This Saturday I had the good fortune to attend the monthly NYPL Children’s Literary Salon, hosted by the inimitable Betsy Bird and featuring middle grade authors Jeanne Birdsall (The Penderwicks), N.D. Wilson (The Dragon’s Tooth), Adam Gidwitz (In a Glass Grimmly) and Rebecca Stead (Liar & Spy). “Middle Grade: Surviving the YA Onslaught” was well-attended and a fantastic discussion about how pop culture, the press, and other forces are conspiring to call middle grade fiction YA. The discussion touched on expected points – such as what constitutes MG vs. YA, media and peer pressure, publishing’s need for blockbusters, etc. However, two points really struck me as a writer – instead of as a children’s librarian and mom:
1) “When I need to create some distance or rest, I often find myself using food as a moment of sustenance.” I wish I had noted the original speaker, but alas! However, I do remember that three of the writers concurred, saying that using time for a meal or food was something they did to give the MG reader a moment to step back and rest from the action. A way to digest what was read, if you will. I found this particularly interesting as I had a couple scenes about food in my novel and cut one, feeling that it didn’t add to the story arc. You may be saying, “Cut ahead, already! No story, no scene.” But all of the authors on this panel agreed that one thing that differentiates MG from YA is those moments of rest – the safety to continue reading – that as writers, we need to be aware of this age group’s need for comfort or reassurance, as well as action and drama. I agree with that and would argue that that is why the Harry Potter series cannot be classified as strictly one or the other; the early books are MG, while the later books transition with the reader (and the author) into YA. It was an unexpected point and well-made.
2) Rebecca Stead commented toward the end that she “hooks emotion to the character and uses it to pull the reader along.” What an elegant expression of what I desire as a reader and a writer. Experiencing that emotion, using it to not only create a full and vivd character, but using it as the force that drives the reader to keep reading, to turn the page – that is what I strive for as a writer and love as a reader. Stead also commented that her books are “quiet” books, lacking in the action of some of the other writers featured. They may be quiet,but they are no less dramatic.
With regards to the expected points, the one that I see every time I’m in the library is that of peer pressure. Every child asks for “the” book of the moment. Doesn’t matter if it’s Percy Jackson, Wimpy Kid, Hunger Games – if it’s hot, they want it. And only it. As a librarian, I try hard to combat this by talking to each child, asking what it is about *that* book that makes it desirable. Almost no one gives the real reason: “everyone else wants it.” But by starting that conversation, often I’m able to convince them to try something else. (Usually because the desired book is not on the shelf. We could have 500 copies of Wimpy Kid in a school of 600 kids, and you know what? They would all be checked out all the time. Why spend the PTA’s funds on just that? Not dissing Jeff Kinney, mind.) The second reason, also highlighted in Saturday’s salon? Leveled reading.
Personally, as a writer, as a children’s librarian, and as a mom, I HATE leveled reading. There! I said it. Sorry, teachers. Children today are so focused on reading to their level that they are missing many of the joys of reading and many, many diverse books that they would love if they only gave them a chance. My rule of thumb is the five-finger rule (thanks, Ms. Stephanie!): if a child is reading a typical page from any book, they stick out a finger for each word they do not know and cannot understand through context alone. If you get to five on one page, well, put down the book. Time to look for another one. Okay, off the soapbox for now.
Before I go get my rear in gear for the day, here’s a quick link Betsy had up on the screen for our pre-salon amusement: It’s a Children’s Book (Not Young Adult)! Enjoy!