, for best results they should be used in moderation.

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