Posted by: Katie B | February 14, 2013

My Challenge for Middle Grade Authors

I’ve grown to develop three pet-peeves with middle grade writing, and I challenge my fellow authors to try to rise above them.  I know we all have the talent.  We now need to find the desire to change.

  • Firstly, it appears that to craft a great story, you have to have a dead parent.  If you aren’t sure what I mean about the dead parents thing, think of Harry Potter or Hugo Cabret or any Disney movie.  It’s a struggle to name a recent hit where the main character wasn’t immediately sympathetic as a result of his dead parent.  Now in real life, I ask you: how many dead parents exist?  As a result of horrible, gruesome deaths?  Divorced, distance, and deadbeat – yes.  Deceased grandparents or pets – yes.  But all-out dead parents – not many.  It becomes tiresome to have to “explain the death away” over and over again to your child.  Not to mention, it upsets them.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I’m going to die because of some missing mother in a popular piece of fiction.  Or, and this is laughable, if I’m going to run away like the mothers in several Newbery winners (Winn-Dixie, Moon Over Manifest, Walk Two Moons).  In the future, I challenge authors to try to craft a brilliant piece without this simple and unnecessary crutch.  Several authors have done so very successfully (Percy Jackson, Spiderwick Chronicles).   I wish there were more.
  • Second, explicit language seems to have become acceptable in middle grade writing.  Hell?  Damn?  Why do these words have to exist in writing for children?  If you wave your hand at me and tell me I’m being too sensitive, ask a nine-year-old to say “What the hell” out loud and see if it feels appropriate.  Or, even better, ask them to say “He’s sexy”.  Makes you cringe in real life, right?  Challenge yourself.  Create gripping dialogue and situations without turning to the cheap out.  If you can’t succeed, you shouldn’t be writing for children.
  • Lastly, unless you are deliberately writing an anatomically informative book for the purposes of educating children about the upcoming changes to their body, references to sex don’t belong in middle grade writing.  I understand that a lot of kids want to read about relationships and first kisses.  But, even then, it seems like every book has to have a kiss in it to make it on the shelf.  Annoying enough.  Trust me – there are still some young girls and boys that want to read for adventure and escapism and not for kissing.  But references to more than kissing just shouldn’t exist, even if they’re vague.  What’s the point?  Again, if you think I’m over-reacting, try to read these off-handed mentions out loud to your ten-year-old and see if you can do it without stuttering.  Squirming and not being able to look child in the eye = doesn’t belong in their literature.

In every generation, children grow up faster.  I’ve lost the battle of fully protecting my children’s innocence with the video games they play, the movies they watch, and the stories their friends share on the playground.  Does good literature have to follow the same degenerative path?  Can’t there be one outlet where a child can spend free time and not be bombarded with concepts that are too mature for them?  Wouldn’t it be great if there was?

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