Much Ado About Middle Grade Books

A really helpful blog post by my good friend Sharon Van Zandt—“Hemingway’s Way”—and my recent review of several manuscripts for a venue I cannot name at this time prompted this post. You can get to Sharon’s post by clicking on the post’s title. Sharon mentions a tool I used to check my WIP. But I’ll talk more about that later.

First, let me ask you this: When you think of the primary audience of a middle grade book, what age group comes to mind? (If you’re an adult like me who reads middle grade books, maybe you think of yourself. Ha ha! If so, you and I should have ice cream together someday.) Do you think of middle graders—sixth through eighth grade? Makes sense, right? Middle graders—middle grade books.

ice_cream

Here’s where life throws a curve. Middle grade books are for kids in third through sixth grade—kids 8-12. Yes, some middle graders read middle grade books. But young adult books are geared toward middle grade to high school-aged kids—a wide range of readers.

Remember the books you loved as a kid? Middle grade books are typically shorter than young adult books—around 30,000—50,000 words (longer for fantasy books). There are some exceptions, as you’ll quickly note if you’ve read the books in the following list.

Some Middle Grade Books
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

1fae3aa84a72f451c0cb431b0ee9d6c6
Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
• The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
• The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

28187   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Holes by Louis Sachar
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth

KindaLikeBrothers

Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera
Under the Mermaid Angel by Martha Moore

1335816

And many, many others. There are some exceptions to the rules. The Harry Potter series is an exception, because it evolved over time. Its audience spans from children to adults. But this series started off middle grade.

I’m writing a middle grade book with an eleven-year-old protagonist who is about to turn twelve. I don’t pretend to be an expert on middle grade books, so I seek help whenever I can. The tool Sharon’s post mentioned provided one kind of help. It assesses the grade level when you copy into the tool an excerpt from your work.

When I copied several of my paragraphs into the tool, they were assessed at the third and fourth grade levels, which is fitting for a middle grade book. (Whew!)

Another help: the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests, which gauge the ease or difficulty of a passage read in English. Because of these tests, many periodicals and books have been assessed at a sixth grade level. Many middle grade books have a lower readability level than that. Again, there are some exceptions. Classic stories, crossover stories, some fantasy stories, and other stories meant for family reading might score higher.

Recently I read a few middle grade manuscripts with a high vocabulary (around the eighth grade level) that included F-bombs and other profanity, romantic relationships (including the desire for sex), and long passages of introspection. The inclusion of these items shows a lack of understanding about what’s considered appropriate for a middle grade book.

I don’t make the rules. But I’m tasked with enforcing them. And what became apparent to me very quickly was that these authors probably had not read many (or any) books geared toward the age level for which they claimed to write.

Do you know any musicians who never or only seldom listen to the music of others? Sounds ludicrous, right? Yet writing is a discipline that some feel they’ve mastered simply because they’ve written a story, all the while claiming they “don’t have time” to read books. (Or they don’t need to read, since “everyone” can write.)

Want to write a middle grade book? You might start by reading middle grade books—as many as you can get your hands on. Study the pacing, characterization, rhythms of dialogue, and the plots. Check online for the requirements for middle grade books, particularly word count and subject matter. Just because your favorite author could get away with a 90,000-word middle grade book that doesn’t mean you automatically can! And don’t forget that kids like to read about kids older than them, but still close in age. So though your protagonist might be 11 or 12, your core reader might be 8 or 9.

Click here for an excellent post by Marie Lamba on the difference between middle grade books and young adult books. Another good post is by Malinda Lo (click here for it) and this one by Judith Rosen. The latter mentions a bookstore that delineates middle grade fiction books as books for middle graders. 🙂

Click here for a great reading analysis post by Shane Snow.

What are some of your favorite middle grade books?

Book covers from Goodreads and Pinterest. Ice cream from smartcanucks.ca.

I’m Entitled?

I’ve got two winners to announce, thanks to the Random Number Generator. (I love it so! I could just kiss it!)

1335816The winner of the $15 Amazon gift card to purchase Under the Mermaid Angel by Martha Moore is

Andy of City Jackdaw!

Andy, congratulations! I checked Amazon UK. The book is available! Your card will be in pounds.

NEWCOVER-199x300The winner of the $25 Amazon gift card to purchase Entangled by Amy Rose Capetta and The Color of Rain by Cori McCarthy is

Beatthemtodeathwiththeirownshoes!

Congrats, beatthemtodeathwiththeirownshoes (John). Um, hopefully you can confirm with your email address and whether or not you require Amazon UK as well. (You mentioned having trouble commenting lately.) Please comment below or catch me at lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com.

On with the show. . . .

Why the post title? Well, let me start by taking you way back to fifth grade. My good friend Nathaniel had a habit of blurting out in class, “Somebody farted!” Everyone would giggle, while our teacher, Mrs. Nave, frowned and yelled for quiet.

Back then, we had the whoever-smelt-it-dealt-it rule. Meaning, if you called attention to it, you were the culprit. And that was generally true of Nathaniel. Since he was the class clown, he was quick to point the finger at someone else, even when he was the culprit.

The other day I read this post at Lisa Kramer’s blog. You have to read the post to know the issue. I was incensed at the demands some of her students made and even commented that the demands smacked of entitlement.

After that, I couldn’t help noticing my own entitlement issues. If I could readily judge someone else’s issue, I surely have a similar problem. Whoever smelt it, dealt it, right?

Right. Anger is the first sign that I have an attitude of entitlement. I’ve been Princess Pouty lately. (I can’t take credit for that appellation. If you’re a fan of the Avatar series, you know that Zuko was called Prince Pouty in an episode.) In fact, the cat in this photo reminds me of me—the stance and expression, rather than the caption.

lolcatsdotcomn0mwqghk87j03hfw

As embarrassing as it is to admit to my faults—my demand for an expected outcome in each situation—I need to own up to them, rather than pull a “Nathaniel” or act Pharisaical as I point the finger at someone else. So here they are in all of their dismal glory.

The blog. If I write a post, I am entitled to readers, especially readers who comment. I’m sighing and hanging my head at this one. It’s all part of the “If you write it, they will come” field of dreams. (Remember that movie?) Two weeks ago, I asked myself, If no one comments or follows this blog, will I still write blog posts? Am I writing them for comments or am I writing them because I want to write them? A good dose of reality was the key. There are so many blogs out there. The fact that anyone chooses to stop by my blog—well, that’s a tiny miracle. But no one owes me a comment, simply because I blather on.
The search for an agent. If I query a manuscript, I’m entitled to an agent’s acceptance or feedback as to why it was not accepted. After all, the world is waiting for this manuscript! Actually, the world is waiting for the next Hobbit movie or the new Plants vs. Zombies videogame. (I know I am!) Yet the anger I feel when I hear “no” or whenever I don’t hear back from an agent points to entitlement. I can hear some veterans of the querying process chuckling and whispering, “Naïve much?” Ha ha! Yeah. I read a comment by an agent at a blog post, which in short stated, “Get over it! Act professional. Learn from the rejection.” Wise words.
The job search. If I apply for a job, I’m entitled to it, especially if I’m qualified or more than qualified for it. Even I can’t help giggling at that attitude, even after growling at employers who passed up my applications.
The left lane. If I’m driving in the left lane, those who drive slower than me should automatically get over and let me go on my merry way. The road rage I frequently indulge in is always a sure sign of the attitude.
Prayer. Whatever I ask for, I should get, especially if I have a good reason for asking. Oh man do I have this bad.

The list goes on and on. Truth hurts sometimes. But the fact that this list took all of two seconds to compile shows that I needed to face the truth and put aside Princess Pouty.

Please don’t think for one minute that I am holding up a mirror for anyone else. The only mirror I’m holding up is compact size. In other words, I usually air my own dirty laundry.

Now, aren’t you glad you stopped by the blog today? Don’t worry. You’re under no obligation to leave a comment. (Well, John and Andy have to, in order to confirm.) I’m tearing up my “titles.” Ya get it? Entitlement? Titles? Guess I’d better add to the list above. (I’m entitled to laughter at my bad puns.)

Cat from LOL Cats.

A Writer’s Process (10)

photo

Friends often lead to new friends. I’ve said that before in a post. Here on the blog with me is Martha Moore—author extraordinaire. I met Martha through a friend, Sharon Van Zandt. Martha is the author of Under the Mermaid Angel, Matchit, and Angels on the Roof.

           1335816    1335815

286403

At the end of the post, I’ll announce a special giveaway. For now, let’s welcome Martha to the blog.

El Space: Welcome, Martha. And now, please share four quick facts about yourself.
Martha: When I was four, I found it exciting that an old tin door pressed into the grass could open a buried room protected from the Texas hot sun. I could follow my grandmother into this damp, chilly underworld and retrieve my favorite treats: watermelon pickles and sweet pickled peaches. When I was five, I met my first children’s author, Edna Walker Chandler, when she talked to my grandmother’s third grade classroom. I could not believe that this ordinary woman wearing a house dress and black shoes, had such stories buried inside her.

p-LighthouseWhen I was ten, I looked out our kitchen window one early morning and saw that during the middle of the night, my father had filled the backyard with boats, old peeling paint kinds of boats, including a wooden houseboat, or what seemed like a small house, to me. My mother cried at my father’s new venture, but my sister and I saw a playground. As a teen, I loved exploring caves dug into the rock at Palo Duro Canyon, a beautiful canyon that magically opens up in the flat stretch of land and sky near Canyon, Texas. Today, I still enjoy the magic of the unexpected. Recently, a giant sunflower miraculously sprung up in the midst of the zucchini plants in my backyard garden.

Sunflower_sky_backdrop

El Space: Great stories! So what inspired you to write Under the Mermaid Angel?
Martha: When I was about eleven, the woman next door became my friend. My mother did not like her. She was too flamboyant and wild. Sometimes she drank beer and she stood at the ironing board ironing playing loud music on the radio. I was amazed that she even ironed her panties. She laughed a lot and she was funny. I loved her. Many years later, I began writing stories, or I suppose scenes, with someone like this woman and a thirteen-year-old girl named Jesse. At the same time, I was intrigued by a mystery at the junior high where I taught. The teachers were talking about a young girl who refused to remove her long coat even though it was very hot both inside and outside the school building. I wondered why a girl might find it hard to let go . . . of a coat . . . or perhaps something deeper. That girl became Jesse.

After a time, I realized the stories fit together, but something was not working. Why was Jesse the way she was—somewhat isolated and bereft of imagination? For example, she looked at the moon and saw it as a barren, vacant place. Her older friend, Roxanne, saw it as magic. I could not figure out Jesse’s problem. I heard a writer say to write about your deepest pain, the thing you could never tell anyone. I searched within myself and found a deep buried secret. That became Jesse’s secret, the thing she could never tell anyone. I let my own emotional “fuel” drive the story, the longing, the loss and the final emerging into a world where imagination can remember the past.

El Space: For those of you who are curious, here is the synopsis of Under the Mermaid Angel:

Thirteen-year-old Jesse leads a pretty boring life in just about the most boring place in the universe — otherwise known as Ida, Texas. She cannot forget the death of her baby brother seven years ago, and how she just couldn’t pray for him when he was sick. She never talks about it though, not even to her best friend, which is something she doesn’t have, anyway. But all that changes when Roxanne moves into the trailer next door. Thirty years old, with her fake fur coat, wild red hair, and romantic notions, Roxanne is a revelation to Jesse. Why has she moved to Ida, of all places? Their growing friendship will change Jesse’s life, giving her back a vision of hope beyond the mundane world around her.

Martha, have you noticed a theme in your writing? If so, how does it play out in Under the Mermaid Angel, Matchit, and Angels on the Roof?
Martha: I suppose all of my books have themes of loss, of love and friendship, of starting over. Jesse has the “hidden” loss of her baby brother which is fueled by guilt. Her friend, Roxanne, is kind of a flawed guide, leading Jesse into a better future. Like a female Moses, or a teacher, or parent, or any other kind of leader, it is a future that she, Roxanne, cannot enter herself. In the book Matchit, Matchit, the bad luck boy who got his name from his father’s good luck in a poker game, too has loss. He finds himself living for a time in a junkyard. Even in the junkyards of our lives, we can discover goodness. We may have to go back into a flawed life, but we can enter a future armed with treasures that give us a new start. Shelby, in Angels on the Roof, feels the loss of a father. She is disgusted with what she sees as a loony mother, who is obsessed with the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. It takes a while and a guide in an old woman to help Shelby uncover a truth that reveals her mother’s love.

El Space: What excites you about middle grade fiction?
Martha: I do not have anything wise to say about middle grade fiction. I just like being on that bridge. The middle grade self inside of me feels alive and real. It’s about getting in touch with the deepest roots of ourselves where life feels most raw and painful and at the same time, most hopeful.

El Space: What advice do you have to help fiction writers step up their game?
Martha: A writer once told me to “write what you can write.” I think there is truth in this.

Thanks, Martha, for being my guest! Thanks also to everyone who stopped by to read this interview. I read and loved Under the Mermaid Angel (Laurel-Leaf Books), and I want someone to have a chance to get this book. So, here’s what I’m gonna do: I’m giving away a $15 Amazon gift card to a commenter who must agree to purchase this book. And yes, you must be a follower or a regular commenter of this blog. So, folks, the comment lines are now open.

UPDATE: Since I have two giveaways this week, I will announce both winners on Friday.

Palo Duro Canyon photo from tpwd.state.tx.us. Sunflower from Wikipedia.