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Staying in Character

May 8, 2014 | By: Sonia Ellis

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I turn around and Maddie is gone.

That’s how it happens, that quickly.  Things go wrong in the time it takes me to slide a set of headphones off my ears and turn around to hand them to Maddie.  I’m listening to a CD in Playlist, the only music store in the mall, and there’s this song I want her to hear, but she’s gone.  

That’s how the Talk to Me novel begins…with main character Sadina in a mad-dashing, second-guessing race through the mall to find her little sister.  And that, in fact, is how my writing process often beings:  a mad rush of words I want to get on the page, with lots of anguished second-guessing (we writers gently call it revising) to make every phrase, scene and character fit just right. 

But this time, before I could let the words flow, I had two challenges to face.  One, I had to be sure that the storyline would be engaging to our readers.  So what does that mean?  When I’m browsing at Barnes & Noble and open a book that makes me sink to the floor, right there by the shelf, and sit cross-legged and insensible to traffic around me as I read and read…that’s when I know I’ve found a book to love.   That’s what I wanted to create for my readers:  a story that you couldn’t pull loose from their hands or their heads.  And there was, of course, a part “two.” The story had to tie into some big ideas related to engineering—such as the engineering design cycle and engineering ethics—in a way that was both seamless and subtle.

It all came down to the characters.

Maddie, Rio, Catalina, Monica, Paulie—they all had their part of play, but the character who centers them all is fourteen-year-old Sadina Reyes.  I have a soft spot for Sadina because she, like me, prefers to fly under the radar.  At the start of the story, she’s used to doing things for herself and playing the family role of big sister to Maddie—who tends to consume all their parent’s attention.   Of course, Sadina’s self-reliance isn’t going to be enough to save her when things start to go wrong.  Very wrong.  (A big fiction writing pleasure:  wait until the last possible second and then pull the lever that sends the story careening down another set of tracks—or off the tracks altogether.)

In Sadina’s words:

Hard to believe what’s happened since I woke up this morning:  I found out someone broke into my house (creepy), I thought it was Rio (bad), I found out it wasn’t Rio (good), I saw the stolen software on his computer (bad) but then Catalina told everyone he couldn’t have stolen it (weird), I saw Rio holding hands with Catalina (bad and creepy and weird), and Flynn accused Mom of stealing a gigantic amount of money (super bad).

By the end of the story, Sadina realizes she can’t handle all these twists and free falls on her own:  she needs her friends to help her figure out what’s going on, brainstorm, improve ideas, find a solution, and have the strength to rethink and redesign when the first solution fails.  Which, actually, sounds quite a bit like the engineering design cycle.

Some “big ideas” in engineering ethics come to life in Sadina’s interaction with another character:  Rio, the skateboarder, guitar player, gamer—and most of all Sadina’s best friend who knows her “like a book he’s read every day for 10 years.”  Could this awesome guy really have stolen computer software from the school?  Sadina, painfully, thinks the answer could be yes.  And then, more painfully still, comes the need for a choice:  should she be loyal to Rio by telling no one, or “true to her school” by letting them know that Rio might be a thief?  At this point, Sadina could have used a bit of parental advice—but her mom is facing a tough choice of her own: should she be loyal to her co-worker and friend Flynn, who might be embezzling money, or should she be a whistleblower in her company and bring him down?   Watching her mom struggle, it turns out, does help Sadina grow as she sees this connection between her mother and herself:  the ethical dilemmas that kids face with their friends are not so different from the difficult ethical decisions that engineers may have to deal with in their work.

Though pulling characters’ strings and tossing monkey wrenches smack into their paths is a big writing delight, greater still is the pleasure of seeing how those obstacles help them metamorphose—into new thoughts, new perspectives, and deeper understandings.  And that character growth, happily, is the perfect platform for launching kids’ minds into the rich and varied world of engineering.


By Davos on Aug 01, 2014

How did you manage to write in engineering themes without making them seem too forced?

@Davos:  Thanks so much for your question—and it’s a great one!  That was certainly the biggest challenge in writing this book.  The goal was to have, first and foremost, a storyline that grabs kids’ attention and keeps them reading (something they would pull off a bookstore shelf and read without overtly getting the message that they’re “learning about engineering”).  From the research on learning, we know that a narrative with mystery and extremes of reality will appeal to our middle-school-age audience.  So I intertwined this knowledge with the engineering topics that our team wanted to target.  The extremes of reality in the enhanced design of Maddie’s robot, the Chattercat, were a great way to explore the limits of artificial intelligence and the need for teamwork and building on each others’ ideas during the engineering design process.  And the mystery in whether (and why) Rio stole the software and in the fate of Sadina’s mother were fun vehicles to look at the concepts of engineering ethics.  Balancing all that was certainly the toughest writing task I’ve ever faced—but I’m happily back at it now with the start of the next novel.  Thanks, Sonia.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1223868 and 1223460.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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