Posts Tagged Am writing

Where Do Middle Grade Authors Get Ideas?

When children’s authors go on school visits, one of the first questions we often get is–where do you get your ideas? This question will also sometimes go up in writing classes that I teach at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature and Illustration and at The Children’s Book Academy. I thought I’d share with The Mixed Up Files, some place where I’ve found inspiration! Feel free to share tips on where you find ideas as well. May the well never run dry for any of us!

Ideas Are Everywhere!
I see the world as generously offering book ideas every day. Even the smallest everyday object can provide inspiration. It’s a state of mind, of pondering and unleashing curiosity.

Hey, that piece of bubble gum that I’m chewing. Hmm, has anyone written a book about the history of gum? The inventor of gum? Is there just one inventor? Or many? What about writing a chapter book about a kid whose ability is bubble blowing? Or a book on how to make your own gum? Or a book of bubble gum techniques? Or what happens to the environment because of the all the gum that gets tossed out in the trash? Or maybe gum provides a character tag—a dad who has recently given up smoking is constantly chewing a stick of gum. Once you have that lens –that anything can be a book–there’s a deluge, a veritable avalanche of ideas.

Write Down Those Ideas
The trick is to write them down the moment you think of them. Otherwise, you’ll be like, um, what was that idea I had last week? That’s why notepads litter my nightstand and are scattered throughout the house. Of course, make sure to transfer those ideas from the notepad to your computer. In our home, little papers get lost (dogs and pets eat them, kids turn them into spitballs and absentminded writers are known to lose track of them).

Be a Snoop
Many of my ideas have come from simply overhearing my children. Here’s an example: when I noticed that my middle schoolers were obsessed with the amount of FB Likes they were getting a few years back, I thought–what about a seventh grader who is social media obsessed, does something she shouldn’t, and then her parents shut down her account and take away her phone? Bingo!

Do Market Research
At the time, I checked to see if there were any middle school books out there focusing on social media obsession—and there weren’t! I wrote it simply by inhaling the atmosphere around me. The book sold quickly and became the Queen of Likes, one of my most popular books for tweens.

Once I get my idea, I always engage in a period of discovery. This first involves market research. My first question is — has this subject been tackled before? If so, how many and for what age groups? If there are books looking at the very same subject for the same group, I ask myself–how will my or narrative stand out from the crowd? What am I offering that’s fresh? If I’m not doing something new, I seek out another idea.

Interview!
For my Ellie May chapter books, I knew I wanted to write about an exuberant second grader who loves to celebrate holidays in her classroom. However, I also knew I didn’t want to pick holidays that had already been heavily featured in other books. For my period of discovery, I asked educators about the holidays that were a big deal for students and yet weren’t truly represented in chapter books. That’s how I came up with Ellie May on Presidents Day and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day.

Have Fun!
Investigating the variety of ways in which school celebrate holidays offered hours of fruitful discovery. I interviewed teachers as well as visited blogs, vlogs and websites. Writing those books was a blast, and I gained confidence that I was writing about subjects that would be truly appreciated in the classroom.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 18, 2018), as well as Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She teaches at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature, Writing and Illustration and at the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

The Most Important Thing that Beverly Cleary Taught Me About Writing

When I was writing one of my middle grades, Queen of Likes, I momentarily forgot what it was like to be a tween. In that book, 12-year-old Karma Cooper gets her phone taken away. At first, I got right to this punishment and had Karma communicating her regret.

Wrong! I had forgotten what it felt like to be a seventh grader. How could this happen? After all, I teach an online course, Middle Grade Mastery with the Children’s Book Academy, and exhort my students to crawl into the head of a kid and stay there. Instead, I was writing the text like—gulp–a mom. I hate how my children and their friends are on the phone in the car and don’t talk to each other. I don’t allow phones at the kitchen table. I constantly make them put their phones away. But a kid might feel different. She might feel as though Mom is really patently unfair. In revision, I had to remember how Karma felt about her phone, not me, the Mom. When I had Karma name her phone Floyd, I got back into a child head space.

Let’s look in more detail how to do this. Beverly Cleary recently just celebrated her 103rd birthday, and I can think of no better middle grade mentor to learn from than her. Cleary clearly (I just have been waiting to put those two words together for a very long time), understands and remembers what it is like to be a child.

Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8, focuses on tension over a beloved eraser. As an adult it is too easy to forget the attachment that children have to small inanimate objects. Sometimes as grown-ups we see things merely as tools whereas to a child an eraser is an entire sensory experience and imbued with magic. When Ramona first receives her eraser this is how it is how her new treasure is described: “smooth, pearly pink, smelling softly of rubber, and just right for a racing pencil lines.”

Of course, this treasure is taken away from her on the bus by some boys. To an adult losing an eraser may seem minor, but to Ramona, it’s a catastrophe. From an eight-year-old perspective, it is not just an common school supply but a “beautiful pink eraser.”

And because the family is struggling financially, as Mr. Quimby has left his job to go back to school, it is even further appreciated.

I love how efficiently Cleary sets up the importance of the eraser. After its introduction, within a few page turns, the eraser is missing. This all happens on the first day of school. Not an ordinary day but one that is ritualized.

Try this exercise to get back to the child mindset:
1. Go back to being 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12. Think about an inanimate object.

2. Consider how much you love the object.

3. Name the object.

4. Touch it. Smell it, feel it. Using your senses describe it.

5. Write down why it is so important to you.

6. Why do you have such strong feelings?

7. Not consider how you would feel if that object were taken from you!

If you’re getting all the feels—then pat yourself on the back. You’re remembering the magic of childhood. Let’s all celebrate the master of understanding children, Beverly Cleary.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 18, 2018), as well as Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She teaches at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature, Writing and Illustration and at the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.