Everything old is new again!

Perhaps what I’m about to say will show my age (and no, I’m not telling), but there are two well-established science fiction authors I believe every middle grade reader should delve into at some point. They are Jules Verne (1828-1905) and H.G. Wells (1866-1946).

Ooh, I can already hear the moans and growns in the audience. “But they’re so, like, old! Who would want to read them. I mean there’s lots of really good new authors.”

Yes, they are old, so old they’re dead (sorry). And yes, again, there are plenty of new authors out there who write as well. But please, allow me the chance to continue before the virtual tomatoes rain down on my digital head.

I believe part of the reason many people see these writers as … dated … or more appropriately, out-dated, is the collection of film and TV adaptions we have been pummeled with over the years. Take, for example, H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds”(1898). Immediately, you either have images of Gene Barry (who?) running valiantly away from thrumming ships on three legs, with creatures that have three eyes, or you see Tom Cruise doing pretty much the same thing. BTW, John Wyndham’s novel, “The Day of the Triffids” (1951), covers much the same ground.

But have you ever read WotW? No? Well if you do, you’ll see just how different it is from these “action” movies. The original novel spends far more time focussing on the hero, unnamed, than on the invaders and their machines. It’s truly more about how people might react given such extraordinary circumstances.

Another great Wells read is “The Time Machine” (1895). Fortunately, an early movie adaptation stayed fairly close to the text. If you’re a fan of steampunk, as well as science fiction, I highly recommend TTM. You might also like diving into “The Invisible Man” (1897).

If we step a bit further back in time, we find Jules Verne whipping up sweet fictional delights. One of my favorites is “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1864, revised 1867). In this novel, we follow the exploits of Professor Lidenbrock and his crew as they retrace the steps of Arne Saknussemm who, according to an ancient piece of text, found a path to the center of the earth. Okay, go ahead and laugh. We all know, today, that the center of the earth is a core of molten metal. But this does not take away from the beauty of Verne’s writing.

Another Verne book I can recommend is “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea” (1869-70). Here we follow the exploits of, who else, Captain Nemo, as he takes vengeance against civilization. He also makes great scientific discoveries along the way.

The true thrill of reading Verne is that he was able to imagine technologies, that we see as common place, so very, very long ago. Unlike some early science fiction pulp novels, about space travel and weird aliens (think space opera), Verne and Wells create stories that though they might seem outlandish, today, still have a ring of truth about them. Good writing does last.

Now, here’s the really great part about author’s such as these. Their work is so old, it’s in the public domain. That means that you can download ebook versions typically for free. You can find them at bookseller websites such as amazon.com, as well as another site I recommend you take a good look at: Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/).

So download an ebook version to your Kindle, Nook, iPad, Android, or whatever. Or, better yet, step into your favorite local public library, and check out a few. I know you’ll thank me.

Nuff said!

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!

Muddle grade fiction

When was the term “middle grade fiction” coined? And by whom?

According to a recent Wikipedia article [1], the “Young Adult Library Services (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) defines a young adult as ‘someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen’. Young adult novels have also been defined as texts written for the ages of twelve and up.” But middle grade, in the article, is merely defined as literature for readers ages ten to twelve, with no reference as to who established the term.

Liesa Abrams, executive editor at Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, contributed the following for an SCBWI conference blog. [2]

“[M]iddle grade covers a wide spectrum. It’s often defined as books for readers ages 8-12. So you have to think about whether you’re shooting for the younger or the older end of the spectrum. Generally, your characters shouldn’t be older than 12 or 13–but your story isn’t necessarily MG just because your characters are that age.”

“The plot, the theme, the voice … they all have to resonate. Middle-grade readers have a different world perspective than a YA audience.” This is a wonderful view of MG, but it doesn’t bring us any closer to the term’s origins. But wait, think! Middle grade, Middle school?

Middle school is generally grades six through eight (or sometimes seven through nine). This correlates to approximately ages 11 through 14 (or 12 through 15), which gets us closer to the magic 8-12 bracket.

Next, consider the fact that someone who is 13 is thought to be a teenager, whereas 12 is not. Okay, that seems to nail the upper end, but what of the lower end? Someone who is 8 is generally either ending third grade or entering fourth grade.

Another Wikipedia article state that the “U.S. National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) … defines ‘early childhood’ as before the age of eight.” [3]

If we define late childhood education as middle school and high school, then the “middle grades”, school-wise, would encompass students ages 8 through 11(12). This seems a plausable explanation for the age bracket.

Liesa Abrams, in the above mentioned blog, states that whereas a YA reader wants to know what sets them apart, a middle-grader wants to know how they fit into the world.

Interestingly, this corresponds closely with Erik Erikson’s fourth development stage, School Age, ages 6 to 12. [4]

“Ego Development Outcome: Industry vs. Inferiority
Basic Strengths: Method and Competence

“During this stage, often called the Latency, we are capable of learning, creating and accomplishing numerous new skills and knowledge, thus developing a sense of industry. This is also a very social stage of development and if we experience unresolved feelings of inadequacy and inferiority among our peers, we can have serious problems in terms of competence and self-esteem. As the world expands a bit, our most significant relationship is with the school and neighborhood. Parents are no longer the complete authorities they once were, although they are still important.”

All in all, there seems to be much said about how the term Middle Grade Fiction is both meaningful and appropriate, but I cannot find (so far) who first used the term and when. Maybe you can tell me!

Nuff said!

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References:
[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young-adult_fiction
[2] http://scbwiconference.blogspot.com/2011/08/liesa-abrams-on-commercial-middle-grade.html
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_childhood_education
[4] http://www.learningplaceonline.com/stages/organize/Erikson.htm