Friday, December 21, 2012


Matt Daly is a teacher everyone loves. And we all wish we could have had him as our own. He is engaged, funny, firm, and willing to listen. He brings to his kids a way of thinking instead of dictating how to think. I visited his school twice on book tours in 2011 and 2012. I hope I get the opportunity again.

As MG authors, we can learn from his words. He sees what effects our books have on the children who read them and the teachers who teach them. And as we head out there, visiting schools and sharing with kids, it is good to hear from someone who knows both about learning and writing and how they must exist together.

We welcome to Project Middle Grade Mayhem, Matthew Daly!

The Need for Privileging Authentic Writing in the MG Classroom

Over the past 11 years, I’ve been blessed to be able to pursue many of the things that I am most passionate about.  My development as a middle school Language Arts teacher has led me into a position as an Instructional Leader in my building, allowing me to teach AND shape policy and philosophy in other classrooms.  I’ve also been fortunate and able to considered myself a writer for most of my life.  I was able to turn my love of Poetry into an MFA, and utilize many of the workshop strategies I learned during my time in the program, within my classroom,  as a means toward helping my students develop a strong sense of authentic writing.
Too often, “Language Arts Teachers”, especially those at the MG level, are lovers of fiction.  Obviously, there are worse things to be than a lover of fiction, but this doesn’t always translate into creating cogent writers.  In fact, I think most LA teachers at the MG level would be hesitant to call themselves “Writers” outside of the classroom.  
This is a problem, and the long term effects of this type of instruction can have potentially crippling outcomes if there are no good models for teachers to base their instruction on in a rapidly changing educational landscape.
    When a teacher is unskilled in the time it takes to truly and authentically develop a piece of writing, they often resort to creating “process” papers, with arbitrary hoops for students to jump through, or with prescribed forms that turn writing into a glorified version of Mad Libs.  In this way, they can more easily manage the outcomes their curricula often demand.  As a society, the new Core Content Curriculum Standards (CCCS) are also moving American education faster and faster towards this practice.
    The new CCCS standards place a high value on reading what they call “Informational Texts”.  While this should be a serious cause for concern within the YA/MG writing community in terms of schools buying and creating access to their work, there are other potentially damaging repercussions as well.  By devaluing fictional texts, the CCCS essentially devalues Creative Writing.
    This flies in the face of what all writers know at their core, which is that all writing, “Informational” or otherwise, is a form and extension of Creative Writing.  An informational text that is devoid of voice, interesting syntax, and varied sentence structures, fails to engage its reader, and therefore, fails in its job of effectively conveying information.
    This is where input from writers can be powerful, especially when dealing with the middle grades.  Educational policy in this country is being shaped by people that are generally far removed from classroom environments.  YA/MG writers have the opportunity to add to the national conversation in a way that shows people that you don’t become a “writer” (and not even a professional writer, just a writing writer, a literate adult) by completing hundreds of prescribed, mandatory, forced topic 5x3 Persuasive Essays.
Eden visiting the classroom last May where the kids are recreating an invention from The Young Inventors Guild.
The best thing that YA/MG writers can do when visiting schools, or speaking to groups of teachers or students, is to tout the way that they compose, and how radically different it is from one author to the next, but also from the way it is taught in schools.  Bring an open workshop to a school, and show the teachers how it functions.  Design an activity for your visit that requires or allows students to complete the assignment in as many ways as possible, and discuss the values of each.
    Two of my favorite authors describe their processes in radically different ways.  Stephen King compares his journey through his story writing as an excavation; the story is there, hiding below the surface, and his goal is to get it out of the ground without damaging it.  He rarely plans out plots in advance, and likes to see where the story takes him.  Orson Scott Card, on the other hand, spends an inordinate amount of time intricately mapping out the multiple plot lines and story structures he desires before ever putting a pen to paper.
    Students and educators need to be made aware of all the different ways that writing writers compose, and begin to demand that they are given the same opportunities.  As authors, you have a great deal of credibility and validation that you can add to that discussion.  Let’s be publically vigilant about the authenticity of writing as something that must be gifted to all students, not simply the ones who have mastered compliance in classrooms devoid of the love of composing essential in becoming a writer for life.

Matt Daly is an 8th grade teacher and Instructional Leader in New Jersey.  If you are interested in his thoughts on education, please visit The Educational Arsonist at . If you are interested in his writing, you can check out .

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Reading as Study: Growing as a Writer

For those of us living the writing life, whether we realize it or not, we are constantly learning as we read. Often I'll find myself engrossed in a book where the author's voice becomes so familiar I swear I'll never forget its rhythms and style. And while I sometimes can hold onto a general sense of these things, I'm finding I need to be more intentional with my reading if I want these impressions to last. 

This year I've started using my commonplace book as a place to record quotes that have struck me as important. Sometimes it's a fresh simile, other times just a sentence to remember the atmosphere an author has so wonderfully invoked. I've recorded the last few pages of novels, those key moments when everything comes together. I've written down scenes when the protagonist reaches the end of his or her self and must become something new. 

It's in looking for and taking note of things that I'm learning to grow as a writer.
Here are a few similes and metaphors I've collected these last few months from middle grade, young adult, and adult titles:
"Alice's stomach was rumbling like an empty garbage can rolling down a hill..." PIE, Sarah Weeks
"I try to stuff myself between the seats, like coins." EMILY'S DRESS AND OTHER MISSING THINGS, Kathryn Burak
"Majid had a family network as complex and secretive as a walnut shell." THE RUINS OF US, Keija Parssinen
"Her voice sounds as hollow as the empty wasp's nests." CROSSED, Ally Condie
"The day is collapsing into dusk. The Gypsies in their white shirts are the only lamps. The moon is coming in like a pan on fire." SMALL DAMAGES, Beth Kephart
And some darn beautiful truths:
"I lay my hand on my heart. Our parents teach us the very first things we learn. They teach us about hearts. What if I could be treated as though I were small again? What if I were mothered all over again? Might I get my heart back?
My heart is unfolding." CHIME, Franny Billingsley 
"That taste is still in my mouth. I know what it is. It's the taste of pretending. It's the taste of lying. It's the taste of a game that is over." LIAR AND SPY, Rebecca Stead
"In spring, Amherst changes into a storybook. The students grow wings from their heels and run through town spinning and singing. You get the idea that some parts of life are pure happiness, as least for a while. The toy store in the center of town puts all its kites outside, on display, so that the tails and whirligigs can illustrate the wind." EMILY'S DRESS AND OTHER MISSING THINGS, Kathryn Burak 
What helps you process what you learn as you read?

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hobbit, The Tragedy in Newtown, and the Nature of Good and Evil

I had originally just planned to review my first viewing of The Hobbit, but after Friday's tragic events in Connecticut, I felt I had to say something.

As a nation, we have a lot of things to think about. A lot of things to think about as a people. As the human race. There are a lot of hard questions. Gun Control. Mental Health Care. Security measures in certain public places. The media, and how it reports on such events. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

But instead of getting all political on the topic, I want to bring it back to my original planned post, and talk about J.R.R. Tolkien, his amazing stories, and what he knows about good and evil. Tolkien served as Second Lieutenant in the British Army during World War I, and without going into too much gruesome detail, suffice to say he saw the horrors of war first hand, and learned of the evil of men in the most horrific ways.

So even though surely Tolkien knew evil was often carried out by men, and surely saw evil deeds done by soldiers on both sides of the conflict, when he wrote, the evil he penned was faceless, and most terrifying when it was an unknown, even ethereal entity (such as Sauron's eye, or the Necromancer in the new film).

I would like to argue that we ought to make evil faceless again. Perhaps even nameless.

The way the media handles events like Friday's tragedy can't possibly help. These sick people, whatever their problems may be, are obviously haunted by what legacy they might leave behind, and when CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC put their names and faces all over the screens that live in all our homes, the next troubled individual thinks that he can be famous too.

I won't reprint their names here, but surely Virginia Tech, Columbine, Sandy Hook, and all other similar such tragedies could have been reduced or even avoided if we didn't make celebrities out of their perpetrators. In our society, in the cult of personality, where being famous is akin to holiness, something has got to change.

There is also a great post about the state of mental health services, over at The Anarchist Soccer Mom. I strongly urge you to read it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Body Size in Children's Fiction: A Weighty Issue

Augustus Gloop winning his Golden Ticket
The other day, my 9-year-old son K. became very upset when my 16-year-old teased him for being "chubby." My wife and I sprang to K.'s defense and told him that he was far from being chubby, which is true. But later, I got to thinking why this particular comment on a person's body size would cause such consternation on all sides. Our society is hugely conflicted about bodies and their sizes, with fat being a four letter word. (Yet, at the same time, most of us would caution our children about unrealistic body sizes for both men and women, the "Barbie and Ken" look.)  

Because I am a writer, and because I am a believer in the power of literature to shape minds and influence society, I set myself some homework. What are the images in children's literature of people who are considered overweight? A Google search led me to an interesting article on a website called Health for the Whole Self. The article detailed the portrayal of overweight characters in books, and it wasn't pretty. To summarize: if not downright mean and horrible--Dudley Dursley in Harry Potter--fat characters are often portrayed as gluttonous or unintelligent or in some way morally deficient. Think Augustus Gloop or, from my British childhood, Billy Bunter.

Billy Bunter sneaking some "tuck."

Another well-written article is by Beth Carswell, entitled The Skinny on Fat in Fiction. As she says,
"If a character is fat, it's a struggle for them, and often the central theme of the book. It often goes hand-in-hand with unflattering character traits, such as laziness, sloppiness or greed."
"In a world that is (all too slowly) more often refusing to accept prejudiced stereotyping of other varieties, fat people seem like the last largely socially acceptable target of the bigot. Will authors ever take to making a character fat just because, like having freckles, or blue being their favorite colour, or does it always have to serve a bigger purpose? Will there ever be a day when a character is fat without it carrying so much weight?"
Part of our society's prejudice may come from being repeatedly told by a medical establishment that being overweight is horribly unhealthy. But not all people who are considered overweight are "couch potatoes." I know a woman whom some would consider fat, but who is a tremendous kickboxer. She has accepted her body and thinks of herself as strong.

Finally, I write this as someone who is trying to think through this issue, who recognizes it is complex, and would love to encourage a discussion about it.

Some questions: Can you think of children's novels with main characters who are overweight, for whom their weight is not viewed as a moral failing?  Are there novels out there where the character's arc does not include the journey from fat and unhappy to thin and happy? 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sweet Tooth, Anyone?

The Princess Candy Series
by Michael Dahl

Tales of a Sugar Hero Blurb:

On her eleventh birthday, Halo Nightly receives a mysterious collection of candy jars from her Aunt Pandora. The sweet treats inside fuel her with the powers of fire, water, earth, and air! As the worlds newest sugar hero, Halo must defeat the evil sour-villains who threaten to rid the world of fun and flavor!

The Green Queen of Mean Blurb:

Look out litterbugs! When friend-to-the-planet Flora is paired with classmate Halo, things look good for her science report on pollution. Unfortunately, when Halo eats a little of her superhero candy and flies out for a breath of air after finishing the project, Doozie Hiss steps in to sabotage their work. Little does she know that Flora has a secret identity and the power to avenge any nongreen attitudes.

The Marshmallow Mermaid:

After an elementary school has closed for the day, a dangerous monster comes out of the school's swimming pool looking for food. He eats marshmallows and goes back in the water. Complaints are made to the principal about the marshmallows being stolen every night from the kitchen. After eating some of her Aunt Pandora's Cody turns into Princess Puffer fish.

The Evil Echo:

Halo Nightly (Princess Candy) is back, using her super powers to fight the Evil Echo, a shape shifter out to win Cody Phinn's attention. As a shape shifter, Echo is able to make people believe she's Halo—or at least the dark side of Halo. Echo goes around doing things that are uncharacteristic of Halo who is shocked when even her grandmother accuses her of doing something wrong. This female superhero will, undoubtedly, appeal to young girls.

These books are not only a ton of fun for MG readers, they combine great storytelling with the madly-popular graphic novel format. Readers of Dragonbreath, Bone, and The Amulet series will enjoy them. I know my daughter currently gobbles up anything structured in graphic novel form.

As a middle grade author, I balked at the rise in popularity of graphic novels, feeling like they weren't "real" literature. I didn't think they counted as quality reading time for my kids. And yes, I was a butthead for thinking that. As an educator, I have watched as reluctant readers have become less reluctant, as vocabularies and fluency have improved, and as graphic novels have been the doorway to other, more traditional books. They are the best of both worlds for kids--great stories and awesome graphics.

What are your thoughts about the 
graphic novel vs. the traditional novel? 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Middle-Grade and Back Again

J.R.R. Tolkien's books always feel like Christmas to me.  The hobbits' adventures span the seasons, but every installment brings to mind snug cottages, crackling fires, and lots of savory stew.  Perhaps this winterfying urge comes from my tradition of annually reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a leftover habit from college days when long breaks from school equalled reading binges.  Now, with another of Peter Jackson's epic film adaptations in theaters, I can't help but think it's time to visit The Shire once more.

In the 7th grade, I unearthed The Hobbit from my dad's collection of dog-eared sci-fi/fantasy novels and have never looked back.  In recent years, I was surprised to learn that Stanley Unwin, part of the original publishing house that took on Tolkien's work, gave The Hobbit to his 10-year-old son to read and review before they ultimately acquired it.  I'm intrigued to find that earlier generations placed The Hobbit squarely in the camp of children's literature (ages 5-9).  Though I first read it as a child, there was much in The Hobbit that I didn't appreciate the initial time through: the songs and poems (does anyone else skim through those spots?), the vocabulary, the allusions to mythology.  Perhaps this says something about the weak areas in my own education or how we've all become stupider over the years, but I think it also has something to do with the lack of reader-designations.
Rayner Unwin's original review

The Hobbit hit the shelves long before the designations of "middle-grade" and "young adult" became standard bookstore fare, when readers graduated from children's books to adult novels according to taste, not grade-level or even reading ability.  I think there's something helpful about reading beyond our comprehension, something timeless about being able to return to re-read a favorite and find new things that our past selves might not have perceived.  Have we lost this fluidity in today's classrooms, bookstores, and libraries?  It could be that the middle-grade category, as useful as it is, might also be quite limiting.  Will today's 10-year-olds, faced with more age-determined marketing, reach for a novel they might not fully understand?  Or will they hunt down something aimed specifically at their age-group?

What do you think?  When do the designations "middle-grade" and "young adult" cease to be helpful?  And, whom, primarily do they serve?  

P.S. It's also a good time of the year to pick up Tolkien's Father Christmas Letters.  So clever!  

Friday, December 7, 2012

What To Do With the Parents

It's a common enough trend: parents mysteriously missing in middle-grade and young adults. (Our own Matthew MacNish posted about this phenomenon right here on PM.) And it makes sense: without parental figures around to fix problems, keep our protags from risking their necks or offer advice, our central characters wouldn't have their own discoveries to make or solutions to find or adventures to go on.

But that isn't to say the parents are in no way useful to the development of character, story and theme in children's books. So how can they contribute? A few suggestions:

1. The parent brings an "adult" problem into the storyline for the protagonist. This problem should add to the protagonist's load and provide opportunity to show growth. For example, in Vikki VanSickle's Words That Start With B, Clarissa's mother is diagnosed with an illness that Clarissa struggles to deal with along with troubles at school and with her friends. This helps to develop Clarissa as a character, as well as her mother.

2. The parent and the protagonist have a dynamic relationship that contributes to both their development. In Carl Hiaasen's Chomp, for example, Wahoo knows how aggressive his father can be; he both admires him and wishes that he were a little more restrained. This push and pull makes for equally hilarious and touching scenes.

3. The adult restrains the protagonist in some way. This isn't to say that the protagonist must resent the parent figure, only that our main character encounters some form of restriction in the parent. Take Kathleen O'Dell's The Aviary, a historical fantasy-mystery; our main character Clara loves her mother, but she comes to realize that her mother is literally restricting her -- she won't let Clara out of the house for fear of her health. Over time, Clara decides that she's able to make her own decisions regarding her health, displaying growth we can get behind as readers.

The important thing to remember is that parents are characters too, and usually the way they interact with their child, the protagonist, will determine how they contribute to the story. Besides, nobody ever said that you couldn't write awesome parents, right?

What are your favourite middle-grade books with parents?


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Read It Again Sam


I just finished rereading Endurance by Alfred Lansing.  Endurance is the true story of Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition, which took place about a hundred years ago. The first line of the book: “The order was given to abandon ship at 5 pm.” 

Every three or four years I just feel like reading Endurance so I do. And I totally enjoy it every time. I savor the words and the story. And I love the characters—all twenty-eight of them.

The same is true for Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. 

And Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.

Every three or four years I pull them off the shelf and read them. I’m not sure why I reread them. I’m sort of pulled toward one of them every so often; our paths cross and we hang out for a while.

These stories are my friends. And since I’ve changed as a person since my last read I bring a fresh mind to a familiar story. The new things I discover may not be profound but they sure are enjoyable, even if it’s just getting to know a character a little better or discovering new details. Give me Endurance, Hatchet or Tuck Everlasting every three or four years and I’m like a kid with his favorite ice cream.

Do you reread books? Why/Why not? If you do, what are your favorite books to reread?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Go! Write! Fail!

I recently read a story attributed to the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland.  It recounts an experiment by a ceramics teacher, who divided his class into two groups.  The first group was to be graded on quantity.  They were to focus on making as many pots as possible by the final day of class.  The second group was to be graded on quality.  They only had to make one pot, so they could pour all their time and focus and energy into this one pot--but yes, it had to be of utmost quality to get an "A."

Now, my first thought upon reading this was to think, Well, of course, the students focusing on quality are going to have the better pots.  They get to spend the entirety of their class time getting their one pot just right.  But the curious thing is that by the end of the class, the students focusing on quantity were actually the ones producing the pots of the best quality.  It turns out that even though they were focused on making as many pots as possible, these students couldn't help but learn from the process of doing so.  They had the benefit of making mistakes and learning from trial and error.  In the end, this was enough to put them ahead of the group focused on quality.

As writers, we face the equivalent of a lot of lousy pots.  How many times do you end up tossing paragraphs, pages, chapters, or even entire manuscripts that just aren't making the grade?  But the simple fact that we're writing means we're learning and honing our skills.  Quantity leads to quality, which is why we must write, write, write.

So . . . go, write, fail!  Fail a lot if that's what it takes.  There is great value in mistakes.  The most important thing is to keep writing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

When a Good Series Goes Bad....

I'm always up for a good series. I like them because if I'm really fond of a book, I don't want it to end! Since I writing Book III of the Nightshade Chronicles, I've been thinking a lot about series, and what makes one successful against another.

Recently, I read a five book middle-grade series that started off great. The first and second books were really entertaining, and the third book was pretty good, though I did skim some with that one. By the fourth book, the writing felt completely different--and not in a good way. The author seemed genuinely bored with the plot, and the writing was rambling and clunky, not to mention the book was over 500 pages long (and no, it was not a Harry Potter book, I just like silly cat pictures). The storyline actually felt like it was copied from the earlier books, just with different characters and settings, even the action sequences reeked of past scenes I already read. It was a real disappointment, at least to me, though I'm sure others loved it.

When I wrote the sequel to my debut, my editor flat out told me the book had to be super special, perhaps whatever made the first book work had to happen on an even bigger scale. Now that doesn't mean lots of explosions or anything, it just means book II really had to bowl the readers over. That was kind of a light bulb moment for me. Readers want what they read in the first book, but they don't just want a continuation; the book needs to be extraordinary on its own. I think if you're going to write a series, each book needs to be standalone great! Characters need to evolve, as does the story...not just continue.

What is your take on writing an amazing sequel or series? What are some series you've read that were in your opinion successful from the first book to the last? Without naming names, what were some mistakes you think some authors have made in series of theirs that you've read?

Thanks for reading!


Monday, November 26, 2012

MG House of Cards: Build Wisely

First things first: It’s my son AJ’s second birthday today. So HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BUDDY! This one’s for you.

Happy Birthday, AJ!
And when I say “this one’s for you,” that is kind of the point to this post, as in, books FOR kids. Not for adults (writers like us, or librarians, or agents, or editors), but books FOR middle-grade kids. If you are involved with this writing/publishing thing for long enough, you start to see the difference between what adults like and look for, and what kids like and look for. There, indeed, is a big difference. Where you sometimes find an agent or editor who might comment “I didn’t connect with this” or “it wasn’t my thing,” it’s important to realize that you’re writing not for them, but for your MG readers. We mustn’t forget who we are writing and publishing for, and that’s the MG reader. I believe we do miss that critical point quite often, and this is why (1) we lose a plethora of middle-graders as readers who stop reading completely, and (2) why many books, even those that receive big advances, don’t sell that well when on the shelves.

That first point, losing middle-graders as future readers, is something teachers like me see quite often. If we don’t offer an enticing selection, we turn their taste buds off and they end up turning away from books. Here is an example. I saw an adult’s review (on Amazon) for Anthony Horowitz’s STORMBREAKER, a favorite for MG boys, that commented: “There are often long action sequences which, although entertaining, add nothing to the story. It's almost as if ‘Stormbreaker’ was written as a film script rather than a novel. I mean, at the end of the day, was it really necessary for Alex to get stuck in that car crusher? Didn't think so.” Then I turn away from this review, in the direction of my MG boys (students), and ask them what their favorite parts were, or better put, what they loved about the book. You guessed it. The car-crusher scene always comes up, and then they rattle off the other action sequences that, according to the adult reviewer, “add nothing to the story.” These MG boys then proceed to get all giddy when discussing the idea of reading the rest of the books in the ALEX RIDER series. The next domino to fall is when these kids ask me (or someone else) for books like the ALEX RIDER books. In other words, WE JUST HOOKED SOME READERS, and this is friggin’ awesome, people! A reading community has just been built, and all with a book that an adult thought was just a series of "things that happen" with little substance to it. In this case, as is often the case, the things adults think are “just there” are actually the things MG readers crave.

Another example is with a movie GOONIES. It’s a staple MG story that many writers aspire to capture in their own stories. Here are a number of questions: Why is Mikey (the MC) so in love with pirates? Why is there a piano made of bones that the kids have to play? Why is Mouth such a wise guy? If you were a middle-grader yourself, the answer to all of this would be: "Who cares? It’s all part of the awesomeness!" Whereas adults might ask for the meaning behind it all, and want to contemplate it deeply, kids just love it for the pure entertainment value. To them, there doesn’t have to be a “point” to hook them as a reader (or a viewer). And like I said, we mustn’t forget that THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT!

Finally, let me tackle the second point I made about the fact that many books don’t sell when on the shelves, even those that had a ton of hype and huge advances. And the reason for this is simple: the adults who play a role in putting the package together, oftentimes, don’t know what kids want to begin with. Instead, the adults used THEIR opinions and desires—their tastes—in choosing the product to put out there. And when it hits the shelves, despite the many adults who might supply reviews galore about its “beautifully-crafted prose” and the adults who market it as a masterpiece, kids simply are bored with the product on the shelf or they don’t “connect” with it. That’s the true disconnect that leads to weak sales, and loss of readers. It’s a serious concern for all. We mustn’t view things through our lenses, but through kids’ lenses. It’s a different perspective altogether.

In the end, all adults involved (writers, agents, editors, librarians, book sellers) need to start viewing things through the eyes of MG readers. Ask not what you like and connect with, but what a MG reader would like and connect with. And make decisions accordingly. If not, the house of cards will come crashing down on top of all of us.