I've spent the last two years completely, wonderfully underwater.
Metaphorically speaking, of course.
I have been fully, breathlessly immersed in reading middle grade literature. And it has done wonders – absolute wonders – for my middle grade writing.
Let me explain.
I've had the exhausting honor these past couple years to serve on a state middle grade book award committee. It's a “kids' choice award,” so us adults on the committee don't pick the winner...we get to to choose the 12 nominees that the kids in our state will read and pick the winner from. So, in order to create a top-notch, well-balanced, fully-deserving list, we need to read. A LOT. According to my Goodreads stats, I've read 87 middle grade novels since January 1st of this year. I should easily crack 100 by New Year's. Whew.
But, honestly, I'm not sure I've ever done anything that has helped my middle grade writing more than serving on this committee. Going to conferences and reading blogs, we're always told: “Read your market! Read everything you can that is in your genre/age group so you get a feel for what's out there, for what sells, for what works and what doesn't.” And, as a kids librarian, I always thought I was doing that. I read 10-15 middle grade books a year, so I thought I kinda had it covered.
Man, was I wrong.
There is a world of difference between 10 books a year and 100.
Reading that many current middle grade books has really taken me to another level. I've been “forced” to read way beyond my normal selections, into genres and content I previously rarely touched. I've read books that I never would have picked up before – and been more than pleasantly surprised by a lot of them.
I've absorbed an almost constant stream of story and storytelling, and I've absorbed it in an active, thoughtful way: thinking about which stories sing and which don't, which will appeal the most to a kid audience, which books tell a story in a fresh and exciting way. It's funny – the more you read, the more real good storytelling jumps off the page. When you read 100 books, the exceptional ones don't blend in, they stand out from the crowd even more. That really gives you a chance as a writer to ask yourself, “Why does this one work so well? What did the author do that hit the sweet spot so perfectly? How exactly did the author pull that off?”
As I read, I think constantly about how the characters were developed, how the pacing is or isn't working, why a scene was so effective, or what felt flat in an ending. I've found some pitfalls to avoid, some methods to employ, and some heights to aspire to. It's been like taking an immersive course in story craft. It's been amazing.
So if I had to give one piece of advice to someone who is writing middle grade, I wouldn't just say “read your market.” We've all heard that. I'd say: “Pretend you're on an award committee.”
Seriously. Set an ambitious goal. Say, read an average of one middle grade book a week for a year. 52 middle grade books in 2015. And, to force yourself to read widely, I'd narrow your book pool: make sure all 52 of the books you read is a copyright 2014 or 2015.
It won't actually be that tough. Some middle grade books can be read entirely in an afternoon. Even some longer ones flow so well that you'll devour them in a weekend. You'll learn a ton. You'll get to be real friendly with your public librarian. And, hopefully, your local indie bookstore clerk. You'll get a real solid feel for what the market looks like right now, for what's moving and what's not.
And, if you're anything like me, once you come up for air and get your head above the middle grade water for a breath, you'll be even more eager to dive right back in again.
Because middle grade literature is a pool that's a blast to get immersed in.
The water's fine. Take a deep breath and jump on in.
|Dan Gemeinhart is an author and teacher-librarian who lives smack dab in the middle of Washington State with his wife and three daughters. What passes for his website can be found at www.dangemeinhart.com, and he can more frequently be found on Twitter. His contemporary adventure MG novel, THE HONEST TRUTH, will be out from Scholastic Press in January 2015.|