Monday, March 27, 2017

The Accidental Middle Grade Author by Linda Williams Jackson

There are some writers who know straight away that they intend to write for children, whether it’s picture books, middle grade books, or young adult books. When I first set my heart on writing a book, I had my mind made up that I would pen the Great American Novel—for adults. Everyone who read it would deem me brilliant—a genius—a wizard at wordsmithing—a master at plot twists. When I sat down to write this great novel, I named my main character Joshua Tanner. And he was seven years old. Yep. You read that right. My mc was only seven years old. And his supporting cast? Um, they were all fourteen. And my brilliant, Great American Novel? It weighed in at a hefty 55,000 words. When someone asked me whether I was writing a book for children, I scoffed and said, “Of course not. It’s an adult novel.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. An adult novel can have a seven-year-old protagonist, surrounded by a cast of motley fourteen-year-olds. But my novel was in no way a novel for adults, or a novel just for adults, I should say. I eventually self-published that book about seven-year-old Joshua Tanner and the fourteen-year-old boys who tried to kill him in the woods, and that book became required reading in several middle schools in a few southern states. Thus began my adventures as an accidental middle grade author.
When I penned my next few manuscripts, I intentionally geared them towards a middle grade audience. I also set my heart and mind on landing an agent and a traditional book deal. But my manuscripts faced much rejection. Over two hundred of them, to be almost exact, over a course of six years….
Then came my first attempt at historical fiction. This story, like the others, would be written for a middle grade audience. However, as I thought about some of the themes I wanted to cover in this novel, I decided that perhaps I should write it for an older audience. So I changed my protagonist’s age from twelve to fifteen and set out to write this book for either young adults or adults (depending on who was interested in acquiring it). When I queried the manuscript, I categorized it based on what the agent was looking for. Eventually, the manuscript landed an agent and sold to an editor (after a tiny auction) as a YA novel. But….
The editors who had shown interest in this YA novel had indicated that they thought the novel’s content would be more readily embraced by a middle grade audience rather than a YA audience. I was asked whether I’d be willing to change the protagonist’s age (and a few other things) in order to set the book squarely in middle grade territory. Of course I said yes! And my YA/adult manuscript Becoming Rosa, with a fifteen-year-old protagonist, became my middle grade debut novel Midnight Without a Moon, with a thirteen-year-old protagonist instead.
The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books has said of the novel, “Jackson pulls no punches in the characters’ heated discussions and keeps dialogue raw and real.” Some reviewers have even written about the “non-sugar-coating” of the story. Personally, I can’t help but wonder whether the conversation surrounding Midnight Without a Moon would be different had I written it in its entirety with a middle grade audience in mind. Probably so. I imagine I would have pulled a whole lot of punches in the characters’ discussions and the dialogue had I had ten-year-olds in mind as I wrote the manuscript. Dare I admit that I might have even “talked down” to my intended audience and shied away from tough topics had I known, in advance, that the book would be set in the 10-12-year-old age range?
For this reason, I’m glad that I ended up being an accidental middle grade author. Some of my favorite middle grade novels are the ones that were not afraid to go deep with young readers—books where the author was not afraid of—dare I say it—censorship. Had I known, upfront, that I was writing for a middle grade audience, I would have feared those things. And, had I feared those things, Midnight Without a Moon would be a much lighter read than it currently is.
Katherine Paterson is one of my favorite authors, mainly because she doesn’t shy away from the heavy stuff in her MG novels. Jacob Have I Loved is my all-time favorite of Mrs. Paterson’s novels. Some deem it dark and depressing. Yet, I would have welcomed it as a kid because the main character Louise would have made me feel less alone. And of course, there’s Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins, a book in which she definitely isn’t shy about Gilly’s crude choice of words. And who can forget the heartbreaking Bridge to Terabithia? Need I say more about tough topics in middle grade books?

What are your thoughts? Did you enter this field knowing you would write for children? Do you tackle tough topics in your writing, regardless of the target audience? And, finally, what do YOU think of Katherine Paterson’s MG novels—too grown-up, or just right for young readers?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What fiction most influenced your childhood and your writing today? by Donna Galanti

My love for writing and reading went hand in hand ever since I was a little girl. I began writing plays and acting them out with the neighborhood kids when I was seven years old. My first play was a murder mystery (no surprise!). At the time, I lived in England, where I attended a Harry Potter-like castle school.

Progressing from plays to stories, my first short story was about a flying ship, wizards, and Dodo birds. I even put in writing (in the “author’s bio” at the end of my story) that I wanted to be an author when I grew up.

At that same time, I vividly recall the first book I fell in love with: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I read the entire Narnia Chronicles in my very-British school, curled up in a nook in my itchy gray and pink woolen school uniform as you can see (bowler hat and tie included!). 

For a time, I would sneak into people’s coat closets when visiting with my parents, hoping to find a Narnia world on the other side. I would huddle in the dark beneath winter coats in hall closets, imagining myself sent to an older world long gone as I hid among musty wool. If I sat long enough would I be transported there?

After that I gobbled up all of Roald Dahl’s books and especially loved Fantastic Mr. Fox and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The tooth fairy brought his books. I still have them all.

I went on real life adventures with Enid Blyton's the Adventurous Four gang. As an only child, it was like having brothers and sisters to join in with. They made me feel less lonely as we explored our world from the sea to the farm. Then it was on to The Phantom Tollbooth and I was a little boy named Milo traveling into The Lands Beyond.

After England, we moved to rural New Hampshire where my parents owned and operated a campground and along came Laura Ingalls Wilder’s the Little House Books. We had barns and hogs and chickens, and how I loved gathering the rotten apples in the orchards to feed the hogs. My mom even made me a prairie dress outfit. I so wanted to be Laura! 

One fall day we rounded up the hogs for slaughter and I dreamt of blowing up the pig’s bladder like a balloon and tossing it about and roasting the pig’s tail – just like Laura did! Although, my mother was not so thrilled with scooping out the eyes to make head cheese as Mrs. Ingalls did!

When I became a teenager, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings came into my life and I was swept away to Middle Earth. One Halloween at school I even dressed up as Aragorn (what I envisioned he looked like at the time long before the movies) and of course no one knew who I was in my cloak, boots, and dirt-grimed face.

As a child, fantasy was my reality. I read fantasy then and created fantasy worlds in my imagination to live out my favorite books, so it’s no surprise that I write fantasy! From that first story about a flying ship to my most recent book, Joshua and the Arrow Realm, fantasy has always claimed me. 

My son has a love for fantasy too, sucking up the Charlie Bone books by Jenny Nimmo (“The best author EVER Mom!” So, he was thrilled when she blurbed my first book, Joshua and the Lightning Road). When my son was younger, he loved to create his own fantasy worlds by extending his dreams. He would wake up and play with his cars and character figures to bring his dream to life again. He kept the story going because he was sad he woke up and it had ended. He found a way to keep it going.

When I was a little girl the woods were my playground. Growing up on a mountain as an only child after we moved to New York, I spent much of my time roaming the forest with my notebook in hand, putting stories on the page in hidden glens and the nooks of trees (and acting them out when no one was around).
The tree house world from Joshua and the Arrow Realm. Illustration by Al Sirois.
My love of the woods and fantasy both fueled the wooded world of Joshua and the Arrow Realm, where Joshua must survive the hunt and discovers a hidden tree world of other kids. 

I wish there was a closet I could huddle in now to travel to my favorite made-up worlds, but my imagination must do. I have all my childhood books on my shelves and know I can visit them anytime. And I don't even need a closet to get there.

What fiction fueled your fantasy world as a child and if you write, does it enrich your stories today? Do you still re-read your favorite books from childhood like me? 

Monday, March 20, 2017


If you write middle grade fiction, it can be difficult to keep track of the ebbs and flows of a middle schooler’s daily life if you are not the parent or teacher of kids this age. I interviewed a middle school guidance counselor (I’ll call her Ms. Counselor) for insights—some granular details ranging from school day schedules to substance use to gender, sexual orientation, and the beginnings of romance. These insights are specific to a community on Cape Cod: a community with a seasonal economy and a wide range of socio-economic status that is majority-white and in a semi-rural setting that requires that kids take buses or get rides from parents to school and activities. These details (some can be generalized while others are specific to our location) may be useful as you craft your middle grade story.

1) Scheduling
Middle schoolers (grades 6-8) don’t sit in the same classroom all day. They change classes for subjects such as English, Math, Social Studies, and Science, and they have different teachers for these subjects. Kids are generally on teams, which enables their teachers to get to know them better. Schools use different methods to coordinate schedules; for instance, one school may use an A day-B day pattern, or a ‘rotating block” system. It can be confusing, especially for sixth graders, but they tend to learn it fast. (The adults may have a harder time catching on than the kids!) Also, they cannot go to their lockers whenever they want: there are prescribed times of day for going to lockers.

2) Substance Use
Sixth graders tend to be rule followers. Most of them will think that substance use is “icky and wrong,” but there are always outliers who will start experimenting on the early side. Ms. Counselor says that seventh graders start experimenting more, trying alcohol or cigarettes over the summer between sixth and seventh. In seventh grade, there are relatively few kids using substances, but they loom large in the consciousness of the peer group, leading to an “everyone is doing it” narrative and a skewed sense of proportion for kids. Finally, substance use increases in eighth grade (dabbling in alcohol, cigarettes, or pot).  Ms. Counselor points out that extra-curricular activities serve as an interesting “zone” in which there might be some of this experimentation going on. It’s a time when parents think kids are being supervised (ie team sports, dance, theater), but these activities are not as rigid and scripted as the school day. This is especially important for writers to consider; these activities can serve as a “gateway,” where a kid might be faced with substance experimentation and accept/reject that option. At the same time, these activities form a social support network of both peers and adults that Ms. Counselor sees as an important ingredient for well-functioning middle-schoolers. As you craft your story, it's important to figure out how your middle graders are getting from place to place, and what activities they might be participating in. This can have a big impact.

3) Cross-gender friendships
In sixth grade, boys and girls generally separate by gender in places like the cafeteria, especially in the fall.  By spring, there is more mixing—there are still all-boy tables and all-girl tables, but lots more mixed tables; this keeps increasing in seventh and eighth grades. (One interesting note from Ms. Counselor: this year, a sixth grade transgender student started a trend of bringing a book to lunch and reading. He was quickly joined by two other boys, and now there is an informal “reading table” in the caf where kids congregate to eat and read quietly.) There are boy/girl friendships that survive the social pressures of middle school. These friendships seem to ebb and flow over the school year in all three grades, indicating cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium in gender-friendship dynamics.

4) Middle school romance
Some use the term “going out” or “with”—“are you still with Laura?” This starts in sixth grade slowly, increasing each year. Ms. Counselor notices that all the social groupings and boundaries seem to blur and morph in the outside-of-school social context of texting and group chats. Kids who don’t seem to associate in school are part of the same group chats/texts outside of school. (Group texts and chats are BIG! A lot happens and there can be lots of drama.) One thing that has not changed is the tension around revealing a crush—that is a very big deal. Disclosing a crush is still huge, and having knowledge of who likes who gives a kid a lot of power and sometimes leads to betrayal and teasing. There is not much PDA (public displays of affection) in middle school. It happens the most in eighth grade, and kids in same-gender relationships seem to be able to get away with it the most.

5) Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity
There is so much more awareness on the part of kids, and more parental awareness and acceptance, when it comes to kids and their sexual orientation and gender identity now. Ms. Counselor runs a gay-straight alliance and it is very active at her middle school. The older generation’s binary thinking about “in the closet/out of the closet” is dated and obsolete. Ms. Counselor says that framework does not apply anymore, “not even close.” Kids talk about their preferred pronouns, and these pronouns may shift week to week. Kids in the GSA consider their identities to be fluid; they identify as bi (bisexual), pan (pansexual), “a” ( asexual), trans (transgender), and gay. This can also shift week to week or month to month. Girls don’t tend to use the word lesbian but will declare that “I like girls.” Ms. Counselor says the kids don’t attach permanence to their labels, saying things like, “I’m calling myself pan right now,” or “I like ‘a’ because I don’t see myself with any specific gender” or “I’m attracted to the person so I’ll go with pan or bi.” There are trans kids in middle school, as young as sixth graders, who are actively working out how they want to present themselves to the world. It can vary day by day, or week by week,  in terms of wearing male- or female-signifying clothing and accessories. All of the trans students who Ms. Counselor has worked with in the past few years have been female to male. There is no “old-fashioned clarity” (as Ms. Counselor calls it) about these labels and identities, and she says that kids are perfectly fine with this fluidity, able to talk and ask about it, while adults are sometimes confused and unsure, trying to understand and do/say the right things.

Finally, Ms. Counselor stuck up for middle schoolers: “People think middle school is horrible, full of drama and hormonal changes.” She says kids at this age turn themselves into “porcupines,” using distancing behaviors like eye rolling and sarcasm to hold adults at bay. They need this distance developmentally in order to individuate and develop. At the same time, “as soon as you step around their defenses, you realize that every kid needs connection. Those defenses are empty. In reality, they need adults.” This is pure gold for writers to consider: how does my character both crave connection and create distance from sources of support as they navigate the bumpy ground of early adolescence? They are dealing with a lot, presented with lots of choices, conflicts, and closeness.  These pushes and pulls, ebbs and flows present endless possibility for the writer creating middle grade fiction.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

IT'S ONLY A GAME: Games from Page to Reality by Eden Unger Bowditch

Sometimes, characters in our books come up with a good idea. And then what? Well, in The Strange Round Bird… Noah invents a game. And it works. And it is fun! The game literally jumped off the page into reality.

It started with spare time and an idea of what to do with extra pawns from a broken chess set. Moving the pieces around, I began to see how they could work as a separate and different game. What if it was a broke board? What if there were six pieces? How would they move? What was the goal? And then, with an explosion, the game slipped into the story as a way to distract a nervous character from being frightened. So, to be honest, there was an idea, the idea worked in the book, and in the book the game came to life.

Now, I’ve had people send me recipes they created from descriptions of dishes in these books. I’ve had people send me photos of themselves dressed like characters. But this is something slightly different. This is an invention that came to life in the story. At first, I did not believe that there could possibly be a game on a board of squares that did not already exist. I researched online and even brought it to a games expert. Apparently, it did not exist. I worried that it was because it was just a bad idea so I started bringing it with me to schools at visiting author events. People seemed to like it. My publisher had a minor freak out and sent me a patent lawyer, insisting that I patent the game before taking it out to the public. Thanks, guys. I hadn’t thought of that.

After hours upon hours of playing (thank you, my children and all of their friends) the game ‘Sufuuf’ made its way into the world, with rules and pieces, just like a real game. The games expert gave me names of game manufacturers who might be interested. I was even contacted by the ‘Seen On TV’ people who had a rather remarkable financial offer. Clearly, they had never read the books since the story takes place at the turn of the last century. Not a good fit for TV. I declined.

So from the page to the real world, Sufuuf has come into being. Do you have characters that invent or build something in your stories and those things come to life in the real world? It is very exciting! My first event in is Los Angeles in May. I’ll let you know how it goes.

-       Eden

Monday, March 13, 2017

On Fiction, History, and Wishing the World Were Otherwise, by Anne Nesbet

            I've been thinking a lot recently about the places where fantasy and history overlap, and in particular about the strange things that sometimes happen when our stories revise the past by making the painful parts of history otherwise.
            Making things otherwise is a desire very much at the heart of most writing, of course. It's pretty much the essence of fiction! In real life, we can't tweak what has already happened--we can't, in real life, heal wounds inflicted hundreds of years ago by one human being on another. But in fiction, we can. And so, we do. It strikes me that sometimes I find these twisted histories satisfying and moving--and sometimes the fictional mending of the past unsettles me. Loopholes, it seems, can have unintended side-effects.
            I was recently quite moved by a historical fantasy by H. M. Bouwman, A CRACK IN THE SEA (2017), which is explicitly about loopholes, about "a crack in the sea" that allows doomed and desperate people from our world--Africans thrown overboard from slavers' ships, Vietnamese refugees whose boats are damaged by pirates and then sink--to travel to another world, where the water is sweet and people are very few.

            As Heather Bouwman explains in her very thoughtful Afterword, the inspiration for this book was the true, awful history of the Zong, a ship transporting enslaved human beings across the Atlantic Ocean: in 1781 the men sailing this ship threw 133 living people, men, women, and children, into the ocean to drown, so that the owners of the ship could collect insurance payments on the lost "cargo." One of the characters in Bouwman's story, a girl named Venus, comes from the Zong; the story of A CRACK IN THE SEA, as the author explains, had its origins in a longing to change what can't actually be changed:  
            "And the Zong is the heart and soul of my book . . . . [F]or me, the story first became alive with Venus--with my feeling that she had to escape, somehow, from this terrible historical fact, this thing from which, in real life, there was no escape."
            From my perspective, the power of a historical fantasy like A CRACK IN THE SEA depends very much on the reader knowing that what he or she is reading is a counter-factual wish, that in real life, these real people died terribly--and we wish so much that that could be otherwise that we are willing to write stories in which something else happens. What happens, however, when a student who doesn't know about the real history of the Zong--or the real history of the Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s--reads this story? Perhaps the effect is quite different.
Although Bouwman's story is a fantasy, it does its best to take historical suffering seriously (as her author's note reminds us), even while opening magical/historical loopholes. A more extreme example of that approach might be Guillermo Del Toro's film, PAN'S LABYRINTH, in which a brutal tale of the Spanish Civil War gains another dimension through its young heroine's fantastic adventures. How one reads the ending of that film depends on whether one understands the "loophole" (the fantasy kingdom) to have been really, truly, literally real or, more poignantly (in my opinion), if we take that "loophole" as a reflection of our human and endlessly thwarted desire for the world to be other than it is.
        Other books go to bleak moments in human history and make them positively blithe, however. Remember the opening pages of J. K. Rowling's THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (1999)?

"Harry moved the tip of his eagle-feather quill down the page, frowning as he looked for something that would help him write his essay, 'Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless--discuss.'
            The quill paused at the top of a likely-looking paragraph. Harry pushed his round glasses up the bridge of his nose, moved his flashlight closer to the book, and read:
            'Non-magic people (more commonly known as Muggles) were particularly afraid of magic in medieval times, but not very good at recognizing it. On the rare occasion that they did catch a real witch or wizard, burning had no effect whatsoever. The witch or wizard would perform a basic Flame-Freezing Charm and then pretend to shriek with pain while enjoying a gentle, tickling sensation. Indeed, Wendelin the Weird enjoyed being burned so much that she allowed herself to be caught no less than forty-seven times in various disguises.'"

            This description gave me a bit of a jolt the first time I read it, to be honest, and now that I've gone back to find it again, I understand better the reason for the jolt. The account here is jolly and lighthearted, but on the other side of this fictional lens (on the other side of this "otherwise") lies some pretty awful historical stuff, real people whose suffering had nothing at all in common with "gentle, tickling sensations." It's humorless of me to state the obvious this way, isn't it? But bear with me: I'm trying to figure out what makes some fantastical reworkings of history cut deeper than others. It seems to me that whereas A CRACK IN THE SEA focuses on the poignancy of the "otherwise" (by keeping the "terrible historical fact" close by, even while the fantastical loophole is opened), THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN puts more weight on the loophole, and lets the historical fact float away.
            Have you read any historical fantasy recently? What effect did it have on you? Have you encountered stories in which the "wish that the world were otherwise" particularly moved you? Does a purely humorous approach to rewriting history unsettle you at all, or do you merely find it refreshing? (A good recent example of history rewritten for comic effect might be MY LADY JANE, by the witty trio of Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; in this novel Lady Jane Grey turns out to have been at the heart of various romantic and magical plots--and gets a happy ending, very unlike her historical fate.)
            So perhaps what I am discovering is that I am most satisfied when some trace of the tragic historical fact remains, even if veiled, in the counterfactual rewriting--the tension between fact and wish can then work a very powerful and poignant magic of its own. I am very curious to hear your thoughts, however--on historical fantasy, on loopholes, and on wishing the world were otherwise....