Today we’re welcoming author Shaun David Hutchinson to Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Shaun’s latest book, The School For Invisible Boys, is out in February 2024 from Labyrinth Road (a Penguin Random House imprint).
Shaun is the author of YA novels including Howl, A Complicated Love Story Set in Space, and Before We Disappear, as well as a memoir, Brave Face. Shaun stopped by to talk about the most helpful writing advice he’s ever received, the difference between writing YA and MG, and why it’s so important to support local bookstores, libraries, teachers, and librarians.
Mixed-Up Files: Tell us about The School For Invisible Boys and the inspiration behind the idea. What sparked this story?
Shaun David Hutchinson: The School For Invisible Boys is an idea that’s been banging around my brain for well over a decade. I wanted to write a story that explored different concepts of masculinity. As a society, we often trap boys within a narrow definition of what constitutes appropriate masculinity, but there are a lot of boys who don’t fit into those boxes. And when they don’t fit in, they’re shamed and often bullied for it, much like Hector is.
The School For Invisible Boys is a bit autobiographical. I didn’t go to an all-boy’s school, but my mom did get remarried and I did wind up at the same Catholic school in fifth grade where my stepdad sent his sons. As a quiet boy who preferred reading to sports, I struggled to fit in at school and with my new family, all of which informed the story. The major difference between me and Hector is that I only felt invisible.
I was also inspired by the books I grew up loving. Weird books like A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle, fantasy like The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, and adventure books like The Dark Secret of Weatherend by John Bellairs. I think the fingerprints of the books I grew up loving are all over The School For Invisible Boys.
MUF: You have written quite a bit in the YA space. Can you talk about your experience writing this middle grade book and what is different in your approach to this age group vs. a slightly older reader? Was there ever a time you considered making The School for Invisible Boys YA or was it always intended as a MG?
SDH: In my head, The School For Invisible Boys has always been a middle grade book, which is probably why it took me so long to write! Writing for a middle grade audience proved to be a significant challenge for me. In a lot of ways, it felt like having to learn to write all over again. I was very lucky to be able to work with my long-time editor in the YA space, Liesa Abrams, at her new imprint Labyrinth Road. Liesa has oodles of experience with MG as well as YA, and so she was able to guide me through some of the more difficult challenges. I honestly don’t think I would have been able to do it without her.
More specifically, I think writing for a middle grade audience necessitated a gentler approach than I’m used to. For example, in the book, Hector is called a certain slur when he asks his best friend to be his boyfriend. I made the choice not to use the word because, even though I could have made the case that it was appropriate to use in the situation, I remember what it was like to be that age, and I think a child seeing that word written out in print might cause them to internalize it in a way that would negate the message the story conveys. I try not to shy away from exploring some of the harsher truths of life in my books, and I didn’t definitely didn’t shy away here, but I definitely approached those topics a little more gently.
I also focused a on the external conflicts in Hector’s life rather than dwelling on his internal conflicts to keep the pace brisk. There was a bit less navel gazing than you might find in my YA, a bit more focus on how the characters fit in with the rest of the world.
MUF: What sort of writing routine do you have?
SDH: I generally wake up around 5am and write for a couple of hours before I sign-on to work my day job. I’ll write during lunch if I’m in the zone. I might write a bit more during the weekends. I do my best writing in those early hours before the demands of the day have crept into my brain. I try to write every day, though I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone. I have ADHD, so routines and schedules are very important to me. Other than that, my process is kind of chaotic. I don’t outline. Thankfully, I’m a fast drafter, so I can make a few mistakes and backtrack without losing a significant amount of time. I’ve learned a lot about craft over the years, but at the end of the day, I usually just follow my gut, even when it leads me places I didn’t expect to go.
MUF: Have you read any new middle grade lately you’d recommend?
SDH: I haven’t been able to read a lot of recent MG—I spent most of 2022 writing and revising The School For Invisible Boys and most of 2023 writing and revising the sequel, and I try not to read anything that might influence me while I’m drafting—but recent books I’ve read and loved have been We Belong by Cookie Hiponia, Simon Sort of Says by Erin Bow, What Stays Buried by Suzanne Young, and The Probability of Everything by Sarah Everett.
MUF: Has anyone ever given you writing advice that was helpful?
SDH: My very first editor, Anica Rissi, told me to trust my readers. At the time, I only applied it to the book I was working on, but as I continued writing and growing as a writer, her advice became this little voice in the back of my head whenever I began to doubt that readers would understand or care about what I was trying to say. Trust your readers, her voice would whisper when I wondered if I was writing the right book or if writing was even worth it.
There are a lot of “rules” when it comes to craft, and I think some of them are useful, some are not, and most can be broken, but learning to trust my readers has been the one piece of advice that has always serve me well. The books I write may not reach everyone, but that’s okay. As long as they reach the readers who need them.
MUF: There is concerning uptick in book bans across the U.S. Is there anything you think readers, writers, and people interested in books can do to support more – not less – books in the hands of kids?
SDH: Personally, I think the most important thing people can do is pay attention to what’s happening locally. Support your local teachers and librarians. Show up for school board meetings. These bans are being carried out by a small group of very vocal people. The vast majority of people in our country don’t support book bans, but the book banners are well organized, and so their voices seem much louder than they actually are. We have to show up locally in order to counter them.
I think the other thing we can do is simply continue supporting authors and books you love. Put them into the hands of kids who need them. We didn’t always have money for toys or video games or vacations when I was growing up, but my mom always made sure I had access to all the books I could ever need or want. Support local bookstores, support libraries, support teachers and librarians. Always.
MUF: What’s next for you? Are you working on a new project? (Or do you work on a few ideas at once?)
SDH: Well, I just turned in a companion book to The School For Invisible Boys that’s called A Home For Unusual Monsters and follows the character Sam from the first book as she spends the summer searching for a list that might contain the locations of monsters living in secret among us. I’m also working slowly on another young adult book that I refer to as my “gentle apocalypse” story, and I’ve started tinkering with the idea for a third MG book that continues Hector’s and Sam’s adventures.
ABOUT THE SCHOOL FOR INVISIBLE BOYS
What would you do if no one could see you? In this surreal adventure, a boy who is used to being overlooked literally becomes invisible, only to realize there may be far more dangerous threats in his school than bullies.
Order your copy at Bookshop or from your local bookstore, or borrow a copy from your library.