Open Mic Blog

SPOTLIGHT:Belinda Anderson

Posted on April 3, 2014 at 9:50 AM

                                                        Belinda Anderson

 

 

Writing a Middle Grade Novel: Children Who Believe

 

When I was a kid, my Mom had a fool-proof April Fool’s trick, at least the years when it fell on a school day.

 

She’d come to wake me up and announce that it had snowed. Even back then, I was not a morning person. But the promise of freedom would bounce me right out of bed and over to the window. I wanted to believe.

 

That’s the joy of writing for middle-grade readers. They want to believe that maybe a witch would arrive by Amtrak to create trouble in a quiet town. And that no adult suspects her, that only a kid can see her for what she is. When I tell adults the title of my newest book, I often get a quizzical look. But when I tell kids, their faces show instant comprehension. Jackson vs. Witchy Wanda: Making Kid Soup. Yeah. Makes sense. They believe this could be a witch’s mission and that it’s up to a kid to stop her.

 

When I visit classrooms, I’ll often read a passage from my work as an example before I encourage the students to write from their own imaginations. During one visit, we finished with a few minutes to spare. One student asked me to read further in my book. I started flipping through my reading copy. Hmm, I said, let me see if there’s a passage that wouldn’t take long, because we don’t have much time.

 

“Just read!” he exhorted. (Generally I recommend the use of the plain “said” for dialogue, but he really did strongly and earnestly urge.)

 

If your young readers become really invested in your story, be ready for interrogation. Be especially prepared for why-couldn’t-they-just questions, as in why couldn’t the villains just do this or that to succeed in their evil plots, or why can’t the heroes just do this or that to defeat the villains? I once made the mistake of saying that it really wasn’t known what effect a certain action by Wanda might have on Jackson.

 

“Why?” one pupil demanded. “Didn’t you write the book?”

 

Oh, that’s right, I’m the omnipotent author. But in that moment of debating what Jackson and Witchy Wanda might do, I was just as caught up in the story as the students. That’s when the writing process is its most joyous – when we believe in our creations.

 

 

*   *   *

Archetypes in Middle-Grade Literature

(This is a preview of a workshop on Middle-Grade literature that Belinda will lead at the West Virginia Writers conference in June 2014 at Cedar Lakes: www.wvwriters.org )

 

Today’s middle-grade reader is pretty savvy, a trait that is reflected in the humor and real-life issues prevalent in current juvenile literature.

 

The best books also make use of an enduring element that dates back not only to the beginning of literature, but the very first stories told only in voice. That element is archetype.

 

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell wrote “to touch and inspire deep creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fairy tale.”

 

Used skillfully, archetypes can reach the readers’ primal psyche, giving a story staying power. Perhaps the best way to define archetype is by example. Consider the "Wounded Hero." The wound can be an emotional one – think of the neglected heroine in The Secret Garden, of the orphan Harry Potter. The injury can be physical – a current example is Auggie, the protagonist in the much-acclaimed Wonder. Often, the protagonist is challenged by wounds that can be seen and those that can’t. In Jackson vs. Witchy Wanda: Making Kid Soup, my book’s hero, Jackson, starts the novel as a kid isolated because of his hearing disability.

 

The "Wounded Hero" doesn’t have to be serious. Like Harry Potter, Mo LoBeau appears to be an orphan, but that doesn’t interfere with her comedic personality. Author Sheila Turnage, first in Three Times Lucky and now in The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, tucks in teachable, touching moments even as she writes witticism after witticism.

 

The triumph over the wound is a hallmark of middle-grade literature. The wound doesn’t always disappear – Harry Potter remains an orphan, Jackson still has his hearing problem, Mo still yearns for the mother who lost her in a flood – but the protagonist has risen to the challenge and emerged stronger.

 

 *   *   *

 

 

Belinda Anderson is the author of four books, published by the nonprofit Mountain State Press, based at the University of Charleston. Her first three books are short story collections: The Well Ain't Dry Yet, The Bingo Cheaters, and Buckle Up, Buttercup. Her most recent book, Jackson Vs. Witchy Wanda: Making Kid Soup, is a middle-grade novel. She is serving as this year’s judge for the middle-grade level of the West Virginia Writers contest and is a state judge for the West Virginia Library Commission’s Letters About Literature contest. www.BelindaAnderson.com

 

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19 Comments

Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
9:51 AM on April 4, 2014 
Welcome to Open Mic, Belinda! I'm so happy that you could join us. It's so true that we need to believe in our work, our creations. When did you become a true believer in Jackson Vs. Witchy Wanda: Making Kid Soup?
Reply Belinda Anderson
10:19 AM on April 4, 2014 
laura7 says...
Welcome to Open Mic, Belinda! I'm so happy that you could join us. It's so true that we need to believe in our work, our creations. When did you become a true believer in Jackson Vs. Witchy Wanda: Making Kid Soup?


This book started with a story I was telling my great-nephew. We were playing a game where you drew a certain number of word cards and had to make up a story on the spot with those words. My turn included "witch" and "train." When I started describing a mysterious woman descending from a passenger train, she immediately took hold of my imagination and I began describing a compelling character. His eyes got big -- and so did mine.
Reply Amy
10:40 AM on April 4, 2014 
Jackson vs. Witchy Wanda may be a kids book, but as an adult I enjoyed the story. We all need to be reminded that a hero can be any age or live anywhere. Anybody can be a hero. Respecting other people is heroic.
Reply Belinda Anderson
11:02 AM on April 4, 2014 
[Amy]
Jackson vs. Witchy Wanda may be a kids book, but as an adult I enjoyed the story. We all need to be reminded that a hero can be any age or live anywhere. Anybody can be a hero. Respecting other people is heroic.

Thank you -- I've had other adults tell me they enjoyed the book. And thank you for your insightful thoughts on one of the novel's themes. While my first mission is for the book to be entertaining, I do hope the reader carries away something enduring. Jackson is a kid, but he learns that anybody can be a hero -- even himself.
Reply Gerald D. Swick
4:57 PM on April 4, 2014 
I've read some of Belinda's short stories but wasn't aware she was working on an MG novel. Love the title - I'll have to look for it. Having just seen the play "Wicked," I'm primed. She's right on both points that she makes: children are willing to believe most anything, but the actions of characters in the story still have to make sense, or the kiddos will call you on it in a heartbeat.
Reply Belinda Anderson
5:31 PM on April 4, 2014 
Gerald D. Swick says...
I've read some of Belinda's short stories but wasn't aware she was working on an MG novel. Love the title - I'll have to look for it. Having just seen the play "Wicked," I'm primed. She's right on both points that she makes: children are willing to believe most anything, but the actions of characters in the story still have to make sense, or the kiddos will call you on it in a heartbeat.


Good to hear from you. Because this story started as a simple tale told out loud, I didn't think much about the need to ensure continuity when I first began writing. But I was giving Witchy Wanda so many unique traits and abilities that it wasn't long before I found myself documenting my characters in a notebook, with an outline of where I'd been and where I intended to go. It's an approach I'd recommend for any book-length manuscript. And perhaps I should take that notebook with me for back up whenever I'm faced with student inquisitors!
Reply MSW
6:55 PM on April 4, 2014 
I loved in the comments hearing how Belinda came up with the idea for Witchy Wanda, which I enjoyed very much. I had a children's book idea come from a live story telling situation, too: the connection between the voice and the told story and children seems pretty profound.
Reply Julie Weston
7:39 PM on April 4, 2014 
Enjoyable interview. I love how the story began, and also how you know so much about kids' reactions. The juxtaposition with your comments on the wounded hero are also bring insights to your book. I have read it to s granddaughter who loved the chills and thrills.
Reply Belinda Anderson
8:05 PM on April 4, 2014 
MSW says...
I loved in the comments hearing how Belinda came up with the idea for Witchy Wanda, which I enjoyed very much. I had a children's book idea come from a live story telling situation, too: the connection between the voice and the told story and children seems pretty profound.

Your comment prompts me to reflect that spoken storytelling provides a natural channeling conduit for creating archetypal characters.
Reply Enter Your Name
8:20 PM on April 4, 2014 
Julie Weston says...
Enjoyable interview. I love how the story began, and also how you know so much about kids' reactions. The juxtaposition with your comments on the wounded hero are also bring insights to your book. I have read it to s granddaughter who loved the chills and thrills.

Thank you -- in terms of kids, and humans in general, I've learned a lot from hunting and hiding Easter eggs. Really! You want to talk hero's journey -- crossing the threshold from the normal world, besting adversaries, returning with the elixir. Every human reaction is displayed -- eagerness, greed, grief, despondency, triumph, persistence, (often all in the course of a few minutes) and, occasionally, good sportsmanship.
Reply Richard Smith
8:50 PM on April 4, 2014 
Hi Belinda,
Thanks for the informaiton. I'm forwarding it to a friend of mine who is in the middle of writing her first book for kids -- grades 2 through 4, I think. I think she'll find it helpful and encouraging.
Reply Mary
10:20 PM on April 4, 2014 
I first heard Belinda reading Witchy Wanda to school children. They were so excited about the story, and so was I. I loved it. We chose it for a book club selection. Belinda came to our CEOS meeting for a discussion, where she took time to tutor my granddaughter, Sara a 15 yr old aspiring writer. Jackson is an inspiring kid. You will like him.
Reply Cat
6:13 AM on April 5, 2014 
Great post, Belinda! Very enlightening about middle-grade novels.
Reply John N. Mugaas
12:03 AM on April 7, 2014 
Jackson and WW landed on my front porch last summer, a package from Amazon, dropped there by a UPS driver. I opened the package and flipped through the book, reading a page here and there, and I was hooked. I wasn't able to devote any more time to it until the next day. After I washed up the lunch dishes I settled in to read J. vs WW for a couple of hours, but, except to pause long enough to eat dinner and wash up those dishes, I just couldn't put it down, and it was the wee hours of the morning before I finished reading it. Except for the lamp next to my recliner, the house was dark, silent and chilly. I lay there hardly daring to move, wishing I was 12 again so I could be Jackson's friend. A noise on the front porch made me jump--was that Rodney and Mumps? I knew those guys, and my heart bled for them. And Grandpa, oh my, oh my, he's my age. I could be him. I pulled my blanket a little tighter around my shoulders. WW, beautiful, dangerous, confident, unflappable, evil personified, but attractive, interesting, able to cloud your judgement, a separate reality, alien and alluring, temptation personified, and, now, a shower of particles. Now, more dangerous than ever. Are any of those particles trapped in the pages of the J vs WW books, lurking their, waiting for the right opportunity to materialize, along with her hapless, though not benign, sidekick, Margot, impatient and very hungry for a little kid soup. Let's hope so. Thank you Belinda.
Reply Belinda Anderson
11:43 AM on April 7, 2014 
John N. Mugaas says...
Jackson and WW landed on my front porch last summer, a package from Amazon, dropped there by a UPS driver. I opened the package and flipped through the book, reading a page here and there, and I was hooked. I wasn't able to devote any more time to it until the next day. After I washed up the lunch dishes I settled in to read J. vs WW for a couple of hours, but, except to pause long enough to eat dinner and wash up those dishes, I just couldn't put it down, and it was the wee hours of the morning before I finished reading it. Except for the lamp next to my recliner, the house was dark, silent and chilly. I lay there hardly daring to move, wishing I was 12 again so I could be Jackson's friend. A noise on the front porch made me jump--was that Rodney and Mumps? I knew those guys, and my heart bled for them. And Grandpa, oh my, oh my, he's my age. I could be him. I pulled my blanket a little tighter around my shoulders. WW, beautiful, dangerous, confident, unflappable, evil personified, but attractive, interesting, able to cloud your judgement, a separate reality, alien and alluring, temptation personified, and, now, a shower of particles. Now, more dangerous than ever. Are any of those particles trapped in the pages of the J vs WW books, lurking their, waiting for the right opportunity to materialize, along with her hapless, though not benign, sidekick, Margot, impatient and very hungry for a little kid soup. Let's hope so. Thank you Belinda.


Thank you so much, John -- your suspenseful review makes me want to go back and read my own book! I especially appreciated your description of Witchy Wanda, because the antagonist needs to be compelling, too. In both children's and adult literature, too often the author invests everything in the protagonist without providing any dimension to the foe. In this story, it appealed to me to show that evil can be attractively packaged, that it doesn't always announce itself by wearing a face with stereotypical piggy eyes. Jackson is a kid, but he sees what everyone else can't.
Reply John N Mugaas
6:54 PM on April 10, 2014 
I've read J vs. WW a second time, and like the first go around, WW made a lasting impression on me. You introduce her physicality and personality so well in part one that she immediately becomes a force to be reckoned with, and, as she does with everyone she meets, she soon overshadows Jackson--you immediately feel her power over him--and then when you learn that . . . "making kid soup" is not a metaphor, but is what she does, wow, at that point the story takes on such an ominous turn that you just can't put it down. This aspect of her persona defies conventional logic and stands in such stark contrast to her physical beauty that her appearance in each scene is always very unsettling. Is she actually going to succeed in making kid soup? That question just pulls you along page after page. But, in part one, you also illustrate WW?s vulnerabilities. That gives Jackson something to work with in his battle with WW, and that serves to enhance the tension in each of their encounters. Bravo. WW is not totally unstoppable, and Jackson is not completely helpless, and that's what makes the story click.

Your little novel has very much to teach novice writers like me about character development.

I would be interested to know if other readers are as affected by WW as I am.
Reply MSW
10:29 PM on April 11, 2014 
LIke John N Mugaas, I find the redoubtable Witchy Wanda to be the heart of the novel. She's the best. We root for Jackson, of course, but all the best villains make you at least occasionally find yourself hoping for their success! My biggest hope is that WW will be back in a sequel for Jackson to vanquish all over again.
Reply Janet Lilly
6:47 AM on April 23, 2014 
I love Belinda Anderson!!! A dear friend of mine treated me to a writing workshop by Belinda and that was the first time I met her. After that, I have attended every workshop that I possibly could that she has had and we have become fast friends. She is a terrific lady and a wonderful teacher. I have learned so very much from her. I have read most of her books and find them hard to put down as well as humorous. I know there have been times personally when I have been discouraged as a writer and Belinda has been there offering me words of wisdom and encouragement to not give up. I was really doubting myself and my abilities as a writer and Belinda wrote me a note of encouragement. She is also so sweet about letting me know when there are upcoming writing events that I may be interested in. Again, I could write a book :-) about Belinda Anderson. She is awesome!!!
Reply Belinda
6:49 PM on April 29, 2014 
Janet Lilly says...
I love Belinda Anderson!!! A dear friend of mine treated me to a writing workshop by Belinda and that was the first time I met her. After that, I have attended every workshop that I possibly could that she has had and we have become fast friends. She is a terrific lady and a wonderful teacher. I have learned so very much from her. I have read most of her books and find them hard to put down as well as humorous. I know there have been times personally when I have been discouraged as a writer and Belinda has been there offering me words of wisdom and encouragement to not give up. I was really doubting myself and my abilities as a writer and Belinda wrote me a note of encouragement. She is also so sweet about letting me know when there are upcoming writing events that I may be interested in. Again, I could write a book :-) about Belinda Anderson. She is awesome!!!


Thank you, Janet! Where shall I send the check? Seriously, I'm glad you brought up the topic of encouragement. We can feel very isolated as writers at times, and it means so much when someone reaches out to us. I know I always feel bolstered when I get such a note or e-mail -- and it always seems to come just when I need it.