If you’re a MG or YA fan, you’re probably already familiar with Mary Kole, creator of Kidlit.com. Kole is also the author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers and when she’s not writing or blogging, she works closely with writers to get their books into the best shape possible at marykole.com. Today, Kole is talking to MUF about mistakes writers make, her love of books that tackle real issues, and where the children’s publishing industry is headed. (Want to win an autographed copy of Writing Irresistible Kidlit? Enter below!)
Mixed-Up Files: Tell us a little about yourself, and your daily routine.
Mary Kole: I moved from NYC to Minnesota, where my husband is from, in 2013. I grew up in California. The climate has been a huge adjustment, to say the least! I worked in publishing and agented in CA and NY starting in 2009. My passion has always been books for children, whether picture books or YA novels. That’s what I represented when I was an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and that’s primarily what I work on now that I’m a freelance editor. Instead of working with publishers to broker deals on behalf of writers, I now work directly with writers to get their manuscripts submission-ready and help them take the next steps in their craft. I couldn’t be happier! Our son was born in March, so my routine has had quite the shake-up. Now that he’s in daycare part time, I have a lot more flexibility. I like to do some exercise every day, whether it’s a yoga or barre class, a walk around the small lake across the street, or just a half hour on the bike downstairs. Moving keeps my mind sharp! Otherwise, I’m working on client manuscripts, writing blog posts, and reading writing craft books because I’m noodling another book idea and I want to see if the project has wings. Creating my craft book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, was such a highlight for me that I’d love to do it again. My husband is a chef, so he works long hours. When he’s home, we’re spending time as a family with Theo and our two pugs, Gertie and Olive.
MUF: You provide a great deal of helpful information to writers on your site and in your book. What made you choose this as a career path?
MK: Writing has always been a part of my life. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t working on some poem or script or short story. Or reading. My parents were academics, and our house was always full of books. So I decided to “read for a living” and work in publishing. Ha! That was a bit naive, since most agents and editors read submissions in their free time and concentrate on the nuts and bolts of the publishing business during their actual work hours. But I was always passionate about story and the writing craft, so I pressed on, interning at Chronicle Books, earning my MFA, and joining Andrea Brown as an intern, then an agent. My favorite part through all of this was working directly with writers to help shape their manuscripts in terms of concept, plot, character, and voice. I’ve always dabbled in writing myself, and the blog and book were great extensions of that. Plus, I get to work from home and pick my own schedule. I’m stubbornly independent, so I was always going to create a career for myself, no matter what I ended up doing. I’m thrilled that it’s in the world of the written word that I love so much!
MUF: Writing for kids can be tough when you’re no longer one yourself. When it comes to mistakes people make in writing #kidlit, what do you think the biggies are?
MK: This is a great question. I think one of the biggest mistakes in any age category, from picture book to middle grade to young adult, is to come at the novel with an agenda in mind that you NEED to pass along to young readers. In that mindset, you’re separating yourself (wise adult) from your reader (naive child). Picture books in this vein always have a teacher or parent preaching the moral of the story at the end. Novels like this lay really heavily into the theme, telling it at every opportunity. The most successful stories, on the other hand, have theme in spades, but it’s left to the characters–and, by proxy, the readers–to discover. Nobody ever states “the point” outright. It comes across organically as the character experiences things. In order to truly do this with the respect and dignity that all young readers deserve, you need to dig deep in your own childhood experiences. There are universal coming of age themes everywhere. Kids are looking for a sense of identity, to belong, to differentiate themselves, to feel like they matter in a big and overwhelming world. How can you weave these elements into plot points? How can the character react to situations where they’re confronted with these truths? Writers who are passionate about the kidlit categories for the right reasons are more likely to be grown-ups who carry their childhoods around as part of their journeys, rather than people who grew up and left the wonder, pain, and experiences of childhood behind. I think it all boils down to seeing young readers as worthy of great stories instead of as receptacles for your opinions about life. I know this might seem obvious to some writers, but that just means you’re ahead of the game!
MUF: What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?
MK: When I think about the wonder and nuance of the tumultuous middle grade period, I instantly think of Savvy by Ingrid Law, which came out in 2008. Sure, it’s “old news” these days, but I love it for several reasons. First, Law has such a light hand with the magic premise. Yes, it’s a “kid gets powers” story. And those are a dime a dozen in the slush pile. But it’s, above all else, a family story. And a voice-driven story. And a coming of age story. I see a lot of writers aiming for a high concept premise and forgetting the character-driven human elements of great middle grade. Editors are always going to be looking for fantastic middle grade with both girl and boy appeal, adventure, and a touch of Hollywood stakes. I would prescribe a reading of Savvy if you want to see this very commercial type of novel done with enormous heart.
MUF: Lately, we’ve seen MG books finding success while tackling difficult and mature subjects. What’s your take on this?
MK: As you can probably tell from my theme answer, I am all for books that tackle real life head-on. Even for younger readers. We now know more about what’s going on in the world, good and bad, than we ever did before. Kids are becoming aware of some really big truths at a younger age. I love this trend because it lets us all tackle this experience called life together in a way that lets kids feel authentic and vulnerable. If they’re going through something difficult, they can come and see that reality on the page, and they won’t feel so alone.
For a long time, sugar-coating was popular because there was this perception that kids’ fiction had to be nice. Like a little oasis. Well, kids will be the first to honestly say that not everything in life is nice! I think kids today tackle as many tough experiences as they did decades ago, but some of the stigmas against discussing difficult issues are finally going away. This is great. It’s been proven over and over again that repressing difficult feelings leads to problems. Sure, there are some issues that will be more controversial than others. In the middle grade category, your publisher’s customers are more likely to be gatekeepers like teachers, librarians, and parents. Depending on their institutional or family values, they may not buy books that are seen as too edgy or gratuitous, so houses may not spring for subjects that are too violent or sexual. Middle grade still has more buffer than YA, but you’re right, those standards seem to be changing these days. Some books don’t sell because their controversial elements are gratuitous. They’re in place for shock value, and not so much as a necessary part of exploring the issue. Books like this are much less likely to succeed than those where the edgy elements are unpleasant but necessary to an honest portrayal of the topic.
So the best way to honor what kids are going through is to be honest. And it just so happens that honesty is also the best way to tap into your authentic writing self. You have to experience your personal truth about life in order to communicate it, and manuscripts that come from that true, messy, emotional place are the ones that can be the most relatable.
MUF: Parents often worry about a book being too scary/mature/etc. for their child. Do you think parents/caregivers should read books along with their kids, so they can discuss the book together? Do you think young readers know they can stop reading a book if they’re not comfortable with the subject matter?
MK: It all depends on the family and the child. In an ideal world, a parent and child could read the same book and be able to discuss difficult topics openly. But everyone’s values are different. There are lines that certain parents or school administrators will not cross. I think that kids are very capable of deciding for themselves whether something is too challenging (emotionally or in terms of reading level). If something doesn’t feel right, a kid is likely to put the book down. If they have a receptive atmosphere at school or home, they may even talk to an adult about it. My answer in most cases is, “Try it.” The child might pull away, and that’s okay. Or they could really surprise you.
MUF: Industry-wise, can you read the tea leaves for us? What’s going to happen in #kidlit? Any trends you see bubbling up? Asking for a friend 🙂 …
MK: The market is quite healthy these days. Especially, as I mentioned, for middle grade. That means, however, that agents and editors expect more. Higher stakes. Twists on familiar concepts. Blends of action, adventure, magic, fantasy, etc. Barring a high concept premise, a really strong coming of age theme in a contemporary setting. Big feelings. Above all else, though, today’s MG gatekeepers demand voice and humor. If a character falls flat, or the writing doesn’t sizzle, you are in for stiff competition. Don’t take this as advice to litter your manuscript with #slang and references to Snapchat. But do read your work aloud. This is my most potent advice, and not many writers actually do it. You will learn so much about your characters and yourself if you take this step. Take risks. Be funny. Have fun. Get in touch with that inner middle grader. Sometimes writers are so busy trying to prove that they’re great writers, that they forget to listen to their characters and their own inner voice. You may surprise yourself!
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Andrea Pyros is the author of My Year of Epic Rock, a middle grade novel about friends, crushes, food allergies, and a rock band named The EpiPens.