Writing for Middle Grades II: Being a kid

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I have a 9 year old boy. When you have children, your life changes in ways you can’t anticipate despite everyone you know who already has kids (and who wear this piece of information like it’s an award) constantly listing all the ways your life is about to change. I won’t bore you with all the ways fatherhood is transformative except to identify one thing I totally didn’t see coming.

It made me a kid again.

Or, more accurately, it reawakened a part of me that had been half sleeping, almost forgotten by my conscious brain except in those dream-like moments where my imagination took me outside the world I normally inhabit, a world of meals and meetings, mortgage payments, and all things mundane.

It started early, when my son was still a baby. I’d be watching him crawling about or studying the mobile above his crib and I’d be struck by a powerful sense of something more than empathy, something a lot like memory. I started seeing the world through his eyes, recalling in flashes what it was like to be two, or five or—now—nine. I don’t mean this to sound mystical or a monument to what a great dad I am, I just feel that being around a child takes you back, reconnects you with feelings, ideas, experiences you thought were lost.

For me, this was the driving impetus towards writing middle grades fiction. I wanted to write something my son could read by himself. It was a kind of gift to him, I suppose, something for him that he could keep and which, I hoped, would transport him in the way I had been transported at his age by The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Wizard of Earthsea. Being with him made the possibility real, because I now remembered the kind of things I had loved in books at that age and, drawing on my experience writing adult fiction, knew I could make more.

I’m not saying that you need to be a parent to write for kids. That’s fairly obviously nonsense. I’m not even saying that I’m clearly better at it now as the parent of a nine year old than I would have been before he was born. I’m saying that seeing the world through his eyes rekindled both memory and desire, made me recall what I saw in those books and want to get back to them. It also somehow gave me permission to write them.

There is still a stigma attached to writing for children, I think, which isn’t banished by the fact that some authors have made a mint doing it. Books for middle graders are assumed to be somehow less serious than other kinds of fiction in the ways fantasy more generally is still occasionally sneered at as being merely frivolous or escapist. It sounds nuts but I think a part of me bought into this rubbish, and it took being a parent to show me what most upright humans already knew, that writing for younger readers is at least as noble a pursuit as any other kind of writing.

And, of course, however much the middle grades world is different, writing for it is hardly the learning of a new language. I have been writing adult fiction for a long time, but I was still surprised how useful everything I’d learned from doing so was when I turned to writing for younger readers. I don’t know why I was surprised. Humor, after all, is still humor, suspense still suspense, whether you are nine or ninety. The subject matter changes some, as does the voice (about which, more another time) but as far as pacing and the evocative laying out of key scenes, there’s really far less difference than I expected. I didn’t even need to spend time thinking over much about what present day kids find exciting or scary. However much the world has changed, the things that made our pulses race as kids can generally be counted on to do the same today and, more to the point, many of our adult hopes and fears are not so very different from the things carry around in their secret souls: Love and abandonment, the thrill of speed, flight and discovery, the dread of loneliness and dark places. Wordsworth, it turns out, was right. The child really is father to the man.

So however much my previous experience helped me, it was a joy to finally dive into this kind of book and revel in it, a joy—as I have said elsewhere—a bit like coming home. There’s something wonderfully uncluttered about a good middle grades novel, a realm where story really is king. That doesn’t mean you can’t do character and theme and vivid description, of course, but there is a curious sense of narrative purity when an author gets it right, where you feel sucked into the story so that the rest of the world goes away and you are transported back to when you read by flashlight under the covers.

What about you? Do you remember the first books you read alone for pleasure, the stories that caught your imagination and showed you all that books can do?

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29 comments to Writing for Middle Grades II: Being a kid

  • Oh, how I wish that I had written this post. For the past six months, my writing life has been strangely bifurcated as I’ve been writing category romance (on the steamy side) and a middle grade adventure series. I have loved, loved, loved the DARKBEAST world for all the reasons you allude to in this post – the complete and utter submersion into a world that is Other.

    I don’t remember the first book that I read on my own, but I clearly remember the joy of working out Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, and the thrill of escaping into Narnia (even as I shouted at Edmund not to be so stupid!)

    Thanks for delineating some of the magic of writing middle grade!

  • My grandmother had a huge book of fairy tales, the ones that hadn’t been sanitized for my protection. I fell in love with The Goose Girl and her faithful murdered horse Falada and the Twelve Dancing Princesses and their worn-out shoes. Narnia followed soon after, and Marguerite Henry’s horse stories, and the books of Alexander Key. In fact, Key’s ‘Flight To The Lonesome Place’ was the first book that ever inspired me to write to an author.

  • Mindy
    thanks. I’m glad it’s not just me who thinks like this! I think I rather sympathised with Edmund, stupid though he was obviously being. I always found Peter and the rest such prigs 🙂

    Misty,
    I’m not familiar with Alexander Key’s work (if you can believe that!). I guess I should check it out. Thanks!

  • AJ, when I discoverd the joy of books in 5th grade, I instantly began reading 7 books a week. I blew through the school library in half a year and through the county library’s *age appropriate* books in by the end of 6th grade. I don’t remember any book in particular, which is sad in one way and wonderful in another. Sad, because I have few individual memeories of particular books or series. Wonderful, because I am sure that my love of writing came from that total immersion in other worlds.

    Now – for our readers. Since AJ was too modest to mention it, here is a grand B&N review of his fabulous new book!!!!

    http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Reviews-Essays/Darwen-Arkwright-and-the-Peregrine-Pact/ba-p/6061

  • I didn’t really read much fiction as a child (under 10 yrs old) beyond the usual Choose Your Own Adventure book. The first books that I recall reading that affected me in noticable ways were “My Antonia” by Willa Cather and “The Maltese Falcon”.

  • Faith,
    It’s funny, isn’t it, the books I know I loved but have no memory of. Time to try some hypno-regression therapy, but then again, maybe that’s what I’m doing by writing these kinds of books! And thanks for mentioning the review! It went out today to B&N’s customer data base so… fingers crossed.

    Mark,
    I also had a real hard-boiled phase, though I think it was later. At first I was all about Agatha Christie 🙂

  • bonesweetbone

    I went through the crash course of reading when I was a kid and jumped pretty early into chapter books. My mom has always had a strong love of reading, too, and I have a lot of fond memories of the two of us reading together, books like The Mouse and the Motorcycle. I was an avid Boxcar Children fan and devoured Goosebumps and Animorphs, among others.

    I’ve always had a soft spot for middle grades and YA as well as fantasy. I feel like when I was that age, before that love of books spurred me on to become an English major, things were simpler. I enjoyed books for the sake of books and that was as rich an experience as reading them now from an English major and hopeful writer’s perspective. I think that’s why I still go back to books like the Percy Jackson series and Harry Potter.

    I’m glad you found your way back, too.

  • Unicorn

    My mother read the Narnia stories aloud to me when I was about eight. I was in love with Narnia by the second chapter of “The Magician’s Nephew”. By the third chapter I wished I lived in Narnia; by the fourth I was seeing bits of Narnia in Earth. I’ll never ride through a forest again without thinking of fauns and dryads, centaurs and unicorns. Ultimately, it was doubtlessly The Chronicles of Narnia that really inspired me to write.
    Thanks for the interesting post, AJ. Your book looks fabulous! Congratulations on the review!

  • bone,
    thanks. Yes, I’ve long been a fan of Harry Potter and similar books in part because they recall my own childhood reading experience.

    Thanks, Unicorn. I know what you mean. Forests always evoke for me those early chapters of the Lord of the Rings and snow (esp. on a lmap post) reminds me of Narnia!

  • As a father of a year-and-a-half-old toddler, I can say that your experience is pretty similar to my own. I’ve never totally been separated from my inner child – but having a child of my own, I feel like it gives me… permission, I suppose, to be a total goofball kid again, to see the world as silly and wonderful and new and to take pleasure in being completely in the moment and doing the same silly pointless thing over and over again until I haven’t the energy left to do it more. It’s exhilirating, in a way.

    As for middle-grades and YA books… I was somewhat disdainful of them in my early-twenties. I guess I felt like I’d finally risen above them, and didn’t want to read them. I resisted reading Harry Potter for that reason for several years. Then, after I saw the first movie, I read the first book… and I found my eyes opened and my opinion quite reversed, because I found there a reflection of everything I’d always loved about books.

    The first books that I remember influencing me strongly were Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” books. I fell into them as a single-digit-aged child when the vagaries of living on a military base abroad denied me the privelege of seeing Disney’s adaptation of The Black Cauldron in theaters. As soon as I discovered that there were books on which the movie was based, I was determined to read them. I was not disappointed. I credit those books with kindling my desire to become a writer – because they illicited in me such strong emotions, and I wanted to be able to do that.

  • Oh, I can’t believe I forgot Poe! My parents had a beautifully bound Poe collection, and I know I was reading those stories when I was in the fourth grade. ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ was my favorite for many years, but nowadays I prefer ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’

    AJ, other than ‘Escape to Witch Mountain’ (Disney made a dreadful movie, so the book stuck around longer) the majority of Key’s work went out of print by the time I reached high school. If you can find them, though, his books are wonderful.

  • Well, reading this post kinda makes me want to have kids!

    My favourite books I can remember reading as a child included Half Magic by Edward Eager, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards, (our teacher use to read it to us for story time, and then I started signing it out from the library on my own), The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, and of course, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I read these stories over and over again, and they never lost their magic.

    Looking forward to reading about voice for middle-graders!

  • Stephen,
    glad you can relate. I’m skeptical of the very idea of universals but the idea of redisovering childhood through ebcoming a prenthood may be close enough 🙂

    Thanks for the note, Misty. Will keep my eyes open.

    Sharon,
    don’t get me wrong; you don’t have to have kids to write for them. Really! And yes, I’ll try to get my thoughts on voice together for next time.

  • Vyton

    Interesting post, A.J. The earliest book that I can remember is Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit — Will Travel. It was my school’s library. That got me hooked on SF, and that remained my primary fiction for a number of years. It was also through Heinlein that I read my first fantasy novel: Glory Road.

  • Vyton, we take school libraries for granted but what they and what the people who work there do really can’t be over-estimated. So many of us barely remember the teachers and librarians who got us reading, but we should really try, and we should make sure their present-day counterparts have the resources and opportunity to lead more kids to books. So say we all.

  • My earliest reading memories begin about 4th grade. From then on I read everything I could get my hands on. This is probably why I write for Middle Graders and Young Adults today.

  • I liked ghost stories and fairy tales. Betty Ren Write’s ghostly mysteries and anything by Roald Dahl stand out in my memories, but I was always big on adventure and magic, wherever I could get my fix. I also loved Kit Pearson’s A Handful of Time. After about age 8 I migrated to YA books by authors such as Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce, but my tastes remained the same.

  • Vyton

    Here! Here! (Is that the way to punctuate that?) With that inspiration, I will. Libraries are increasingly becoming endangered because of budget cuts and competition from the internet.

  • *Wright. Betty Ren Wright. Pardon me.

  • Me too, Rebecca!

    Laura,
    agreed on Roald Dahl. His stories are populated by such deliciously nasty characters that parents sometimes balk, but as a kid I loved them. Still do.

    Good for you, Vyton. I’m with you.

  • Razziecat

    My mother enrolled me in a book club when I was a kid. I can still remember the excitement I felt each time a new book arrived in the mail. Strangely, I don’t remember a lot of the stories anymore, I just remember how much I looked forward to reading something new, and re-reading my favorites. There were other books I found on my own, like my brother’s Tom Corbett: Space Cadet books, Greek and Roman myths in the encyclopedia, the Danny Dunn mysteries and other books I found at the library. And the fairy tales! I remember the Goose Girl, too!

  • Frank L. Baum’s original Oz books. M. Henry’s horse books. The Hardy Boys. Those are my first book memories.

    For Unicorn – I’m ex-military. Rather than surveyed, maybe scanned? (I was going to post on the other, but it was already closed).

  • Razzie,
    I was a Greek/Roman myth freak! They just got a hold of my imagination. Parts of Greece are still some of my favorite places in the world.

    Lyn,
    I think the Brit equivalent to the Hardy Boys were the famous five and secret seven by Enid Blyton. Not great, I confess, and kind of suspect in hindsight, but I devoured them all the same.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks a lot, Lyn, ‘scanned’ sounds great!

  • Lovely post, A.J. I have found that parenting has changed everything I do. That’s really not an understatement. For the purposes of this site, I’ve certainly found that my voice for writing young characters is far better than it ever was before. And I think I read differently as well — I spend a lot of time thinking about how my kids might react to a storyline or a character, and I am often eager to share books or stories with them. As for the books I remember, I was a big fan of the Hardy Boys, and there was also a book called The Kingfishers” about a pair of birds. The author was from Scandinavia and the illustrations were spectacular. I actually didn’t start reading fantasy until I was in high school. I wonder if my writing career would have started earlier had I found our genre at a younger age.

  • AJ – at that age, I don’t know if any were great – well, the Original Oz Books were, and are. 🙂 What was truly great, though, is that our folks introduced us to the joys of reading early!

  • Cindy

    My father read James Oliver Curwood aloud to me when i was in grade school. I still remember “The Wolf Hunters” and “The Gold Hunters”. Looking back as an adult it seems a strange choice, but I loved it at the time. I read “Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” aloud to my son. Good memories.

  • Thanks, David. Great point about parenting changing the way you read. I completely agree. It’s one of the many things that I think has altered for me as I view the entire world through the eyes of a devoted (and probably over protective) father!

    Lyn,
    agreed. Sometimes the content is less important than the desire for reading, the habit it creates which has so many benefits throughout life.

    Cindy,
    yes, Tolkien’s language and tendency to “historical” digression can be hard on young eyes/ears, but the stories themselves and the dignity of the prose itself is worth the effort.

  • @ AJ – Thank you for that jab at the people who wear their parenthood like it’s some sort of gold medal. Having been annoyed recently by an unusually large number of these people, I’m feeling a bit snarky about it. (No, I’m not looking at anyone on here. You’re all lovely.)

    @ Misty – my grandmother had the same fairytale book! Oh, how I loved it. I tried to find it in her library after she died, but it wasn’t there. Possibly she gave it to some child in the community years ago – she did things like that often.

    I wish some librarian would find me the middle grades book The Boy Who Stole an Elephant. It may not even be the right title, a friend who is a children’s librarian tried to find it and couldn’t, but I loved that book. I read it over and over. The boy steals an elephant from the 3rd rate circus he works for to save it from dying of abuse and is chased halfway across the South. The daring midnight swim of the Mississippi still looms large in my imagination. When I finally met Huck Finn, I considered him a less interesting version of the boy in the elephant story.