Writing for Middle Grade
In the spring of 2016, during my first-ever author panel, the moderator asked a question that gave me pause. “Why do you write about death?”
For a moment, I was flummoxed. I didn’t think of Counting Thyme as a book about death. I thought of my debut middle grade novel as a love letter to families and cancer patients and ultimately, New York City. I looked out at the audience, and there in the front row was a little girl with an abundance of black hair and coppery brown skin, who grinned at me and held up a copy of my book. We smiled at each other for a second, and then I answered the question as best I could.
I wrote about cancer because I became acquainted with neuroblastoma in 2007, the year that I helped Cookies for Kids’ Cancer bake 96,000 cookies to raise funds for pediatric cancer research, and those families’ stories never left my heart.
I wrote about an elderly neighbor who’d recently lost his wife because I’m getting older, and the idea of losing the people I love has become painfully real to me.
I wrote about a boy whose father died young of a heart attack because my best friend’s father had died of a heart attack when we were in college.
I wrote about a caregiver who’d suffered her own losses but somehow responded to her loss with love because my mother always does that, and she amazes me.
Looking back, maybe I did write a book about death!
Why would I do that? Why would I write about all the different ways that a human being can experience loss, how it hurts and how it bewilders, and how it makes us love the people we still have with us? And why would I write it for a middle grade audience, of all people? Do ten-year-olds really want to read about death?
The short answer is yes.
The long answer requires another story.
Last summer, about a year after Counting Thyme published, a young reader contacted me via email. She had a problem, and she wanted my advice. Her problem was that she loved my book and wanted to gift it to her best friend, but her best friend’s mother said the book was “too sad.” This young reader wanted to know if I’d ever been in her situation, and if so, what I would say to convince this mother to let her best friend read my book.
That email really made me pause. I thought about the books I’d loved so much as a child—Charlotte’s Web, Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, and strangely, Vanity Fair—and asked myself what I’d loved about them. They were about all kinds of different subjects, but the spectre of death is in each of them, either directly on the page or hovering in the wings. I cried over those books. I sobbed. And you know what? It felt good. It felt good to think about such awful situations and know that I would feel tremendous loss, but that I would make it through, just as the characters had made it through. These fictional deaths helped me understand that I could survive a death in real life, and quite specifically, how to do so.
These stories resonated so strongly with me because they were honest. They told the truth. And they didn’t sugarcoat it.
Middle school readers aren’t grown-ups yet, but they aren’t little children anymore, either. Children at this age—anywhere from nine or ten to thirteen or fourteen years old—are waking up to the realities of the world, but also the possibilities of it. They crave a deeper understanding of their world and of each other. They seek a compass by which to navigate the uncertain waters of middle school, and books can be that guide.
Books show us how to live, and part of living is death.
Many times at book signings, I’ve had a young reader approach my table with a very specific look on their face. It is one of kinship. Of understanding. Inevitably, these young readers lean across the table and whisper their stories to me.
“My cousin died. She had cancer, too.”
“My aunt has cancer.”
“My grandpa died this year.”
The idea that my book may have helped these children process their complex emotions brings me endless, uncomplicated joy. It is our job as writers not only to tell the truth, but to honor the lives of our readers by telling our stories without flinching. This is big picture advice, but there are countless ways that the truth can set your writing free. Here are a few practical tips:
When stuck as to which scene to write next, ask yourself what truth your character does not want revealed. Write a scene that begins to reveal it.
When you blank on dialogue, ask yourself what three emotions your character feels at that moment: surface level, beneath the surface, and deep in the recesses of her heart. Speak to the third, hidden emotion. Even if it’s ugly.
Be honest about the technical parts of storytelling for middle grade: do you know how kids live today? Are you reflecting that accurately, or are you hiding cell phones for story convenience? Kids can smell deception a mile away.
Remind yourself of what middle school really felt like. Be honest about how heart wrenching it can be to receive a mean note from a friend or to be ignored at lunch. That’s not drama. That’s your reader’s truth.
Push yourself to discover flaws and shortcomings in every character. They should all change over the course of the story, and every character has both good and bad qualities. Show your characters’ flaws, and your readers will embrace your story.
Resist the urge to tidy up your character’s world. Middle school is not easy. Puberty and growing up are not easy. Let the mess show. Honor it.
When it comes time for feedback, try to see critical remarks as an opportunity to deepen the truth of your story.
Whenever I find myself floundering, I always take a writing break to read some of my favorite middle grade writers (Erin Entrada Kelly, Barbara O’Connor, Rebecca Stead, Jason Reynolds). Reading great middle grade reminds me of the depth and richness that is possible in these stories. Middle grade books are not just stories written for young readers—they are an expression of their realities, their hopes, and their dreams. Never forget that as middle grade writers, we are charged with this great duty.
And when in doubt, tell the truth.