Posts Tagged fantasy

Mourning the Middle Grade Years and Finding Them Again by Donna Galanti

It struck me recently that I couldn’t remember the very last time I read a goodnight book to my son, Joshua. I asked him if he knew. As a teenager now, he couldn’t remember either.

“There was probably a night where you couldn’t read to me, Mom, because you were busy,” he said. “And then the next night we forgot about it. And the next.”

“So, it just faded away?”

“Yup.” *Mom choke-up*

Since then, I’ve been bothered by the fact that:
1. I desperately want to remember when and what that last goodnight book was.
2. If I’d known it was the last time, I would have cherished it.
3. Bedtime reading to my son is forever gone and I’m just realizing the significance of this now.

I mourn something now long disappeared that I had not even known was gone.

Along with bedtime reading gone of current children’s books with my son, so has the reading of books to him that I received as a child over 40 years ago. My mother wrote my name in mine, the year I received it, and who gave me the book. The Tooth Fairy brought me books from Beatrix Potter to Laura Ingalls Wilder to Roald Dahl. These books have now long been collecting dust on my son’s shelves.

“Mom, can we pack these books up now?” he asked, pointing to his bookshelf of old and new.

“Never!” I protested and gently dusted of books, taking them to my office where children’s books will never die.

These included my son’s best-loved books like Wonder, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, Warriors, Flat Stanley, Goosebumps, Genius Files, Joshua Dread, Captain Underpants (the lunch signs are the BEST!), and Charlie Bone (Mom, this is THE best series EVER! You have to read it). And I’ll never forget my son’s excitement when he found out that the Charlie Bone series author, Jenny Nimmo, was blurbing my first middle grade book, Joshua and the Lightning Road.

All too soon for me, my son left the middle grade world. He moved on to reading dark, dystopian young adult novels.

And I realized, sadly, he also moved on from all of our kid shows: iCarly, Big Time Rush, Good Luck Charlie, Pair of Kings, Drake and Josh, Sponge Bob Square Pants. Watching them with him made me nostalgic for my own shows I grew up with like Little House on the Prairie, The Love Boat, Benson, Greatest American Hero, and re-runs of The Carol Burnett Show and Leave it to Beaver.

Occasionally, I bring up our shared favorite episodes to him of middle grade shows buried in tv-land dust.

“Can’t we just watch a Sponge Bob episode tonight? How about the Frankendoodle one or Pizza Delivery or Best Day Ever?” I asked.

“No, Mom,” he laughed. “That’s kid stuff.”

“What about iCarly where Spencer pranks everyone and does the prank song?” I started bopping around.

“No, Mom.” He gave me an eye roll.

“Okay,” I said with a sigh.

It’s true that I’ve grown with my son as he’s grown, but in doing so I’ve also relived many of my own childhood paths through his middle grade books and shows – and I don’t want them to end. I’ve returned home to a place where I will always be young, laughing myself silly, on magical adventures, and experiencing so many wondrous ‘firsts’.

As a kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s there weren’t books categorized “middle grade” and so I downed Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, Jack London, Paul Zindel, and V.C. Andrews (all soooo not kid-friendly). They were my “middle grade” then, but now I have my son’s books, too (and age-appropriate!). And someday, I hope he’ll come back around to them just like I did. Maybe with his own children. He doesn’t need to relive his childhood now. He’s living it. And I realized, my son and his book world set me on my own journey as a middle grade author. What a wonderful legacy he gave me, even though he’s moved on.

He also doesn’t need me to be home anymore after school. He has his own business and drives to his restaurant job. He doesn’t need me to read him bedtime stories or cut up his meat. He doesn’t need me to do his laundry. He can do that simply fine (good!).

Don’t misunderstand me; I am enjoying the new phase of things. Watching him go to work, open a bank account, clean his room because he wants to (faint!), and calm his frazzled mom down when writing deadlines loom.

“It’ll be okay Mom,” he now says. “You’ll get it done. You always do.” He even helped me years ago in writing my first book when I got stuck on plot and character.

He may have said goodbye to middle grade for now, but I love sharing in the continued new wonders with him. I just won’t ever stop loving middle grade, not since I fell in love with it again through my son. I’ll keep writing it and reading it—and waiting for the day he comes back to it. *fingers crossed*

Have you ever mourned moving on from a phase in your child’s middle grade life? What were some of your favorite books as a child? What are some new favorite children’s books now?


Three-Act Structure: My Writer’s Compass

Understanding three-act structure in storytelling isn’t just for writers. In a writing workshop for a crew of fifth-graders, I presented it as a framework for analyzing novels, plays, movies, and picture books with plots—anything with a story arc. The kids got into it, applying it to their own favorite books and films.

That said, I find that three-act structure serves as a compass in my own creative writing. If I wander off in the weeds or lose the thread of the story or mangle a mixed metaphor, I can return to these pivotal plot points to recalibrate the way forward. It ain’t perfect but I find it elegant in its functionality, and for someone who has almost no sense of direction, like me, it helps fend off writer’s block. It offers steady reference points that point to where the story is going.


Back to Basics

So here’s a refresher course, as much for me as other readers and writers. Let’s start real basic:


Seriously, those are a story’s essential three parts whether it’s Click, Clack, Moo, Chicken Little, or Hamlet. Three-act structure helps define and refine this, expanding the story and managing its pace and flow.


Exposition: As a rule, the very beginning introduces the central characters and gives us reasons to care.

The Catalyst or Inciting Event: This sets the story in motion. (In movies, it usually occurs 10 minutes in—check your watch!) If the catalyst doesn’t happen the story doesn’t happen.


Turning Point 1: This event sends the action in a new direction. It makes clear what the main conflict is. The plot, or storyline, now gets more and more complicated as the protagonists face obstacle after obstacle.

Halftime Smooching: About halfway through the story or movie, there usually comes a period of calm. Now the main characters have time to reflect on what has happened and plan what to do next. Sometimes there is kissing!


Turning Point 2: Like Turning Point #1, this shoots the action in a new direction. Everything now accelerates toward the climax.

Climax: This is the BIG MOMENT when the central conflict of the story is resolved: The protagonists win, the antagonists lose, the sweethearts fall in love, etc.

Denouement: This answers any remaining questions and shows characters reacting to how things turned out.


The Three-Act Structure of an Old Favorite

Yada, yada, right? Example please! For the sake of familiarity, let’s use a story many of us know and dissect its three-act structure: Star Wars—A New Hope.


Exposition: We are introduced to Princess Leia, Darth Vader, and some kid named Luke Skywalker.

The Catalyst or Inciting Event: Luke buys the droids C3-PO and R2-D2. If he doesn’t get those droids, he never meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, never leaves his home planet, never learns about The Force, never becomes a Jedi.


Turning Point #1: The heroes discover the Death Star and the Millennium Falcon is captured with a tractor beam. They also learn Princess Leia is being held prisoner there and plot to break her out. The main conflict and what’s at stake becomes crystal clear. They must get the plans for the Death Star to the Rebellion or all is lost!

Halftime Smooching: There isn’t much of a break for reflecting or kissing in A New Hope. Halftime Smooching fans have to wait for The Empire Strikes Back.


Turning Point #2: The Death Star tracks the Millennium Falcon to the Rebel base. The Rebels, including Luke Skywalker, launch a desperate attack to try to destroy the Death Star before it obliterates the moon where the base is located. All looks lost when …

Climax: Luke trusts the Force. At the very last second, he drops two torpedoes into a small thermal exhaust port … and … and … BOOM! Conflict resolved: Protagonists win, antagonists need to go build a new Death Star.

Denouement: This is very short and weird in the movie. The rebels celebrate and Luke and Han Solo get medals. (Hurray! Hey! What about Chewbacca?!)

Whether by Nature or Nurture, three-act structure seems to appeal to our story-loving minds across cultures. For writers, it can be a reassuring road map that can guide us true from first draft to The End.

Black MG Magic

I firmly believe that it’s important to stand together against racism, and I’ve been making an effort to feature more black characters in my book talks and displays. Many of the book lists that I’ve come across featuring black protagonists have been full of great contemporary, realistic stories that deal with the experience of growing up black in America but haven’t had a lot of fantasy, sci-fi, or horror. So, here is a list of some of my favorite fantastical, magical, and spooky middle-grade stories featuring black heroes and heroines.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky Cover

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia- This upper middle grade follows seventh-grader Tristan Strong who accidentally rips a hole into a parallel world where West African gods and African American folk heroes battle iron monsters. To return home, Tristan must help the heroes find Anansi, who can heal the rift that he’s created between the worlds.


The Jumbies Cober

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste- Eleven year old Corrine doesn’t believe in jumbies, evil shape-shifting creatures that are said to live in the woods near her home, but when her father begins acting strangely following the arrival of the beautiful lady Severine, Corrine begins to suspect that Severine might actually be a jumbie and that she and her father are in danger.


Gloom Town Cover

Gloom Town by Ronald L. Smith- To help his struggling single mom, twelve-year-old Rory gets a job as a valet for the mysterious Lord Foxglove, but he soon discovers that the eerie goings-on at Foxglove Manor will put the whole town in danger, and it’s up to Rory and his best friend Izzy to stop them.



Bayou Magic Cover

Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes- When ten-year-old Maddy visits her grandmother in Bon Temps, LA, she discovers that she can summon fireflies and see mermaids, and when disaster rocks Maddy’s family, her magical gifts are the only things that can save her beloved bayou.



Dragons in a Bag coverDragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott- Nine-year-old Jaxon discovers a package of dragons when staying with a relative for the afternoon. “Ma”, the mean old lady, who raised his mother tries to return the dragons to their magical realm, but a transporter accident strands her, leaving the dragons in Zaxon’s care.



Forgotten Girl Cover

The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown- Iris and her best friend Daniel are playing in the woods behind her house when they discover the abandoned grave of a girl named Avery who died when she was near Iris’s age. Shortly after the discovery, Iris begins having nightmares about a ghost girl in the woods.


The Last Last-Day-of-Summer cover

The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles- On the last day of summer vacation, Otto and Sheed Alston accidentally freeze time in their small Virginia town. Now, they’ll need all their bravery and smarts to defeat the villainous Mr. Flux and save the day.



Shadows of Sherwood cover

Shadows of Sherwood by Kekla Magoon- In this futuristic Rbin Hood retelling, twelve-year-old Robyn Loxley flees to the forest following the disappearance of her parents. She bands together with a ragtag group of orphans and embarks on a mission to find her parents and stop the tyrannical Governor Crown.