Somebody on the Bus is Going to Be Famous
Nine ordinary kids ride the same yellow school bus every day-but only one of them is about to be famous.
Each of the nine students on Mrs. B’s school bus holds a clue to the mystery of the empty bus stop. Spencer’s the smart kid. Shellly’s the diva. Matthew’s just average (so far). In fact, there’s nothing about any of the nine middle-schoolers on Mrs. B’s bus route that screams “fame,” but before the end of the school year, somebody on this bus is going to be famous.
Part detective story, part tale of self-discovery, this funny and touching novel told from nine very different points of view is destined to be a modern classic
Author J. B. (Janie) Cheaney
J. B. Cheaney’s The Playmaker was named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels for Teens. She and her husband live in the Ozarks of Missouri.
Guest Post – SORTING OUT MULTIPLE POINTS OF VIEW
Self-confidence is usually not a problem for me—until I stride right in to an unfamiliar situation and suddenly realize, What was I thinking??
Sometimes it’s a fast train wreck. Other times it happens in slow motion, like when I decided to write a middle-grade novel with nine main characters. You’re not supposed to do this: even two points of view can be a problem for publishers, and four is only attempted by Newbery winners like E. L. Konigsburg (The View from Saturday) and Lynne Rae Perkins (Criss Cross). But I plunged ahead, because I just knew there had to be a way . . .
Turns out, the train wreck didn’t happen because the attempted project is now available between hard covers: Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous. The process had its moments, though; moments when I thought all the experts were right and I was attempting the impossible. But I discovered a few tricks for multiple POV’s, for which Kathy is graciously giving me a platform.
The middle grades are a transitional period from childhood to adolescence. This is the age when influence shifts from parents to peers and kids discover new, excruciating levels of self-consciousness. Their mates become mirrors: Did I just say something stupid? Did they see me scratch my nose and think I was picking my nose? WAS I picking my nose? Why do I have such a huge nose? . . . I thought it would be interesting to throw a bunch of kids together and see how they judge and misjudge each other and themselves, with the added fillip of potential fame. The school bus made a perfect matrix—the one place where they consistently interact, and the one medium that ties all their stories together.
- First, understand the challenge. Reading any novel is getting into a world. Even if it’s a very familiar world, like suburban America, the reader still must become acquainted with new settings and people. Think about your first day on a new job or college campus: it’s all a blur of names and faces and tasks which will gradually get sorted out as you settle into the routine. The first chapter for a reader is like that: they will meet people and observe events whose significance will not become clear until later. But if it seems like a blur you’ve lost your reader. Fiction writers always say the first chapter is crucial, and this is why: readers have a lot of work to do in the first chapter, and you must give them good reasons to put in the effort.
- Don’t try to do author-omniscient and switch points of view in the same chapter. It can be done, but might be confusing for young readers—not to mention older ones. Perkins, Konigsburg, and others (like Kwame Alexander in Crossover), use the same POV for an entire chapter—they may even title the chapter with the character’s name. Some use first person or third person throughout, and some have used first for one POV and third for another. I used third person and gave each of my nine characters a chapter, beginning in September and ending in May.
- Your leading characters are unique individuals, but you can’t expect your reader to appreciate their special qualities immediately, especially if she has lots of people to meet in the first few pages. This is where stereotypes, so important to avoid in character development, can actually be helpful. We all use them in real life. Until we get to know people better, we tend to tag them—he’s a mouse, she’s a tiger, they’re the nerd gang. In a group of middle-grade kids, certain “types” pop out: the bully, the clown, the star, the introvert. I decided to make the stereotypes apparent (but not clichéd!), so readers could easily recognize them. But as they read on, the outlines would flesh out and take on dimension.
- I don’t like to use a lot of physical description because it bogs down the narrative. But when trotting out multiple characters, it’s helpful to mention one, or at the most two, distinguishing physical features. Don’t be obvious about it, as in “Mavis blinked her bright blue eyes fringed by dark lashes”; work in the details gracefully over the first few chapters. This is another kind of tag to help the reader keep people straight.
- Develop the ways that each character thinks and speaks. If you’re writing in first person, distinctions should be obvious. If in third, they will be more subtle, but the reader should still sense a difference in voice. Use a more advanced vocabulary for the smart or literary types, italicized words and dashes or exclamation marks for the excitable ones, etc. Don’t overdo it, but differences should be heard.
- Finally, how to make the introductions? All main characters should appear in the first few chapters, right? But if you have nine main characters, eight of whom show up in the first ten pages, the challenge is formidable. How could I make each one stand out in an editor’s or agent’s mind? Short answer: I couldn’t. That’s probably why the manuscript was turned down a number of times. So I decided to use a literary trick: instead of opening with a scene of kids boarding the bus in August (yawn) I did some judicious front-loading with a prologue depicting the dramatic accident that takes place the following May. No character except a highway patrolman is identified; all we know is that a school bus is lying on its side near the bottom of a hill in a pouring rain, and when we turn the page that same bus is taking on passengers on the first day of school. Who are they? And what will happen to them during the traumatic event we know is coming? Right away, we’re emotionally invested—hopefully more so as we get to know these people better.
Whether your story involves two, three, four or more, multiple points of view present an interesting challenge to a fiction writer. Have fun with it, and you’ll probably come up with some tricks of your own.