Monday, February 01, 2010

SCBWI-IL Prairie Writer’s Day Conference 2009, part 3

Last week, we went over Yolanda LeRoy’s insights on picture books. Today, I’m going to share what Alisha Niehaus, editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, had to say about middle grade novels.

Middle grade readers are between eight and twelve years old, and they are just starting to think about breaking away on their own. But many may still be close to their families. And they consider their favorite books to be friends, of sorts. They are also trying to navigate their personalities, and they relate to stories that exploit the growing pains of the age – school and negotiating relationships.

A good middle grade novel has heft, lyricism, and magic, but is half the size of an adult novel. It should be roughly between 30k and 60k, and there are no steadfast rules on vocabulary. The key is to know your audience, and it will come naturally.

Kids this age have a great capacity for suspending disbelief. More so than YA, so you have more leeway there. But they’re also smart, so don’t underestimate them. Start simple, with a character circumstance and a plot driver. Then, putting the characters in extreme situations creates tension, and it’s compelling.

Characters are generally between eight and fourteen years old. To create a believable character, first know your audience. A fourteen year old boy will behave differently than a twelve year old girl, and writers must know the difference well. Once you know that, you can create the individual, whether he/she is extremely talented or extremely untalented at various things.

The plot is the backbone of the story, and the plot driver is what lights the fire under your character. Look at how your character reacts in extreme circumstances, such as new school, new town, or being dropped into the unexpected.

The voice is the heart of the story. It’s comprised of two parts: author and character. Throughout the story, the characters will change, but the author’s voice stays the same. The author’s understanding of the reader comes through the voice, not the character. And much of the author’s voice comes through his/her emotional experience as a child.

Some tips on writing a good middle grade novel:
*Never be moralistic or preachy, but don’t miss the opportunity to teach from author experience. Middle graders can handle this, but YA can’t.

*Flesh out your story with scenes and settings from your own memories. Delve into them, reinvent them, and they will be very realistic.

Some recommended reading that illustrates good voice, character, and plot:
The Penderwicks
When You Reach Me
They Mysterious Benedict Society
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
The Lightening Thief
My Side of the Mountain


Bish Denham said...

Thanks for this Tabitha. Middle grade seems to be the place I'm most comfortable.For once I don't feel so illiterate having read several of the books you suggest.
And, I am at this moment reading
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. LOVE IT!

Christina Farley said...

Great post! I have Savvy on my desk to read.

Marcia said...

Great post! I love "conferences overheard." And since MG is my preferred age group, I'm always happy to hear more about it, especially "now" info from editors. Good examples of MG voice, especially the first three, IMO. And can I gush over The Penderwicks one more time? :)

Tabitha said...

Bish - that's great you've been able to get your hands on such great books!! Alisha shared so much great info about MG books that I'm glad I finally was able to sit down and share it all. :)

Christina - Savvy is a great book, you'll love it!

Marcia! So great to see you out and about in the blogosphere again!!

C.R. Evers said...

There are about 3 or 4 books on that list that I haven't read yet. I'll have to check them out! I love a book w/ a strong voice.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I'm always happy to hear advice from a MG editor. Great notes. Thanks!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for all the details. I write for middle grade so found the advice especially helpful.

jmartinlibrary said...

I love SAVVY. We just had the author at our school last week. The kids adored her. Mibs Beaumont has such a fantastic voice in the novel. Thanks for the conference tips.

Angela Ackerman said...

Great post. ****

Mary Witzl said...

This is helpful. Working out how my characters will react to certain situations is one of the hardest things for me, especially as they grow and change.

PK HREZO said...

THis is an awesome post. I so needed to read it today and make sure my MG is on track. :) Thanks!