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.