Friday, September 19, 2014

Who Does Middle Grade Fiction Belong to? For Whom Do We Write? by Braden Bell

I recently spent three days and two nights on a school retreat with 8th graders. Being with them as they worked, played, and ate provided a wonderful research opportunity for a middle grade author.

 In addition to picking up a few bits of jargon and inflections, I noticed something I thought was profound. It’s one of those things that you know in your mind, but every now and then, the full import and significance hits you and you realize that you know—but don’t necessarily understand.

 It hit me with renewed force that middle graders, like all humans, are incredibly unique. They are multi-dimensional in every possible way. They are walking bundles of contradictions. They can be mean and generous. They can be sensitive and clueless—and they can do that in the same day. Sometimes the same minute. In this light, a realistically written middle grade protagonist might strike an adult as being unrealistic.

 As I pondered that, I thought about how much children’s literature—including middle grade—is controlled by adults. Written, edited, sold, purchased, and recommended by adults.

 I remembered just how little autonomy and freedom adolescents have. Nearly every aspect of their lives are controlled by adults. Most of what they do is done for adults, and done the way the adults want it done.

 Honestly, I think that’s for the best. Adolescents are, by definition, immature. They don’t have good judgment.

 Still—very little of their lives are truly their own. And this is what led to my thought. Is the literature we call middle-grade really their own? Or, does it reflect the mores, desires, priorities, and agendas of adults? Is it a genre created for their joy and delight—or is it a vehicle for us to shape and guide them? 

When I was a kid, I loved to read. I was fond of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and an obscure, sort of silly series about a pig who solved mysteries. It wasn’t high octane literary stuff. But I liked it.

 My parents and teachers wanted me to read “quality children’s literature.” So we got a book list from the library and I read some of the books on the list. I hated them. The experts had identified these as being “quality children’s literature.”

Well, this child didn’t enjoy them. Who was right?

 I don’t know.

 Sometimes we need to tell children to eat their broccoli. A steady diet of ice cream isn’t healthy. But when do the kids get to decide what they like? What’s the balance? I can’t pretend to know. But it’s got me thinking about my own writing.


  1. This post is exactly why the Cybils awards exist! I want to get Middle Grade students book that THEY want to read, which usually means a fair does of humor, action, and, well, stupid stuff. But I want it all in a well-written, thought provoking format! A tough balance, to be sure. Interestingly enough, when students come in to my library and can pick any book they want, they have no idea what to choose, or what they even want. Glad you are thinking about actual middle grade readers when you write for them-- not everyone does, methinks!

    1. Hello, Ms. Yingling! That is an excellent point about the Cybils, Ms. Yingling. And I love that they have a librarian who helps them find good stuff--that they like.

  2. Interesting thoughts, you've certainly got me thinking.

    1. Thank you, Brenda. I've been thinking a lot and so I'm glad it was contagious!

  3. I'm reading Donalyn Miller's READING IN THE WILD right now. Even though I'm no longer teaching, thinking about cultivating life-long readers still really floats my boat.

    I appreciate Donalyn's balance. She pushes kids to read a variety of things but also allows for the re-reads. Here's what I read last night:

    "If [students] reread books because they love them, I say let them. We want to develop students' ownership of reading. When we tell students they can't reread a book they love, we put our goals in front of theirs."

    As a mom of two avid readers -- ones who often need a nudge to move beyond the re-reads -- I want to be better at balance. Less nagging but also a steady exposure to other options. Also, I hope they will move beyond my suggestions and start seeking more titles on their own.

    I guess you could say this is a bit of broccoli, a bit of ice cream, and ideally, the skills to learn how to someday "cook" for themselves. :)

    Great post.

    1. Thank you, Caroline. I love that paragraph you quote. "Our goals in front of theirs." Perhaps that's part of the answer.

  4. Thank you, Braden. May your post-Project Mayhem adventures be full of such interesting investigations!

    By the way, the pig detective is Freddy, and the series was written by Walter R. Brooks. I read Book 1 with one of my kids over the summer. It was a bit dated, I'm afraid--but I can see why it was popular for its generation!

    1. Yes! That is the series. I devoured those as a kid. I have sometimes been tempted to pick them up again, but have resisted because I suspect they are very dated and don't want to ruin the happy memories.

  5. I do think it's important to encourage kids to read the classics and great literature, but as a parent (not a teacher), I also make sure my kids have as many books around as possible, so they can read for fun too!

    1. I agree Matthew. I think you make an excellent point about the balance.

  6. I work with many reluctant readers and my preference is to get them reading first, worry about the classics later. Yes, MG books are typically written by adults. We try to pull from our mind what it was like to be that age. As a plus, authors are often surrounded each day by their own children or students who provide daily reminders of the MG voice (and story lines!). I have also witnessed kids finding characters in stories who are just like them. That's evidence adult authors of MG books are getting it right more often than not. Thanks for the enlightened post, Braden.

    1. Greg, you are awesome! I love your perspective. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. I struggle with this topic myself, since I'm probably the youngest self-proclaimed middle grade author who's not a parent, teacher, or social advocate for kids and teens. I started writing seriously when I was 16 (after writing fanfiction two years before), and what I wrote (except for a trunked YA paranormal story that I will revisit when the time's right...) was middle grade, though I didn't know that's what it was called then.

    While I understand the educational aspect to this, my focus is more on the entertainment, as that's what got me to read beyond what was required at school.

    Sometimes I feel school focus a tad too much on the technical and not entertainment value reading can and needs to have. We'll always need historical and other informational texts, but fiction's just as valid as nonfiction, and while many nonfiction authors argue the contrary, just how not all nonfiction authors can or want to write fiction, the reverse is true, I've personally started becoming more interested in nonfiction from both the reader AND writer side, but as a kid, fiction was my preference.

    I know there have been counter arguments about how schools are too lenient in challenging their students reading skills, but you can also be too demanding (whether or not the students involved have special needs) and I simply don't want the valid technical aspects of reading to belittle what any kid or teen is able to read and love RIGHT NOW. I say that in the "Meet them where they are" mindset.

    I'm not at all making light of the logistical issues of kids/tweens/teens not reading "at grade level", but as writers, we can't let that overly dictate our role as storytellers. Be sensitive and respectful of it, of course, but it's why we have Hi-LO books to help kids bootstrap and buffer their reading skills. I admire and respect those authors, but not all of us can write in the HI-LO format, and I feel writers (and even publishing insiders) project that "You can write this, you can write that, too" like it's all the same and it's just not the case.

    Writing for one genre or age group has NUANCE AND VARIABLES!

    Yes, the bare basics of storytelling, engaging characters and the like are constant, but how you do it will vary depending on the readers you're targeting. While we strive for the widest possible audience, we still need a target in mind, and what works for a seven year old doesn't always engage a twelve year old.

    To be Continued...

    1. I think in general (barring exceptions) middle grade has an identity crisis at times.

      Where as YA/NA (New Adult) is more straightforwardly defined.

      Heck, even picture books can throw people off sometimes, in that there are picture books that skew OLDER than the preschool set that the best known examples often (mostly nonfiction I'm finding, but I'd hope there's some fiction too!),

      Brian Flocca's "Locomotive" is one of those picture books that while can certainly be read to the preschool set, it's fun for kids 8+ fairly fluent in their reading already, and I love that there are still MG novels that have illustrations beyond just some info-graphic type stuff, such as Tor Seidler's "The Wainscott Weasel" (being Re-issued this fall in time for it's 20th Anniversary of its ORIGINAL publication, check out my fan book trailer for it)

      As to the whole "Adult" factor, I think it's more nunanced than that.

      Yes, we want to find the kids, tweens and teens who'll love our stories, but until the Tween crew can create their own publishing houses (some HIGHLY SAVVY teens are probably on that path already as I type these words) we have to face the "Wall of Gatekeeper Grown-Ups" on some level.

      The jerks on the fringes aside, I don't think most adults are in the danger zone in this respect.

      Besides, for some of us, life got better when we grew up a little.

      While I don't agree with the hard-nosed way Dr. Laura Schlesinger puts her advice on her talk show or in her books, I do BELIEVE the truth in the title of one her books, "Bad Childhood, GOOD Life."

      Besides, heaven only knows many children's/YA authors had miserable childhoods but found writing, we have their great stories in the world, and had a happier life as an adult.

      That's a message I feel lots of adults my age don't hear. All we hear is how this is supposed to be our "Freedom Period"

      Be it childhood or those of us adults UNDER 30, and frankly, my 20s haven't always been joyous, part of that's life circumstance, part financial, and part of it my personal stuff, but I just don't people to think that after 30, it's too late to have a happy and fun life, whether or not you have student loan debt, married with 2.5 kids, divorced, unemployed or whatever! I know this is a bit off-topic, but I want the adults here not chide themselves needlessly.

      Unlike what some children's authors sometimes project, I feel more comfortable in my adult skin then when I was kid, though some things that were painful in the moment bring me solace in hindsight.

      Author Jennifer Wiener often said early in her career that she felt more comfortable in her own skin as an adult, and while I'm glad many kids and teens today feel that way already (even enduring great struggle and tragedy) I feel more at home with myself at 27 now than when I was 12-17.

      That's no less valid.

      I know the post above didn't imply that, I'm just sharing from my personal experience there.

      Just like how adults should NOT be shamed for reading YA, I would shouldn't ashamed for who I am and what I love doing.

      To be Continued...

    2. That said, that concern about what's for kids versus adults does worry me at times, and it's why I didn't review books on my site (and populate them on sites like Amazon, for example) because I felt like my opinion wouldn't matters as I'm nowhere near the age of the the target readers anymore, but now I'm of the thinking that while it's ideal and amazing to hear from our target young readers, I don't think

      I'd be just as honored if adults (sans kids or "Under 18" students of their own) read an loved my books as much as kids. That's the honest "Literary Rat" truth. My debut's not out yet, but I hope it will find young readers, too, especially boys.

      Because there are still FAR FEWER BOOKS about nontraditional boys and men in books for young readers who aren't LGTBQ (and don't get me wrong, I'm for LGBTQ rights) but when the ONLY nontraditional boy and men characters in MG and YA are portrayed LGTBQ, it's a perception problem we as writers need to address when and where we can, and with all due respect to those in the LGBTQ community, I say that PURELY from a logistical standpoint. Your stories need to be heard.

      But so do the stories of boys and men who are "straight" and/or have mental illness but aren't all "Psycho Pervs" with sadist tendencies!

      To be Continued...

    3. While many of my 100+ beta-readers for GABRIEL (my debut) kept saying boys would never either GRASP or read my book or want to read about a non-snarky MC, that just floored and disheartened me, and almost made me give up on the book.

      As much as I fiercely believed in it those long nine years before it sold in 2012.

      Ironically, it was mom writers of sons who told me this (I personally feel they used their sons too much as a benchmark metric for ALL boys and men, but that's a whole other topic, and I'm rambling as it is...), but NONE of the few men who read GABRIEL in process ever told me this, and three of them were dads with sons, and one was a teacher in a co-ed school where boys are obviously present.

      I probably won't attract the readers who are into Artemis Fowl or Wimpy Kid, but they aren't the ONLY boys in town, so to speak, but if they come along for the ride, by all means be my guest! (Insert "Open for Business" smile Here)

      Especially when you consider how so many in the industry are self-proclaimed "Kids or Teens" at heart, despite their "Mundane Adult" outward shell might suggest.

      To be Continued...

    4. But I don't think as writers or the publishing industry at large we should quantify that that all the time. Here's why-

      I used to be ashamed of reading stories about talking animals simply because I knew no one else my age (who's not a parent or educator) reading them, I launched "Talking Animal Addicts" to both the shed that shame I used to carry and find others who loved the books I love, and when I meet someone whose not a parent/teacher who loves the books I do for their own merit, the (Non-Erotic) ecstasy I get from that is "Tears of Joy" inducing.

      I'm also getting tired of the assumptions people in and outside the industry make about boys versus girls reading interests or struggles. Not all girls love "Little Women" or "Jane Austen" yet too many cling to what boys will read or (more commonly) NOT read.

      After all, I'm a man, under 30 (at the time I write this), not a parent or teacher, but I love reading about toymaking rats and tap-dancing frogs as much any kid 10 years my junior [barring those who prefer nonfiction] which I've learned to love, but fiction's my preference as a reader, despite the statistics saying boys and men prefer nonfiction, I'm clearly not in their "club" and that's OKAY!)

      As anyone knows who goes to my site, I'm OBSESSED with animal stories, and I'd gladly read these even if I never became an author/parent/educator myself. I started my site because I love them so much, and trust me, they're NOT easy to write as they might look to the uneducated. (Smile)

      To be Continued...

    5. That's why I now do a video series on my YouTube Channel called "Read This, Read That" where I pair a well-known book (often considered a "Classic") with a new or lesser known titles in the genre in my hope to bring new readers to them and thus help those authors find more fans of their work.

      I do this in part because despite many of my writer friends saying my genre doesn't need defending (though I feel it's STILL vital for readers OVER 13), it does need more DEFINING overall, and I just wanted all readers (but in particular parents who aren't as book obsessed as our "Project Mayhem-ers" [and their groupies like me] to see that "Redwall" and "Stuart Little" are NOT the last words in animal fantasy anymore than "The Hunger Games" is for dystopian fiction.

      I'll always do written reviews, but these videos are for those so time-starved they can't always read reviews (especially the chatty ones I do) so these videos serve that need. At least I hope so...

      Plus, as an author myself now, I don't want great new voices or l to be constantly in the shadow of the "Classics" or runaway phenomenons, and I'm no way bashing their right to exist, I just want non "Brand Name" authors to find their readers, and who knows, someone in the project mayhem community (the blogging authors or its followers like me) could one day be a "Brand name" ourselves, but it can't happen if can't make our mark, and I hope "Read This, Read That" will help with that in some way.

      To be Continued...

    6. Not to rock the proverbial boat getting too off-topic here, but outside kid-lit, gender inequality toward boys and men is even more vicious than what we hear about in YA or the emerging NA (New Adult) realm.

      Despite romance being largely dominated by women (From author all the way to publisher), men do read and write it, too, and I often feel the reason they're not as actively involved is that perception problem.

      Men are often objectified and stereotyped in some romance fiction no less annoying to me as a man than women reading about men who treat them wrong.

      Writes often hear how informative and insightful RWA is even if you don't write romance (which I don't, but do read it, I'm an unabashed "romantic" myself), but when I hear all those stories of men being disrespected (in subtle yet conscious ways) and how they're so often portrayed in (and on the COVER) of books, it doesn't make me feel respected, let alone "Welcome."

      A romance author who's blog I love, Jami Goid, is a member of RWA and has attended many conferences, and a recent post she did on "Strong, yet vulnerable characters" got me on my soapbox, which I try not to do often so I don't depress myself, but I couldn't NOT speak to this particular piece!

      Romance fiction aside, how can we in general expect men to be nurturing and involved fathers (BEYOND financial contributions) if we don't allow them as boys to have the range of emotions girls and women are encouraged to do as early as the womb!? (sometimes to unhealthy extremes, but that's a whole other topic...)

      It's gone WAY beyond "Boys Don't Cry" and evolved into "Men can NEVER be vulnerable. Period."

      That's wrong and not healthy, and I know this too well, because that in many ways defined my childhood.

      What really worries me is that it's often the mothers of sons who project these stereotypes at home, despite the face that these are women publically and vocally champion women's rights, and wouldn't stand for the chauvinistic men whose tendencies she's instilling (indirectly if not directly) IN HER OWN SON!

      I could NEVER be the stoic, composed, yet VICIOUS "ideal" form of masculinity. I'm thankful that I grew up in a family that while more emotionally distant than I'd like, at least never made me want to run away for being "Different" than most of the men I've known in my family or learned about in school from a historical sense.

      That said, I'm not close with my few male relatives partly because of this, despite the "Silent type" myth for boys and men of a certain age, you can't shut me up easily! (LOL) I'm also emotionally transparent to a fault, and while that's not always a good thing, I at least don't play the "mind games" some guys do.

      Please understand I don't mean this in a sexist way.

      I'm totally for the empowerment and momentum girls and women are bringing to books and publishing at large, but I do fear sometimes we're treating boys and men today the way many girls and women are/were treated since recorded history, and it's no less right.

      Especially because many simply don't have the default "Women are second class" mindset AT ALL.

      They may have had to grow up around it, but that doesn't always mean they modeled it later in life, or if so did some character-building on that. I grew up in a family of tobacco smokers, but I never smoked, nor was I tempted knowing what the health risks are, and given my own mental illness, I have ENOUGH battles to fight without adding that one!

      I'll stop there, gender issues is one of my "Hot Button" topics. Hope I don't sound too mad. Just trying to be honest.

  8. I like your analogy of the broccoli and ice cream. :) I think this dilemma is maybe true for all readers. There are things I really like to read and things I choose to read because I want to challenge myself or broaden my experience. But it is a discipline.

    As a parent, I want to cultivate a small tolerance for that in my children. I want them to read widely according to their interests, but I also want them to pick up something outside their ken - because one of the magical things about books is how it can transport us into another's shoes.

    On my better days, I want to follow C.S. Lewis' advice: "It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!