This is Part Two in a series of online coversations between Dystel & Goderich literary agent Michael Bourret and myself, HarperCollins Children's Books editor Molly O'Neill, about middle grade books. If you missed the first part of the conversation, you can read it here.
MO: Zoinks! (Michael, we're going to get sooooo many submissions with that little joke from now on. I hope it was worth it!) Thanks to everyone who read/commented on and/or shared our first MG chat, and for coming back to read more. Your response definitely affirms something we've both been feeling: that the industry is definitely on the look-out for GREAT middle grade.
What does "GREAT" middle grade mean, though? I guess like any sort of fantastic writing, great middle grade rises above the present moment and hopefully establishes itself as not just meaningful for readers today, but as a lasting part of the literary landscape. Sure, technology is changing the way we promote and even read books--though for middle graders, e-readers aren't quite as pervasive as they are for teens or even adults, just like the way it took a while for cell phones to trickle down into tween hands, once upon a time. And it's harder for us to market directly to younger readers since COPPA laws limit the ways we can target that readership, so I suspect that we're always going to be reaching out to gatekeepers (parents, teachers, librarians, etc.) as much as our ultimate readers for this genre. Which makes sense, because as a middle grader, the people in your life who model a love of reading can be a big reason a kid becomes a reader. And if the emotions and situations and relationships in a story ring true, and the creative imagination behind it transports reader after reader, that's part of what makes a book great--and why it will endure through generations of readers, no matter what format or delivery system or marketing vagaries might exist.
MB: Zoinks, indeed! That's my reaction to trying to define "GREAT" middle grade. There's such a diversity in middle grade that it's hard to pinpoint the things that make it great. But I'll agree with Molly that the truly great books (for any age) touch on universal truths that don't depend on trends, fads or gimmicks. One of the great things about middle grade is that it seems much less susceptible to big trends--you don't have the same sort of vampire, werewolf, dystopian waves that you see on the YA side. Because middle grade typically gets less media attention (more on that in a second), I think there's a lot less groupthink and a greater degree of creativity and, dare I say, effort. To me, middle grade always seems so open and full of possibility; is there anything you can't do? In particular, I'm taken by the many books that combine realistic, relatable stories with the fantastic. Kids are so open to that, and it allows the writer to tell a story about real kids that also has high stakes (see our last post).
Back to the marketing for just a moment: Molly makes such an excellent point about selling to kids. While middle grade novels are written for children, publishers can't market directly to them, so much of what we do goes through gatekeepers like parents and educators. It necessarily changes the role of the author in promoting the books, as well, since they aren't reaching their readers in the same way that they do on the teen side. In my experience, that can be a surprise for authors who are so keen to use their social networks to reach readers. It's not that social networking is any less important, it's just important to remember that while the audience for your book might be kids, the audience for your tweet is probably an adult.
MO: I, too, love the potential for possibility and sky's-the-limit creativity that middle grade allows--and that it's so much less trend-driven that our current YA market. Middle grade readers are some of the most voracious readers, I think, and though some are highly influenced by what their peers are reading, or firmly decide they only like one kind of book, many others are willing to sample widely, skipping across genres and loving them all in a way that teens and adults aren't always willing to do. I think middle grade readers are reading a lot less for status (though they do seem to find it cool to lug a big book around) or out of the need to be part of a collective conversation, and more for personal satisfaction.
Michael nails it, though--while the genre seems wide-open, it's also about blending the right combination and balance of the relatable with the infinitely fantastical. Middle grade readers are miles away from being English majors, and are rarely interested in the author's bold stylistic choices or the reasons behind them...they just want a story that satisfies them! My own inner middle grade reader is drawn to the sense of wonder that can be found in so many great middle grade books. Sometimes that's the sense of wonder that rich friendship and powers of imagination can bring about, like in the classic Bridge to Terabithia or in the more recent When You Reach Me or Breadcrumbs. Or it’s the awe and wonder of otherworldliness that fantasies like Shannon Hale’s deliver, or it’s the wonder of a kid who gets to experience the utterly fantastical that's also somehow reminiscent of the world they know, like the cat clans of the Warriors books that aren't so very different than the cliques of middle school, or The Mysterious Benedict Society, which gives kids an opportunity to put their ordinary-seeming talents to use in extraordinary situations. And sometimes the wonder comes from a simpler place, like the “ahhhh” of recognition that comes from pitch-perfection depictions and articulations of the universal experiences and emotions of being human, and growing up: like the stories of Deborah Wiles, or Lisa Yee, or Gary Schmidt.
We got some interesting questions about point-of-view for middle grade, but unfortunately, as with so much of writing, there's no single right answer. It's all about what the story demands, and what will allow readers to access the story most fully. For some books, a sweeping, omniscient storyteller voice is absolutely fitting, or a boisterously humorous and clever one is. For others, the closeness of a first-person voice makes the main character's victories and heartaches that much more real, or makes a long-ago time feel more accessible, or a third-person narration makes the setting come alive with details. The trick is that the perspective/point-of-view should bring the reader in close to the story AND also make the story’s telling feel effortless, not labored. You'll notice that I keep talking about things (often extremes) that need to be done simultaneously! I think balance is a HUGE part of good writing and storytelling. In a perfect book, to me, nearly every scene, if not nearly every single line of text, serves multiple purposes, moving the story forward but also revealing things about the characters, their relationships, the setting, the unfolding plot, etc., etc. When a writer is that deliberate and thoughtful about their writing and storytelling (and the revising that leads them there), the result can be a story that’s layered and nuanced and that has a sort of texture and richness that leaves readers feeling oh-so-satisfied throughout the whole reading experience. It’s not unlike the sensation of having eaten a meal that combined flavors you’d never imagined blending together, even if you’d encountered them all separately before—it’s memorable precisely because of the craftsmanship and daring and creative delight that went into conceiving and creating it. In great middle grade, the sum is always more than the seemingly-ordinary and often-familiar parts…but HOW the writer arrives at that sum is the thrilling part!
MB: What's interesting to me is that your list of middle grade titles that you mentioned above are some of the very titles I was thinking of: Bridge to Terabithia, When You Reach Me, Mysterious Benedict Society. The former has to be one of the best middle grade books ever written--it gets so many of the elements we've been talking about just right. And what a perfect segue to discuss gender! Several questions in the comments addressed the question of gender in middle grade novels, specifically asking if boys are willing to read books with female protagonists. It's a fair question, and something I know that gets discussed often, both by writers and publishing professionals. I have to say, I'm very curious to hear Molly's take on this. Gender (along with race, ethnicity, religion and sexuality) is often difficult to discuss, as what we as people believe or espouse doesn't always neatly line up with what the market wants or expects. While unfortunate, I do think that books with male protagonists, on the whole, tend to fare better in middle grade. Why that is, I can only speculate about, though I'm finding it increasingly difficult to believe that boys don't want to read about girl protagonists--I'd like to believe that gender politics, especially for kids, are much better than they were. There are many books, of course, with both a male and female protagonist, which is one way of avoiding the issue altogether, though it does limit the voice and POV of the book. All of that said, I've never gotten a submission, thought, "Oh, this has a female protagonist and therefore I cannot sell this middle grade novel." It's really only in the context of questions like this, which often come up at conferences, that it really crosses my mind. As with anything else, my advice is to write the book you want to write, write it the best you can write it, and try to find it a home. Worrying too much about what's going to happen in the marketplace (either of editors or readers) will surely drive you mad.
MO: You know, I wonder if when people say, "boys don't want to read books about girls," if that's actually shorthand for something slightly different and harder to articulate: that boys and girls look at the world through slightly different lenses, and care about different things, especially at this age. For example, middle grade boys rarely seem to go through the same endless catty frenemy drama that is so common for middle school girls--so would reading books where that theme is central be vastly appealing to most boys? I suspect not. Ditto books where pivotal parts of the story revolve around popularity or lots of details about clothing and crushes. Likewise, girls who read books in part to study/understand/identify how friendships and relationships work for other people may not find it compelling to read about survivalist stories where relationships don't play a big role, or about non-stop adventure with little character development. But you know, even as I type this, I too, am hating the way it sounds like stereotypes being perpetuated, even though I'm just trying to give illustrative examples. I think what it boils down to is that readers--boys and girls and adults, too, for that matter--subconsciously want to IDENTIFY with a book's characters and experiences. We want to see ourselves in a story, right? If there's a hero/heroine, we'd like to feel like we have some of those same heroic traits, and if there are problems, we might tuck away the character's solution/victory to try it out in our own lives when similar dilemmas arise. So I think it's worth asking yourself if there are ways to make your characters as dynamic and relatable to as many different readers as possible.
Like Michael, I don't in any way find myself excluding books that skew to solely one gender--but as an editor, I also have to be realistic from day one about my expectations for a book, and I think writers have to do the same. A book with both a male and female protagonist does potentially have more reach than a book that hews to only one side of the gender divide. That means that more kids may be drawn to it, which means more word-of-mouth may spread more widely, or that teachers will have an easier time incorporating it into classroom use--all of which can help it find a bigger audience of readers. But you also have to be true to the story you're writing. Inserting a character that doesn't belong or ring true, simply in attempt to broaden marketability, could destroy an otherwise great book, which will limit its potential in a much more serious way than skewing to a specific gender. It's like the Aesop fable about the miller and his son taking their donkey across the river: in trying to please everyone, you might end up pleasing no one--not readers, and not yourself as a writer, either. And if you're not delighted and pleased by the writing that you're doing, then what's the point?
MB: I love when we agree. Which is a good place for us to pause, because boy, can we go on. And we will, next week! We'll be answering more of your questions in the next couple of weeks (so leave new ones in the comments if you have them), and we thank you so much for reading, commenting on, and tweeting what we've written. We sincerely appreciate your appreciation.