Monday, September 26, 2016

Mourning the Middle Grade Years by Donna Galanti

Just recently, it struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I read a goodnight book to my 13-year-old son. I asked him if he knew. He couldn’t remember either.
“There was probably a night where you couldn’t read to me, Mom, because you were busy. And then the next night we forgot about it. And the next.”
“So it just faded away?”
“Yup.”
*Mom choke-up*
Since then I’ve been bothered by the fact that:
1. I desperately want to remember when and what that last goodnight book was.
2. If I’d known it was the last time, I would have cherished it.
3. Bedtime reading to my son is forever gone – and why am I just realizing the significance of this now?
I mourn something long disappeared that I had not known was even gone.

Along with the bedtime reading, has gone the picture books and middle grade books. Some I received as a little girl 40+ years ago. My mother lovingly wrote my name in mine, the year I received it, and who gave me the book. The Tooth Fairy brought me books from the entire Beatrix Potter series to all of Roald Dahl’s books.
The picture books have since been packed away in my office and the middle grade books collect dust on my son’s shelves.
“Mom, can we pack these books up now too?”
“Never!” I protest and gently dust them off and take them to my room where middle grade will never die. 
Books like Wonder, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, Warriors, Flat Stanley, Goosebumps, Genius Files, Joshua Dread, Captain Underpants (the lunch signs are the BEST!), Charlie Bone (Mom, this is THE best series EVER! You have to read it). Oh, and how amazingly cool for my son that the Charlie Bone series author, Jenny Nimmo, blurbed my first middle grade book.
My son, pushing 14, has now moved on to sucking up darker novels like Marie Lu’s YA fantasy series Legend, Prodigy, and Champion.
And I realized, sadly, he’s also moved on from all of our middle grade shows: iCarly, Good Luck Charlie, Pair of Kings, Drake and Josh, Sponge Bob Square PantsMy middle grade shows growing up included Little House on the Prairie, The Love Boat, Magnum P.I., Benson, Greatest American Hero, and re-runs of The Carol Burnett Show and Leave it to Beaver.
At nearly-14, my son's tv shows now consist of Arrow, About a Boy, Limitless, Dr. Who (okay that’s forever cool), and How I Met Your Mother (soooo not middle grade!). 
I nostalgically bring up our shared favorite episodes to him of middle grade shows buried in tv-land dust.
“Can’t we just watch a Sponge Bob episode tonight? How about the "Frankendoodle" one or "Pizza Delivery" or "Best Day Ever"?” I ask.
“No, Mom. That’s kid stuff.” *Josh sigh*
“What about iCarly where Spencer pranks everyone and does the prank song?” I start bopping around.
“No, Mom.” *eye roll*
“Okay.” *Mom sigh*

I’ve grown with my son as he’s grown, true, but in doing so I’ve also relived many of my own childhood paths – and I don’t want them to end. I’ve returned home to a place where I will always be young, laughing myself silly, whizzing through an adventure, and experiencing so many wondrous ‘firsts’.
As a kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s there weren’t books categorized “middle grade” and so I downed Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, Jack London, Paul Zindel, and V.C. Andrews (all soooo not middle grade). I still re-read many today. They were my middle grade. Now I have my son’s too. And someday I hope he’ll come back around to them, like I did. Maybe with his own child. He doesn’t need to relive his childhood now. He’s living it.
He also doesn’t need me to be home anymore after school. He has a job folding pizza boxes and can ride his bike to a friend’s house. He doesn’t need me to read him bedtime stories or cut up his meat. He doesn’t need me to do his laundry. He can do that just fine (good!).
Don’t misunderstand me; I am enjoying the new phase of things. Watching him work, open a bank account, clean his room because he wants to (faint!), be reasonable when things don’t go his way, and calm his frazzled mom down when deadlines loom. “It’ll be okay Mom. You’ll get it done. You always do.” *Josh hug*
He helped me years ago in writing my first middle grade book when I got stuck on plot and character. And soon, I’ll give him to read the YA fantasy I’m writing before I share it with my agent. Although, I still get thrills when he tells his friends that his mom’s new (middle grade) book out is the best book ever. *mom beam*
He may have said goodbye to middle grade for now, but I do love sharing in the new wonders with him. I just won’t ever stop loving middle grade, not since I fell in love with it through my son. I’ll wait for the day he comes back to it. *fingers crossed*
There is one thing that still remains: Mad Libs. Where middle grade toilet humor abounds because exploding butt nuggets, scrubby cow plops, booger blub, and crusty toe nail clippings make everything funny. Thank goodness for that!

Have you ever mourned moving on from a phase in your child's middle grade life? 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

4 WAYS "STRANGER THINGS" GETS MG RIGHT by Mary E. Cronin



I admit I’m not a big TV viewer, but watching Stranger Things on Netflix lit up the middle grade parts of my brain like a string of Christmas lights.

The eight-episode show, set in the 1980s in a small Indiana town, is a mystery/horror/drama that pays tribute to such movie classics as Stand By Me and E.T.



Kids are the stars of this show, and middle grade writers can draw much inspiration from it. Here are four ways that the creators of Stranger Things totally nail middle grade:


Invincibility
The kid characters are active. They are DOING things all the time: playing Dungeons and Dragons, hopping on their bikes and tearing off into rough terrain, arguing, taking matters into their own hands. These kids have agency. If your characters suffer from talking head syndrome, or a bad case of letting the world happen to them, watch how these four tweens make things happen. Even in the face of fear, in the face of uncertainty, they have the wonderful early-adolescent belief in their own invincibility, that they will survive, that good will triumph over bad.


Vulnerability
At the same time, the characters show moments of vulnerability that draw us closer to them. They deal with adults who underestimate or doubt them. They face up to bullies and quake. Two are growing up in the shadow of stronger older siblings, a near-universal experience. They argue amongst themselves and battle doubts about their friendship. The “stranger in a strange land” character, El, has the haunted vulnerability of a refugee, someone who has experienced trauma and yet still holds out hope for something better. Her facial expressions are worth paragraphs. None of the kids collapse into hopelessness or ennui in the face of their vulnerabilities—they keep going, keep trying, keep taking risks. As a middle grade writer, I took note of this, over and over.



Seeing the adult as “other”
Stranger Things flirts with the “all adults are clueless” trope. Some of the adults are comically unaware of the shenanigans going on under their roof—like hiding a runaway child for days on end in the basement rec room. There are the classic scenes of teens sneaking in and out of the house, the scenes in which tweens are lost in games or bike-riding adventures for hours on end, away from the gaze of adults. At the same time, the adults in the series are not cardboard cut-outs—they care, they cry, they try. But they don’t eclipse the quest of the kids as they try to find their missing friend, protect the strange newcomer, and crack the mystery. As far as these middle-graders are concerned, adults exist in a parallel universe. This allows the kid characters to shine.




It toys with gender roles
El, the otherworldly runaway character, is the classic “stranger in town.” With her shorn hair and angular face, she presents as a “tomboy” type, entering into a well-established friendship group of boys. She possesses vulnerability as well as supernatural powers that vanquish adults and blow the boys away. She is by turns fragile, fierce, and protective. She is a study in contrasts, in girl power, in gender-bending attributes, in character magnetism.




These characters will stay with you long after you’ve clicked off the television. They provide nail-biting entertainment as well as lots of food for thought for the middle grade writer. Take note, be inspired, and enjoy!




Monday, September 19, 2016

WRITING as an EXCUSE to be A DETECTIVE by Eden Unger Bowditch



Right here, right now, I shall confess. I love research. The long hours poring over texts and maps and photos and art, putting pieces of the past together or testing if an invention might work or if a theory might fit into real elements of history and create a new conclusion…yes, I love it. I spent so many hours in the library during one period that a librarian friend asked if I wrote books as an excuse to do research. It made me wonder.

Building fictional stories that have a foundation in real science or history requires lots of intense scrutiny and research into all manners of history and science. Yay! I can really get lost in a good book or pile of books. And maps. And old photos. Stitching together pieces of the past is enormously fun. Even more fun is creating a world that includes those pieces. What if…?I ask myself this all the time.

When we look into the past- a real life world event; a murder mystery; a natural disaster- we are looking at a snippet, a piece of a bigger whole. Historians link snippets and draw conclusions and theories. We, as authors, create worlds around those snippets. We can uncover information that can be read in different ways than they originally unfolded…or in a way they may have. We can rework the story to reach the conclusion from a different path. By building a fictional story around real life events, we have the building blocks and framework set for us, but we then paint the picture around them. It’s exciting to see how stories can be rewritten to fit a different set of ‘facts’- and, no, I am not talking about politics!

Sometimes, this will peak the interest of younger readers and get them to look into ‘what really happened’. Sometimes, it will inspire young writers to rewrite a series of events in their own images. Whatever way you look at it, researching history and bending it to your will is fun in every way. Have an adventure and go to the library, pore through old newspapers and photographs. Go the place where something happened or where something might have happened. It feels different to be there, among the tomes and maps and journals, in the buildings or fields, on the streets or sidewalks, than it does to look from the internet at home. Be a detective. So grab your magnifying glass and enjoy!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Alice, East Germany, and the Un-Birthday of CLOUD AND WALLFISH, by Anne Nesbet

When young Noah Keller gets carted off to East Germany by his parents in 1989 (at the start of my new novel for kids, Cloud and Wallfish), he has to leave almost everything behind--even (what he thought was) his name and (what he thought was) his birthday. He does manage to grab one old book to carry along, however--the old edition of Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass that used to be his mother's.

"Noah had picked it off the shelf this very morning, because he always had to have something to read in his bag, just in case. This particular book looked battered but cheerful. It had lost its dust jacket years ago; rows of red-ink and black-ink rabbits trotted away on the cover in a diamond pattern." 


Yes, this is the (real) copy of Alice that I grew up on; now it's living a second life as a (fictional) book in the hands of a (fictional) boy in a (really) complicated moment in history.

Of course, the book had to be Alice! And not just because of the most obvious metaphor, of West Berlin and East Berlin staring at each other across the Wall like looking-glass worlds--for that matter, not even because of the second-most-obvious metaphor, of the two sides playing a chess game in which the playing pieces are living creatures (although the strange-looking page in the book in which that chess game is "explained" plays a role in the twisty plot of Cloud and Wallfish).
But also because of a dozen other peculiar Alice moments, which have haunted me since I was an Alice-aged child, and which kept coming to mind when I was living in East Berlin in 1989 as a graduate student. Traveling to East Germany at that time was, for an American, as Noah's father says, like going to a version of Alice's wonderland: "a fairyland with lots and lots and lots of rules." A place that was fascinating and scary, both at once.  

The East Bloc and the West played their very serious spy-versus-spy games in Berlin, and sometimes it was hard not to think of the Walrus and the Carpenter, taking the little Oysters out for a walk along the beach (from which no little Oysters return). Alice, trying to sort out who's good and who's awful in that poem, finds herself somewhat flummoxed: Alice was the book where I first had to face the idea of a world where heroes with clean hands were not guaranteed, where ethics and morality were, despite the chess diagram frontispiece, not particularly black (or red) and white, but complicated.
 ("He ate more than the Carpenter, though," says Tweedledee, not making things easier for Alice.)

And while large, serious things were going on between governments in 1989, people like (fictional) Noah and (real) me nevertheless made true friends. Noah has it far worse than I did, because he has more secrets to keep. His friend, Cloud-Claudia, can't even know his real name, which of course causes Noah pain, especially since Cloud-Claudia believes firmly that "in your name is a little seed of everything that you are":

"Noah was thinking about the wood in his Alice book, the one where things have no names, where Alice doesn't know she's Alice anymore, and the fawn she's walking with (until they reach the end of the wood) doesn't even know it's a fawn. There's a picture in the book of Alice and the fawn, leaning close together: friends--until a moment later when they reach the end of the wood and remember who and what they are, and the fawn takes fright and runs away. Noah could see that forgetting one's name could be a problem--but also that someone finding out you are not who you said you were could also be a problem."

In the end, East Germany turned out not only to be maintaining a Wall, but to be perched on top of that Wall, like Alice's Humpty Dumpty. We didn't know, when we were living there in the first half of 1989, that the great fall would happen THAT fall! It would have been easier to say good-bye to our friends if we had been able to see into the future. But we couldn't see, and leaving was hard.

Now many years have passed since the dramatic year of 1989, and it is time to celebrate Cloud and Wallfish's birthday--or rather, more fittingly, its un-birthday. As Humpty Dumpty points out, via the magic of math, there are 364 un-birthdays to every lone little birth-day. 

Noah, like Humpty Dumpty, knows something about the wobbliness of birthdays, so we will let Noah and Cloud and Wallfish celebrate their un-birthdays together, today and tomorrow and perhaps many times over again.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

HOMESCHOOLING IN MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS by Joy McCullough



Recently I got to create a wishlist for Pitchwars writers, letting them know what middle grade manuscripts I’d love to consider for mentoring. One of the things I mentioned I’d love to see more of in MG is homeschooled characters, and BOY did my inbox deliver!! I received eight submissions that featured homeschooled main characters, and they were, largely, excellent representations of homeschooling.

According to the US Department of Education, homeschooling numbers are on the rise. In 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics found there were 1.1 million homeschoolers in the US. By 2007, it had become 1.5 million, and by 2013, it had become 1.77 million.

As the rates of homeschooling continue to rise across the United States, I’m hopeful that the numbers of books featuring well-drawn homeschool characters will also rise. My own homeschooled kids are used to reading school stories; it’s a norm that’s inevitable as it will always be the majority experience. But there is a special thrill when we stumble on a book that reflects their day-to-day lives.

If you’d like to include a homeschooled character in your MG book, talk to actual homeschoolers. There are many stereotypes and misperceptions about homeschooling that sometimes find their way into published books. Here are a few to avoid:

·      Homeschoolers spend all day sitting at their kitchen table, doing school work with their parent’s supervision, and asking permission to go to the bathroom.  Um, no. Some might, but homeschoolers are not a monolith and there are as many different ways to homeschool as there are families who homeschool. Some don’t use curriculum at all. Most homeschool kids are incredibly self-directed. Even those who use traditional curriculums get their work done a lot faster than it might take when a teacher has to wrangle 30 kids to accomplish the same tasks.

·      Homeschoolers are all from ultra-hippie or ultra-religious families.  Also nope. See the above point about homeschoolers not being a monolith. People homeschool for all sorts of reasons and come from all sorts of families. There is a heavier percentage of homeschoolers from privileged backgrounds, because homeschooling usually requires one parent to stay at home. But some families find ways to work around this (in our family, I work from home, and my husband works a swing shift).  And interestingly, the outcomes for homeschooling students (measured by things like SAT scores and rates of college attendance) are equally strong when the parents have PhDs as when the parents have GEDs. That’s because the important thing is an invested parent, not a highly educated one.

·      Homeschoolers have no social skills. This is a common misperception. As a homeschooling mom who wishes her kids were less social, it’s a funny one. My homeschooled kids do martial arts, theater productions, art classes. They go to church, and play outside almost daily with neighborhood children. They are extremely comfortable with strangers and talking to adults, as they spend a lot of time out in the world, at the library, coffee shops, bookstores, museums.

·      Homeschoolers are all dying to go to “real school.” This is one I see most often in MG books that feature homeschooled characters. Often, the books center around characters who are finally getting the chance to go to real school. Obviously I’m biased, since my own kids are homeschooled, but because they are, I know a LOT of homeschooled kids. I don’t know any who are dying to go to school. I do know some homeschooling families that have one child in school, because that child expressed the desire and the parents enrolled them. Kids who are forced to homeschool while hating every minute may exist, but they are nowhere near as common as books would make it seem.

But some books do get it right! Here are a few MG books that do a GREAT job with homeschool portrayal.


IDA B…And Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Katherine Hannigan
Ida B. Applewood believes there is never enough time for fun. That's why she's so happy to be homeschooled and to spend every free second outside with the trees and the brook. Then some not-so-great things happen in her world. Ida B has to go back to that Place of Slow but Sure Body-Cramping, Mind-Numbing, Fun-Killing Torture—school. She feels her heart getting smaller and smaller and hardening into a sharp, black stone. How can things go from righter than right to a million miles beyond wrong? Can Ida B put together a plan to get things back to just-about perfect again?

 THE HOMESCHOOL LIBERATION LEAGUE by Lucy Frank (pictured above) After a summer at Wilderness Camp, thirteen year-old Katya decides that she absolutely cannot go back to school. At school she can’t eradicate invasive alien plants, go on foraged-food-finding missions, or just be herself. Her parents, despite being “school kind of people,” are willing to give it a try, but Katya has to stick to their (just-like-school!) assignments. This isn’t what she had in mind. So with the help of a mysterious violin-playing boy, Milo, and new friend Francesca, Katya comes up with a plan to save her homeschooling experience. The three become the founding members of the Homeschool Liberation League––but will it be enough to convince Katya’s parents that her ideas about learning might be just right for her?
 
SAVVY by Ingrid Law
Thirteen is when a Beaumont’s savvy hits—and with one brother who causes hurricanes and another who creates electricity, Mibs Beaumont is eager to see what she gets. But just before the big day, Poppa is in a terrible accident. And now all Mibs wants is a savvy that will save him. In fact, Mibs is so sure she’ll get a powerful savvy that she sneaks a ride to the hospital on a rickety bus with her sibling and the preacher’s kids in tow. After this extraordinary adventure—full of talking tattoos and a kidnapping—not a soul on board will ever be the same.

MY NAME IS MINA by David Almond (companion book to SKELLIG)
A blank notebook lies on the table. It has been there for what seems like forever. Mina has proclaimed in the past that she will use it as a journal, and one night, at last, she begins to do just that. As she writes, Mina makes discoveries both trivial and profound about herself and her world, her thoughts and her dreams.


 
THEODOSIA AND THE SERPENTS OF CHAOS by R. L. LaFevers
Theodosia Throckmorton has her hands full at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London. Her father may be head curator, but it is Theo—and only Theo—who is able to see all the black magic and ancient curses that still cling to the artifacts in the museum. Sneaking behind her father’s back, Theo uses old, nearly forgotten Egyptian magic to remove the curses and protect her father and the rest of the museum employees from the ancient, sinister forces that lurk in the museum’s dark hallways.

A SLIVER OF STARDUST by former Project Mayhem contributor Marissa Burt Wren Matthews thought she’d outgrown nursery rhymes a long time ago. But that was before she knew that songs of twinkling little stars and four-and-twenty blackbirds were the key to an ancient, hidden magic. Wren’s discovery catapults her into a world of buried secrets, strange dreams, and a mountain fortress under an aurora-filled sky. But just as she starts to master her unique abilities, her new world begins to crumble around her . . . and only she can save it.



And my PitchWars mentee's fabulous book! But…her book’s not out yet.

What books have you read with great portrayals of homeschooled characters? What questions do you have about homeschooling families?