Monday, June 8, 2015

Dear Middle Grade Minded: Why Do Authors Write So Many Depressing Books?

Dear MG Minded Team,
My question is this: Why must authors continue to write such horribly depressing books when my middle school students don't want to read them? If we believe the Scholastic survey as well, 70% want humorous books. Why can't people write happy, hopeful books? Funny books, even? Do we as a society need to medicate all of the writers? I know that authors are big on saying that they write what moves them, but if their target audience doesn't want to read it, what is the point?

Here’s a link to the results of the Scholastic survey mentioned above, provided by the person submitting today’s question. I suggest you give it a look before continuing since I’ll be referencing this data. The results are displayed in a very friendly and colorful pictographic format:

What Kids Want in Books

In addition to the link, our submitter also provided examples (twelve, in fact) of what she describes as “depressing” books available from a source of new releases. Her selections illustrated her point of view, but out of respect for the publishers and the authors involved I’m choosing not to include the excerpts she quoted. Instead, I’ll take the hit myself: My manuscript would likely meet her criteria of a “depressing” book, at least on the blurb level, since a character dies in the first sentence and that serves as a catalyst for everything that follows. Of course I intended it to be much more than that, and, frankly, I feel like I pulled it off. Thankfully my agent enthusiastically agrees.

Okay then. The Middle Grade Minded team had some great online discussion about this question. When I saw it, the first thing I noticed was (and I don’t mean this to seem dismissive in any way) how the question is built around a false premise. True, authors decide to write the books they write. However, the large majority of authors have very little say in what gets published. Frankly, if publishing decisions were left to the writers, there probably wouldn’t be enough shelf space in all of Retail America to stock the books we’d collectively want seeing the light of day. The harsh truth is that not all of the manuscripts we write and hold so dear to our hearts will make the cut. Agents have to sort through an avalanche of manuscripts to decide what they feel strongly enough to represent. After that, publishers decide which manuscripts they’ll turn into books and offer to the public. Publishing is ultimately a business, so the books that get published are the ones the editors and publishing houses believe their customers will want to buy, which is essentially determined by the marketplace. It’s all supply and demand, straight out of a third grade economics lesson (which I can speak to with authority since I taught that very economics lesson to my third graders this past winter). So if it seems like there are a lot of “depressing” books being published? Well, somebody must want to read them.

I’m not really comfortable with that “depressing” label, though. I’ll concede there are a lot of books that begin with depressing subject matter, but subject matter alone isn’t what defines a book, not to mention that a book can be funny and depressing and hopeful and challenging all at the same time, and many of them are. Take my manuscript, for example. At its core, it’s about a young girl coping with loss, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s also about the importance of family and friends, it follows an adventure filled with moments of self-discovery for the main character, it has (I think) some pretty funny scenes, and ultimately it’s hopeful.

But how is any reader going to know what really happens inside of a book unless they open it and give it a shot? Isn’t writing off a book as “depressing” because of what’s said in a blurb only a lateral degree away from judging it by its cover? Describing a book as any one thing can be limiting. I think a better description of books that are able to integrate so many different elements into one cohesive story would be “complex.”

The Scholastic survey referenced states that 70% of young readers want books that will make them laugh. Okay, 70% is a big number. However, speaking as someone with a fair amount of experience working inside of our data-driven education system, I can say the worst kept secret about data is how easily it can be massaged to support just about any point of view. For example, that 70% covers an age range of six through seventeen, which extends well beyond what would be considered the middle grade audience. But if we scroll down a bit and examine those results more closely, we see a timeline of sorts that helps us narrow down preferences to the 9-14 ages which people would more readily identify as middle grade. It tells us that the kids in that narrower range -- when compared to readers respectively older and younger than they are -- want books that have mysteries or problems to solve, or have smart, strong, or brave characters. I would offer that middle grade characters are able to show themselves as smart, strong, and brave by solving mysteries or problems, and sometimes the problems they face aren’t easy ones, just like in real life.

As for books that make young readers laugh, like those 70% between six and seventeen in the survey enjoy? Humor is just as subjective as anything else. Two kids the same age could provide as drastically different opinions about what’s funny as two others with a decade between them might. Something even a mildly dark seventeen-year-old might find funny could easily give a six-year-old with a sunny disposition horrifying nightmares. Conversely, I have personally known six-year-olds who were forced to endure lives defined by hardships that many high school seniors wouldn’t be able to handle. Kids of any age who are burdened with problems would probably like to read happy books full of jokes or funny pictures that would make them laugh and give them brief existential time-outs, but why shouldn’t they also have books available that could reflect the circumstances of their lives? Isn’t it possible such books might help them understand themselves better?

Middle grade readers can have such a magical connection to the books they read since they have so many chances to learn about life and the greater world through the characters they meet. Every reader brings their own particular set of preferences and life experiences to what they read, and that’s why readers need to have so many different kinds of books (one might even go as far as calling them diverse) available.

I have nothing against happy or hopeful or funny. I love seeing my students laugh themselves red in the face over something they’re reading, because I know they’ve made a connection to it. But it’s been my experience that when a book proves to be therapeutic for the author, it often will be for the reader as well. If someday my own intentionally challenging book will give a reader the chance to recognize something in their own life, and maybe help them process some kind of struggle they’re facing, I’d be both proud and humbled.

Plus I’d be pretty confident they got some big laughs out of it, too.


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  1. As a former teacher, I really had a problem with that teacher's question. I taught middle school, too, as well as upper elementary, and while I think it's important to have a variety of genres in the class library and school library, I don't see why one should feel compelled to only make kids laugh. As an adult, I still like funny books. However, I like book that make me think, as well. As teachers guiding students to evaluate what's "out there", I think we owe it to them to provide the meaty books that address serious concerns. They need to connect with crying matters as well as laughing matters. I would hazard a guess that 70% of kids probably like ice cream. But would wise parents only give their kids ice cream? When kids leave home for school in the morning, teachers are the next "layer" of responsible adults who are there to guide them into meaningful choices.

  2. Hi Elizabeth -- You make great points. It can be a frustrating battle to get some kids to read, but I think making sure they have a wide range of choices, and getting them to appreciate that many books are often more than what they seem on the surface are steps in the right direction. Speaking as a teacher, I hope my students are able to take something new away from each book they read.