Writing Middle Grade–Some Nuggets of Wisdom From the Central California SCBWI Conference
I had a fabulous time at the Central Coast SCBWI Writers’ Day. (This picture above is from the faculty dinner the night before.) Our region does this really cool thing where the newly published authors get to do a ten minute spotlight presentation on their road to publication. It was always one of my favorite parts of the conference, and this year–FINALLY–I was one of those spotlight speakers! Yippee!
It felt great to get up there and tell my story. That I started writing middle grade because of Louis Sachar. Years ago when I was in my first year of teaching fifth grade, I was so desperate to find a way to calm the kids down after lunch and another teacher told me there was only one way to do it: read from SIDEWAYS STORIES FROM WAYSIDE SCHOOL by Louis Sachar. And she was right…the kids LOVED the book. They thought it was hilarious and were absolutely riveted, begging me to read more. I tried to find other funny books for them but, at the time, there really weren’t any. And that’s when I decided I wanted to write humor for kids. They CRAVE it. (And side benefit…it totally calms those little monsters down after lunch. Woohoo!)
Okay, back to the Writers’ Day conference. Editor Molly O’Neill and agent Jen Rofe spoke together about what they’re looking for in middle grade books. It was one of the best talks on middle I had EVER heard. I took pages of notes. I’ll share a few nuggets of their wisdom–hopefully this will help any of you out there writing middle grade.
- MG is that “in between time” where the character is in-between friendships, and their understanding of relationships, or what a family is
- MG has heart because kids at this age are not cynical yet (I was nodding my head at this moment, thinking “Yes, yes!) The character is vulnerable because it is at a time BEFORE they have learned they have to put their guards up against the world. Molly pointed out that teen characters know a friend is capable of screwing them over, whereas a middle grade character hasn’t experienced that yet, so they’re more open. Again: vulnerable. (I swear, I almost teared up at the thought of this. Oh my gosh.)
- In MG there should be lots of playfulness but counterbalance it with emotional depth; don’t short change an experience, even if it’s small
- The character’s vulnerabilities that seemed like a weakness can end up being a strength, maybe even helping to solve the problem in the end
- Their world view will change. They’ll come to realize things aren’t as they believed to be true. (oh, sniff!)
- MG must, of course, have kid appeal. There should be Fun! The characters feel life is just so ordinary, and what they wish for MOST is for their life to be extraordinary.
Wow. I love writing middle grade.