Monday, September 22, 2014

Why I Write Midde Grade - by Tom Mulroy

The thing is, I don’t really identify myself as a Middle Grade writer.

That I write Middle Grade doesn’t have a lot to do with my childhood, which is now so distant that recalling details about it is almost like remembering a story told from a third-person perspective. I know I was a voracious reader when I was young, from ‘The Hardy Boys’ to ‘Encyclopedia Brown’ to the huge hardcover collection of Greek myths in the school library, to the entire ‘Wrinkle in Time’ series eleven times over. But my childhood reading habits came and went in waves with widely discrepant amplitudes, and once I crossed the threshold into junior high I hit a dead end. My nonreaderness (take note, Internet -- I may have just coined and minted a new word right there) became so acute that I absolutely refused to read the minimum number of books required for completing the fill-in-the-blanks book reports I’d been assigned for one English class. But I was too much of a little teacher-pleasing toady to blow them off completely, so instead I invented a collection of fake novels, and finished all of my reports by creating the authors, titles, characters, plots, and settings I needed. After all, I figured, there were so many books in the world there was just no way my English teacher could have possibly known them all. I got away with it somehow too, either because my teacher didn’t put a lot of careful thought into grading or because he respected my audacity enough to let me off the hook.

If I’d been paying attention to anything other than my self-absorbed, sub-suburban, early-teenage angst, it might have occurred to me that taking any one of those ideas and writing the actual story to go with it could have been pretty cool to try. Writing finally caught up with me in high school, when I wrote stories about characters all remarkably similar to me and the people in my life as I tried to figure out my place in everything, all of which would now likely be categorized as YA. The stories evolved in college as I still wrote to figure things out, branching into what would now be NA.

So how does it happen that as a full-fledged grown-up I’m writing stories about kids? Pretty simple -- that’s who I teach. They’re the people I spend so much of my time with, and they greatly influence the perspectives through which I view the world. Each day I witness them doing and being everything from goofy to sublime to sublimely goofy. The constant discovery and surprise and innocence they carry with them, and how their emerging personalities are revealed along the way, is all too fascinating and rich with possibility to NOT explore.

I also see those kids as readers, and I know the power Middle Grade books can have. I’ve witnessed collections of ‘Goosebumps’ books held together with industrial-strength rubber bands and hauled around like prized literary bricks. Sorting through pre-ordered copies of ‘Wimpy Kid’ books on release day has become a November tradition for me. I’ve been involved in a decade-long grudge match with another teacher about the ending of ‘The Giver,’ and each year we’ll claim the students who agree with us like game pieces from a chessboard. In my years as a teacher, I’ve encountered Middle Grade books that have knocked me over with their beauty and humor and resonance. As a writer, that’s what I’m reaching for -- the books that pull kids in and keep them engaged, then have them thinking and dreaming long after The End.

I don’t exactly think of myself as a Middle Grade writer. Instead, I’m a writer who happens to live in a Middle Grade world.

And now that I’ve gotten my feet wet as a contributor here, it’s giveaway time! All the originals on the MG Minded team had giveaways with their introductory posts, so who am I to break tradition? I’m offering a critique of your query letter and the first three chapters of your manuscript -- middle grade or not, for whatever you may decide my opinion is worth. I’m no publishing expert but I am a teacher, so I have a wee bit of experience in telling people what’s good about their writing and suggesting things they could try differently. (See how positively I just framed that?)

But hold on, because it gets even better. My incredible agent, the one and only Carrie Howland, has generously offered to match my critique! You could actually walk away from this with a set of author notes and a set of agent notes, and trust me on this: Her notes are so incisively dead-on it’s almost a little spooky. If you’re interested, go ahead and click on that raffle thing below to enter, which Jamie assures me is going to work, and we’ll see what happens from there!

I know magic! It'll work ;) ~Jamie
a Rafflecopter giveaway


36 comments:

  1. Love this:

    I don’t exactly think of myself as a Middle Grade writer. Instead, I’m a writer who happens to live in a Middle Grade world.

    All the best on your journey and thanks for the giveaway!

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    1. Thanks, Deb. I'm looking forward to seeing how all of this plays out. I'm liking it so far!

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  2. Great story! I too did what I could to get around reading the required books for school. I wish I realized back then there are so many other books out there more tailored to my interests/taste so I could have enjoyed reading at a younger age vs. seeing it as a chore, although I suppose it turned out to be more of a game to see how I could get out of doing it next, which I passed with flying colors :)

    Thanks so much for the great contest and best of luck!

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    1. I think what shut my reading down in junior high was much like what you mentioned -- either a lack of material appropriate for my interests at that age or my unawareness of it. It took Stephen King to pull me back in. A year after my series of made-up books, I gave a lengthy oral report on "Firestarter," and made sure I highlighted all the gross parts!

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  3. My favorite thing about MG is the innocence. The romances, most of the time, are sweet and quirky, and the characters, many times, are really blithe and funny.

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    1. I got a good chuckle out of this. It made me think of how the middle grade romances I see develop every year aren't much more than two kids who decide to pair up for a few weeks and use their friends as go-betweens to communicate since they go out of their way to avoid each other for the duration of the relationship. They are quite funny.

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  4. My favorite thing about middle grade is that it's so funny and honest, just like the kids. And when they're not honest, that's funny too.

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    1. Agreed. It's hard to fake honesty in formative situations when you're still at such a guileless age. The very best thing about my job is the time I get to spend and talk with those kids.

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  5. In MG there's a certain rhythm of the plot always moving forward, characters that you can relate to, and an honest wide-eyed look at life around us.

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    1. I think you hit on two of the biggest elements here -- the flow of the plot and relatability of the characters. And there are always things you can do to try and make them better.

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  6. Great post! I love the honesty of kids this age. So satisfying to read. And to write.

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    1. Thanks Laurie! I appreciate your comments. It's easy to lose yourself in a good story, and MG sure has a lot of them.

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  7. I love the purity of MG--pure truth, pure emotion--nothing held back.

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    1. That's something I see every day, Pat -- so many emotional highs and lows right there on the surface. I'd agree there's a real purity in that.

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  8. Tom, I walked into walls and brushed my teeth while reading Nancy Drew books. When I finished those, I moved on to The Hardy Boys.

    Best wishes for success with your MG projects!

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  9. Thanks Carey! I was a 70s kid, so I have to admit my Hardy Boys gateway was the old TV show with Shaun Cassidy and that other guy. It was my first experience seeing how different the written word could be from a filmed project, and it was jarring. I haven't seen as much as a clip from that show in forever and I suspect time hasn't been a friend to it, but my Middle Grade self thought it was awesome.

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  10. I'm game... count me in! I love middle grade literature although that's not what I write. Back when I was in junior high it provided a much needed escape and the stories were filled with honesty.

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    1. The kids I teach are a bit younger than junior high, but few things about my day can make me happier than having one of them charge up to me out of nowhere because they just HAVE TO tell me all about something that happened in the book they're reading. I'm thrilled when they find that connection.

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  11. Thanks for hosting such a fabulous giveaway, Tom! I really enjoyed your post. What I love about MG is the sense of hope each story has, even if it's tucked in the back hall waiting for its chance to peek out.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Bonnie. I wish I could take complete credit for the giveway. When I showed Carrie a nearly-finished version of the post and she offered to match the critique, it was another reminder of how incredibly lucky I am to work with her. Not even exaggerating there.

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  12. Thanks for another great opportunity to get feedback!
    My favorite thing about MG literature is the audience...their imaginations are unlimited, so the books they read can take them anywhere and they'll willingly follow.

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    1. Yep. Middle grade readers who can let a story completely take them over are a lucky bunch. That seems to be a quality too many people lose touch with as they get older.

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  13. Writing great stories that get kids interested in reading and writing while also teaching them something valuable is one of the best things you can do.

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  14. This is a great opportunity. Thank you. MG allows my imagination to soar almost as much as the readers!

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    1. It wasn't that long ago I was entering contests like this myself. I'm more than happy to do some giving back to the writing community!

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  15. What I like about MG is the innocence as well, but also the curiosity of the younger characters. When kids are younger they're always asking questions about everything and challenging everything. It's a great age for development.

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    1. That's a great point, and I think one that's commonly overlooked. I like to think of the innocence and curiosity being tied together, especially when kids reach that point in their development when they're craving to learn more about the world.

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  16. I write both YA and MG now, but my first two books were MG and there's a magic to writing for a younger crowd that can't be found elsewhere. Children tend to be cleverer than their adult counterparts, and I love that there's no room for the unauthentic in MG lit. They see through us, every time, and no matter how fantastical the story, we are forced to be more real than we otherwise would be.

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    1. I couldn't agree more. I've seen many instances of kids trying out books because they expect them to be funny or exciting, but then they don't connect with the story the way they hoped if it lacks that vein of authenticity.

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    2. It really is the dividing line between mediocre middle grade and the kind of magical stories that set children's imaginations on fire, isn't it? :)

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  17. I like mg for the fast paced stories

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    1. Good! One of my works-in-progress would fall right into that category!

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