Few things make Writer Me more nervous than being asked about my “process”. So much of how I make a book remains mysterious to me that process is too kind a word. My lurching, my fumbling, stumbling, grabbing and grasping–that I could talk about all night. Not that anyone would want to listen.
Periodically, I take myself in hand and try to say, with some semblance of articulateness, how I do what I do. Now seems a good time, since next year is an unusual one for me: I’ve got two new books, in genres that differ yet overlap. Moonpenny Island, a novel, is pure middle grade (ages 8-12), but Cody and the Fountain of Happiness is what is called a chapter book (ages 7-10). I’ve been thinking about what I was doing in each book–what’s the same and what’s distinct.
Right off the bat: they were equally challenging to write. I’d say the same about picture books, YA, and adult fiction, all of which I’ve done. For me, writing is just hard hard hard, which means slow slow slow.
The challenges were different, though. Both have subplots, but Moonpenny has more, and twining them all together, not to mention bringing them to a conclusion that wasn’t a series of bullet points, took serious wrangling. Cody’s subplots stuck closer to home–the main story–and were easier to call in at the end. Cody has fewer characters, and the setting stays more in the background. In Moonpenny, as you might guess from the title, sense of place is strong and crucial.
Not to say, by any means, that writing more simply is simpler. My middle grade novels are usually forty-to-sixty-thousand words, where the Cody book (it is–yay! first in a series) is about fifteen thousand. At a quarter of the words, the demands of a chapter book are daunting. Sentences are shorter, which makes choosing the perfect details (and cutting all the others) even more essential. I spent forever finding Cody’s voice. As a younger child, her vocabulary is smaller, but her feelings, her thoughts and her questions, are just as big as a tween’s. In Moonpenny, my main character, Flor, gets to venture into thinking and speculation too abstract for Cody, but Cody gets to wears her heart on her sleeve in a way that Flor feels too old and self-conscious for. The different, crazy delights these two girls gave me as I wrote them!
There is also the matter of joy. In chapter books, it’s a sure thing. Characters will have problems, they’ll grow and change, but there’s never any doubt that all will come right in the end. There’s only so much angst their worlds will bear. In middle grade, things can–and recently this seems more and more the case–take a darker tone. The world can give middle grade characters more of a battering. Joy may no longer be guaranteed, but hope must be, always.
I loved writing both (I know I said it was hard hard hard–but amnesia has already set in). At times I’d get confused, and give Cody a middle grade problem, or rein in the lushness of Flor’s voice. But mostly, happily, the books informed each other. Writing them in tandem was like getting to know two sisters, one a little older and more serious, the other younger and funnier, each of them bossy and eager in her own way. Each has her own evolving view of the world, and her own urgent, important story to tell. I like to think that older middle grade readers might enjoy kicking back with Cody, and younger one might go up on tiptoe to meet Flor.
Some other “chapter books” I think work for younger middle grade readers are listed here. Please add your own suggestions!
Clementine books by Sara Pennypacker
Alvin Ho books by Lenore Look
Anything by Dick King-Smith
Marvin Redpost books by Louis Sachar
Humphrey books by Betty G. Birney
Tricia’s other middle grade novels include What Happened on Fox Street and Mo Wren, Lost and Found, both published by HarperCollins.