A Plea for More MG Science Fiction

There are two areas of Middle Grade writing that I often discuss in these blogs. The first is poetry, and why there is not a lot of true poetry for MG readers. I’ll try and cover that again in a future entry.

The second is one I feel is more pressing, as it impacts on the future interests, and possibly career choices, of our children. That is, the presence of good Science Fiction for MG readers.

Of course, there will be many of you who will start listing fantastic SciFi tomes, attempting to refute my argument before I’ve even begun. So, allow me to agree, that there are a fair number of excellent MG SciFi books in the marketplace. Charlotte’s Library (http://charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com/), and other blogs, do a fair job of listing new titles. Hopefully this will satisfy the “wait a minute” crowd.

But consider, who reads these SciFi volumes. Boys? Girls? I would suggest that the majority of MG SciFi readers are male. Oops! I can hear the “wait a minute” troops marching back. “My daughter reads nothing but science fiction!” I hear them scream. Yes, this may be true. In fact, my own daughter, now in her thirties, has always read two genres: science fiction and mysteries. No sparkly vampires for her!

But it stills seems, at least to me, that there is a gender divide with respect to what boys and girls read. BTW, for me, males and females do not become men and women until they’re at least eighteen years old. Until then, they’re boys and girls.

Getting back to the discussion, I see boys as being drawn to more fact based plots, ones that have the look and feel of contraptions. Girls, I would suggest, are more drawn to plots where the focus is on how people interact with one another. For MG readers, that might, perhaps, include some light romance (very light).

But let’s stop right here and examine the flaws in assumptions you may be making, based on what you’ve read so far. For example, that all science fiction plots are just full of nuts and bolts stuff. Oh how wrong you’d be to think that way. Many, many of the greatest SciFi books ever written have very little to do with things like science or technology. Instead, they focused on people, sentient creatures from various planets, and how they interact. Shouldn’t this attract girls?

And let’s put aside the false premise that all books with a romantic bent have wimpy plots. If a book, any book, has a wimpy plot, no one would read. No editor would ever say yes to purchasing it. Good writing is good writing, pure and simple.

No, the true fault I see is not in the books themselves, or the readers, but in those who publish MG, and also YA, books. There *seems* to be a notion that girls want do not like SciFi because it’s too, well, techy. That girls wanted softer material, and genres such as fantasy or the supernatural are perfect for their tastes. Don’t believe me? Just take a walk through your favorite brick and mortar chain bookstore and you’ll see what I mean; all those glossy dust jackets, usually in YA, with girls in slightly suggestive poses. And sparkly vampires! BTW, how come only vampires get to sparkle?

I just took a peek at the New York Times best-selling list for Children’s Middle Grade. The only book on the list that falls under the label “speculative fiction” is A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz and Jacob W. Grimm (Penguin Group), a collection where Hansel and Gretel end up in other Grimm tales. That’s not even science fiction!

So, if you are beginning to sort of, kind of, agree with me, then how do we go about getting MG readers of all genders to get interested in true science fiction (as opposed to pseudo-science fiction, which is actually more fantasy or supernatural than anything else)? We need to write more of it (of course) and work hard at getting agents and editors to attach themselves to it.

This last part also means convincing them that there *is* a market for the stuff. This, I’m sure you all realize, is the hard crux of the matter. No matter how “daring” an agent or an editor is, they still must deal with what they believe the market will bear. I suggest that for many, this vision is a weak one, and that MG readers will gladly buy and read lots of science fiction IF it’s well written.

Finally, allow me to get back to an earlier theme concerning how reading more MG SciFi can affect or kids’ futures. It is a fact that as kids get older, girls seem to shy away from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics). Yes, there is a fair number of girls who do pursue careers in STEM fields, but the majority of adults in STEM areas are male.

I believe this is the outcome of a self-prophesizing myth that girls do not do well in STEM and boys do. I also propose that this myth is part of the rationale behind not targeting girls as likely SciFi readers. If we want *all* of our children to be successful, in a wide variety of career paths, then we, as writers, should foster reading of all genres by all genders.

Okay, it’s time to hear from the “wait a minute” folks.

Nuff said!

The problem with some MG series

MG series don’t always work. Let’s face it, you read the first book, the second, and then by the third you hear yourself complaining that the author is simply repeating herself. For example, the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson. Okay, perhaps not the best literature out there, but it was a fun read, at least for the first book or two.

The setup is actually quite intriquing, as far as science fiction goes. A bunch of kids are genetically altered to be part bird, wings and all. They bind together to fight the folks, evil of course, who created them. And yes, the government is in on the action as well.

Each volume focussses on one member of this group of pre-teens and teens, and that’s a good thing. But, buy the third installment, I was wondering where the series was going. I could not see the major arc that was tieing the books together.

In comparission, let’s look at the Harry Potter series. The major arc that pulls all the books together is Harry’s growth over seven years at Hogwart’s Academy, as well as his struggle with the antagonist, Voldemort. (Oops! I said his name!)

Each book in the Potter series can stand on its own, but also fits nicely into the series, which is what you’d want from the volumes. Mark of a good series? You could start with any book in the series, feel satsfied, and want to read the remaining books in the lot.

BTW, this problem with a series losing steam is not reserved for MG books. I’ve started adult science fiction series where, somewhere around the third or fourth book, I decide to go no further. Part of me would love to see where the series ends up, but the rest of me realizes there are other potentially great reads that need my attention.

Nuff said!

Where are gobs of Science Fiction for lower MG readers?

Recently, I tried to get a small discussion going on Verla Kay’s blueboards, concerning what I see as a lack of sufficient SciFi for lower MG readers. Yes, others quickly replied with books/series that fit this category, but it wasn’t an avalanche of suggestions.

What we did agree on, in the end (sort of), was that serious fantasy and science fiction are weakly represented in the lower MG arena. At least, that’s what I took away from the discussions.

So I ask you, dear readers, to agree or disagree with this assessment. Do we need more serious fantasy and science fiction for the lower end of Middle Grade? Or, are these genres well enough represented?

I truly wish to hear your responses.

Nuff said!

Looking for good MG verse

As of late, as you may or may not have noticed in my recent posts, I have been on a crusade to increase the amount of poetry that gets into the hands of middle grade readers. Lo and behold, a colleague of mine brought to my attention a list on amazon.com, of MG novels written in verse. Huzzah, I thought, perhaps this is the way to meet this goal.

However, at my monthly children’s writers shoptalk, I got to see first hand one of the books on the list: May B. by Caroline Starr Rose. I eagerly began to read the book, and then my heart fell. Yes, the book was written in verse, free verse, in that sentences were broken across multiple lines. And yes, the text was further arranged as stanzas. But as far as I could tell, this was not true verse, true poetry. It seemed to have the form of verse, but none of its substance.

Later, after the meeting, I found myself chatting with another group member who, like myself, writes and publishes poetry. As we talked, I conveying my disappointment with the book. My friend then thanked me, profusely, saying she had felt the same way. I went on further to say that given the low word count, the book was more akin to a long short story, or perhaps a novelette.

Before I continue, allow me to make it clear that I only read the first so many pages in the book, and that this post is not about the merits of the volume as a story. In fact, online reviews have praised it as a wonderful story. Yet, I wonder. How much of that praise was due to the verse-like form of the text? Hard to say for sure. So let’s leave that discussion for others to pursue.

Returning to the form of May B., I found the text lacking in the music of verse. This is not to say that a poem needs to be sing-songy. Not at all. But it does need to develop a flow, a rhythm all its own. This is true whether we’re speaking of structured or free verse.

Take, for example, Chapter 1.

I won’t go.

“It’s for the best,” Ma says,
yanking to braid my hair,
trying to make something of what’s left.

Ma and Pa want me to leave
and live with strangers.

I won’t go.

Now, let’s rearrange that same text in paragraph form.

I won’t go.

“It’s for the best,” Ma says, yanking to braid my hair, trying to make something of what’s left. Ma and Pa want me to leave and live with strangers.

I won’t go.

The first thing you notice is that it reads quite well in either form. That is, there’s nothing in the rhythm of the text that lends itself to being arranged as verse. However, if we had tried to rearrange, say, a Shakespearean sonnet, we would still hear the same lilting music in verse or paragraph form.

So, I’ll keep looking for good examples of poetry, or verse novels, for MG readers. Hope springs eternal!

Nuff said!

There needs to be Mid-Grade poetry

This post is going to be a call to arms! There, I said it, and I mean it. We need to encourage the creation, sale and reading of poetry for mid-grade readers. I’ve blogged about this before, but figured it’s time to speak again.

Here’s what I see. There is, of course, a wealth of poetry for readers from Young Adult through Adult. Always has been and, I assume, always will be. This poetry is geared towards the adult sensibility, the adult mind. I’ll skip giving examples as they’re far too numerous.

On the lower end, there are fabulous examples of poetry for children, young children, from X.J. Kennedy to Jack Prelutsky to Douglas Florian to Shel Silverstein, and the list goes on. This poetry is targeted at the the juvenile reader/listener, meant to heard as well as read. And, often, these are illustrated poems, which adds to the reader/listener’s appreciation. BTW, I add “listener” as many of these poems are meant to be read out loud to a young child, to introduce them to the printed word.

But, I ask, where is the academy of poets for middle grade readers, specifically those ages ten to twelve? These individuals have mastered the art of reading, but they are not as mature as YA readers. Books written for this age group do not encompass the themes found in YA and beyond. As far as fiction and non-fiction goes, it appears that MG readers are wells served, but not so for verse.

So, when it comes to prose works, there is a continuous transition from picture books, to easy readers, to chapter books, to MG, to YA and then adult. But for verse, there is a glaring gap in the MG range.

This, to me, creates a disconnect. We train readers to develop a deeper ability to read and appreciate the nuances of prose, but not so for poetry. How do we show readers that children’s poetry and adult poetry are merely points on a continuum rather than two distinct genres?

This is not to say that there are not poets who write for the MG market. There are. And over the next few weeks I hope to spotlight those brave souls who have been able to see collections of MG poetry through the rigors of the publishing world.
Nuff said!

The value of short stories

Well, I’m gearing up a few projects, mostly MG, but I’m also starting to get involved in anthologies through Goodreads.

I love writing short stories, and reading them, but the market for shorts is difficult these days. It’s not like decades ago, when there were monthly and weekly magazines that regularly published short stories. Not the case, anymore.

So, being able to write stories under 10K words for anthologies is a godsend. Whether or not they make gobs of money (please, I’m not against money) is, for me, not the point. What is important is to be able to stretch those writing muscles the way visual artists have been doing so for years.

Writing short stories is akin to a visual artist creating sketches, or quick paintings. These “short” forms require all the skills and abilities for larger works, but the time spent on each is limited. It is, IMHO, highly meaningful practice of ones art. May short stories live forever!

Which brings me to the issue of why short story collections do not sell well in the MG/YA crowd. Is the problem that folks are not writing shorts for these audiences, or incapable of doing so? I find that hard to believe. Consider the fact that many authors are now being asked, by their respective publishers, to create short works to be sold strictly as ebooks. They’re priced fairly low, to entice new readers for these authors.

Is it that collections do not sell? Hmm, this could be a circular problem, if it’s true. How so? Consider this. What if books don’t sell well because they’re not marketed well, and they’re no marketed well because they don’t sell well. Can we say chicken versus the egg? (BTW, the egg comes first, scientifically, but that’s another story.)

For adults, especially in Science Fiction & Fantasy, my area, anthologies are part of the bread and butter of what we do. But not so for younger groups. This is not to say that anthologies are not edited and sold. They are, but no where near the level that they are for adults. For me, this is something that needs to change.

Why? well, a great way to get kids to embrace reading – and I’m talking about kids who do not read a lot, yet – is to get them hooked on short stories. Shorts are a fabulous gateway to reading full length novels, and great way to be exposed to a large array of authors, many new to a reader.

And from a writer’s perspective, some story ideas do not merit a full length treatment. Haven’t you ever read a book and thought how thin the plot was? Perhaps that story would have been better presented as a short, or perhaps a novella. Novellas are perhaps even harder to sell than short stories.

Perhaps, some day, soon, short story collections/anthologies will once again become both popular and profitable. One can always dream!

Nuff said!

Books and their movies

First, a confession. I have not read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. There, I’ve said it. I’m not proud of this, but it is what it is. Why haven’t I read this book? Especially when I also write MG SciFi? Well, maybe because I’m a slow reader, and there are so many other more current titles I want to tackle. Or maybe …

Well, let’s put that aside as my reading speed or choices is not the topic of this posting. Rather it’s what hapoens when someone gets the bright idea to turn a popular MG book into a movie.

This thought popped into my mind after having watched, last night, an adaption of L’Engle’s book. I watched it on Netflix. Anyway, the production was fairly good, the effects more than passable, but it made me feel like I was missing so much. Various motifs were repeated over and over, and character depth was something distinctly lacking.

Which makes me recall a saying I’d heard, many, many years ago, that the best movies come from short stories, that novels are better suited to something like a TV mini-series. And I agree. There have ben very few book adaptions I have bern satisfied with, mostly because in trying to be faithfull to “the book”, the movie folk had to slice and dice the book’s story into something of a reasonable film length.

A good, recent example of this is the Harry Potter series. In my opinion, the first two movies did not work as well a they could because the filmmakers decided to be true to the original text. I can only assume they were fearful of making Potter fans angry. Then the third movie came out, and I was pleasantly pleased at how good it was. Why? Well, first off, the filmmakers realized they were making a film that was based on a book. There were scenes from the book that did not appear in the film and vice versa. They made a film, not simply an adaptation.

Maybe that’s what bothered me most about A Wrinkle in Time. It felt like an adaptation rather than a true film.

Nuff said!

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