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
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