As an artistic quality, atmosphere is easy to spot—sometimes. A moment of high suspense in a scary movie, for example, is highlighted with an accompanying soundtrack; a musical comedy in a theatre might showcase brightly painted backdrops and set pieces. In literature, though, atmosphere must be conveyed through descriptive phrases and other text details. It might be a little more challenging to cultivate atmosphere in books, but it’s just as important for the audience. A convincing sensory environment in a story makes for a tale in which one can get lost, a quality sought by all readers—and certainly by middle grade. Memorable and fulfilling books allow the reader to step inside, breathe the air, sense the mood—these are books with atmosphere.
Since setting and atmosphere are so intertwined, let’s break down setting first: How does a writer create a setting that pulls the reader along for a trip outside their ordinary? It’s a skill worth practicing if you write middle grade, and one worth recognizing if you are a parent, teacher, or librarian. Setting is a lot more involved than its old standby definition you probably learned in elementary school (the time and place of the action). Setting is indeed time and place, but also consider:
- Hour of day
- Season and month of year
- Geography (natural and manmade)
- Color, lighting, and shading (of outdoor or indoor light source)
- Regionalism (the dialect, customs, traditions, and local setting characteristics in a story)
- Communication systems, language, and vernacular
- Character observations
- Socioeconomic factors
- Back and forth flow of time: impact of past (events, family) and expectations of future
Whew! And when used effectively, the setting details can help this necessary story element become an extraordinary component—one that allows a reader to sink in for a more fulfilling read. All of these setting characteristics work collectively to create the offshoot of a well-composed, well-built world: atmosphere.
Atmosphere is tricky to define, but most literary terminology sources suggest it has to do with the mood or overall “feel” of the scene, based on the setting description, tone, and other literary devices. The mood of the character can match this mood in the air of the scene, but it doesn’t have to. In fact, sometimes the actions and attitudes of the characters can serve as a literary foil to the atmosphere, heightening suspense or making a bittersweet mood even more poignant.
How does a writer cultivate atmosphere? Imagery, word choice, and connotation all contribute, as do character reactions and pace. Some figurative language devices like symbolism and metaphor can add to the developed atmosphere, as well. When seeking inspiration for establishing atmosphere, writers might use photographs, illustrations, history, music, colors, travel experiences, dreams, patterns, and nature.
From my to-be-read pile, I chose a few middle grade openings to think about in terms of atmosphere: one realistic, one sci-fi, and one fantasy.
The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish – In the opening chapters of this first-person novel, the atmosphere is heavy and uncomfortable, much like the oppressive heat in Ethan’s new town of Palm Knot, Georgia. As a twelve-year-old boy terribly conflicted over the loss of his best friend, his narration has few lengthy descriptive passages. But Standish provides all the right details through environment, weather, temperature, and observations about this sleepy locale (a rusty parked truck, an untended baseball field, a cracked highway, a murky bay) that readers need in order to feel like they’ve stepped into its atmosphere.
Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson – This middle grade science fiction offers up opening chapters with a crisp, tense, nervy atmosphere in which the conflict increases at an alarm-inducing pace. Set in Earth Year 2213, humans living in a Martian colony must evacuate the planet and its rapidly deteriorating conditions. A prelude serves up danger and emotion before delivering a fearful and mysterious clue; here, descriptions are futuristically foreign, yet technologically familiar enough to pull readers in. The main characters resist an acknowledgement of the danger throughout the first chapter, which only serves to increase the suspense. As a solar radiation storm begins to flare, protagonists Phoebe and Liam start a quest of discovery in an atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion.
A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay — This middle grade dystopian abounds with atmosphere from the first paragraph. Young protagonist Jena has a crucial job to perform for her isolated society—she is the leader of a small team of girls who must find harvests of mica inside the mountain. In the opening pages, Jena is crawling through a narrow, natural crevice with only a thin rope connecting her to the six other girls who follow her lead. In the dark, with the chilly rock of the mountain hugging her close on all sides, every movement and every touch seems amplified and intense; the reader immediately feels as if she too is crawling, squirming, wishing for a harvest spot, counting on having enough air to keep going. The dark, the mountain, even the bones Jena happens to grasp accidentally all work to establish a tangible, claustrophobic opening atmosphere—though, paradoxically, Jena seems to feel no such confinement.
The atmosphere of each title considered here had me invested as a reader from the opening chapters. Feel free to comment on the post if you know of a great, atmospheric MG to recommend, or with how-to ideas for writing settings and situations with strong atmosphere! Thanks for reading!