Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Westside Writers Schmooze goes MAD for Middle Grade

Charlie & Karol came prepared with visual aids.
It was Pure Madness when the Westside Writers Schmoozers got together to talk about All Things Middle Grade on November 13th

We started with the passel of passionate attendees naming favorite middle grade novels of their own, whether a book fondly remembered from childhood or something they read recently.  Not surprisingly, the titles mentioned varied widely in genre, tone and subject matter, proving just how vast and wonderful the world of middle grade is.

(Images of the book covers from the amazing list of books mentioned are featured throughout this post...and here's one now!)

With that bit of wonderfulness out of the way, we dove into trying to answer what, on the surface, may seem like a simple question:  What is middle grade?  Sure - there are the generalities that most of us learn at our first SCBWI conference or by perusing the SCBWI website.

What’s that you say?  YOU aren’t familiar with these supposed “generalities?” 

OK – so here’s what you would have found out if you’d done the slightest bit of research (which, coincidentally is precisely the amount Charlie and Karol do before these Schmoozes) – those brand new to the world of writing for children are forgiven:

  • Both the main characters and the readers of middle grade novels tend to be between 8 and 12, give or take a year or two.
  • Middle grade protagonists are often internally focused and concerned with matters close to home – family, schoolmates, neighborhood friends.
  • Edgier subjects (sex, drugs, violence) used to be avoided but are now often included in age-appropriate ways.

Our discussion soon led us beyond this simple definition and got to the real heart of the genre – why middle grade matters so much.

Naturally, Karol and Charlie made a point of throwing in their two cents. 

Years ago, when Karol was encouraged to adapt a screenplay into a novel for children, her research into the world of kid lit brought back the memory of what a voracious reader she’d been all throughout grade school.  She proposed that reading middle grade novels is what really creates a child’s love of reading (as opposed to a love of stories that may be created with picture books).

Charlie’s take was that middle grade is important because it’s about the time of life when you BECOME yourself: “Gail Sheehy in Passages talks of the ‘Merger Self’ and the ‘Seeker Self.’  The first seeks to merge with others, the second to achieve individuality. Middle grade books are about the awakening of the Seeker Self.  That’s why they often take place in fantastical universes.  It’s too frightening for a young child to actually take off on his own, but it is, metaphorically, exactly what children are doing at that age –  taking off from mom and dad and finding themselves.  That’s why MIDDLE GRADE IS WHERE IT’S AT!  IT’S ALL THAT MATTERS!!”…at least according to Charlie.

Editor Molly O’Neill from Harper Collins espoused a theory about middle grade readers on the Everything you ever wanted to know about middlegrade…and were willing to ask Blog.  She said, in part, that middle grade readers are “often reading for one of two reasons: to understand, or to escape.”  (Note:  She gave the caveat that she was speaking very broadly.)

Local authors Frances Sackett and
Greg Pincus proudly display their books!
Two local authors whose debut middle grade books came out recently, Frances Sackett and Greg Pincus, shared some thoughts on writing middle grade.  Greg suggested people write the stories they want to tell and not worry about the age-specific details. As long as dialog, actions and emotions are authentic to your character, they’re okay.  Frances offered that anytime you make a decision because you’re concerned about your book selling, it’s probably the wrong decision.  In short – if it feels wrong, it probably is.  Both agreed that it’s best to keep your focus on the emotion of the story. 

Of course, NO conversation about the magic of middle grade would be complete with some insight from this year’s Golden Kite-winning MG author extraordinaire (and one of the original Westside Writers Schmoozers), Joanne Rocklin. 

When Karol asked her how she taps into such an authentic middle grade voice, she replied, “My middle grade voice is a very natural part of's the voice that emerges when my fingers begin to type. I don't force it...that's just what I write. Possible Theories: I'm basically 10 years old?”

Joanne also told the SCBWI Team Blog:  “Middle grade readers are unique…I think that story and characters need to reflect the needs of their readers. Children’s authors must be very clear about the age they are writing for and about. So - read scads of middle grade novels, get to know kids of that age, and most importantly, tap into your memories of your own middle grade self. (sic).”

Be sure to read the whole post!  (

Having gotten into the aspect of “authentic middle grade voices,” there was only one thing to do next:  A writing exercise!

The prompts (and feel FREE to play along at home) were:

  • Think of a “big moment” in your life when you were between 8 and 12.  Could be happy, scary, confusing, funny, etc.  Tell us about it using first person.
  • Then rewrite the "story" using 3rd person but try to retain the voice of your young self.

After 10 minutes of mad scribbling, we only had time to hear from a couple Schmoozers on what they uncovered or discovered through the exercise, so if YOU have something to share, please DO…in the comment section.

Will "neo-classic" children's authors and their books stand the
test of time like "classic-classics?"  Only time will tell! 

We wrapped up, as we always do, with an announcement about the next Schmooze, which will be on Wednesday, December 11th

It’s our annual holiday treat – a guest speaker!  Of course, we didn’t know then what we know now…our speaker will be the amazing Ann Whitford Paul!!!  Author of many wonderful books (including a book about writing for children), stories and poems, Ann intends to talk to us about, among other things we’re sure, “the music of picture books.”  

Rather than passing around an envelope to collect a voluntary honorarium as we usually do with guest speakers, Ann has requested that we instead collect books and/or monetary donations (again - completely voluntary) for a wonderful organization, Project BookBag.

Pretty awesome, huh?  And YOU thought we wouldn't be having a holiday book drive in 2013...

Be sure to join us!

Until then - keep passing the open windows,
Charlie & Karol

Cool point brought up by a Schmoozer - some classics are edited slightly so that new readers
aren't alienated by things like outdated language.  Book covers change with the times, too.
Here's an example - various covers of Judy Blume's seminole book.

P.S.  Here are a few links to blogs mentioned at the Schmooze and here in this post:

Interviews with MG agents, editors and authors