Saturday, April 30, 2011

Writing for Middle Grade

Not long ago I was emptying out an old file cabinet at the back of my closet when a folder caught my eye. "Early Stories" was printed across the top in neat letters. Curious, I opened it. Papers tumbled out, looking timeworn and ancient, like ink-scrawled maps of my childhood. I recognized the looping left-hander's script: they were stories I'd written between the ages of eight and twelve. Here's a sampling of their titles: "The Mystery of the Blood-Stained Emerald Sword," "A Slip Back Into Time," The Mummy's Curse," "Vampires and Death." Even then it was obvious where I was heading.

I wrote stories with my special fountain pen (considered cool in those days), and sometimes pencils, in big spiral notebooks. From the age of seven I wanted to be a writer. When I wasn't writing, I was at the library, breathing in the musty odors of moldy books, losing myself inside tales of time travel, monsters and otherworldly enchantments. Then there were the scary sci-fi and Dracula films I watched on Friday nights with my friend Jody at the local movie theater.

The books that stayed with me were the ones such as The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, Knight's Castle and all of Edward Eager's time travel books, Margot Benary-Isbert's The Wicked Enchantment, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and stories by Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe. Some of their tales terrified me, while others transported me to strange and fantastic worlds. I often imagined that if I turned a certain corner, climbed a twisting staircase, or discovered an ancient ring, anything might happen.

As an adult I wrote newspaper articles and stories for adults. It wasn't until I had boys of my own that I began writing for children. Reading stories to Ian and Derek took me back to the world of children's books and I decided to write the kinds of books I'd loved as a child. A story written for a children's literature course in grad school became my first published novel, The Dreamkeepers. The hero was my ten-year-old son and I set the book in Wales, where my husband grew up. (His parents, thinly disguised, are in there, too.)

Having a
lways been a huge fan of monster (my favorite toys were dinosaurs and a cyclops), I found creatures sneaking into my books: Usk beetles, plague wolves and the genetically engineered skraeks in The Owl Keeper, and giant scorpions in The Scorpions of Zahir. I quickly discovered that, like myself at that age, many middle grade readers are monster lovers too.

Writing for middle graders, I've come around full circle. Middle graders are caught somewhere between childhood and the traumatic teens. They have a child's sense of wonder and often a teenager's fierce sense of independence. Life is scary and heartbreaking and adventurous and boring and exhilarating and confusing and hilarious - a jumble of conflicting emotions, usually happening all at once.

Often when I write, I find myself back in that scary magical time when I was that age. Writing is a way for me to time travel, and be my eleven-year-old self again: the heroine who bravely confronts the unknown and tangles with the monster. For me, writing is a journey to those fantastic places where anything might happen.

Friday, April 29, 2011

It's All About the Magic: Why I Write Middle-Grade Fiction

I have read all the wonderful posts by fellow Smack Dab in the Middle authors about why they write middle-grade fiction and wondered what I might add that hadn't already been said so well. So here I offer the simplest of reasons as to why I write for this age group.

When I was in the third grade I found myself searching the shelves of my school library--it was hard to find a book I hadn't already read. This is where I discovered new places, adventures, stories, and new worlds that allowed me to dream, to hope, to imagine. This place of discovery and imagination is why I write middle-grade fiction. It reflects such a wondrous time of possibilities, a time when we still believe in magic.

And that, to me, is what story is all about!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

PICTURE THIS: (Holly Schindler)

I’m about—oh—three years into my full-time pursuit of a publishing deal. I’ve drafted a handful of adult novels, and have amassed an enormous collection of rejection slips. While my family is offering incredible—incredible—monetary support as I pursue publication, I still want to contribute in some way to household finances…and am teaching piano and guitar lessons.

It’s Halloween afternoon, cold and threatening to rain (as is always the case in the Ozarks on Halloween), and I’ve agreed to meet a few pressed-for-time students at their homes for their lessons before trick-or-treating festivities begin.

I ring a doorbell, and am greeted by a young boy in a black jumpsuit decorated with white bones, his face painted bright green.

“Cool!” I say. “You’re a skeleton.”

My student rolls his eyes, uses his prop to point at the large hat on his head, and announces, “Nooooo. I’m an undead serial-killing cowboy from Mars. With a hatchet.”

Oh. Right. Clearly. My mistake.

Thing is, though, that’s really how imaginations work when you’re younger. You don’t have to be just a cowboy. Just a Martian. There are no hard-and-fast rules. The world seethes with possibility. I saw that over and over again, as I interacted with young students during music lessons…and as I offered English tutorials…and as I even helped judge the local Reflections writing contest for the Springfield Public Schools (where I was introduced, in one submission, to a super hero named H2O Olivia).

Middle grade readers are apt to tell you some of the wildest stories you’ve ever heard (especially if it gets them out of playing the song you know they didn’t practice a lick the week before)…A recurring tale about an invisible man who kept getting into a student’s backyard during the night instantly springs to mind…

The more I talked to my students, the more I started to feel the itch to open the gate on my own imagination, let it run just as free as my students could.

And that was what led me to writing my very first work for kids…

(Below: Me and my, ah, completely bewildered younger brother…Not exactly serial-killing cowboys, but instead, a couple of snow clowns: Mom’s imaginative solution to getting through a particularly wintry Halloween night…)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Field Work for Fiction

Anthropologist Margaret Mead set out to answer the following questions in her most famous book, Coming of Age in Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?

In other words, is adolescent turmoil caused by cultural factors or biological inevitability?

When asked this question in graduate school my first reaction was, who cares?

Okay, not exactly, but I did realize that I’m much more interested in the how (as in the personal stories of individuals) than the why (the grand theories about a culture based on the collective experiences of a group).

That’s when I knew that more fun (and it turns out, more practical) than pursuing a PhD in Anthropology would be immersing myself in contemporary North American ‘tween culture.

Goodbye Margaret Mead and Malinowski. Hello Taylor Swift and iCarly.

And I’ve never looked back. I love writing for ‘tweens because their lives are so dynamic and their identities, so fluid. These are the years when kids are figuring out who they are, who they want to be and how to get there – all cause for ENDLESS amounts of drama. And it all matters: Best friend breakups, crushes, unrequited like, boy-girl dances, siblings, step-siblings, fashion, algebra, I could go on. And on. And on. But I’ll save it for the novels.

Monday, April 25, 2011

In which I am left speechless

I have been asked to write a post explaining why I write middle grade novels. It’s very simple. It’s because:

It all started by chance one hot summer day (Curse you, Dia Calhoun!)

I started writing as a child and I have never stopped (I was gonna say that, Trudi Trueit!)

Because I expect a good book to take me someplace I've never been, to do something I've never seen done, to wow me in ways I never knew I could be wowed. (OK, but I thought of it first, Alan Gratz!)

I wanted to write for the twelve-year-old me (Get out of my head, Steff Burgis!)

I love books now, but I lived books when I was 10. (Vengeance will be mine, Tyler Whitesides!)

It seems the problem with posting towards the end of the month is that your blogmates get first dibs on all the really good reasons to write middle grade. And they end up being far more eloquent than you.

So I’m just going to go with the obvious reason: because the Voices tell me to.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Writing for the Dork in Me

There is a sense of innocence in 8-12 year olds. Most still sleep with stuffed animals or a special blanket. They get scared of the dark, of lightening, of dying, or being kidnapped by strangers. They worry about their changing bodies. They love their parents, but sort of want to be away from them. They like to join clubs and have secrets. They like to discover things. They form opinions. They have questions. And they worry about what is normal and what is not. Even with the Internet and other distractions, I like to think that kids still want to get swept up in a good story.
I can't believe I'm sharing this photo

Between the ages of eight and eleven, I had a tiny obsession with Laura Ingalls. Not only did I read and re-read all of the Little House books, but I also watched the show religiously and dressed like a pioneer girl on occasion.

I became obsessed with historical fiction. I devoured books like The Little House in the Big Woods and Strawberry Girl. Don’t get me started on The Boxcar Children. I would have given anything for a cool hideout complete with a cracked pink cup and a loaf of bread. I identified with Ellen Tebbits and had a major crush on Henry Huggins. I cried through Bridge to Terabithia and The Trumpet of the Swan. I saved all of my birthday money, so I could feed my addiction from the book club flyer! I still have many of those old paperbacks. Then, something wonderful happened.

In 6th grade, I discovered Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret.“We must—We must—we must increase our bust.”
I quickly realized I could count on Judy to give me the facts about embarrassing stuff like periods, B.O., leg-shaving, what boys think about, what to do about bullies, how best friendships can work, etc. Now, I'm not as dorky as I used to be and three boys call me Mom.

I guess you could say that I started writing middle grade for my sons. When my oldest son was about fourteen, I started looking for realistic novels for him to read. I wanted to give him books that explored the same topics that Judy Blume wrote about.

I found one great book: Firegirl by Tony Abbott. It’s got "feelings," friendship, cool cars, comic books, superpowers, and all the stuff boys like to read about. But there is a bonus: it’s also honest and compelling. It also explores the feelings of kids who are forced to deal with something foreign, a girl whose life has changed forever because she was disfigured in an accident. You’ll need a tissue when you read it.
The Marble Queen will be my first published book. It’s a historical middle grade novel coming out from Marshall Cavendish in the Fall of 2012. It’s about ten-year old Freedom Jane McKenzie who longs to enter and win the local marble-shooting competition, even though everyone, including her difficult Mama, tells her that marbles are for boys.
Freedom is a little bit like Ramona and a lot like the ten-year old dork in me.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Dia Calhoun: From YA Fantasy to Contemporary Middle Grade Verse Novels

Why did I start writing middle grade novels after years of writing young adult fantasy novels? It all started by chance one hot summer day at the Farm—my husband’s family orchard in Eastern Washington. My good friend Lorie Ann Grover—acclaimed verse novelist—had joined me for a week long writing retreat. During our writing breaks, I showed her all the wonders of the Farm: the pear and apple trees, the hills, the hammock under the maples, and the bordering Methow River. Years earlier, I had written a series of poems about the Farm, poems I had never thought to publish. I pulled the folder of poems down from the shelf and showed them to Lorie Ann. After reading them, she told me I was a poet and should write a verse novel about the Farm. I loved that idea!

So I began writing Eva of the Farm, a contemporary novel about a girl whose beloved orchard is threatened with foreclosure due to blight, illness, and bad economic times. Eva emerged as a girl with a vivid imagination. Her own poems are sprinkled throughout the novel, and they poured out of me in the voice of a young girl who views her world with wonder, freshness, and innocence. I knew at once she was not a young adult protagonist and that the book would be a middle grade novel.

My first young adult novels, Firegold and Aria of the Sea, were about twelve and thirteen-year-olds, but my later ones—White Midnight, The Phoenix Dance, and Avielle of Rhia—(as well as two in progress) featured older teen girls. Some of this shift toward older teens was story driven, and some of it was driven by my perception of the changing market for young adult books. When I started writing Eva of the Farm, I knew I had returned to something fundamental. Most of the books I loved as a girl, and still love, were books for younger kids: The Secret Garden, Ballet Shoes, National Velvet, The Dark is Rising, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, A Little Princess. When I finished writing Eva of the Farm, I felt as though I had returned home.

Eva of the Farm will be published in the summer of 2012 by Atheneum. A companion novel will follow in the summer of 2013. Currently, I am hard at work on a new challenge--a middle grade fantasy novel in verse.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Trudi Trueit: The View From the Front Row

My awkward stage started when I was about nine and stretched through junior high and a good chunk of high school. In the sixth grade, I was a head taller than everyone else in my class. I also had the shortest haircut. And the weirdest glasses (cat's eye tortoise shell). My older sister was beautiful and my younger brother was athletic and I was . . .

I had no clue.

What I felt, honestly, was overlooked. Lost. A little bit empty.

I have many wonderful memories of elementary school, yet it's the ones that stung that seem to be the most vivid (why is that?). I remember the embarrassment of being picked last for softball, dodge ball, or anything 'ball' related. I remember trying to hide a few extra pounds under bulky sweaters. I remember being teased about my height and hair and glasses. Due to my near-sightedness, I had to sit in the front row, which meant somebody had to swap seats with me, which meant I was officially 'Teacher's Pet.'

Fortunately, I discovered books and reading became my blissful escape from the battle scars of life. In the pages of Little Women, Kidnapped, Charlotte's Web, Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie, and anything written by E.L. Konigsburg, I found what was missing from my life. I found laughter, beauty, wisdom, gentleness, elegance, mystery, excitement, loyalty, fearlessness, and passion. Day by day, book by book, my emptiness began to fill with possibilities. These characters, these fictional people and talking animals, made me stronger. They gave me courage. They gave me hope.

I started writing as a child and I have never stopped. I've worked as a television news reporter and freelance writer, telling other people's stories. Now I tell my own. I tell them because I know firsthand that words have the power to lift a soul and change a life. I tell them because every ten year-old needs to know that everyone who is, or ever was, ten feels overlooked, lost, and a little bit empty. I tell them because it fills my heart in a way nothing else can, or ever could.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Yes, I read my own books

One of the strangest questions I get when doing school visits is, "If you didn't write them, would you read your own books?"

The first time a student asked me that question, it took me a while to figure out what, exactly, he was asking me. Eventually I realized he was asking me why I, an adult, would read books written for middle grade readers. That was answered easily enough. Middle grade books are fun! At least the middle grade books I like to read are. They have plot. Things happen in them. The characters have amazing adventures.

And let's face it, a lot of books written for adults aren't anything like that.

A Philip Pullman line I often paraphrase (and I may have originally heard this from fellow Smack-Dabber Tracy Barrett--hi Tracy!) is that children's books are the last bastion of plot. I would argue that adult genre fiction like science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries are up there on the ramparts fighting the forces of plotless literary fiction alongside Sir Kidlit, but the criticism stands for most contemporary adult fiction. Too much of it seems written as an intellectual exercise, and not to entertain.

Yes, I try to put in my books all the symbols and allusions and themes that my English teachers, oh so long ago, promised me were done intentionally by authors. I try to give all my books deeper meaning beyond the straightforward plots on the surface. But ultimately, my number one goal with the books I write is the same thing I demand from the books I read: entertainment.

That's why I write--and read--middle grade fiction. Because I expect a good book to take me someplace I've never been, to do something I've never seen done, to wow me in ways I never knew I could be wowed.

A better question might be, why would anyone write anything else? :-)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Discovering the World

On a recent school visit, one student who had read several of my books asked me a question:

“Miss Graff, why do you like writing about the fourth grade so much?”

The student who asked the question was pretty observant—I do like writing about the fourth grade. In fact, three of the five middle-grade novels I’ve written so far star fourth-grade protagonists. But I’d never really thought about why.

“Why is fourth grade so important, Miss Graff?”

Fourth grade was a big year for me. It was the year I got my first big crush (on floppy-haired Josh B., who made me swoon when he picked me as his social studies partner). It was the year of my first traumatic friend break-up (with Jenn H., who had the best Barbie collection). And it was the year I made what would turn out to be one of my strongest lifelong friendships (with Leah S., who made up for not having a Barbie collection by owning a stunning number of trolls). It was the year that both of my parents got re-married (double the flower girl dresses!), and the year I gained three stepsiblings, a dog, and a new home. It was the year I got my tonsils removed, the year I barfed pink-frosted cake at my ice-skating birthday party, and the year I discovered The Baby-Sitters Club (talk about lifelong friends). It was also the year my older brother, Ryan, almost died of a kidney disorder and I responded by developing a severe case of hypochondria—an incident which served as the inspiration for my third novel, Umbrella Summer.

And all of these things, I’m sure, inspired me to become a writer, and to write about the fourth grade in particular. But perhaps the most important thing that happened to me in fourth grade was that I discovered a book.

My class was in the library one day, and I was scanning the shelves, deciding which book I wanted to check out, when I saw it—a beat-up old book (brown, no dust jacket) by some guy I’d never heard of named Jules Verne. I flipped to the front. No one had checked the book out for seven years.

I was intrigued.

From the moment I began reading Around the World in Eighty Days, there was no turning back. The book was amazing. It had action, adventure, humor, and surprise. I couldn’t put it down, not for meals, not for bedtime, not for anything. I built a fort in my room, with a red blanket stapled to the wall and pillows all over the floor, specifically for reading it. The fort was the only place I would read the book, and no one was allowed in there unless they read it with me. The day I finished reading the book, I tore the fort down.

Looking back, it’s funny to me that such a book would be the one that turned me into a real reader. Around the World in Eighty Days was a far cry from the books I typically enjoyed at that age, and it’s not something I would ever suggest to a nine-year-old now. But I think what I enjoyed about it was that it was a book I had discovered all by myself. As far as I was concerned, the book had been written specifically for me. Reading it, I could imagine that somehow, some old dead guy named Jules Verne knew exactly the book I would want to read in a fort one day. And that was why he wrote it.

So I that’s why I write middle-grade, and for fourth graders specifically—because that was the year I fell in love with books. And because I hope that one day, even if it’s when I’m long dead and buried, I can make just one kid feel as special as I did the day that I discovered Jules Verne. And if that kid builds a fort to read my book, so much the better.

Now it’s my turn to ask you guys: What’s the book that made you fall in love with reading?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Happy, happy book birthday to the most recent author to join Smack Dab, Trudi Trueit, whose latest Secrets of a Lab Rat novel has officially hit store shelves today!

Best wishes for a fun release, Trudi!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Writing for the Twelve-Year-Old Me

When I was twelve years old, in 1989, I was shy and geeky, with big glasses and a vocabulary that other kids made fun of, for being too much "like a dictionary". I hid behind my long hair and bangs. I agonized whenever I got less than an "A", and my friends and I competed for the highest grades. You might think I would be a teacher's ideal student...

...but there was one thing that got me into trouble all the time: I could not stop reading.

I read in class, hiding my books under my desk. I read while I walked down the hall. The thing is, I had discovered the most amazing authors: Mary Stewart, Georgette Heyer, and of course Tolkien, whom I re-read obsessively. They carried me to a place that was so much more intense, more exciting, more fulfilling, than my middle-school life, where I was either ignored or teased by the "cool" kids and bored by so much of what I had to study. Why wouldn't I prefer to escape into books?

Books showed me that there was an escape out there, somewhere. That life didn't have to be this mundane forever. That I could be a real heroine someday, and there would someday be people my own age - even guys! - who actually appreciated the fact I was smart and book-loving, instead of seeing it as a disadvantage.

Fast-forward to 2006: I was 29 years old, not 12 anymore. I had stopped hiding behind my hair, and I was married by then to a gorgeous guy (a fellow writer!) who absolutely loved my love for books, and my brains. I'd started publishing short stories for adults, so I thought it made sense to write novels for adults, too. I was midway through a book that made sense in every logical way. But I wasn't loving it.

And then one day, I heard the first few lines of Kat, Incorrigible whispered into my head, in a twelve-year-old girl's voice: "I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed in boys' clothes, and set off to rescue my family from impending ruin. I made it almost to the end of my front garden..."

I ran to grab a notebook. I scribbled down the lines. And what I came to realize, as I wrote with more joy than ever before, was that I didn't want to write for the 29-year-old me, or for other adults like me, who had already found their adult lives and their places in the world.

I wanted to write for the twelve-year-old me, the one who needed books like this: fun, funny, romantic adventures that filled her with excitement, made her laugh, but also reassured and empowered her. She needed books that reassured her that it was great to be smart and to have different interests than her peers, no matter what the other kids around her might say...and reassurance that there really were people in the wider world who would one day value her for exactly those qualities that made her seem "weird" to the kids around her.

It might sound odd to say that my ideal reader is myself, but it's almost true. My ideal reader isn't me, now; it's me in 1989, twenty-two years ago, when I needed these books most. And that's why I write middle-grade novels.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why I Wrote a Middle Grade Novel

Why do I write middle grade books? First, in the interest of full disclosure, we must establish that I have written only one (1) middle grade book so far. Though I hope to write many more. My other fiction book is a YA and all of my remaining books are written for teachers who want to make math fun and interesting. Which is what I do in my day job. But I digress.

I thoroughly enjoy writing about and for the age. I think probably because that period of my own life was so full of exciting, but terrifying changes. I remember that near the tail end of 5th grade, like overnight - BAM! Girls were a factor, and not just for picking sides in kickball. You wanted girls to like you! How did that happen?! Regardless, we all suddenly had to do something about it. My friends and I knew we had to smell good to attract the women (TV commercials helped us understand that) so we started experimenting with colognes (think late sixties with aromas like Hai Karate and English Leather. Woo hoo!). We were kicked out of many a drug store. I mean the colognes were fun, but we weren’t actually going to buy any. We just liked using the testers.

Then overnight again in 6th grade - BAM!  Fashion suddenly became a big deal. Up to that point, I wore the same pair of pants and white socks everyday. Who cared?! But the first day of school in 6th grade it was suddenly and absolutely a fashion rule at Ben Franklin Elementary– no white socks! And only jeans. No khaki pants or anything else. And only certain kinds of sneakers. Who decided all this?! Was there a meeting or something during the summer that I wasn't invited to? 

We had also reached an age where we were allowed to roam farther from the home base. That meant we could go get our own slice of pizza from across town. We could go to movies on our own. Some independence at last. However, that new- found independence also manifested itself not only in pizza runs, but in some ill-advised choices like an evening visit to an abandoned house with my friends. All we knew was the house was interesting, no one lived there, we weren’t going to take anything, and the back door was open. We figured it was no problem. The police thought otherwise. I have never run so hard in my life or taken a more circuitous route to my house.

I took that event and spiced it up in LOVE PUPPIES AND CORNER KICKS, and let my main character, Andrea get caught poking around an old abandoned castle in Scotland at night with her friends. The police in that scene didn’t appreciate Andrea's sense of adventure either. Lucky for Andrea though, her dad wasn’t a police officer like mine was. I also put her in situations where boys are suddenly and inexplicably a huge interest, being picked for a team feels like life or death, and how you look is a constant agony. All stuff I remember having to deal with at that age and still see my students going through as well.

I think any event that leaves a strong emotional impression may eventually find its way on to the page if you are a writer. In the middle grades it seems these crazy, exciting, funny, emotionally-charged things all start happening at once. There is so much material there. I think it makes middle grade folks happy to share in same-age characters’ excitement and misery, failure and triumph, annoyance and fun. I know I get a kick out of it when I write it and I sure hope they do when they read it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My turn!

I'm glad to be the Smack Dab poster on the thirteenth of the month because my next book, Dark of the Moon, places a lot of importance on the number thirteen!

Why do I write (mostly) middle grade? Hmmm. I had to think a while, and I remembered a conversation with my then-tween daughter. "Isn't there anything good about middle school?" she asked forlornly asked after listening to older cousins’ horror stories.

My first reaction was to say no, there isn’t. I had the same kind of middle-school experience that I suspect a lot of writers had: being picked on, feeling left out, simultaneously scorning and envying the “golden girls” who talked easily with boys and laughed on the rare occasions when they did something clumsy or stupid.

But that’s not the whole story, and I told my daughter so. For a lot of people, I told her, middle school is when you meet your first real best friend, not just someone who likes to play the same games that you do—but someone you really, really share things with. You start figuring out who you are, what you’re good at, what excites you, what grosses you out. You’re convinced that you’re capable of so much more than what the adults in your life let you do, but occasionally they’re proved right and you wind up in a mess.
This can be scary stuff, and I don’t envy my readers who are navigating these rough waters. It takes guts to be a pre-teen and early teen. I love exploring this time of life in my books—it’s so full of adventure, heartbreak, and excitement. My readers are saying good-bye to little-kidhood, looking ahead to adulthood, some leaping ahead, others hanging back. I feel fortunate to be able to share this exciting, terrible, wonderful time of life with them—without actually having to live through it again!

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Matter of Happenstance

I have about five ways I can answer the question ... Why middle grade? There’s the story about a particular instance when I was an elementary school library volunteer. There’s the one about the acquaintance’s son who became flustered when he met me. And the one about the reading competition when I was in fourth grade. And I could talk about how interesting it is to explore the burgeoning independence of kids that age. In this entry, however, I’m going to head down a totally different path, one I haven’t talked about much. So here goes ...

A whole bunch of years ago, more than I care to count (though I will admit how many if anyone asks), I started playing around with the idea of writing books for kids. I was working in advertising and the nature of the business – using the fewest number of words to pack the biggest punch – led me to try my hand at picture books. I wrote one then another then another, then about two dozen books later with a stack of rejections as thick as a novel, I got an itch to try my hand at something longer. So I promoted myself to middle grade. Maybe I’d have more success at that. I found, however, I was coming up with the same basic results. Write a novel. Submit. Rejection! Write another novel. Submit. Rejection! Again and again and again. I hate to sound like a broken record, but wash, rinse, repeat with young adult.

There came a point when I had to sort through my identity crisis. With no intelligent means to determine exactly what I should be writing, I kept stabbing in the dark, writing and revising on whim and submitting with no visible predictability. You know, the old spaghetti method. Throw it against the wall and see what might stick.

And then I attended an SCBWI conference and through a process of eeny-meeny-miny-moe, I sent in a chunk of The Gollywhopper Games for critique. My editor-critiquer had only praise for it which propelled me to run through it again, send it to an agent who had spoken at the conference who signed me up and sold the book.

Voila! I was a middle grade author. By luck. Happenstance. And happy to be here.

P.S. I'm Jody Feldman, author of The Seventh Level and The Gollywhopper Games (newly named winner of the 2011 Grand Canyon Reader Award), both from Greenwillow/HarperCollins.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Middle Grade Fiction Can Make a Rat Look Heroic

There was a huge rat in our garage. I mean, this thing was big enough to scare off the neighborhood cats. My dad had tried all the conventional cheese traps. In the morning, the bait was gone… along with the traps – carried off by this ROUS.

I was about nine years old at the time, engrossed in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Rodents were heroes to me! When my dad finally caught the beast in a live trap, I couldn’t let him kill it! For all I knew, the rodent was a long-lost cousin of Martin the Warrior! Or Narnia’s Reepicheep, crossed into our world! My dad indulged my imagination and we drove out of town to release the rat into the valley marshlands.

I heard a simple statement at a writer’s conference once. Something like, “You’ll never love a book the same way as you did when you were young.”

And that’s why I write Middle Grade. I love books now, but I lived books when I was 10. I shared them with my friends, we acted out scenes, I ducked my head under the blankets with a flashlight so I could keep reading past bedtime.

I write Middle Grade with the hope that I can give an exciting story to the kids of today. Growing up, I was nourished on imaginative tales and wondrous stories. I would feel ungrateful if I didn’t try, in some small measure, to add to that spool of yarn – To do unto others as was done unto me.

-- Tyler Whitesides, author of the upcoming Janitors series.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Why I Write Middle Grade Fiction

I remember a time when I was teaching elementary school and my class had just finished reading Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. We were closing out the unit by watching the movie, and one of my students (who had loved the novel) wasn’t watching the movie but instead was reading a book. Now I’ve had students read under their desks during math lessons, but during a movie… I whispered to him, “Why are you reading? I thought you’d enjoy watching this.”

“I know,” he said, holding up the cover of what I think I recall was one of the Lemony Snicket series, “but it’s really good right now.”

That’s reason #1 why I write middle-grade fiction. Kids at this age get engrossed, absorbed, down right obsessed with a good book like no other group of readers.

My second reason for writing MG is because these are the books I enjoy reading. Always have. From A Wrinkle In Time and Julie of the Wolves when I was younger to Harry Potter and The Graveyard Book more recently, MG novels are the most entertaining and riveting books around. No filler! No pompous literary fluff. MG books are all about unforgettable characters and satisfying plots. MG writers have to be strong storytellers, and I approach my writing the same way I approached the classroom: hook them with exciting material and then lure them into deep self-discovery. I want the adventures in my Clockwork Dark books to make readers curious about American folklore, history, and how young people find success in the world.

This leads me to reason #3. These sorts of books can have an enormous impact on young readers’ lives. I’ve seen it first-hand in the classroom! It was true for me. Children’s fiction is the most important fiction written. Childhood is a transition from complete dependence when you’re a baby to (hopefully) independence as an adult. Middle Grade readers are …well, smack dab in the middle. They’re becoming aware of how the world operates— both the joys and difficulties. They’re wondering how others confront dreams, desires, and fears, and MG fiction provides strong protagonists who help readers imagine possible paths or ways of navigating difficult choices.

As writers of MG fiction, we have a wonderful and powerful responsibility to inspire young people who are in this process of growing up. I know when I was that age, I looked with wonder and admiration at Meg Murry, Will Stanton, and Sam Gribley. I hope my readers discover the heroes of The Nine Pound Hammer and the subsequent books with same wonder and admiration. I hope they hear the call to adventure I heard (and still hear) in all the magnificent MG novels out there.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Clearing the Cobwebs

By way of introduction, I’m Naomi Kinsman. If you were sitting across a table from me, I might tell you that my favorite dessert is chocolate lava cake, my favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time, and if I could build my clubhouse anywhere in the world, I would build it on board a train, with one boxcar dedicated to floor to ceiling bookshelves and windowseats, one car filled with a swimming pool, and one car stocked with art supplies of every texture and color.

My answer to the question, “Why do you write middle grade fiction?” begins with a story.

On Monday, one of my Inklings students, an excellent 5th grade writer, told me:

"At my vacation house near the beach, I found this weird hole near the cliffs. When I looked inside, I saw a light at the bottom, and I thought... what if it is a magical world? What if I could just climb down and be somewhere totally different?"

So I asked her, "Did you go in?"

She said, “Are you kidding?”

I’ve thought a lot about our conversation this week. In other Inklings classes, I have asked students what they would do if they saw a rain puddle or an old-fashioned wardrobe or a telephone booth that looked like a magical doorway. Would they go through? After the immediate yes, they paused, thought about it, and then amended their answers, saying things like:

“Well, first I’d pack a backpack with a flashlight and some food and bandaids and stuff, but then I’d definitely go.”

“I think I would grab my best friend who lives across the street, and we’d go together.”

“Maybe I would leave a note first, just in case I couldn’t get back...”

Here is what I'm realizing: As an adult, I often wish I could go to Narnia or Hogwarts or Wonderland, but the place in my mind that actually believes I can travel to those places, believes it enough that I would pack a backpack before exploring a magical-looking hole, is becoming cobwebby.

I write for middle-grade readers because they clear out my cobwebs. Looking at the world through their eyes convinces me that impossibilities are not out of grasp. I learn that even when I face a monumental problem, a problem as unsolvable as two trains headed full-speed toward one another on the same track, a solution is possible. Believing isn’t a luxury. Believing is the first step to making the impossible come true.

I write both realistic fiction and fantasy, and when I think about it, I realize that both deal with impossibilities. Sometimes a young girl finding her place in a new town seems just as impossible as another girl dissolving into droplets of color, only to reappear in an alternate world. Writing helps me see magic in everyday experiences, and also gives me hope when I face huge challenges. Working with young writers helps me see just how much more I have to learn about courage and hope and imagination.

What about you? What if you turned a corner and came face-to-face with a shimmering gap in the air? Would you step through?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Holly Schindler here, on behalf of all Smack Dabbers, wishing a happy, happy book birthday to Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams, whose Athena the Wise just hit bookstore shelves today... ...And to Stephanie Burgis, whose Kat, Incorrigible releases today, as well...

(And congrats to Christine Brodien-Jones and Lisa Graff, whose novels The Owl Keeper and Umbrella Summer are now available in paperback!)

...Excuse me while I get myself to a bookstore pronto...

Monday, April 4, 2011


Irene Latham here to answer the question, "Why write Middle Grade?"

One of the great things about middle grade fiction is that anyone can read it. Whatever your age, and whether the story is humorous or mysterious or dramatic, there is something there for everyone. I think of them as “family stories.” And when I began to dig deeper to answer the question about why I write middle grade fiction, my mind was bombarded with images from movies and tv. This isn’t unusual -- like many writers, I often think visually. And I am often inspired by other creative forms, such as visual art, poetry, film, nature, etc. Here are the three that my psyche seems most attached to:

1. The Age Of Innocence
This is one of my most favorite books EVER. And the movie version did not disappoint. There’s Archer, who’s engaged, and Countess Olenska, whom he cannot resist. The movie is about a time when one didn’t just dump the fiancĂ© and pursue the next relationship. It’s about a more “innocent” time. And it’s about love.

So what does this have to do with writing for the middle grade audience? Well, ages 8-12 are pretty darn innocent. It’s the time when we first learn about love, through those most primary relationships: parents, siblings, peers, pets. Before things get all complicated. When love is simply love, no qualifiers necessary. And I as a writer, I delight in exploring those innocent relationships.

2. The Wonder Years
I wasn’t alive in the 1960s, but that didn’t stop me from forming a deep attachment to Kevin and Winnie in this long-running tv show. Ages 8-12 is a time of discovery, when the world is this magical place that opens its arms to you and everything, everything can be marveled over.

There is something about the way a young protagonist approaches the world without all the burdens and cynicism of older folks that allows for a true-r portrait. This is especially appealing when the situation one is writing about is emotionally charged (such as race relations in Depression-era Alabama, which is the setting of my novel LEAVING GEE’S BEND). What fun and freedom for a writer, to not be weighed down by an adult’s perspective, to simply charge forward with wonder.

3. Adventures in Babysitting Remember Elisabeth Shue in this 1987 unexpected comedy? As a girl who did a whole lot of babysitting, I dreamed of this kind of Friday night adventure. I’ve longed for adventure my entire life. And there is something about those years, ages 8-12, that allows for fantastic adventure. At this age, we don’t yet know our limitations, we’re trying on all sorts of interests and lifestyles to see if they fit, we’re learning by doing. And to be able to revisit that sense of daring, to recapture that willingness to risk, is not only exciting but enriching as well.

Writing for this age group is never about falling asleep on the couch in front of the television. It’s about jumping into the television.

So. Innocence, wonder and adventure. That’s why I write (and read!) middle grade novels. And I’m curious about all of you. What movies and tv shows pop into your heads when you think about the qualities that draw you to this age group?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Why We Write Middle Grade Books

Suzanne and Joan: Hi all! We're jazzed to be part of this new venture, Smack Dab in the Middle. It's an exciting time because Goddess Girls: Athena the Wise releases this week and our blog tour began today with our first giveaway! Squeee! Here's a peek at our April blog tour lineup with bunches more giveaways. (We made the necklaces ourselves.):

Joan: So ... on to this month's theme at Smack Dab, which is about why we write MG. When Suzanne and I began our publishing careers, neither of us were writing MG. Like many beginning children’s book authors, we started out with picture books. I like to try everything to see if I can do it, so here I am, in MG.

Suzanne: I thought shorter meant easier, which, of course, isn’t true. And to be honest, longer-length books scared me. I had to work my way up from picture books to easy readers to chapter books before I had the confidence to take on MG. Sounds silly now, and maybe it’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s mostly true. Having finally arrived at books for tweens, however, I’m very happy to be here. I love writing for this age group.

Joan: Me, too, Suzanne! Ages 8 – 12 is the range most publishers use to describe MG, and we both read a lot at those ages. One book after another, as a matter of fact. Much of what we both read was series fiction—Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, etc.

Suzanne: There’s just something so satisfying about sinking into the familiar world of a familiar character book after book. Even though there’s so much vying for young readers’ attention nowadays, series fiction is as popular as it ever was. I’d written four chapter book/MG series and Joan had written five series for varying ages among her 130 published books before we teamed up to write Goddess Girls which, to quote our jacket blurb: “follows the ins and outs of divine social life at Mount Olympus Academy, where the most privileged godboys and goddessgirls in the Greek pantheon hone their mythical skills.”

Joan: We make a great team I think. (I feel a post about author collaboration looming in our future here, don't you think, Suzanne?) Part of what makes MG fun to write is that we can develop more complex plots than we can for chapter books. And because book lengths are longer there’s also more room in which to explore characters and the situations you put them in.

Suzanne: Right. Though we still need lots of action and dialogue to keep kids engaged, we get to use more complex sentences and add more descriptive detail. MG readers “get” more sophisticated humor too, while still appreciating puns and slapstick. And adding some light romance won’t make them gag (well, not the girls, anyway!)

Joan: I love humor, mythology, fast-paced plots, and romance. But I also like that we get to explore friendship (and friendship-drama) in a way that rings true and hits the heart.

Suzanne: One last thing that makes writing MG so satisfying for us is that MG readers let you know when they like your books! We get lots of fan email, and messages on our Goddess Girls Facebook page. The (mostly) girls who write us let us know who their favorite characters are and sometimes suggest ideas and characters for future books in the series. Some of them have even played at being goddessgirls themselves, and created new classes and teachers for their own fictional Mount Olympus Academy. And just as exciting to us, they’re taking an interest in Greek mythology and reading up on the original myths.

Until next time...

--Suzanne & Joan

Ages 8-12