I recently went on an impromptu trip to Colorado that changed the way I think of the word “adventure.”
You’d think I would already have learned all I need to know about adventure. After all, middle grade adventures make up the core of my writing. But that’s the thing about this journey of life, and about story itself: it’s often surprising. It takes you to new places where you don’t know what’s coming. It leads you to lands where you can explore who you are and see your life, even your identity, in a different light. And it often does so through the people you encounter, and the bonds you build.
A buddy of mine has had a rough summer full of the kind of life that starts to get to you after a while, and really wanted to head out to the mountains and spend a few days recuperating in the great outdoors. So we packed up a couple tents, a few sleeping bags, and headed out. And while we were out there hiking backwoods and swinging in hammocks and sitting around campfires, I started thinking about the whole genre of middle grade adventure. How it’s like that unplanned, unexpected trip into the unknown, and what makes that special. Why the books I remember so fondly from my youth books contained stories of expansive journeys and daring-dos, and why, after all these years, I came back to take kids on similar adventures.
Adventures Are Born of the Unexpected
We all know the tropes of this kind of fiction. Sometimes new threat is dropped in a character’s lap. Something out of the ordinary shakes the protagonist’s life, and whisks our hero away to a new and unfamiliar world. A friend calls and says, “Hey, wanna go on a trip?”
In the writing business we often call this the “inciting incident”—the inception of events that are beyond the protagonist’s everyday experience. This is where adventures begin.
In other genres, the call that sets the events of the story in motion can be emotional or close to home—the interest of a potential relationship, the solving of a mystery, the thwarting of a villain—but a call to adventure takes the hero away from home in a literal sense, setting them on a path they haven’t trod before. Our protagonist must actually leave home to find their destination. They leave to find themselves.
Adventures Contain Uncertainty
As I gathered my camping gear (what little I own) and climbed into the car we’d take on our journey, none of us knew where it would take us. We had an general idea—a trajectory—but anything could have happened to derail our plans. And it did.
At one point on our journey, we ended up at a mall, where I regaled my friend with stories of the mythical corn dog place I loved growing up. As I’m about to name the place—a chain I haven’t seen anywhere in ages and thought had gone completely out of business—we rounded the corner to find that exact restaurant. The angels sang the Hallelujah Chorus. Light shone down from heaven, and I was able to share a deep-fried goodness I haven’t had in years with my buddy.
It seems that uncertainty is an essential component in any adventure. If the stories we read were all laid out from the beginning and our protagonist never strayed from the plan, what would be the point? The characters would be simply going through the motions, and the reader would end up just flipping pages out of boredom.
Adventure requires those little uncertainties, because that’s what breathes life into the experience.
Adventures Are Personal
Stories matter to readers because they matter to the characters taking us with them. Those journeys aren’t just from one geographical location to another—they have to move from one emotional place to another, as well.
As readers, our brains are always working, always struggling to reconcile what we know with what we see in the world around us. This is especially true of young readers, who haven’t settled on which lenses they’ll use to look at the world when they grow up. Stories offer new lenses, new perspectives.
On our little excursion, I too had some things niggling at the back of my mind, coloring the world around me. Questions about how to handle things of life, worries about what to do in situations that were waiting for me back home. But it was the color of those lenses that affected my thinking, my experience. This was true of my friend, as well. The new experiences of our short adventure—though far more limited in scope than the stories of, say, Fablehaven, Keeper of the Lost Cities, or Peasprout Chen—helped me process and make decisions I was avoiding. It was clarifying, and made our trip all the sweeter.
We didn’t leave who we were behind when we went on the trip. We carried it all with us. Just like the characters in a book see their world through the lens of how it’s changing them, specifically. And that gives meaning to the journey.
Adventures Are Relational
None of that would have happened, however, without people to go on the journey with. Few of us go through life fully alone. It’s the relationships we make—the people we meet along the way, the side characters and opposing forces and allies—who take a hike in the woods and turn it into a true adventure.
If you think about your favorite sprawling stories, I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion. The journey is better with friends. Harry Potter’s story is nothing without Hermione, and Fred and George, Neville and Luna. What would Howl’s Moving Castle have been without Calcifer, or the scarecrow, or even Howl himself?
Characters—people—populate the words on our pages, and they can’t be neglected. It’s those characters who provide the unexpected. They set us on our paths and share wise truths and give us the input we need to become better people.
This is the power of fiction: to take us on an unexpected, uncertain journey, to change our hearts and introduce us to new friends. Kids need those adventures. And middle grade fiction is specially positioned to impact who those kids are going to be in the long run. To teach them who to be. To empower them to grow, and envision the mountains beyond what they can see.
It’s a unique gift, and a unique responsibility.
For examples of some middle grade adventure stories that do a great job of incorporating these elements, you can check out another post I wrote, Upper-MG Authors to Adventure With.