On the Reading Table: Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley by Stephanie Greene

My friend, Carmen Oliver just posted an interview with Stephanie Greene so I decided to chime in over here because I recently finished reading Stephanie’s Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley.

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.

4 Responses to “On the Reading Table: Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley by Stephanie Greene”

  1. Stephanie Greene

    Many thanks for that astute analysis, Lindsey. When the rule of thumb advises a writer to “kill off the parents,” it’s a challenge to let them live and even participate. But it’s as you say: for a child of that age, family is still HUGE. Coping with them in plots can be harder than getting rid of them, as we all find out in life. 🙂

    Several years ago, I heard an editor make a comment that, for some reason, the past year had been the “Year of the Dead Mother.” Most recently, I read a piece by another editor who questioned why so many books for children these days have both parents dead or missing when so many children still live with two. They may not be the original two, and they may well include people from other generations, such as grandparents, but still – they’re there, and they’re important. As writers, I think we need to confront that, and them, and include them in books.

    They don’t even have to be quirky. They can be normal. Normal is very hard to write. Kids may laugh at quirky, but they’ll feel normal in their gut if you do it right.

  2. Carmen Oliver

    Like you said “Read it for structure. Read it for setting. Read it for fun!” It’s on my bedside table!! I loved Sophie Hartley On Strike! Stephanie is a storytelling mastermind!!

    Great post, Linds!