On Discovering a Passion for Middle Grade

I’ve always been a reader. And I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t always know I wanted to write for children.

I signed up for a creative writing class the first quarter it was offered when I was in college. And I took that class very seriously. I wasn’t there to fulfill a gen. ed. requirement. I was there because I wanted to be a writer.

But I had a problem with that first short story assignment. I couldn’t come up with a good story idea.

All my life I’d been writing stories about characters who were around my age. They grew as I grew. Now that I was in college, it was time to write something bigger and deeper than I’d ever written before. Something that would catch my professor’s attention and show him how serious I was.

But what could I write about?

Days went by…and I had no story. I started dozens of stories, but each one fell apart after a page or two. None were good enough. Big enough. Deep enough.

My classmates started turning in their stories. They read them out loud in class and that just made me feel worse because all of their stories were beautifully written. They were full of imagery. They were deep and meaningful. So deep that I couldn’t even follow most of them as I listened them.

I still had nothing.

Not only could I not come up with a story of my own, I felt like I was too stupid to even understand everyone else’s story. I was never going to be an author.

Then another classmate stood up to read her story. Before she started she said, “I have to tell you my story isn’t like the rest of yours. I’m an elementary education major, so I decided to write a story about fifth graders.”

I didn’t expect much when she said that. But then she started reading.

I LOVED her story!

I laughed. I squirmed. I was right there, reliving my own fifth grade experiences as I listened.

It had never occurred to me to write a story for kids!

I went back to my dorm and started my own story for kids. Just to see what happened. I was amazed how the story just poured out of me. And I’d had FUN writing it! More fun that I’d had trying to write something “deep and meaningful.”

Next I started on a longer story. A novel. For 4th-5th graders. I discovered that our university library actually had a section of middle grade novels. For the elementary education majors. I explained to the librarian that I needed access to those books, too. For “research.” It wasn’t that I was going to read those books for pleasure or anything. It was for my creative writing class.

I rediscovered a lot of my old favorites down there in the basement of the university library. I checked them out and read them with more pleasure than I was willing to admit to. Then I started going to the city library…because I needed to see NEW books that were being published for kids. Again, “just for research.”

I was hooked! I’m not sure when I admitted to myself and everyone else that I wasn’t just reading middle grade for research. I LIKED middle grade novels. Today I read far more middle grade novels in a year than I do adult novels.

I don’t even remember the name of the elementary education major in my creative writing class. I never saw her again after that class, but I’ve thought about her often over the years. I’ve wondered if she ever published books for kids. Listening to her read her story out loud was such a turning point for me. It was when I discovered my passion for middle grade. And this girl, whoever she was, will never know she changed my life. I read kids books and write kids books because she “gave me permission” to when we were in a creative writing class together.

I’ve wondered whether others had a clear, defining moment when they discovered a passion for middle grade. So I asked several of my writer friends:

Dia Calhoun, author of After the River the Sun (Atheneum, 2013), said, “Late on evening in the Mills College library, I took a break from studying for my America Lit exam and wandered through the stacks. I found a little room, hidden away, its waist-high shelves filled with children’s books. All my old favorite books called out to greet me–The Little Lame Prince, A Little Princess, Heidi, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I spent the next two hours perched on a little stool, reading, reading, reading, full of joy. I knew I had come home.”

Peg Kehret, author of the recently released Dangerous Deception (Dutton, 2014) said, “I had been writing for adults and had published two nonfiction books, several plays and many short stories. I had written an adult mystery and sent it to an agent who returned it with a note saying, “Your heroine seems awfully young. Have you thought of writing books for kids?” Sadly, I did not take her advice and several more years went by. Then an editor who had published some of my plays asked me to write a book of monologues for student actors, so I began writing from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old kid. I was hooked immediately. When I finished that book I tried my first middle grade novel, Deadly Stranger. I was fifty years old when Deadly Stranger was published.”

Kirby Larson, author of the recently released Dash (Scholastic, 2014), told me, “The middle grade novels that I discovered as an adult and that completely turned me on to writing in this genre were those written by Betsy Byars. But please don’t make me select only one title! How could I possibly choose between the Bingo Brown books with their humor and Bingo’s first painful experiences with “mixed sex conversations,” or the offbeat but lovable Blossom family stories or the poignant, bittersweet and uplifting stories told in The Pinballs, or Summer of the Swans, or even the historical Trouble River? No matter the story, Betsy Byars turned it into a seven-layer cake of characters I wanted for my own friends; story premises that were fresh and original; snappy, realistic dialogue; settings brought to life with concrete and specific details (drinking lemonade from a sugar bowl; packing a paper bag suitcase); plot points triggered by previous plot points like tipping dominoes; situations that made me stop and think about what it means to be a decent human being; and, always, resolutions that grew organically from the story itself. I read and re-read her novels many times as I tried to teach myself how to write for kids and young adults. She’s a treasure!”

By the way, that first story I wrote for my creative writing class? It eventually became my first published short story.

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Dori Butler
Dori Hillestad Butler is an award-winning author of more than 50 books for young readers, including the Haunted Library series, the Buddy Files series, and the King & Kayla series. Her Buddy Files #1: Case of the Lost Boy won a 2011 Edgar Award and her books have appeared on numerous children’s choice and teen award lists. Dori grew up in southern Minnesota, spent 19 years in Iowa, and now lives in the Seattle area. She enjoys visiting schools and libraries all over the country and dreams of doing an author visit in all 50 states.
  1. GREAT post Dori! You’ve got me thinking about how I came to love them too… 🙂 e

  2. Lovely post. I love the Betsy Byers books, too. And I’m a former teacher, who started writing for children after retirement. I don’t think I’ve ever had a defining moment like yours, though. I’ve liked to write all my life, and I also write short stories and mysteries for adults, too, as well as poetry. I would have a hard time deciding to do only one of those.

  3. Great, great story, Dori. The universal appeal of middle-grade always draws me in. Thanks for this post.

  4. Lovely post, Dori!