May 30, 2014

Words of the Month - Joe and the Dog

        This month I have something a little different, because this week I visited four classes of sixth graders to talk about style and voice in writing - how as readers you can glean all kinds of information from an author’s stylistic choices, and how as writers we must craft every sentence with care for maximum storytelling impact.
        We spent some time talking about connotation, and how well-chosen words do double-duty.  For example, if we read about a big warrior, all we know is his (or her) size, but we know 
     a mighty warrior is big and strong, and probably heroic
     a hulking warrior is big and menacing
     a monstrous warrior is big and scary, and possibly deformed or only part-human…
        Next I showed the kids the following outline or bones of what could be a snippet of a scene in a story:
Joe walks along the street toward his house.  A dog runs out of his neighbor’s yard toward him, barking.  He greets the dog.
        Then three examples of how different stylistic choices can turn the same basic series of events into completely different scenes from completely different kinds of stories:

     Joe was strolling toward home, crunching a granola bar and thinking about Saturday, when his thoughts were interrupted by a frenzy of high-pitched yapping, and a small fluffy shape shot out of his neighbor’s porch.
     “Hi, Frou-Frou,” said Joe, holding the granola bar out of reach of the furball’s frantic leaps.  He noticed that today Frou-Frou wore a ruffled pink shirt with the slogan “I (heart) my Daddy.”
     He rolled his eyes and grinned.  “Nice outfit, Frou-Frou,” he told the little dog as he stepped around her and continued on his way.

     The wintry afternoon was already growing dark, and Joe’s breath came in short puffs as he hurried toward home.  But he was not fast enough.  A harsh barking froze him in place, then lowered to a deep, menacing growl.  Between Joe and the bright light of his front porch crouched the monstrous form of his neighbor’s half-wild dog.
     “Nice dog?” Joe tried tentatively, hardly daring to move.  The beast growled again, showing yellow teeth as big as a wolf’s.

     I’m not normally the kind of kid who kicks puppies.  Honestly.  I mean, no one would be surprised to hear that Sally Minderbule kicked a dog.  She’ll kick anything smaller than she is.  But me?  I was just on my way home from math club, minding my own business…

        And then it was time for the kids to try it themselves, and they each began to write their own scene using that same skeleton of events.  And wow, did we get some fun stuff!  Since this is supposed to be Words of the Month, after all, I’ll focus on vocabulary and list all the different words students came up with to describe Joe’s progression down the street:
     drag his feet
     footsteps echo down the alleyway

And now all the words used for the animal:
     blur of brown fur
     unknown species
     a shape
     ball of fur
     pit bull
     German shepherd
     vicious mass of fur, skin, and bone
     golden retriever
     white fluffy cloud
     yippy demon
     wiener dog
     tea-cup poodle
     English mastiff
     Yorkshire terrier

As a bonus, a few more words that none of the kids happened to come up with, just to give an even broader look at all the incredible possibilities an author gets to choose from, each with its different connotations…
canine, pooch, cur, mongrel, mutt, jackal, and (just as well that none of the 6th graders went for this choice) bitch.

        The students came up with some pretty awesome words, eh?  But I also have to share with you a few longer excerpts I particularly enjoyed.  The thing about each of these sentences is that, like all good writing, they manage to include a lot of information, not just about the bare bones of the action, but about attitudes, moods, background details, connotations… and they manage to be a little bit surprising.
     Joe sprinted down the sidewalk, sidestepping fire hydrants and shooting past trash bins.
     Joe silently walked home from school, clutching his math test where he scored a 55%.
     Joe, the monstrous troll of winter, rampaged towards his frigid cave of ice, destroying the farms on the way and eating the livestock.
     Joe’s hair normally drooped over his stunning amber eyes, often getting stuck in his eyebrow piercing.
     As Joanne passed by her neighbor’s house, the one with the overflowing flower pots…
     Fredrick had always been scared by many things - birds, spiders, heights - but nothing scared his pants off more than Smallfoot.
     Jake gives me a face full of slobber.
     “Fluffy,” as Joe's neighbors had named him, should have been named “Menacing, Terrifying, Vicious, Flesh-rending Blue Chihuahua the Size of a Soccer Ball.”
     Tyrone knocked Joe’s ice cream over, but it didn’t matter.
     “Here, ride shotgun with me, little man.  I gotta get you to the shelter around the corner.”
     A pounce, and everything goes blank.
     As Joanne neared her house, she noted that the door was wide open, a yawning mouth of black.  She was too late.

        And finally, I’ll just whet your curiosity with a few of the zanier takes on the boy-meets-dog scenario.  We had zombie dogs, a walk to an unbuilt jail, a magic fire hydrant that allowed the dog to speak, a pink tutu at least 2 or 3 sizes too small, a wholly unexpected Komodo dragon, a poor innocent dog being chased down by a terrifying toddler, a dog that jumped over a house and did a backflip, a big scary squeaky toy, a dramatic police chase, and a singing and dancing dog in a pink fluffy house.  Not bad for a couple of mornings in sixth grade!

[Pictures: Old English Sheepdog, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013;
detail from The Enormous Turnip, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008;
detail from Dancing with Animals, wood block print by AEGN, 1999.]
Excerpts taken from the work of High Rock School sixth graders.

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