Writing Middle Grade: A Deep, Very Deep Ocean
I write in the genre of middle grade, and like all other middles, this literature comes with its own challenges. Terms like middle-child syndrome, the mid-novel slump, or being stuck in the middle all denote negative views of middleness. No one likes the middle seat on a plane ride. The point being, being in the middle of anything can be tricky, and middle-grade writing is no exception.
That said, I am a rarity. I LOVE middle. I love being a middle-grade writer, which entails writing from a place that is real and raw, diving deep within, to where nothing remains but truth.
The deeper one dives into the ocean, the darker it becomes. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) states that light may, rarely, be detected as far as 3280 feet below sea level. Beyond 200 meters, or about 656 feet, any penetrable light is insignificant and likely not strong enough for a human eye to see. I felt this way while writing my middle-grade novel, The Wanderings of Abby Rose. Many, many times I kept my protagonist on the surface or shallow end of her character arc. Why not? It felt safe there. Lots of light and fun things to see. It felt easy. No risk, but also no truth. So I had to plunge deeper, hoping that my dive-light would illuminate everything under the surface to see the natural beauty and colors hiding therein.
Going to that depth was not easy. Because my novel is based on a true story, my true story, I had to disregard what I wanted my main character to do, or the way I would have preferred for her to react rather than how she actually DID react. Who wants to put in writing that she (based on my main character) made a series of fumbling errors while trying to be noble, only to make matters worse? Or how about writing about the misjudgments of family members who are real people living right down the street? You’ll have to read the novel to know what this means, but suffice it to say this kind of writing requires a great amount of honesty, truth, and courage.
Those of us who write middle-grade books read a lot of novels by middle-grade authors. I love the greats, including Kate DiCamillo, Ann Martin, Richard Peck, Linda Sue Park, and many others. Their words cut through the dense sediment and dangly seaweed to slice straight into the heart of truth.
In one of my recent favorite books, Louisiana’s Way Home published by Candlewick Press, Kate DiCamillo’s main character Louisiana Elefante evaluates people in a heartfelt way, the way a reader would hope to see them—the way they truly are. For example, when her new friend Burke gives Louisiana a bologna sandwich and she ends up loving it, but Granny had always “spoken poorly of bologna,” Louisiana concludes, “If you are the kind of person who lies about something as small as bologna, what would stop you from lying about bigger, more important things?” (DiCamillo, 102) What an awesome example of cutting straight into the heart of truth! DiCamillo tells it in a way a middle-grade reader can relate to, which is exactly what we middle-grade writers hope to learn to do in our own writing.
I strive for a sliver, a tiny slice of skill that Kate DiCamillo and these other authors have, to see beyond the hazy ocean waters, and to shine my dive-light on these tiny gems of truth, hoping that my novel will transform into a piece of writing that changes the way middle graders see life, the way they see color, like the dive-light that illuminates all of the amazing treasures in the deepest parts of the ocean.
Presently, my multicultural middle-grade novel The Wanderings of Abby Rose is out on submission with Patty Carothers here at the amazing Metamorphosis Literary Agency (Many thanks to Stephanie Hansen for allowing me this guest spot!), but I have other stories and ideas stirring, churning, ready to make their splash into the deep as well. I would love to hear from you, so please don’t hesitate to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my blog at venessaschwarz.com.