Fellow VCFA alum, SCBWI Regional Advisor and friend Debbie Gonzales says Stephanie’s book is a model for perfect structure. I don’t disagree. From the very first page, we know what Sophie Hartley wants for her 10th birthday: a baby gorilla. The remaining 127 pages take us on Sophie’s journey of getting or not getting that baby. It is clear, precise and funny.
What I especially love about this book is how Stephanie uses family and friends as setting. While Sophie shines at the center of this book, the world that is her family and friends is deftly drawn in around her. AND not for one minute does it overwhelm her. Mom doesn’t become too Mommy. The friends never feel like devices. Everyone has a personality but the reader never loses Sophie.
How does Greene do it? She would probably say hard work and lots of drafts, but here’s what I noticed: I had the sense that at every moment, she knew where the family was and what they were doing, even if they weren’t in a scene. Like a master composer, Greene added little melodies of each character so that if they were in a scene, they were pitch perfect and not dominant.
Setting for middle grade novels is tricky because the 8-12 year old’s landscape is fairly limited. Often their family and home is their setting. So the writer must find ways to make family life compelling without overwhelming the main character. Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley is an excellent example of a writer doing it well.
Read it for structure. Read it for setting. Read it for fun.