Back in early May, I was anxious for the release of Wilder Mind, the new album by the band Mumford & Sons. I’m using more than one meaning of “anxious” here; I was excited to have new music from a band that’s become a favorite of mine over the past few years, but I was also a little concerned. There was every indication this new album would be a serious departure from their signature sound.
Initially I was a bit disappointed with the changes, because the band had always been such a reliably unique feature on the landscape of popular music, and the sound of the new album was definitely a step away from that direction. But I kept listening and gave it every fair chance to connect with me. Eventually it did, to the degree that when I listen to it now I hear more similarities to their previous work than differences. The new songs convey the same emotional resonance as the older ones, and have the same storytelling aesthetic. The band still wrote the songs that wanted to be written, but just wound up writing them differently than before, and trusting what followed.
I thought a lot about how my reaction to this album could be like a middle grade reader expecting a certain kind of story from a favorite genre. Most kids in the middle grade age group will identify what they want to read by genre more than anything else, whether they realize they’re doing it or not. They’ll think, “Well, if I liked reading Book A, which has this kind of story, then I’ll probably like Book B because it has a similar story.” This kind of favorite-associating connection is a common discussion point between teachers and parents while searching for ways to engage reluctant readers. Scary books, funny books, books about animals, sports books, myths and legends, historical fiction, science fiction, graphic novels, sad books, adventures, non-fiction, or something from a series -- all of these and more are explored while trying to find that magical gateway that will get a child interested enough in reading. A lot of middle grade readers, both the tentative and the self-motivated, are more likely to try a book if they have a good idea about what to expect from it before they commit to reading.
So where does that leave us, the middle grade writers? Should we focus on horror stories because the Goosebumps books have had such staying power? Should we start sketching characters for graphic novels to take advantage of that current popularity, or create a boarding school filled with extraordinary people where we can send a misfit character who will make friends and enemies, face challenges, and have adventures? Should we mold our story ideas to conform with the most popular genres, and then keep driving along while always staying in the same lane?
Of course not. I’d like to think anyone who would seek out a blog devoted to middle grade literature would understand the futility of chasing trends as a key to success. But what about establishing a platform when you’re starting out, or even just trying to find a niche?
Let’s take me, for example. I don’t read a lot of fantasy. I don’t have anything against it, it’s just never been something I’ve actively sought out. If I decided to try and write a fantasy novel, I’d find myself at the beginning of a steep uphill battle because my passion isn’t there. But what if I was lucky enough to have a tidy little pile of published books years from now, and one day a brilliant idea for a fantasy story came out of nowhere and smacked me upside the head? Would it be better to take it on and work out the idea, or ignore a story I felt strongly about and move on to something else I felt was more expected of me?
The way I see it, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with a writer trying to demonstrate the kind of range they potentially have, especially when they’re still working to become established. Since there really aren’t any guarantees in publishing, I think the first rule has to be for a writer to stay true to their passion. If that means living inside of one genre for all the reading and writing you do because that’s what you love, great. You’ll have plenty of background knowledge to work with, and that will translate into your writing, and you’ll still likely find ways to keep yourself challenged. But if not? Well, I think that’s okay too. You still have to write something you feel strongly about, and maybe your stories will take you in different, unexpected, and exciting new directions.
If publishers do guide their established writers to work inside the genres that fit their familiar platforms? I suppose that would be the kind of problem I don’t think I’d mind having. But until it happens -- if it ever does -- I’ll just keep telling the stories that want to be told. Even if that means sometimes telling them differently than before, and trusting what follows.