I’ve been asked to post this article I wrote for the Institute of Children’s Literature, online. They bought the rights for one year, and the year is up. But geez, why should the world be denied my genius? *cough*
AS YOUNG AS YOU FEEL: FINDING YOUR GENRE
You’ve wrestled with your demons, angsted online, joined six critique groups, and finally decided that you are a Novelist for Children. TA DAAAA!
I regret to inform you that you still have a decision to make.
Publishers often divide children’s novels into three genres according to age level: Early Chapter, Middle Grade and Young Adult. And they want to know where your work will fit on their list. Do not tell them your arresting, yet accessible novel appeals to folks 8 to 80, or you’ll find yourself sitting on the curb with a big shoe print on your keister.
Try this exercise and find out where your writing fits: Write the same fairy tale as an Early Chapter book, a Middle Grade and Young Adult novel. I used a scene from Little Red Riding Hood:
Little Red Riding Hood rapped on the door.
“Who’s there?” asked the wolf.
Little Red Riding Hood thought her Grandmother sounded funny. “You sound hoarse, Grandma. Are you sick?” she asked.
The wolf cleared his throat. “I’m not a horse, Dear Child. I’m your grandmother. Come in.”
Little Red Riding Hood tiptoed into the room. Someone hairy was in her grandmother’s bed. Little Red Riding Hood didn’t get too close. “Grandma, what big eyes you have,” she said.
“My Dear, why are you so timid? What do you think I’ll do? Bite your head off?”
Red Riding Hood loved her grandmother, but she didn’t want to be here today. She had a soccer game in less than an hour. She banged on the door.
That doesn’t sound like Grandma, she thought. Grandma always sounds sweet, even if her bunions are acting up. “It’s me. Red Riding Hood.”
“Come in!” called the voice.
I don’t like this one bit, thought Red Riding Hood, but she went in anyway.
She almost fainted when she looked into the rumpled covers. Red Riding Hood didn’t know who this was, but it sure wasn’t her grandma. “Uh—uh—gosh, Grandma. Your eyes are poppin’ out of your head today.”
The wolf snuggled its snout under the blankets. “Don’t question your elders, Kid. Shut up and do what you’re told.”
“My mother sucks,” said Red. “I can’t believe she’s making me take this craptaculous stuff to Gram. Doesn’t she know that Edward is waiting for me? Hiding in the shadows in my room, ready to hold me tenderly while I sleep?” Red kicked the door.
“MMMMmmmmm,” said a strange voice.
Stupid grandmother. She doesn’t like Edward. Just because he’s undead doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. He does care! He loves me just for me! Not because I smell tremendously delicious and have super-special blood pulsing in my neck that stretches the limits of his self-control.
Red shoved the door open. Before the wolf could speak, Red said, “I don’t care what you think! Edward would never hurt me! He’s good! And I want him to bite me and make me one of the undead too!”
“Don’t talk to me about Edward,” the wolf growled.
Red stepped closer, closer. “Why, your eyes…they’re so brown, so wild…”
“Think so?” he whispered.
Maybe you can tell that writing the Early Chapter and Middle Grade excerpts was a chore for me. But the YA. Ah, that spurted from my fingertips like—like blood from a severed artery.
While you’re sampling the genres, remember:
- Children’s writers are supposed to write as if THEY are the age of the audience they’re writing for. Do not dwell on whether it’s proper for a 30-year-old mom to feel like a 9-year-old boy.
- Your natural genre is the one that is easiest for you to channel from your subconscious. Figure out what age you feel like when you’re writing. Writers often discover their work in progress belongs to a different genre than they originally thought.
- Find books similar to what you want to write. See which age genre appeals to you. Children’s books have evolved tremendously, so be sure the books you read are no older than 5 years. Once you know your audience, read 1,000 books in that genre. That is not a typo. 1,000. See what the norms are and why they work. Then study the exceptions and when to use them.
Before you retire to the mud room and pull your lawn chair up to the ironing board you use as a desk, look over these brief descriptions of the three age genres of children’s novels:
EARLY CHAPTER (ages 7-11)
- First books that kids read completely on their own.
- They want to read about a character who’s like them, or in situations like theirs.
- ACTION! The act of reading itself isn’t intoxicating anymore.
- Sentences are a bit complex, but paragraphs run 2-4 sentences.
- Usually, a thread runs from chapter to chapter.
MIDDLE GRADE (ages 8-12)
- Main character focuses inward. These readers are working on their own identities, who they are and what they think, while their relationships and bodies change.
- Conflicts often involve friendships, school, siblings.
- The main character must grow and change during the course of the book, but these changes are internal.
- Don’t worry about word choice or sentence structure. Middle graders are good readers. Stories may involve subplots involving secondary characters woven through the story.
- This audience gets addicted to characters. Consider writing a series with the same cast of players.
- Use hooks at the end of chapters to keep the reader turning the page.
- Complex plots with several major characters, though one emerges as the focus of the book. You must make the reader identify with your main character right away. That’s why so many YA novels are first person.
- Everything is HUGE! EPIC! Teens have no perspective, no sense that bad times will pass and the world will go on. Every situation is new.
- YA readers are stepping outside of their hearth and home, and they want to read about characters whose internal change comes from external events. They want to see how the conflict affects the main character, and how the main character affects the world.
- Be subtle. YA readers are smart enough to figure things out for themselves.
- Be ruthless. Impale your main character on the merciless horns of a dilemma. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)
Experiment and find your best age genre. You’ll access your creativity faster, your writing will be stronger and I’m pretty sure bluebirds will light on your shoulder.
There’s no prison worse than “I promise.”
A promise can carry you through tough times.
Or cause them.
Jonah and Simon, two abandoned brothers, set out to rendezvous with a third brother coming back from Vietnam. The only guarantee they have of meeting up with him is in his letters.
The boys hitch a ride on the highway with Mitch and Lilly. As the story unspools they figure out that Mitch is a psychopath. Lilly’s a flirt. She likes to push Mitch’s buttons.
Jonah tries to keep the promise he made to his older brother, to keep Simon safe. Like all little brothers, Simon doesn’t like getting bossed around. Mitch encourages Simon’s minor rebellions, coaxes them into bitter hatred for Jonah. Who would blame Jonah if he just walked away?
Well, there’s that promise.
Andrew Smith’s second book is gut-punching good. Each chapter is labeled with the character whose point of view it’s written in. Not necessary. Because every character’s voice is so distinct you can tell them apart without a scorecard. The attention to setting puts you right in the desert southwest without getting artsy-fartsy. And the Vietnam letters have heart-breaking historically accurate touches.
Andrew writes really fast. His third book came out last November: The Marbury Lens. It has been named one of the Best Children’s Fiction Books of 2010 by Publisher’s Weekly, and is on the ALA Best Books for Young Adults list 2010, just like his other two books. And he’s got more in the pipeline.
I’m kind of afraid Andrew’s second book, In the Path of Falling Objects might have been overlooked because it was sandwiched between book one and three, way close to The Marbury Lens release date.
DO NOT MISS IT.
That is an order.
I’ve started maybe a half-dozen posts since the beginning of the year, and haven’t finished any of them. The importance of what I had to say fizzled out in the face of walk-around-life ANGST and DRAMA.
Calm down. We are all healthy and free on bond.
Oh, fine. There were no incidents of any sort involving The Law. I was hyperboleing.
I’m in bed wrapped in blankets, with two space heaters chugging away. I’m trying to motivate myself to journey down two flights of stairs and out the door to lunch with my bestie.
But I am so EXHAUSTED by all the STUFF that’s been happening.
I couldn’t sleep last night so I played Pop Words and watched MST3K on YouTube into the wee hours of the morning.
I woke up 30 minutes ago.
And about 28 minutes ago, it soooo hit me. Why I write YA.
This is where I like to leave room for the reader to fill in the blanks.
Oh, James Frey.
Who the bleep do you think you are.
IN A NUTSHELL: (Emphasis on NUT)
James Frey is raiding MFA programs. He entices destitute grad students to write YA books for him.
For slave wages.
To his specifications, to maximize movie-licensing tie-ins.
Also, these books are written under pseudonyms.
And various and sundry other unfair practices. (See Nova’s and Maureen’s sites.)
My God. The Hubris.
Please notice that he doesn’t go out into the wide, wide world to find his writers. He harvests kids desperate to pay off their tuition debt and too young to know what a crappy deal they’re getting.
He asks the student to submit an outline, and if Frey likes it, the student writes the book. Then the two of them are considered “co-authors”.
Then he and Spielberg add material to the novel which will translate well onto the screen and into the Happy Meals.
The whole undertaking from beginning to end reeks of disrespect–for the writer, for the publishing business, and most of all for the reader. James Frey thinks all YA readers like the same bowl of gruel, and he’s got the recipe.
(Hey. That is a direct quote from a picture book. Don’t blame me!)
Please. Don’t support this insult. Don’t buy, or even read, these books.
I mean it.
I really don’t have anything against adult writers dipping their pens into the YA market.
Really, I don’t.
If they know what they’re doing.
Because YA Lit is not dumbed-down Adult Lit. In fact, I put to you that YA Lit is smarter than Adult Lit. Because teens have very sensitive bullshit-meters, and they won’t sit still for your condescending crap.
I am perpetually 16.
So baby, if you want to write YA, here’s
5 POINTS YOU BETTER GET ABOUT YA LITERATURE:
- The Main Character Damn Well Better Be a Young Adult. Not his Amazing and Wise Parent. Nobody gives a rip about a kid who does whatever his mommy thinks is best. Who the hell wants to read about a shrinking violet who has to be saved by her smarmy father? And then we can all learn a lesson about how parents know best and have milk and cookies around the kitchen table and realize we are incompetent and should never leave the nest. The End. Ick.
- The Author Can’t Lie. You aren’t going to be able to get away with a damn thing. Every thought, feeling and syllable of dialogue has to be authentic. Oh, adults are used to equivocation. They expect it. Heck, they can’t even tell the difference between fact and fiction any more. But teens? They still think life ought to be fair. They rage against the darkness. So if you dash off some cliché, if you write how you think sixteen should feel, if you don’t dig down to your guts for what it really felt like when you were sixteen…well, they’ve got you by the balls. Stuff feels big. Heck, stuff IS big. It’s time for your first kiss, first love, first break up…you get the picture.
- Something Has to Happen. A lot. Teens will not hold still while you stroke your ego with soulful meanderings about the color of the sky and the wind upon his skin and woe and blah blah blah and the state of the world and lah dee dah. Now, they will remember a few well-chosen phrases that really get them somewhere, but blathering just because you can? Show off. Adult readers are such suckers.
- The Characters Must Grow over the course of the novel. Sure, there’s a story arc, but in YA the character has to show change. Because that’s what’s happening to teens. They’re morphing every day. Think about the difference in maturity between a 13-year-old and a 19-year-old. You’ve got to change practically every day to make that journey. Remember, this is your audience. If you want to connect, keep in mind what is happening in their lives.
- There’s a Got to Be a Tomorrow. The book has to end with some hope, or at least the idea that there’s a future. YA literature doesn’t end with the destruction of every living thing on Earth. Teens are our hope for tomorrow. Don’t take that away.
YA Literature is not Adult Literature lite. Edgy or quiet, lush or spare, fantasy or contemporary, romance or sports story–it’s written for a demanding readership.
By talented and savvy professionals.
Please. People. Chime in. Add your criteria for what makes a book YA Lit in the comments.
A quote from Wesley Scroggins, in the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader:
“In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography.”
One of the books he wishes to ban? Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Here’s some “pornography” he quotes:
‘NO!—I’m not really here, I’m definitely back at Rachel’s, crimping my hair
and gluing on fake nails, and he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me hurts me…”
Well, Mr. Scroggins, I think we learned a whole lot more about you than you meant to tell us, you poor sap.
These people may win battles, but they never win the war.
Banned Books Week starts Saturday.
It wasn’t Iris Baldwin’s idea to leave her home in Atchison. Just like it wasn’t her mother’s idea to die and leave Iris alone with her father.
This particular summer, Iris’ father decides to hire her out as a companion to a doctor’s elderly mother.
Without consulting Iris.
Seems like a reasonable solution to him–after all, he’s got his hands full with a fiancée and a new store he’s opening in Kansas City.
So Iris leaves her hunkalicious friend, Leroy, and obediently boards a train to live with strangers in the middle of nowhere.
I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, because it’s too delicious to spoil for you. I want to assure you that plenty of stuff happens. PLENTY. Also, DO NOT COUNT LEROY OUT.
Usually, a book stays with you for one striking characteristic, but Crossing the Tracks is one of those rare books that dazzled me for multiple reasons.
First, the beauty of the language. There will be passages you stop and reread just to savor the words. But I’m not the kind of gal who loves words just for their own sake. There’s gotta be story.
And there is story. Man alive, there is story. Barb Stuber has gleaned vignettes and narrative from family and acquaintances who lived during the era. And of course, from her magnificent brain box.
Last of all, the historical detail. Crossing the Tracks contains the kind of information you can only get from reading stacks of magazines, listening to old radio programs or from people who experienced the times.
This book was especially interesting to Freckles McYoungest, as her grandmother was a teen in the ’20s in Kansas City. But it should appeal to any reader with a grandmother or great-grandmother who lived during this time.
Read Crossing the Tracks, even if you think you don’t like historical fiction. You’ll like this.