Open Mic Blog
|Posted on April 3, 2014 at 9:50 AM|
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