Categories in children’s publishing seem to come and go with the seasons—remember that fleeting “tween” category everybody was so excited about a few years back? But whether publishers market to these thin slices of readership or not, most of us middle grade authors have an ideal kid reader in mind for our stories. That kid might be 9, 11, or 13—but the age range does influence the tales we tell, the subject matter believe is appropriate, the language and vocabulary we employ, and sometimes even the themes of our books.
This month we’re talking to writers who do see themselves as writing for younger middle grade readers—essentially kids who are nine or ten rather than say, twelve or thirteen. Even so, they recognize that these categories can be very fluid—some kids read up, some kids read down, and some kids do both. What are the unique considerations for writing for this age range?
Karla Manternach is the author of MEENA MEETS HER MATCH, which published in January (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers). She lives with her family in Wisconsin and works as a freelance writer.
Lisa Schmid is the author of OLLIE OXLEY AND THE GHOST, coming June 18, 2019. She’s a stay-at-home mom and a pug wrangler. When she is not scaring up ghostly adventures, she is most likely scaring up fun with her husband and son.
Deborah Lytton is the author of the MG series Ruby Starr (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky) and the YA novel SILENCE (Shadow Mountain). Her latest release is THE GREAT MUSEUM MIX-UP AND OTHER SURPRISE ENDINGS (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky).
Karla, Debby, and Lisa, first, tell us a little about Meena, Ollie, and Ruby Starr.
KARLA: Meena’s life is full of color! She wears vibrant clothes, eats every shade of the rainbow, and makes art out of eye-catching trash. But when her best friend deserts her and a scary event sends Meena to the hospital, it feels like her whole world has turned gray. Does Meena have the imagination to make something beautiful out of this? MEENA MEETS HER MATCH is a funny, heartwarming story about who we choose to be when the going gets tough.
LISA: Ollie is moving-again. His mom is starting another new job, this time at the Bingham Theater in Granite City, California. Moving all the time means Ollie has struggled in the making friends department, but he quickly connects with a boy named Teddy. To Ollie’s surprise, though, his first friend in town is a little more . . . unique than those he’s made in the past. Teddy is a ghost.
DEBBIE: Ruby is feeling fabulous after helping to save her school’s library and creating the world’s first (and best) pickle cupcake. And she’s feeling extra stupendous when she’s assigned a book report and finds the most perfect, meant-to-be book ever―one about unicorns! But when her bestie is not acting like herself, and a class field trip to a museum doesn’t go the way Ruby imagines, Ruby’s not sure she’ll get the perfect ending she was hoping for.
These sound like great fun! What elements did you add to your books to make them more appealing to new independent readers?
KARLA: The main thing I tried to remember is that kids that age do read for fun. They don’t want to feel like they’re being made to eat their vegetables. I was writing about something scary, but I also knew that the books my kids and I enjoyed most featured smart, funny, impulsive characters with big personalities and minds of their own. I wanted Meena to be like that. I wanted readers to get a kick out of her and to be rooting for her so they’d stick around for the tough stuff.
LISA: I think the paranormal element is fun. Teddy is mischievous and a bit of a prankster. I think every kid would like to have a ghost who’s got their back.
DEBBY: Ruby often imagines herself in the pages of a story. These imaginings are illustrated in order to draw in new readers. Jeanine Murch created the illustrations and she really captured the spirit of the text. I have also included Easter eggs throughout the books that relate to classic children’s literature or to Ruby Starr facts. So new independent readers can search for them as they read.
Related to this, what’s your take on vocabulary for younger middle grade fiction? Is it okay to use sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure, or did you make an effort to work within a certain lexile level?
KARLA: I do try to use words that kids are familiar with, but I don’t mind challenging them a little. I also favor internal monologue that sounds like kid-speak, even though that means bending a few grammar rules. I actually really like working with shorter sentences and a more limited vocabulary. To me it feels a lot like creating fine art with a pack of eight crayons. You can create a lot of depth and nuance using simple language. You just have to know how to blend and build and layer.
LISA: I didn’t think about the Lexile level for a second. I had too many other things to think about, plot, structure, clues, etc. I was, however, acutely aware of vocabulary. In the first chapter, I have a sentence about how moving sucks. I went back and forth between stinks and sucks through final edits. I finally went with sucks, but even now, I’m not sure if that was the right call. The first time I read it out loud to a group of kids, I paused and looked up to see if there were expressions of horror. But alas, no one blinked an eye, so I guess it’s okay.
DEBBIE: For me, the voice dictates sentence structure and vocabulary. I try to balance storytelling with the target age range so that readers can comprehend the words but also allow for some challenges and learning to take place within the pages of fiction.
What books were your favorites when you were seven and eight years old and how did those books influence the writing of your new release?
KARLA: I remember reading a lot of Encyclopedia Brown and Choose Your Own Adventure books. I loved how they let you be a part of the story, either by trying to solve the mystery or by actually picking the outcome. Independence and mastery are really key for this age group. They’re important to Meena, too! I think one of the reasons graphic novels and early chapter books are so popular is because it gives new readers a wonderful feeling of accomplishment to finish a whole book.
LISA: I had a chaotic childhood, so I read books with a magical escape. I loved The Chronicles of Narnia and The Wizard of Oz. I used to imagine that I was Lucy in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe disappearing into Narnia or Dorothy getting whisked away to the land of Oz. I was also a Nancy Drew fan, which explains why I love to write mysteries.
DEBBY: DEBBY: I can remember carrying around my copy of HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh when I was eight. I admired Harriet’s courage and her independence. I also loved ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O’Dell. I was inspired by Karana’s bravery and inner strength. Many of my favorite books from when I was a young reader are featured in the Ruby Starr series as Ruby reads and cherishes these same books. I have also tried to create a relatable but admirable character in Ruby who is not afraid to be herself and faces her mistakes with honesty and humility.
How do you weave heavier themes into books for younger readers so that you don’t lose them? Are there topics you feel are inappropriate to address at all?
KARLA: I don’t think it’s appropriate to include graphic violence or sexual situations. (Does anybody?) I do think it’s okay to explore big questions and to write about real-life situations that hurt and confuse kids. I think the trick is to understand how children deal with those things in real life. If they’re going through a hard time, they might cry or sulk or cling one minute, but then they run off to play or hang out with friends the next. They never really forget what they’re going through, but they don’t focus on it every minute. Readers need that same breathing room. Meena deals with some scary stuff, but then she works on a project or hangs out with her family. She distracts herself. That’s true to life, but it also lets readers take a break and relax into the story again.
LISA: My style is to keep things light. In my book, Ollie’s dad bailed on his family. I didn’t go into details, but I did sprinkle clues throughout the story about how his absence affected Ollie. This element was not a central theme to my story, so I gave the reader just enough information so they wouldn’t spend time wondering about what happened to the father.
DEBBY: One topic I stay away from with this age range is romance. Besides that, I think any topic that is relevant in a young reader’s life has a place in literature. For me, the issue is not the topic itself but the amount of detail to provide with the heavier topic. In my debut novel, JANE IN BLOOM (Dutton Children’s Books), there were certain facts I removed during the revision stage because I thought they would overwhelm target readers. I never underestimate young readers though. They often display more depth and capacity than adults.
What do you love about early middle grade readers?
KARLA: Oh, my gosh, they’re so fun! Every once in a while, I run into a quiet, star-struck child, but usually they don’t hold anything back—not their stories or their feelings or their opinions. They’re starting to learn tact, but they’re still compulsively honest, so they ask how old you are and tell you when you made a mistake. I love that about them! I also love that they ask such complex questions at that age. They’re much more philosophical and self-aware than adults usually give them credit for.
LISA: I feel like middle grade readers are starting to look beyond their parents for answers. They are testing new boundaries and full of wonder. But, best of all, they still believe in magic.
DEBBY: I would have to say their enthusiasm. I also love their attention to details—they notice everything.
Do you have any suggestions for classroom activities that teachers can center around your book?
KARLA: Anything where kids get to imagine new uses for thrown-away items is great! Bonus points if they bring materials from their own recycling bins.
LISA: One question I always ask when visiting a class is-Have you ever been bullied? Just about everybody raises their hand. This question opens the door to great dialogue.
DEBBY: Teachers could start a book club in class like Ruby’s book club. The students could break into mini groups to discuss what they have read. I have book club questions for all of my books available for free download on my website www.deborahlytton.com.
Anything you’d like to add?
KARLA: I got to write a second Meena book! Keep your eyes peeled next year for NEVER FEAR, MEENA’S HERE!
LISA: There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Just keep moving forward. And above all, be kind.
DEBBY: Thank you, Gail, for including me in the group today. Congratulations on your debut release! For more information about me and my books, visit www.deborahlytton.com.
We’re giving away a copy of Debby Lytton’s newest book, THE GREAT MUSEUM MIXUP AND OTHER SURPRISE ENDINGS! Comment on this post for a chance to win (and feel free to follow Debbie at @DeborahLytton and tweet this post!). Limited to U.S. and Canada.
Want to see more of Meena and Karla?
Purchase links available at https://www.karlamanternach.com/
Want to see more of Lisa and Ollie?
Want to see more of Deborah and Ruby Starr?
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2004219.Deborah_LyttonBarnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-great-museum-mix-up-and-other-surprise-endings-deborah-lytton/1128560812;jsessionid=708302844383405241762AD31A144FF4.prodny_store02-atgap04?ean=9781492645832#/