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.

Thoughts?

21 comments:

  1. Great post, Mike! I totally agree that there is a big difference between adult readers and kid readers. So many times I've handed a book that I liked to one of my daughters, and they read a few pages and set it aside, saying they didn't like it or it was boring. However, they both LOVE the Alex Rider series.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have done the same with students: recommending based on MY favorites, and they have had negative responses at times. Makes me very careful with recommendations. And it's good to hear girls enjoying Alex Rider.

      Delete
  2. This IS an excellent post -- and very timely for me, as I am outlining and plotting right now. (And as a pantster, that's hard for me!)

    You are SOOO right about those scenes questioned by adults being the exact one the readers love!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. I'm a pantser most times, too.

      Delete
  3. I don't think this problem applies to MG readers alone. I think this problem exists across the industry. It's very hard to know for certain what readers of any age want, but your point, that we should always focus on the reader, is a most excellent one!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree it's an industry thing. But I think that since MG readers are younger, they're not represented by editors and agents. What I mean is, a lover of adult fantasy (editor) can say "if I love, readers should love" but an adult editor can't say "since I love, a teen will love."

      Delete
  4. There is much truth to this post. Thanks, Mike, for expanding on this issue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome. Based on our conversations, I'm pretty sure we see eye-to-eye on most literary issues.

      Delete
  5. I see this sometimes in reviews, the adults commenting on something that was too this or that (or not enough this or that). It's so important to keep in mind that children are our primary audience. If an adult likes it, great. But honestly, they're secondary.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Michael, you are so right about boys and action scenes! If you read the Percy Jackson series, much of the books are nonstop action, fights, explosions, chases, you name it, the series has it, but that's what the boys want. You ask my son what his favorite part of a movie was and he'll tell you it was when all that stuff got blown up. :) RR is also sure to put in the romance and mildly mushy stuff too, making sure girls are covered!

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AJ!!!!!!!!!!!! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great points with Riordan. He's great at reading kids, and then letting them read what they crave.

      And thanks for the birthday wishes. It's present time right now.

      Delete
  7. Excellent post. It's also why award-winning kidlit isn't necessarily bestselling kidlit. (Also cheering, since my WIP has a fair few chases and fights :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. True, and that's why I always say awards are for the adults, while sales involve kids. At least in terms of MG.

      Delete
  8. Great, thoughtful post. As a MG writer (and reader:) I admit, those action scenes are often my favorite because I like to see how the character responds to those situations, but you're right, most MG readers are probably just thinking about how he's going to get out of this mess. That's part of the fun, too!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Balancing characterization with action is important, and I think many of those kid-pleasing MG books do just that. But the old gripe with a lot of boy MG is weak characterization, but I feel it's because big plots dwarf characters. Good and bad, I guess.

      Delete
  9. You make a lot of great points, Mike. There are a lot of books out there about which adults rave and kids go "meh." That's why I like the Cybils awards (and I'm on the MG panel.) Here's what they intend: "Reward the children’s and young adult authors (and illustrators, let’s not forget them) whose books combine the highest literary merit and "kid appeal." What’s that mean? If some la-di-dah awards can be compared to brussel sprouts, and other, more populist ones to gummy bears, we’re thinking more like organic chicken nuggets. We’re yummy and nutritious."

    Having said all that, I am currently reading aloud with my 9-year-old the entries in this year's Oregon Battle of the Books. Along with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (no brainer there), he's loved both Journey to the River Sea and Out of My Mind--neither of which have car chases, sword fights, or explosions. Yet I doubt, without my encouragement, he would have picked either of them up. I guess what I'm saying is that a good story--even a so-called "quiet" one--well-told, will find an audience.

    Finally, Happy Birthday to A.J. Two years already. Time flies!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. YES. I firmly believe there is an audience for every book, organic or not. ;)

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the b-day wishes, Michael.

      Good point. I'm not saying kids only crave action. Far from it. They crave voice that is authentic, characters that are equally real, and a full balance of literary goodies. And humor...kid humor...that's huge. I guess my point is that it seems that too many books are being acquired with the sole mission of finding something that "speaks" to the adult, when, despite the difficulty involved, the goal should be to find books that "speak" to kids. Too many "I gravitate toward ___" from agents and editors, when really, it should be "kids gravitate toward ___, so my job it to acquire and publish ___." It's also good business, and this business is in a tough spot nowadays. Each acquisition is crucial, and business (selling books) needs to be heavily weighed.

      Delete
    3. I do agree with you that the "gatekeepers" shouldn't lose that ability to see things through a kid's eyes. Nor should we writers. When we get in touch with our "kidselves", we allow the greatest magic to happen.

      Delete
  10. Excellent points! And I love the Goonies illustration. As adults, I think we can analyze and pick things apart to death rather than enjoy the process.

    I struggle with this in my writing - creating something that interests me as an adult and channeling my MG loves as well. I wonder if, in the end, I don't really hit the mark of either one...

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for adding to the mayhem!