Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Gatekeepers by Robert Lettrick

When I decided to become a middle-grade author, I was fortunate to have the support (and keen eyes) of some wonderful teachers and librarians. Their feedback on my first book was invaluable, because they knew exactly what kids loved about middle grade fiction and why. They were quick to let me know when something I’d written would likely click with my target readers or when something would miss the mark completely. My best friend, Funmi Oke (Soon to be Mrs. Funmi Mosly in a few days, congrats!), loves MG so much she built a library in her classroom because the school’s library doesn't carry all of the popular, fresh-off-the-press titles like Alex Rider or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. She knows what her students love to read, because she loves middle grade too! We should all be so lucky to have teachers like that, right? 
Librarians and educators are allies to both children and writers. They are our partners. The facilitators of literacy. The concierges of imagination. The gatekeepers. If they were characters in the books they recommend they'd be Dumbledore and Gandalf and Aslan and possibly Charon, if the child appreciates horror like I did as a kid (and still do as a writer). So often they’re the ones to introduce a young reader to that perfect book. The book that transforms them into a lifelong, avid reader. Maybe a book you've written. 
I thought it would be fun to ask a few of my librarian and teacher friends to riff on the topic of middle grade books (sans guidelines). As an author, I found their ideas to be useful and insightful. 

Funmi Oke (teacher)
Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton will ALWAYS have a place in my heart, and my class library, which is approximately a thousand books (and counting!).  My name is Funmi Mosley and I am an elementary teacher and book addict.  It sounds like a confession.  In truth, it is and I’m not ashamed of it!  I’ve been an elementary school teacher for almost two decades and have amassed a rather large personal library, which has changed over time.  The days of recommending Roald Dahl books will, I pray, never disappear, but in this day and age where our youngsters are digital natives, and demand instant gratification and entertainment, adrenaline is but one word in the game of keeping the attention our young readers.
 My time in the classroom has definitely seen my bookshelves go through what some might term as a metamorphic change.  Middle school children (fourth through eighth graders) now have a varied menu to satisfy any literary palette.  For the adrenaline junkies, you have the young James Bond series (Charlie Higson) and Alex Rider series (Anthony Horowitz).  For those who love the supernatural there is of course the Harry Potter series (J. K. Rowling) or Charlie Bone (Jenny Nimmo), or even the adventures of Vladimir Tod (Heather Brewer), an eighth grade student who is half vampire! The dystopian genre has ignited the minds of youngsters everywhere with the likes of The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and the Divergent series (Veronica Roth).  For those students who enjoy the macabre there are even ‘child’ friendly zombie and horror series written by Charlie Higson and Darren Shan.
One thing is clear; there is no shortage of books or ideas. Authors truly have to work for their money as they are currently competing with the world of electronics.  It takes an extraordinary book to zap the remote control out of a child’s hand and replace it with texts that not only holds the child’s attention, but also leaves them wanting more.  The books above do exactly that! 
 Authors clearly understand today’s children.  They expertly paint pictures with words. It isn’t just their use of figurative language that captures the imagination of children today.  It’s their ability to weave plots that are just convoluted enough to keep the kids guessing but not too challenging that they give up and put the book to one side.  Material today HAS to be excellent simply because it needs to represent and exemplify skills that are being taught in the classroom.  Authors of yesteryear wove wonderful stories, but their use of language and ability to relate and ignite the imagination of children left much to be desired.
Authors today are grand masters and take the art of manipulating words to a whole new level.  This allows their material to be used by a teacher to highlight where students need to aim when writing.  Story structure, character and plot development, use of figurative language, avoiding explicit explanations to force reader to use inference skills, these are ALL skills being taught and all skills that can be found in middle school aged literature today.  If you haven’t read the research on the relationship between good readers and great writers….you should!  The avid readers in my class had an innate ability to play with words that simply can’t be taught.  It was instinctive to them.  Where did their source of vocabulary, ideas, original figurative language come from, they were imitating of course!  Borrowing from those who they hold in high regard, the authors whose work they loved! 
When students start challenging themselves to create strong female leads like Katniss Everdean and Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior or plough through books to locate specific, high level vocabulary and original figurative language, you know you have a student who is hooked on books.  Their medication / cure? …Offer up another book!  It will do them the world of good. 

Sashi Kaufman (teacher and author of YA Novel, The Other Way Around, published by Carolrhoda Lab)
I've been an 8th grade English teacher for 6 or 7 years now. Though I've taught Science, Social Studies and Math to other grades, never English. So that leaves me in an interesting place as far as middle grade fiction is concerned. Most of the kids in my class have moved on to YA and a lot of them turn up their noses at anything that appears "too young" to them. Since my own bias as a reader is more towards YA -this works out well. However 8th grade is an interesting year. Some kids come in ready for high school and some kids are still happily playing with dolls or building forts -even though they wouldn't admit it to their peers. These are often the kids for whom YA is still too much. Too much relationships, too much drama, too much darkness and definitely too much romance. These are kids who, when I try to describe the plot of my favorite John Green or E. Lockhart book look at me and say, "Yeah but what happens?" These kids still want to be transported to a world of adventure, of dangerous mountains and cliffs rather than dangerous emotional leaps. For these kids middle grade fiction is where they want to be. 
Some of the middle grade books that get high marks from my students are Wonder, The Ranger's Apprentice Series, and anything by Rick Riordan.

Jennifer Wielt (librarian and writer)
The most rewarding part of being a middle school librarian for me is connecting students to books. It's easy with students who already enjoy reading. For them, I pay attention to their favorite genres, authors and types of stories and make sure each year I order plenty of new books in those categories. One year I had a 7th grade girl who was a particularly voracious reader. She liked realistic love stories and books about princesses. With her as my inspiration, I ordered almost every Meg Cabot novel I could find, and for something a little different I also ordered The Luxe series by Anna Godbersen. My student read through all of these her 8th grade year and loved them. Several years later, after she was gone from the middle school and had graduated high school, I had the opportunity to see this student again. She gave me a big hug and said every time she sees any of the books in The Luxe series she thinks of me. It's generally true that if one student likes a book, there are others who will as well, and each of the books I ordered with this one student in mind have remained popular with others to this day.

Connecting students with books if they don't like to read is a little more challenging. I can always tell I have my work cut out for me when students approach me with put-upon expressions and ask if I have any good books, or if I can point them to the shortest book in the library. In these situations, the students usually need an independent reading book (which is a requirement) for English class. I have a list of questions I generally go through, starting with, "What's the last book you read that you really enjoyed?" If they name one I follow up with, "What was it about the book you liked?" Often they can't name one, and so I ask next "What TV shows and movies have you seen recently that you enjoy and what was it about them that you enjoy?" Sometimes I'm able to make a match they jump at, sometimes not. My best success story using this method was the time a girl came to me, announcing she didn't like to read anything but had to, and I matched her with The Hunger Games. This was well before the book was a hit and a movie. She went on to read the entire series and every other post-apocalyptic YA novel she could find.
In my 16 years at this job I believe I've identified the top reasons students choose to read certain books:
1. Peer recommendation (the more fan-girl or fan-boy enthusiasm the better). This is hands-down the biggest reason. I think it's why certain books become runaway hits.
2. Teacher or other adult recommendation. If an adult has read a book and talks about why they loved it, students will almost always come to the library to check it out.
3. Movie or TV tie-in.
4. The student has read other books by the author.
5. The book had a catchy cover. Kids are all about judging books by their covers.
One thing's for sure -- all it takes is once for a student to experience the magic of finding and loving the perfect book and they're hooked on reading for life. Maybe that book will be yours!

Catrina Baldwin White (teacher)
My thoughts are that middle schoolers don’t always engage but when they bring you a book recommendation it is like starting a conversation. It’s a glimpse into the world they are thinking about and a great bridge for questions about what they wish was happening in their own lives (or affirmation of what is happening!). Books, no matter the age, give you the opportunity to explore new ideas, dreams, and to identify with someone when they might have felt alone before. A lot of middle school books are kinda “heavy” so funny would be great! Middle Schoolers are at the age where they are not kids anymore per se, but not adults either, and so sometimes the themes are a bit heavy. Plus, as an elementary teacher, the kids who can read on that level shouldn’t always, due to content. I think there needs to be a selection for those who are wanting to read for entertainment and not necessarily to “work through stuff”.

Catrina’s middle-grade-aged son recommended his favorites: The Maze Runner series, The Fire Eternal series, and the Divergent series. Her stepson is a fan of Uglies and The Outsiders. 


  1. Such a wonderful post, Robert, Funmi, Sashi, Jennifer, and Catrina! I was a fourth and fifth grade teacher for 25 years (before retiring last year to write full time), and putting *that book* -- the one that would transform a reluctant reader into a devourer of books -- into the right hands was one of the most treasured aspects of my job.

    It needs the personal touch of someone who loves books and loves kids. No Lexile, F&P, or other mathematical formula for choosing a book can do the job. Matching a child with a book is an art form!

  2. I'm so glad this post came about, this is a topic that can be awkward to talk about (at least for some of us non-parents, and l know the whole 'non-parents/teacher' can still write books kids like' thing, I'm just saying...) but talk about it we must, and I'm glad these educators were brave to share a bit of themselves and the students they helped serve over the years.

    What Sashi Kaufman said here really hit home for me-

    "8th grade is an interesting year. Some kids come in ready for high school and some kids are still happily playing with dolls or building forts -even though they wouldn't admit it to their peers. These are often the kids for whom YA is still too much. "

    I was the very student she was talking about here. I didn't have problems learning to read. But I never found much YA appealing to me. When I was 14, my favorite book was "A Rat's Tale" clearly a book skewing younger than I was. But this was the first book I bought with my own money, and the first book I'd read that gave me a main character I idenified with.

    He was smart, but not a Type-A braggart, shy, but not an anti-social hermit, others misjudge him for what he's good at, but he does it anyway.

    I also LOVE how his name adds to the misconceptions to those who don't know him the way the reader gets to. His name may be Montague Mad-Rat (Monty to his friends) but this rat's is anything but crazy, his parents may be a bit out there, but like him are just misunderstood.

    My upcoming debut novel GABRIEL is exactly the book I wish had existed when I was a kid.

    Yes, there's a love story (even as a kid, I was an unabashedly sappy romantic, and I still am) and it doesn't get too "mushy" IMHO, but the story is really about friendship and being comfortable in your own skin.

    My friend and fellow author, Kelly Hashway, was once a teacher herself, and once told me she met many kids who need books that while aren't babyish, don't have the angst and "Romance Overload" a lot of YA books do. That sure made cheered me up during a dark spot getting "Gabriel" to the right editor/publisher who I sold it to in 2012.

  3. Wow, Robert--you are fortunate to have such an insightful "thinktank" of teachers and librarians to call upon for advice and support! This post really rings true because, as I mentioned yesterday on my own blog, I have been working at the local middle school as a facilitator of 6th grade literature circles. Our book was THE HUNGER GAMES and, man, my group was a bunch of dystopian junkies! [Which should give writers of dystopia hope, as I often hear agents and editors say they are "tired" of this theme. The readers aren't!]

    Great post!

  4. Love to have these wonderful insights! I ask teachers and librarians for their recs all the time -- nothing better than talking MG books.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!