Unleashing Your Inner 12-Year-Old

I know, I know – middle-grade books are for EIGHT-to-twelve year olds. Myopic cretin that I am, however, I’ve chosen to focus on 12 for…no particular reason, really. I suppose because “finding your inner 8-12 year old” just looks kinda silly to me. Or maybe it’s just because my book’s protagonist is 12. I’m 40, by the way, soon to be 41, so it’s been quite some time since my twelfth birthday. What tools and techniques can a leathery old human saddlebag like me use to effectively capture the voice of a character whose tenure on the planet is so much more brief than mine?

If you ask me (I know you didn’t literally ask me, but you metaphorically did by coming to this blog, so just settle down, buckaroo), it always comes back to memory. I followed assorted tweets from the Caldecott & Newbery Awards banquet on June 27 (with only a soupcon of envy to poison my voyeuristic enjoyment), and Kate Messner reported that Rebecca Stead described her sublime MG novel WHEN YOU REACH ME as “an impossible mystery played out on the streets of my own childhood.”  In a recent blog post, Nova Ren Suma said seventh grade “…was a very painful time for me personally, family-wise, socially, and more. But it’s so vivid—and I keep wanting to write it.”  In this interview on Vivian Lee Mahoney’s blog Robin LaFevers candidly talks about how her childhood forms the basis for one of her signature characters, 11-year-old Theodosia Throckmorton.

So yeah, personal memories. Personal memories are big. That having been said, I also agree with cartoon memoirist Tracy White, who mentions the unreliability of memory in this Washington Post article.  We do indeed forget some things, enhance some things, and diminish others. So! How to combat the memory slippage?

An obvious  tactic is to hang out with 8-to-12 year old kids. That’s not a real easy tactic for me, since my own kids have a few years to go before hitting that age range, and I’m not a librarian like Nan Marino (although I do have a Slinky just like Nan does). I didn’t keep diaries like Sarah J. Stevenson did, although I am trying to take her advice and hone my skills at eavesdropping. Tricky, though – I don’t want to be creepy. Creepy is bad. Author Jodi Moore is also an inveterate eavesdropper, bless her heart, and for added value she watches the TV show “Degrassi.” Incidentally, this demonstrates one of the absolute greatest things about writing for children: a built-in degree of legitimacy for the consumption of sweet, fizzy pop culture. That is the very definition of bliss, yo.

Mnemonic devices? I gotcha mnemonic devices right here.

Still, there’s a really obvious answer to the question of “how to best spur those 8-12 year old memories in order to crowbar them into a book.” It’s elementary, Watson. One of the prime ways to push a tap into those spongy, nerveless brain tissues and drain out some useful memories for your MG novel is to read a whole lot of other MG novels. There’s a reason why the entire kidlit industry goes on and on and on about the need to both write and read – the reason is because it’s true, babies.

The books I loved during my own middle-grade years are stunningly effective at evoking the sensations, thoughts and feelings I had back then, so I try and check back in with old favorites like DRAGONSONG or THE MERRY ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD or A WRINKLE IN TIME every once in a blue moon, although that gets harder as I continue to get older. Reading newer books like THE YEAR THE SWALLOWS CAME EARLY and THE STRANGE CASE OF ORIGAMI YODA, on the other hand, massages different places within the folds of my cranium – they don’t have the pure evocative magic of those old favorites, but that’s okay, because they stir up swirls and eddies of other memories that have been sitting on the shelf, undisturbed by other provocations.  There’s a certain amount of distance when that happens – it becomes more about the adult me observing the childhood me, in a way – but hey, whatever works, right? Dude, this writing stuff is hard, and transmogrifying one’s self into a state of twelvishness is not exactly the easy part. Populating your desk with action figures, eating pop rocks, listening to the same Beach Boys records your cousin used to like, and especially reading books…you do what you gotta do, am I right?

Mike Jung has not yet conquered the galaxy with his mildly snarky MG manuscripts, but he’s working on it.

Mike Jung
  1. It’s a powerful age to remember and to write for. And you hit the nail on the head on so many aspects a writer tries to tap into – and hey, eating pop rocks and littering your desk with action figures is still a blast. Isn’t it?

  2. It is interesting how we’ve chosen to camp out at this age, mining the sensations and memories. Thanks for sharing your perspective on getting into the twelve-year-old’s head. As always, it was an enlightening peek into your mind. HA

  3. HiLARious post, Mike! And oh-so-true! In particular re-reading our childhood favorites can evoke such strong memories.

    Another great trick for getting into the head of your own childhood self is to do a quick, timed writing (10-20 min) on a very specific, visceral memory. Say, describe your basement when you were seven years old, or describe your favorite thing to do after school when you were nine. By doing a timed writing with no editing, you sort of leapfrog over all your conscious memories and tap into more hidden, deep-rooted stuff which can be really helpful in slipping into that younger self.

    LOVE the new middle grade oriented website! Brilliant idea!

  4. Come ask me in a few years. I am 10 (going on 11).

    I like how you write and I bet your books are going to be awesome.

  5. Nice post, Mike. I read a quote once that said the best way to be a writer is to have a bad childhood and a good memory. Is that especially true of middle-grade authors?

  6. It’s true that sometimes life as an adult can smush your inner child. Yikes! But I was always one of those kids who did not want to grow up early, and I’ve learned to keep my inner child with me always. 🙂 Those times when it’s difficult to find the 8-12 me, I read MG, look at my childhood pictures, and change my American Girl doll’s outfit! I got Molly for my 10th birthday, and she was a big part of my life then. Those feelings and memories of being a 10 and 11 year old always come back when I look at my Molly doll.

  7. Golly – you’re hysterical!

    Me? Aside from reading lots and lots of MG (and YA) books….I’m lucky enough to have nearly 3 MGer’s at home (one will be leaving the innocent realm soon enough and one is close to entering it).

    So yeah, I don’t look creepy.

    I’m lucky enough to be “The COOL mom” 😀

  8. I find it harder to capture my 40+ voice. My inner child wears an outer adult, I guess. Not that I’m complaining.

    Whereas I agree that reading MG books and watching TV aimed younger is beneficial I think you need to take care with that approach. TV especially can lead to a sanitized view of childhood, written by adults, approved by committee and sponsored by corporate entities (*note* I’m not slamming TV writers, I know there are some great ones. I’m slamming the other factors involved).

    That’s too many layers between the story and the true voice of a 12-year old. It can lead us to writing what we think is real versus what we’ve observed to be real.

    Finding ways to work with kids is the secret. That and being immature. You big doody head.

  9. My memories of that age are still strong, and I have journals to back me up. Still, I agree that reading recently published MG books helps writers immensely. I’m a huge eavesdropper, but that’s easy for me with an 8 y.o. since I’m usually at kid-centric places.

  10. Nicely summed up, Mike. Your ‘voice’, even in this little, piddly post, is so funny and different, I can’t wait to read your books.

    And, please, don’t call me buckeroo… brings up bad memories.

    Besides reading and bringing forth my inner 12 year old, I find watching shows like The Suite Life with Zack and Cody, i-Carly and Phineas and Ferb help me capsilate the 12 year old child.

    For me, the perfect MG book is Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, not only loved by the 8-12 year olds, but the WORLD!!

  11. Yep, for some reason, many reasons, we keep going back there. That’s why middle-grade novels fill up my bookshelves and pile up in my to-be-read stack. And Slinky’s? Don’t get me started…

  12. Memories are a big help–it’s not so much what I did as how I felt when I did it. Those raw feelings are what I hope to capture on the page. And I agree with Tami. I find I have to act out certain passages as I write, really fall into that emotion so I can write more accurately about it.

  13. Mike, first off, you crack me up as always!

    It’s tricky voicing your inner 12 year old, but I’ve always felt gawky and out of place even as an adult, so maybe that’s why I write MG too! Feel like I’m stuck there sometimes! 🙂

    Really great post! #mikesempirerules

    xoxo — Hilary

  14. I totally agree about the challenges of recapturing your inner twelve-year-old (usually inner nine-year-old in my case) For me, it helps to use some method acting techniques. I don’t have any acting background myself but legendary acting coach Uta Hagan’s book A Challenge For The Actor helped lots.

    The Newbery and Caldecott speeches for FABULOUS. They’re reprinted in this month’s Horn Book magazine.

  15. Author Carolyn Mackler is another big fan of eavesdropping. This article reminded me of a speech she gave at SCBWI/NY in 2008, hilariously describing how she eavesdrops on groups of kids at Starbucks (usually while they swap drinks).