Before jumping into my next big revision, I revisited some favorite middle grade books, trying to “read as a writer.” My WIP needs the most help with pacing and setting, so I took notes after each chapter to map character and plot developments, especially in the first few chapters.

First up: The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner. I love the main character and the dynamics with her family, and it’s a great study on how to interweave subplots.

Lessons from first chapter:

  • Introduce a ticking clock to give the story a sense of immediacy. In this case, there are two: a project due date and a sectional track meet. The main character’s participation in one is dependent on the other, generating immediate conflict.
  • A few great ways to develop character:
    • Give sense of history with friends, like a long-standing game or ritual
    • Quoting parents or grandparents clues reader into their character even when not in the scene
  • By the end of the first chapter, it’s been established that the main character needs a passing grade on a project to participate in the cross country meet. If she doesn’t pass the project, her nemesis runs in her place. And the author’s demonstrated the main character has organization issues. Conflict? I would say so! 

Other lessons:

  • This book is a great example of a symbol enhancing the story. Trees are most obviously the focus of the project, but are also used to indicate character traits and reflect changing relationships.
  • The family members act like a family, in a very believable way, but the situations are also made more interesting because of elements like the father running a funeral home. The characters are both relatable and different.
  • There is a definite Vermont flavor to the book. I’ve read industry blogs saying more details actually make a place more relatable rather than leaving things ambiguous, and I think this book is a great example of that. It’s the sense of place that is important, because if the character identifies with their surroundings, readers will too.
  • The foreshadowing is so subtle. Character traits that start out as annoying get tied into the resolution at the end, a school project leads to a project for the family, and all of the subplots come together.
  • Escalating the tension and raising the stakes can be done without threatening the end of the world. With the ticking clock of the two deadlines, obstacle after obstacle gets in the way of the main character’s project, eventually coming to a head with the family’s subplot. The reader is so invested in the characters, each setback feels worse than the last, and the tension mounts.

If you’re looking for a touching and entertaining middle grade read, check out Kate Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z!

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