Rich Wallace on Writing for Middle-Grade Readers

Today we welcome Rich Wallace, former senior editor at Highlights for Children and current prolific author of middle-grade and young adult novels, to the Mixed-Up Files! [Wild applause here!]

Rich is the author of the WINNING SEASON series, the KICKERS series, and most recently the middle-grade novels SPORTS CAMP and WAR & WATERMELON. He frequently leads workshops for the Highlights Foundation on writing for children, and when we heard he recently lead a workshop on Writing for Middle Graders we just had to get some tips.

What advice would you give the writer new to middle-grade novels?

Always be honest with your reader and never write down to them.

Any books you’d recommend for studying the craft of writing middle-grade fiction?

Read everything E.B. White ever wrote, including the volumes of essays he wrote for the New Yorker and other publications. Great writing is great writing; the perspective just shifts a bit depending on the sophistication of the audience.

What’s your favorite thing about writing for middle-grade readers?

Well, it tends to be more fun than writing for teenagers. Most of what I write draws pretty heavily on my own experiences, so my YA books like Wrestling Sturbridge and Perpetual Check are laden with a lot of teenage angst. There’s angst in my middle-grade books, too, but the characters are more innocent and naive and open-minded.

How do you balance the role of parents and authority figures with the need for your main character to make independent choices that drive the plot?

When I’m writing for quite young kids, as in my Kickers series, I do want there to be a parental presence, but they stay more or less on the sidelines. For older middle grade and certainly for YA, my parents tend to be mostly absent or somewhat dysfunctional. In Sports Camp, the “authority figures” Riley has to deal with are primarily kids just a year or two older than he is. In War & Watermelon, Brody has a fair amount of freedom to roam, but his parents provide a loose safety net. His role model is his older brother Ryan, who isn’t making particularly good choices and is in definite conflict with their father. So I give my middle-grade characters a great deal of independence within a relatively safe environment.

What’s the key to realistic dialogue? Do you use slang? References to current music, TV, technology, pop culture?

Listen to the voice in your head. If something a character says doesn’t sound right, rewrite it. I do let them use slang (and swear words in my YA books) if it suits the character and the situation. Generally I avoid pop culture references unless I want to anchor the story in a particular time. War & Watermelon is set in the summer of 1969, the era of Woodstock. So without burdening the story with historical references, I did want to include some phrases and slang that were prominent that summer, at least in suburban New Jersey. Like Brody in the book, I was 12 that summer, so it was easy for me to fall back into that time and place and assume his persona. All I had to do was remember to think like me.

Photo note: Rich as a junior football player around the time of War & Watermelon (looking at the camera):

Rich Wallace circa 1969 (#27)

What is voice? How do you create a compelling one for middle-grade readers?

This is the hardest question to answer. As a reader and editor, voice is what I most seek in a story, yet I find it almost undefineable. I know it when I hear it. But one part of voice is trust — I need to trust that the storyteller knows his place and time and characters so well because of what he’s revealing to me. Off the top of my head, I love Sherman Alexie, Annie Proulx, Junot Diaz, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jerry Spinelli and John Updike because they know their way around their neighborhoods and invite me in to experience it with them.

What are high stakes for middle-grade characters?

I want my characters to overcome some bit of adversity through their own courage and perseverance. In War & Watermelon, Brody knows that the challenges he’s facing — trying to figure out girls, find his place in the social order, and earn playing time on the football field — are nothing compared to what his brother might be facing because of the draft. But these are what the stakes are for him at this stage of his life, and he’s inspired to meet the challenges.

You’ve written a lot of sports stories aimed at boy readers, what’s the secret to holding their attention?

Staying inside that boy’s head, making my reader feel as if he’s in there with me, experencing every bit of bad luck and good luck and embarassment and triumph.

What advice would you give the female writer for writing an authentic boy voice?

I’ve always shied away from writing from a girl’s perspective because I just don’t know enough about what goes in those minds. Some people can pull it off very well. My wife wrote a beautiful middle-grade novel called Little Joe that’s from a boy’s point of view, and her upcoming YA goes even further with a teenage boy from 1950. Again, really listen to your characters, get inside their heads. If you’re comfortable there, you might be able to sustain it for an entire novel.

Editors and agents say they’re looking for middle-grade stories. What types of stories would snag their attention?

Editors fall in love with books for the same reasons kids do. Ask any 25 kids or 25 editors what their favorite book is and you’ll get 50 different answers. Write a book that you love and someone else will love it, too.

Thanks for stopping by, Rich! We’re giving away a copy of WAR & WATERMELON, so leave a comment below to win!

From IndieBound: It’s the summer of 1969. We’ve just landed on the moon, the Vietnam War is heating up, the Mets are beginning their famous World Series run, and Woodstock is rocking upstate New York. Down in New Jersey, twelve-year-old Brody is mostly concerned with the top ten hits on the radio and how much playing time he’ll get on the football team. But when he goes along for the ride to Woodstock with his older brother and sees the mass of humanity there, he starts to wake up to the world around him-a world that could take away the brother he loves.

Karen B. Schwartz writes middle-grade novels because her inner voice is permanently set on 12. Seriously!

Karen B. Schwartz