Schools and school libraries are excellent places to market a middle grade novel. First of all, you won’t find a more enthusiastic and loyal group of supporters of middle grade literature than school librarians and teachers. They often make of their jobs to seek out good literature and pass it on to their students. Then there are summer reading lists—lists of required or recommended reading often composed by teachers or districts—which can be great exposure for an author and an excellent way to boost sales. Finally, and most importantly, if a teacher or a school chooses your book as required reading, you’ve got instant sales and an audience that is more likely to check out other works by you.
But how do you make your book marketable to schools and teachers and librarians? How do you get your book on a summer reading list, or even better, a required reading list?
In addition to writing books for young people, I’ve been a middle school language arts teacher for fifteen years. When my own kids were young, I was fortunate enough to take a leave from teaching and work from home as a curriculum developer for several major educational publishers. Because of my background in curriculum writing and teaching, I’ve had the benefit of writing Teacher’s Guides for my own novels. My first book, LOSING IT, has been chosen as a ONE SCHOOL, ONE BOOK novel for several middle schools. It’s shown up on several Summer Reading Lists, and even five years after its publication, it’s still being chosen for Battle of the Books competitions.
Teachers love books. We love introducing our students to books. But with Common Core and rigorous mandated assessments, we have limited time and increasingly difficult demands to meet. Anything that makes our jobs even a little easier is appealing.
By creating a Teacher’s Guide for your novel, a list of Story Response Questions, or a thoughtful Writing Prompt that connects your book to other media, you make it that much more likely that a teacher will somehow incorporate your book into his or her curriculum. Here are a few tips on how you might go about creating one.
Where do I begin?
First, decide what grade level(s) you think are appropriate for your book. Your publisher, a local librarian, or any teacher might be able to help you with this. Consider also that most young readers like to read about protagonists that are slightly older than they are. A great resource to help you find other books being read by students at various grade levels is the Accelerated Reader Collections site: http://www.arbookfind.com/collections.aspx. Click on the What Kids Are Reading link and explore.
Next, check out the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) document, which you can access here: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/.
This is a long and complicated document that haunts teachers relentlessly. You’ll probably want to focus on the Reading Literature Standards for your chosen grade level. However, here are a few common standards you could address if you had a book targeting 4th through 6th grades:
--determine how point of view is developed and how it influences the telling of the story
--compare and contrast settings, characters, or points of view within the novel and pull specific passages from the text to support your answers
--explain how a particular scene fits into and contributes to the overall story
--determine the meaning and purpose of figurative language
--determine the theme or central idea, using specific details from the story to explain how it is conveyed
What Should I Include in My Guide?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule on this. But here are a few sections you might consider including—though you may wish to focus on just one or two depending on your time constraints and comfort level.
--a Prior Knowledge or Before Your Read section. This section introduces the students to aspects of your story they may be unfamiliar with (the setting, certain themes, characters’ backgrounds) but that it might be helpful for them to know before reading. This is also a good time to help them make connections with your characters or the story itself, which gets them excited and motivated to read. For example, in the teacher’s guide for my novel, LOSING IT, I did a short preview lesson on teenage obesity, since that was a major theme of the novel.
--a Vocabulary section that includes words they may encounter in your novel that may be new to them. When I develop vocabulary sections for my Teacher’s Guides, I always create context clues activities, such as using the sentence the word appears in to help the reader decipher the meaning.
--a set of Story Response Questions. This is the meat of your guide and if you choose to create only one section for your novel, this should be it. You don’t need questions for every chapter, but your questions should focus on the standards; the major themes, conflicts, and literary elements of your book; and should include all levels of questioning from basic understanding through analysis and evaluation. Varying your questions is key; for example, ask readers to draw an image based on a simile or to write a mini-dialogue showing the perspective of another character.
--a Final Writing Task. Today, we often call these Performance Tasks. These are multi-paragraph writing assignments that use your novel to launch the students beyond the book and that tie your story (or a piece of it) into something in history, science, art, music, or current events. For example, the Performance Task for LOSING IT had students write a multi-paragraph essay on bullying, since that was something my main character experienced. I provided an informational article on bullying as well as a poem written from the perspective of a girl who’d been bullied. They had to use those sources in their writing.
To see examples of all of these sections, I have numerous Teacher’s Guides on my website that you can check out and model yours after: http://curriculumspecialists.weebly.com/our-guides.html
Is It Worth Spending My Time to Create a Teacher’s Guide?
That probably depends on your book. A more commercial book with superheroes defeating aliens or a series that will sell on its own probably doesn’t require a guide. But historical fiction, literary novels, novels with cultural connections and diverse characters, and those with meaningful and universal themes might get an extra boost by a well-thought-out teacher’s guide.
Books chosen for classroom reading lists and those that find their way into a teacher’s heart have a better shot at longevity since teachers tend to use them again and again. I hope you find a teacher out there who connects with your novel in that way.
Erin Fry is also the author of Losing It, Secrets of the Book, and The Benefactor. She has a fourth novel, a middle grade entitled, Undercover Chefs, coming out with 50/50 Press in February. When she’s not writing, Erin teaches at a middle school in southern California, where she also coaches cross country. She has worked in educational publishing, and writes book reviews for Publishers Weekly. You can find out more at her website: www.erinmfry.com or follow her on twitter: https://twitter.com/ErinMFry
I'm super excited to be a part of my lovely friend Eliza Nolan's book release today. FROM THE ASHES is born! And, honestly, having had the pleasure of reading the sequel to her bestselling PHOENIX AWAKENS, I personally think this one is even better! Check out the details!
In this exciting sequel to Phoenix Awakens, Nolan whisks her readers off to Istanbul where the Legend of the Phoenix is the centerpiece in a centuries old battle for power.
It’s been three months since Julia Long discovered she’s a magical being called The Phoenix, and she still hasn’t mastered her ancestral powers. But when a mysterious visitor provides evidence that Julia’s birth mother has been kidnapped in Istanbul, Julia must try to save her.
Meeting her mother's family for the first time is wonderful, but discovering there are other kids her age with magic is better, even if one of them is infuriatingly dark and handsome.
But not everyone is happy letting kids be kids. Some seek to use these gifted youth as pawns in a game of power and intrigue. And just by the nature of who she is, Julia's now the most powerful piece on the board. But if she doesn’t play her part perfectly, she could lose everything, including her mother.
Grab your copy from Amazon now!
And, if you haven't read book # 1 then as a special treat it's 99C! Go buy it!
Awesome! Congratulations, Eliza. You've done an amazing job and work super hard. You deserve this success.
Eliza Nolan was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She lived in Charleston, South Carolina, for a few years, after which she returned to icy Minnesota - where she now lives with her two unruly cats in a house smaller than your closet.
She is an avid reader and writer of YA who has ghostwritten a novel or two, but also writes her own stuff.
Sign up for her newsletter to hear about new releases, giveaways, and deals: http://www.elizanolan.com/p/mailing-list_30.html
Middle Grade Books: Increasingly Inappropriate?
An eleven-year-old boy and an eleven-year-old girl feel awkward after the girl compliments the boy, and they don’t know what to say as they look at each other with uncertainty. The boy’s eleven-year-old friend says, “Get a room.” As everyone knows, “Get a room” is a euphemism for “go make out or have sex” in private.
This scene occurs in a very popular middle grade book I bought for my then-ten-year-old, Little Brother mentee. As any responsible parent or mentor should, I read the book first. When I got to that line, I threw it into the trash—something I never do with books.
This book has rave reviews from parents on Amazon. If those parents actually read the book and think eleven-year-olds having sex or even hinting at such behavior or joking about it is cute, there’s something wrong with those parents. Sadly, pushing the envelope in middle grade fiction is happening, just as it did long ago when teen lit was christened “Young Adult” (even though young adulthood, according to psychologists, and the law, ranges from age eighteen to twenty-five.) Thirteen years olds are young adults? According to the book industry they are. In reality, they are far from young adulthood. These are middle school kids, still adolescents, still children. Not young adults. Not even close. Even at eighteen, legal adults are still teens. But pushing kids to leapfrog over necessary developmental stages seems to be the current intent of all media, including books.
On Amazon, a middle grade book featuring twelve or thirteen year olds is listed as suitable for eight-year-olds. Why? To make more money for the publisher and Amazon. Anyone who’s ever raised children or taught them knows that a twelve-year-old is way ahead of an eight-year-old on the developmental scale, and no conscientious parent would allow their eight-year-old to pal around with twelve or thirteen year olds. So why is it suitable for eight year olds to read books aimed at twelve and thirteen year olds? It isn’t.
The excuse has been that children are demanding books about kids older than themselves. Not true. Children are curious about everything. If you put age-inappropriate material in front of them, they will watch it or read it, and then their brains will have been rewired so that they want more inappropriate stuff. That’s how our brains work, and it’s the essence of addiction. It’s bad enough that Hollywood seems bound and determined to rob children of their innocence, but the book industry used to take its job more seriously. Way too many TV shows aimed at children depict ten, eleven, twelve year olds on the prowl for a boyfriend or girlfriend, and the on-screen kids lament that they’re not in a relationship. Children haven’t changed. What they’re exposed to has. Especially social media. No child under high school age should have a smartphone, but millions do.
I often see what middle school kids post on social media, and it’s not good. A ten-year-old once told me he wanted a girlfriend. I asked why, and he didn’t know. But I know. That boy already has a smartphone and is on social media, where the message is loud and clear—if you’re not in a relationship, you’re a worthless failure and have no value in your own right, no matter your age.
I know twelve year olds with babies. This is a bad situation, for them and the babies they produce. Encouraging children and teens to have sex—even in wink, wink, nudge, nudge ways—is beyond disturbing, and I can’t understand this agenda to adultify children at younger and younger ages. It makes no sense. How often do you see boys and girls as young as eight or nine referred to as young men or young women in the news or on social media? Attune yourself to that notion and you’ll see it everywhere. Labelling children “young adults” defies all common sense and rationality. And it damages the children more than anyone else. If you convince twelve-year-olds they are young adults with such verbiage, and allow them to access age-inappropriate media that calls them young adults, they are going to think they can engage in adult activities, like sex or drinking alcohol, to name two.
An acclaimed middle grade book is called Wonder. In most ways, this is a terrific book with positive messages about acceptance. However, in this story, ten-year-olds are depicted as partying like teens, pairing up in boy-girl romantic relationships, and dating. And the worst part? These behaviors are presented as normative. Only one parent in the entire book tells her son he’s too young to date. At ten, he’s too young to date? Ya think? Of course, he is!
The fact that editors and publishers allow such messages to be sent to children brings me back to the agenda question. What is the agenda, and who stands to gain by it? I know who stands to lose—the children. They are sent so many mixed messages by media and society these days, it’s no wonder the number of adolescent mental health cases in America has skyrocketed in recent years.
As authors, I believe it is our responsibility to present developmentally appropriate stories for children and teens. Books should be a more conscientious form of entertainment than Hollywood and social media, which seek to suck children into the addiction trap. Middle grade fiction should be for eleven, twelve, and thirteen year olds only, since they are middle schoolers, and the publishing industry needs to stop telling Amazon and other sites to list them as suitable for eight-year-olds. In addition, books with thirteen-year-olds can certainly involve skittishness on the part of boys and girls with each other, because that is reality, but nothing more is needed. Just as violence is kept at bay in middle grade fiction, romance/sex should be even more so.
As parents, we have so much to do without having to police the books our kids read like we police the media they pursue. But for the sake of children going through their natural developmental stages, we must be vigilant, and at least skim through any books our preteens want to read. At the very least, check the book out on LitPick.com, an online review site wherein teens and children review books aimed at their age group. They rate the books and provide content warnings, under the supervision of adults. Commonsensemedia.org also has content ratings for children and teen books that are well-articulated, written by both parents and kids. Also, if a book on Amazon is rated for age eight-twelve, it’s important to read the “What’s Inside” preview and the reviews. Check the negative reviews and look for clues to inappropriate content.
Childhood is already too short. If we allow Hollywood, social media, and now books to steal it away, that’s a crime of insurmountable proportions. Unplugging our kids from media, and making sure they have good books with positive, age-appropriate themes and messages, is an essential step toward molding them into healthy teens and decent adults.
Michael J. Bowler is an award-winning author who grew up in San Rafael, California. He majored in English and Theatre at Santa Clara University and went on to earn a master’s in film production from Loyola Marymount University, a teaching credential in English from LMU, and another master’s in Special Education from Cal State University Dominguez Hills.
Michael is a passionate advocate for the fair treatment of children and teens and serves as a volunteer Big Brother with the Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters program and has been a volunteer within the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles for over thirty years. He has been honored as Probation Volunteer of the Year, YMCA Volunteer of the Year, California Big Brother of the Year, and 2000 National Big Brother of the Year. The “National” honor allowed him and three of his Little Brothers to visit the White House and meet the president in the Oval Office.
Michael’s goal as an author is for teens to experience empowerment and hope; to see themselves in his diverse characters; to read about kids who face real-life challenges; and to see how kids like them can remain decent people in an indecent world. The most prevalent theme in his writing and his work with youth is this: as both a society, and as individuals, we’re better off when we do what’s right, rather than what’s easy.
HARRY POTTER versus RON WEASLEY
The Winner is all about VOICE.
Harry Potter was very different from Ron Weasley and not just because Ron had red hair and Harry had brown and Junie B. Jones is by no stretch of the imagination similar to Matilda.
The thing that makes people stand out from one another in a crowd of characters isn’t necessarily how they look – although that is something that catches your eye…at first. The truth is people are different in so many complicated ways that go far beyond appearance. They speak different, walk differently, and even sit in very distinct ways.
This is a writer’s job: to capture all these differences on the printed page to make one character stand out from the other. This is what people call “Voice” in the writing world. It’s the “voice” of a character that makes us want to travel on the journey through a book with them and it’s what makes us love a person or despise the very ground they contaminate for us.
Think about it… your best friend is important to you because __________.
Only you can fill in that blank and perhaps there are many reasons, but can you capture those reasons in a short paragraph about her/him?
Let’s all do a little writing sample that “shows” your friend to the reader, without “telling” us what those characteristics are that made you want to spend your time with him/her.
That’s essentially what you have to do in your stories, show us your characters by having us see how they talk, walk, and yes, even how they sit differently from the characters in your story.
Think about Katniss Everdeen. How did Suzanne Collins bring this young girl to life on the printed page that made Hollywood want to invest in her future enough to bring her to the silver screen? And, what was it about Katniss that caught Jennifer Lawrence’s attention enough to want to portray her on the big screen?
That’s your job as a creative writer to capture the character so well with your words that everyone either loves or hates him so much they just have to turn the page to find out what happens.
It’s not an easy job but it’s the challenge every writer deals with every time they boot up their laptop or pick up their pencil…now that’s another example of the unique way people are different from one another…laptop, pencil, what does that “show” you about the writer without anyone “telling” you a word about the person? You might be able to assume that one writer is older than the other, or perhaps one writer is struggling financially while the other has so much money he can afford extravagant technology.
Remember, everyone has their own mannerisms, attitudes, and body language. These are the attributes that make human beings different from one another.
And even if characters are using the exact same words, no two people would ever say anything in precisely the same way.
Watch this short clip to see exactly what I mean.
And, if you want to read more about voice, check out these sites:
If you’d like to help Kim, check out her latest middle grade book, IRMA THE INVENTOR, soon to be released: COMING AUGUST 21, 2017
If you want to read more about Kim or connect with her, check out her
Amazon Author Page
Or just contact her by clicking here
So freaking excited to be helping with a DOUBLE COVER REVEAL today for my fantastic friend and one of the most talented storytellers I have ever worked with, R.L. Martinez. Her high fantasy series THE WITCHBREED has had a makeover as we approach the release of book # 2 in the series. Anyway, CHECK THIS OUT...
And here are the covers, amazing artwork by Diana Pinguicha, close up and in a convenient slideshow...
So pretty! If you haven't already read book # 1, IN THE BLOOD, I highly recommend it and these links below will help...
A snake. A lion. A return.
In a time when magic is feared, Lady Oriabel Dominax has no choice but to conceal her healing powers while she cares for her father’s struggling estate. One touch of the Witch’s Tree shows her visions of witches hung and burned at the very hands of the people for whom she cares, the people who love her. But with the arrival of a new lord, a man hiding secrets of his own, falling in love might be one wrong move too many.
Incarcerated for an unspeakable crime, fearless warrior Lady Ottilde Dominax is plagued by mysterious dreams of her sister’s death. When a hooded figure offers her the chance of escape, although untrusting, she does not hesitate. Racing across nations to reach Oriabel, her journey is cut short by an encounter with a wedowyn, a formidable beast which she has no chance to overpower alone. Though it is not death that greets her, but something far worse.
Blackmail, betrayal, and murder are only the beginning as a darker magic is awakened. And someone has plans for the Dominax twins, plans more terrifying than anything they could ever imagine.
Goodreads Amazon UK Amazon US Barnes & Noble
And then I recommend you pre-order book # 2, BENEATH THE SKIN...
Abandoned, betrayed, and wanted for murder.
Lady Oriabel Dominax is a witch on the run. The deadly magic now awakened inside her is hungry, and it is all Oriabel can do to control it. With no choice but to trust strangers as her guardians, she quickly discovers not everyone is who they say they are and the very magic she fears might be her only weapon to protect those she loves.
Since rescuing her sister from certain death, Lady Ottilde Dominax’s only goal is to keep Oriabel safe and alive. Not an easy task when both the enemy and their so-called allies are hunting them. Placing all her trust in the very man who held her prisoner, Ottilde must open her heart and mind to a future she could never have predicted, a future guided only by love and survival.
Life, death, and tragedy lie ahead as the Dominax twins set out on a perilous journey to safety. But knowing they are mere pawns in someone else’s game means fighting for family is all they have left.
Amazon US Amazon UK
And, here's a super dooper Rafflecopter giveaway to enter!
And here's a bit about R.L. Martinez...
Being a stay-at-home mom is probably the hardest job Robin’s ever had (and that’s after working at places like Goodwill, MCL Cafeteria, and Captain D’s). Her house is never clean! No matter how many dishes she does or toys she picks up, her two little ones come right behind her and make a whole new mess. Anyway, this is the first time she hasn’t had some sort of job outside the home since she was fifteen. Kinda scary!
Now that her kids have both started all-day school, she can fling herself into the stories that constantly swirl inside her head. One of the main reasons she writes is to read books that she wishes other people were writing. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, two small sons, two naughty canines, and a mouse-killing cat.
In my upcoming debut novel, FREEDOM FOR ME: A CHINESE YANKEE, I told a fictional story based on the life of a real person and placed him in the historical setting of Civil War America in 1862–1863. After years of writing and revision, I learned several do’s and don’ts about writing historical fiction for middle grade readers. I wanted to share my checklist for future projects with other authors who love historical fiction as much as I do!
1) Don’t get lost in the weeds of history. Although my protagonist, Thomas, is a fictional character, he is based on a real-life person named Joseph Pierce who served in the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. I spent many hours with the regimental history ensuring that troop movements were accurate and battle accounts for Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg were true. While this research was key to writing my story, I was also trying too hard. While the historian in me was attempting to be perfect, the writer in me was getting bogged down with unnecessary words, sentences, and even chapters, which were not central to the story.
2) Pay attention to period language and modern day idioms. As I underwent the editing process, I found myself pausing at many of my word choices. Did I adequately and succinctly define military terms like “reconnaissance” without bogging down the story? Are the references to “Minie ball” and “accoutrements” clear to a middle grade reader? Making sure that words can be determined by context is particularly important for middle grade readers who are still developing vocabulary skills.
I also had to make sure I removed any modern references, to get rid of any anachronisms. Many 21st century phrases found their way into my early drafts. I rewrote phrases such as “friendly vibe” and “dial it down,” which seemed vanilla enough, but would not have been understood in 1862. I also used the word “zoo” to describe the traveling zoos that visited nineteenth century American towns, but realized that my first treatment of the word “zoo” did not provide enough explanation, and as such, conjured up an entirely different idea for a modern reader.
3) Provide enough, but not too much setting. Historical fiction typically allows for longer descriptions of setting, but it’s tempting to provide too much. To keep my readers’ engaged, I followed a general rule of not allowing more than a paragraph or two of setting alone to ensure I got them quickly to the action of each chapter. Editing for use of all five senses helped me to whittle down too much telling versus showing.
There is also a unique challenge inherent with writing a novel for middle grade readers set during a war. I did not want to gloss over the carnage and misery of battle, but I was careful to write those scenes with the readers’ sensibilities in mind. After my protagonist’s first battle experience, he came face-to-face with the outcome. Instead of describing horrible scenes of blood and dismemberment, I instead showed Thomas violently vomiting at the terrible sight. Thomas’s intense physical reaction gave the reader sufficient information to understand the devastation without having to read all the gory details.
4) Don’t assume the readers know the history. As adults, we may presume that middle grade readers have at least some idea about why the American Civil War was fought and its outcome. At the very least, they may have learned that it was the war that ended slavery. I worked to provide enough context so that my readers could immerse themselves in the story, but I did this by having my protagonist come to understand the war’s meaning in his own way thereby bringing the reader along with him.
5) Make it new. The American Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, but that doesn’t make the story “old.” In fact, a character’s journey can be as exciting as any new adventure because it’s being experienced for the first time through the story. In the case of FREEDOM FOR ME: A CHINESE YANKEE, this is the first time a story about Chinese Civil War soldiers has been shared with the middle grade audience. While the book has a familiar subject for many readers, it’s different and fresh enough to keep them interested. It’s a new angle on a familiar topic.
I found writing historical fiction for middle grade readers to be a challenging and immensely rewarding experience. My love of American history began as a fifth-grade student when I had a teacher who made it come alive through her storytelling. As I still remember those stories, I channeled that “wow, I learned something and it was fun” feeling when writing FREEDOM FOR ME.
Stacie Haas is an award-winning professional and creative writer with background in business communications, public relations, and reputation management. She is the author of FREEDOM FOR ME: A CHINESE YANKEE, a historical fiction book for middle grade and young adult readers. It will be out this November from 50/50 Press along with a FREEDOM FOR ME Curriculum Guide for teachers. Her other writing has appeared in St. Anthony Messenger and Skipping Stones and in Indies Unlimited’s 2016 Flash Fiction Anthology. Stacie has a degrees in English and American History and is a graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature.
Find her on Twitter @staciehaas, Facebook @authorstaciehaas, LinkedIn, and online at www.staciehaaas.com. Her publisher’s website is www.5050press.com.
Are you a first-time or emerging children’s author wondering what to write about? Perhaps it’ll be something Harry Potter-like? Or along the lines of Andy Griffiths’ Treehouse series? Will you write about ponies? Fairies? Aliens? Or maybe you’re going to look at the bestseller lists, see what’s doing well at the moment. (In NZ, that means you’ll be writing picture books about kiwis.)
There’s nothing wrong with this approach – ponies and dinosaurs (and kiwis) will always be popular, and you need to keep track of what’s trending and what publishers are looking for. But if you’re wondering where to start, I’d say forget what’s worked for other authors and try, instead, a spot of introspection. Think about what really matters to you. Because if you can pin this down and build your story around it, then you will have a story with heart.
What does it mean, when we hear the phrase ‘a story with real heart’? Is it one that elicits an emotional response; a story that makes us cry? One with a feel-good ending? I’d say it’s more than that. A story with heart, one that really connects, is more often than not a story centred around something the writer cares deeply about. Therefore to write a story with heart, we first need to ask ourselves, what really matters to me?
Dig deep! Perhaps it’s family, or the environment, or you may want to send a strong message about inclusion or bullying. Perhaps what’s most important to you is to kick-start a love of reading in the reluctant reader, so you’re aiming for a page-turning adventure or a belly laugh that will let them know that books aren’t boring. When you’ve put your finger on whatever it is, this can be your starting point.
Next, think about how you can mesh what you care about with your subject. This of course should be something that floats your boat (in my case it’s ghosts and history) and here you should also take account of what kids are into reading at the moment, whether that’s wizards, princesses, aliens, vampires or unicorns. Put your own twist on the time-honoured favourites. If anti-bullying is your thing, maybe write about the dinosaur all the other dinosaurs all picked on; if it’s learning to cope with failure, try a story about the fairy who couldn’t fly.
When I was writing the third book in my middle-grade ghost story series, there was a great deal of debate happening in New Zealand around immigration, in particular from China. My story features a ghostly goldminer (or two) and takes place near Queenstown where, during the gold rush, there was a large community of Chinese goldminers. They were treated fairly appallingly by miners from Europe, the US and Australia. While making it as subtle as possible, I wanted to draw parallels between immigration then and now, hoping that the way the Chinese miner in my story was treated would make children think about their own relationships with migrant children in their classes at school. It wasn’t the main thrust of the book, but it was something that was important to me.
A story without heart is a cold thing. As an editor I can tell if an author doesn’t care an awful lot about the theme of their book; it feels formulaic, as if the author’s writing ‘to order’, and the reader will probably pick up on that too, even if they can’t put their finger on why they’re not connecting with the text. Why should the reader care what happens if, deep down, the author doesn’t? We have to be writing from the heart – a book without it inevitably lacks emotion, whether that’s a feel-good ending or a few tears.
Heart goes hand in hand with that other thing that’s so hard to pin down – voice. Your author voice is key, but at no point should it intrude into your story in a way that overwhelms, that detracts from the characters and the plot. Like the paradox of a brilliant actor who is totally immersed in character and yet is still very much that actor, and that’s why you want to watch them time and again. How do you do that? For writers, the answer is that if you’re writing from the heart, your voice comes through all by itself, without you having to think about it. It’s all about authenticity. A strong author voice shines through as the puppeteer behind what’s happening to those characters.
Have you ever listened to an author speak, or met an author, and thought, ah, it’s all making sense now? Their actual voice – what they say – is somehow, though you can’t quite say how, the same as the voice in their books. This is how it should be – you should be able to recognize the author from their books. As an aside, this is why authors need to be brave – it’s like holding yourself up (possibly naked) for everyone to see and judge not just your writing, but your very self and your beliefs. Yes, even children’s authors.
So, writers … don’t hold back! Pour your heart and soul into your writing, let your voice shine through, care deeply about your characters, your themes, your work. Children deserve your hearts.
Sue Copsey is an award-winning author of middle-grade fiction and non-fiction, and a freelance editor specialising in children’s and YA. She grew up in the UK, and was a press officer at London Zoo, then a senior editor at Dorling Kindersley Children’s Books, before moving to New Zealand. In 2016, her middle-grade novel The Ghosts of Tarawera won a Notable Book Award from the Storylines Children's Literature Trust of NZ. The third in the series, The Ghosts of Moonlight Creek (2016) was a finalist in the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, Best Youth Novel category. Sue also wrote the UK Times Educational Supplement award winner Children Just Like Me (1995) and Our Children Aotearoa, which received a Notable Book Award in 2012. Sue lives in Auckland with her husband and two children.
One of the things I love about writing middle grade novels and stories is finding the unique voices for middle grade characters.
Children’s books often have a very straight-forward point of view and use more simplistic language. In contrast, young adult novels feature darker themes, complex subplots, and more introspective characters. Middle grade falls… well, somewhere in the middle, and getting into the mindset of a middle grade reader or character is not always easy.
As a publisher with 50/50 Press, I receive a lot of middle grade queries and manuscripts, and I find that many writers seeking to publish for this age group make the same mistakes over and over again. So, I wanted to share some tips I’ve learned as both an author and a publisher about writing for that gap between childhood and adolescence.
1. Understand some basic rules
Before getting started, there are a few things you need to know. Middle grade books often run from 15,000 to 40,000 words. If you have an upper-middle grade book (more on this later) or a fantasy novel with rich world building, you can get away with a bit more, but writing 100,000 words isn’t a middle grade novel. It’s more like a trilogy.
Middle grade books are primarily purchased by librarians, teachers, and parents. Because of this and the ages of your tween readers, you need to keep the material clean. I know librarians who flag and dismiss books because there is swearing, sex, graphic violence, and other age-inappropriate material.
Your book can deal with subjects like divorce, conflict at home, drug use (by an older character), etc. But you should keep a lot of the rougher material off page. For example, maybe the protagonist’s parents are divorcing, but he doesn’t know why. Or perhaps a violent event occurs, but the narrator does not describe it in gross detail.
2. Know your audience
Are you writing for upper middle grade readers in grades 6-8 or are you writing for a younger middle grade audience in grades 3-5?
I think it’s best to know this upfront before you begin writing, but sometimes characters take you in a different direction than you first imagined. If that’s the case, at least know what audience you want before you edit the manuscript and before you query agents or publishers.
Why? Because a third grader has different vocabulary, needs, wants, and interests than an eighth grader. Think of how much you changed in that period of time. At the age of eight, I was still playing with Barbie dolls and playing dress-up to put on plays for my parents. By fourteen, I was babysitting, wearing makeup, and going out on dates.
3. Understand developmental stages.
Some of this goes back to the first two points because reading needs change as children grow. Similarly, the needs of an eight or nine-year-old protagonist will be quite different from that of a thirteen-year-old.
Developmentally, kids ages 8-11 still think in concrete terms. They are interested in school, they are closer to their parents, and they have either one best friend or a small group of three to four very good friends. In terms of communication, they are more self-focused and their emotions may be strong, but bouts of anger, frustration, and worry rarely last long.
In comparison, tweens ages 11-14 begin to focus outward. They have larger groups of friends. Peer-pressure and peer influence become more important. Their reliance on parents diminishes, and their feelings become more complex. They may become moody or angry without understanding why. You should reflect these developmental stages and changes in the characters you create.
4. Realize that kids often “read up”
Kids are often drawn to a slightly older character. So, while readers in middle school may not want to read about a third grader, a third grader may want to read about kids in middle school. I used this principle in my upcoming middle grade novel The Misadventures of Marvin Miller.
Marvin is written for grades 4-6, but the main character, Marvin, has just finished seventh grade. If you read the book, you’ll see that Marvin often acts and sounds more like a kid going into sixth grade than a young teenager going into eighth grade. I did this deliberately so that the material is age-appropriate for the reader I had in mind.
5. Read, watch, and observe
Reading and observation are key factors to being an author or storyteller. This is one reason I think that some of the best middle grade books are written by teachers. They’re around these kids every day, so they know exactly what they sound like!
If you’re not a teacher or a parent, you can still find ways to observe middle grade voices. The first is to read before you write. Have your local librarian or bookstore owner help you. Look at the middle grade section. Pick up some books that are best-selling and some that are not. Figure out what your comps (comparable titles) are. Read books that are well-written and pick up a few that aren’t so great. Analyze each book’s point of view. Listen to how the characters sound. Audio books are great for this, by the way!
You can also check on Amazon or Barnes and Noble for specialty categories like Juvenile Literature ▬ Social Issues ▬ Bullying or Juvenile Literature ▬ Fantasy ▬ Dragons.
These can help you find specific titles with themes similar to your manuscript.
The most important thing to keep in mind is the date when the books were written. If you’re reading only books from the 1950s like the Betsy-Tacy books or Charlotte’s Web, you’re reading amazing classics, but you’re not going to get a good idea of what kids today sound like.
And if you’re burnt out on reading, watch some TV. Find television shows featuring kids in your target age range. Watch comedies and dramas and maybe even a cartoon or two. YouTube is also great for this, by the way. Lots of tweens are YouTubers with videos talking about all the things they love and hate.
Many people who aren’t authors say things to me like, “It’s so easy to write for kids. I think I could write a book for a third-grader over the weekend!” I almost always laugh and try to explain to them why it’s not as easy as it sounds. Middle grade readers are unique and they need stories that reflect their voices and experiences. This is not always an easy task, but it is a rewarding one.
Megan Cassidy is an English professor and the author of books for middle grade, young adult, and adult readers.
Coming out this June, Megan's second book, The Misadventures of Marvin Miller, is a middle grade novel recounting one boy's hilarious summer as he tries to impress the girl he likes. Megan's first novel, Always, Jessie is a YA novel charting one girl's recovery from an eating disorder and exercise addiction in a diverse recovery community. She also writes for adults under the name M.C. Hall. Smothered, Megan's adult epistolary mystery, will be published in the Fall of 2017.
Megan's other work has been featured in Silver Blade Magazine, Pilcrow & Dagger, Bette Noire, Fiction on the Web, Flash Fiction Press, Dying Dahlia Review, Citron Review, and the Centum Press One Hundred Voices Anthology.
My website: http://www.megancassidyauthor.com/
50/50 Press: www.5050press.com
My Twitter: @MeganEileenC
50/50 Press Twitter: @fiftyfiftypress
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