Gee, and I thought blogs were for …

As you may or may not know, I write poetry, stories and books for kids up through middle grade. So, I decided to see if there were any other WordPress blogs I might wish to follow. I entered the search term, “middle grade,” and found …

Ads! Lots of posts that were essentially PR for the blogger’s books, or reviews of specific books. What I did not find, however, was any sort of posts that focussed on the art of writing for kids.

Yes, I know, we all use the Internet (notice the capital ‘I’) for getting the word out about our efforts, but is that all there is? Have we become nothing more than mere snake oil salesmen, hawking our wares from the back of a website? I would hope not.

Therefore, if you’re still reading this, I need to ask a favor. Can you please let me know of any blogs out there that are extremely light on both self-publicity and book reviews, and heavy on the art of being a writer. This inquiring mind needs to know!

Nuff said!

Advertisements

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 – Part 2

I’m still fairly new to the game if writing for kids, so I recently took the advice of more seasoned writers. I went to my local brick and mortar chain bookstore (name witheld to protect the innocent), and browsed the mid-grade section for titles of books similar to what I’m writing these days. That’s SciFi, by the way.

Any who, I found three titles to start with, which I proceeded to request from my local library consortium. I picked them up, today, and saw that two of the three were tagged “young adult.”

Wait a minute? All if these books were in the MG section of the bookstore, far removed from the YA section. And local libraries had them shelved as YA? Who am I to believe. How am I, as a new writer, ever going to learn what a MG book truly is, if everyone else cannot agree?

(Oh, the titles in question are THE ROAR, by Emma Clayton, and GIDEON THE CUTPURSE (re-released as THE TIME TRAVELERS), by Linda Buckley-Archer.)

This brings me full circle to earlier thoughts I’ve posted in this blog. That the category labels that get stuck on our works are often arbitrarily applied. For example, consider a book with a 14 year old main character. YA, you might say. But what if the text was structly comedic, with not a hint of romance or angst or the ever-popular dystopan future. Might this this be a MG book? Even better yet, let’s assume that the language to targeted for the 7-12 year old reader. What’s a person to do?

Might this book get poor marks, even if it’s the best written stuff ever, simply because the age of the MC is a tad too high? Because this book does not fit the cookie cutter template used by some to categorize what we write?

Trust me, I’m no troublemaker. All I want to do is to hone my craft and get stuff published. But I’m also a fairly concrete guy, and someone saying, “you just kind of know when it’s MG or YA” does not make npme feel warm and fuzzy inside. These are not new categories, after all.

A short article by Laura Backes (“The Difference Between Middle Grade & Young Adult”, http://write4kids.com/feature6.html) tries to tackle this issue.

Laura states …

“[I]f the protagonist is under 12, it’s middle grade; over 12 means young adult. But the differences are more complicated than that.”

First, she attempts to define what MG is.

“Children in the primary grades are still focused inward, and the conflicts in their books reflect that. While themes range from friendship to school situations to relationships with siblings and peers, characters are learning how they operate within their own world. They are solidifying their own identity, experiencing the physical and psychological changes of puberty, taking on new responsibilities all within the boundaries of their family, friends and neighborhood. Yes, your character needs to grow and change during the course of the book, but these changes are on the inside. Middle grade readers are beginning to learn who they are, what they think. Their books need to mirror their personal experience.”

Next, she tackles YA.

“Characters are also a key element to young adult novels, but these books often have more complicated plots than those for middle grade. Protagonists experience an internal change, but this change is triggered by external events and fits into a bigger picture. They begin to step outside themselves and see how they influence, and are influenced by, the larger world. They go beyond their backyard and encounter adult problems for the first time.”

Finally, she raises the issue that themes are often a better litmus test.

“The age of the main character and length of the manuscript are still a rough guide in determining the audience (middle grade manuscripts tend to be 100 pages or shorter, with young adult books being longer, though this is not always the case), but the kind of conflict the characters encounter is a better measuring stick.”

So, where do I go from here! Well, I’m still going to read the three books I checked out, with the caveat that two if them fall smack dab on the MG/YA fence. After that, I’ll decide where my works fall.

It’s a neverending learning process!

Nuff said!

Are we kids at heart?

Are we, those of us who write for middle grade readers, kids at heart? The answer? Well, of course we are! But that’s not what I truly want to write about.

A more central question for me is do we need to be kids at heart to write for kids. And, do we need to read a lot of middle grade works to write for this audience? Basically, what makes someone a middle grade writer?

The first thing I believe one needs to be is a good storyteller, someone who can create and write down an engaging yarn. I’ve been a professional storyteller since the 90’s, and I can describe from experience what kid’s like to hear. But that is not necessarily what they like to read.

Story is story, plain and simple, but there are as many ways to convey a story as there are stars in the sky. But only so many of these tellings will connect with a middle grade reader. We, as MG writers, need to be able to identify how to write a story as well as what story to write. It is, I suggest, our ability to frame a story such that it does engage a MG reader, that allows us to be successful.

Still, that’s only half of the equation. The other half is to be able to create the stories that MG readers will want to read. Everyone has lots of stories fliating around in their heads. MG writers, I suggest, are abke to pick out the ones that a MG reader will enjoy reading.

How do we do this? Ah, that is a mystery, or at least something better answered by a psychologist. For me, the answer is that we write what we do because of the sum total of our experiences. These experiences can include reading gobs of MG books, but this is not a requisite. In fact, I suggest that you can be a successful MG writer without ever having read another MG book.

Of course, if you do read lots of other MG books, it helps to hone your writing skills, but I do not believe it is necessary for uncovering which stories to write down. We write what we know, and what we know comes from everything that makes up our lives.

What does matter is that given a unique combination of experiences, a writer is able to see through the eyes of a MG reader, such that she can write a story in a way a MG reader needs/wants it to be written. It is the sum total, not the specific elements, of these experiences that matters.

There needs to be a kid inside of a MG writer working hand in hand with the adult writer inside to create a successful MG book.

Nuff said!

Should Mid-Grade kids read poetry?

There is, with respect to both fiction and non-fiction, a wonderful transition in publishing from baby books, to picture books, to early readers, to mid-grade, to young adult and, finally adult books. Each of these areas is well represented and thriving, as best as possible in these economic times.

So, why do I not see the same for poetry?

First off, I am not saying that books of poetry do not exist for each reading level; they do. What I do notice is that for mid-grade (MG) there seems to be a noticeable dropoff in the percentage of poetry books to other types of writing being published. Again, this is just one person’s perspective; mine.

A quick browsing online for the terms “middle grade” and “poetry” brings up many hits. But be warned, quantity does not imply quality. Many of the “poetry” books listed are actually novels written in verse. These are fine books, and inviting kids to enjoy works in verse is admirable, but they are not collections of poetry.

Other collections seen are actually picture books, where the image is as important as the word. Great for younger readers, but what about volumes, sans illustrations, that focus on the written words of poetry, that invite the middle reader to appreciate and think about poetry for itself?

It almost seems, to me, that folks see children’s poetry and adult poetry as separate fields, with no natural transition possible between the two. Is this true? Can we not have serious poems written for a MG reading level? Or even humorous MG poems, if that’s what it takes?

I’m not asking for poetry books at theses midde levels to overtake fiction and non-fiction (though that would be nice, he says, chuckling). Poetry for adults is a hard sell, but every bookstore I know stocks a fair number of volumes for adults. Why is this not the case for MG kids? Yes, MG adventure, fantasy, and the like, are what sell, but can’t we find a little space for MG poetry?

Nuff said!

(Previously published in Aniprof says …)