Three Content Issues to Consider for Middle Grade Readers

Know your audience. That’s one of the first things they teach you in journalism school. What they don’t teach you is that this rule applies to writing pretty much anything else. Especially children’s fiction. But there’s a catch.

When you’re writing for middle grade readers – or children of any age – you’re actually writing for two audiences: the young reader and the adult gatekeeper.

Whether that gatekeeper is a parent, grandparent, teacher or librarian, there’s almost always another set of discerning eyes on work intended for middle grade readers. It’s tricky, but it can be done.

When you think about it, writing for two readers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gatekeepers want to make sure their kiddos’ reading material feeds their brains with wisdom without exposing them to developmentally inappropriate content. Parent gatekeepers are rightly vigilant in determining what their kids may or may not be ready to tackle, and often want to fuel my kid’s imagination by introducing them to parts of the world that they may not otherwise get to see.

The folks who decide where books are shelved and whether they are bought are incredibly important.

In talking with a number of librarians, parents, grandparents and teachers, here are three subjects that are “no-go” when they’re looking for appropriate middle grade reading material.

1) Gore.
Life is full of bumps and thumps. But graphic descriptions of the broken bones is unnecessary for a middle grade reader.

Author Steven James distinguishes suspense from thriller from horror writing like this: Suspense is when you know *something horrible* is about to happen.Thrillers are stories in which the reader knows the horrible thing that’s about to happen and they follow the protagonist through efforts to stop it. Horror is when you watch the horrible thing happening to the protagonist.

The variables here? Point of view and treatment of violence, and they’re relevant to kids as well as adults. Generally speaking, middle grade readers and their adults agree that mild suspense and thrills are okay, but graphic descriptions of violence are not at all appropriate. Violence and gore are off limits.

2) Extreme Romance.
One aunt told me her fifth grade niece would rather read ten books about puppies than a single book about a girl with a crush on the boy-next-door. Middle grade readers are still very outward-focused and don’t want to read an inner monologue describing the torment of a first crush.

Some kids are curious about and experiment with physical romance at an early age – but writing descriptions of physical romance for young children is unnecessary. There’s no need to rush kids into romantic entanglements, and there’s even less need to introduce discussions of attraction or temptation. Seriously, that’s bordering on grooming behavior. Sex, sexuality, and innuendo are out of bounds for this age group. Children should get to be children. Full stop.

3) @#!@##%
“I know that he’s going to hear foul language on the playground at school. I can’t stop him from that, or make him unhear what he’s already heard. That doesn’t make it okay to read cursing in our living room,” says one mom. Coarse language, swear words, potty-mouth characters – however you describe it – are off limits for middle grade readers. If you want to create an “edgy” character, use wardrobe or behavior choices, give her an interesting ‘tic’ or quirky habit. But keep it clean.

Does this jibe with what you have learned about writing for middle grade readers? Do you agree or disagree? I’d love to hear about your experiences writing for this age group, so please comment below.

Marbles and how to find them. Maybe.

Have you ever looked at your Astounding List of Totally Compelling Blog Post Ideas and wondered to yourself, “What in the name of chili cheese fries was I thinking when I wrote that?”

Yep. That happened to me today. Three times.

Maybe you can help me remember what in the world I’d wanted to write about when I jotted this little jewel into my notes folder.

No Chickens On The Boat
Exhibit A.  Ahoy.

 

 

So yeah. I don’t remember what that was about.  I love chickens.  Enjoy boats too. But not sure where the chicken-boat combo came from.

 

Or this one:

Another idea

 

I feel like this is something I wanted to investigate but now I can’t remember what it is or why. This is why the internet is my frenemy. It kicks the tires of my imagination but then disappears off the lot of my brain.

Last one:

scrambled mess
?????

 

I know not where to start. Apparently at one point I was considering a poll. And laughing about mental face slapping.

If I couldn’t laugh at myself I’d be crying right now. This is how my brain works, my friends. The funniest thing though is that I think I’m being so clever and efficient, writing down these ideas when I have them. Apparently I need to write a note to myself and explain that I need more context in my own notes.

 

 

About Parkland, Florida.

Seventeen families are living a nightmare this week. If I stop and think about what these folks are experiencing, it’s overwhelming. Everywhere I look there are reminders of just how much pain my fellow parents are feeling. I had the extreme privilege of hugging my child this morning and it brought me to tears.

Call me crazy if you must, but I’m not ashamed to weep for strangers. If collective sorrow is what it’s going to take to help people heal, change peoples’ hearts for good, motivate us to help hurting people, is crying such a bad thing? And come on, who isn’t crying about the tragic loss of life in what should be the safest of places?

There’s a lot of debate, as there always is after tragedy, about what to do next. The below piece of verse has been nagging at my brain, so I looked it up and found comfort and direction not just in Romans 12:9, but also in the verses that followed:

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.

Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.

Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Feeling helpless is horrible. We want something to do, a way to act, and act now. We want this because these precious souls, the ones we lost, they matter, and we don’t want them to have been lost in vain. We want to act now because for some of us it feels like the earth has stopped spinning and the sun has turned to coal. Or it would if those had been our kids.

People always say you don’t know what someone is going through until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. I think that kind of cliché does us all a disservice, because it assumes we do not have the capacity for empathy. I don’t know anyone who is incapable of empathizing with others. We just don’t do it as much as we should. I know one thing for sure –  I think we can all imagine all too well what we would feel like if those had been our kids.  And it scares the daylight out of us.

So we grieve. And we get up and we cling to what is good. We bless those who curse us. We make time to put kindness and light and purity back into the world as best we can. If the life, death, and resurrection of Christ has taught us anything, it is that the worst thing to happen is never the last thing that happens. Even though it may not feel like it now, love always wins in the end.

Stating the obvious.

When I first decided I was going to make a for-real attempt at writing for a living, I started reading all the advice to new writers I could get my hands on. You know what the underlying thread is in nearly all of them – from award-winning, NYT Best-Selling icons to newbies?

Every single person says the best thing you can do if you want to be a writer is to write every day.

I love love love though that nobody tries to hide the secret sauce. There’s no silver bullet method to getting published. If you talk to a dozen authors, you’ll get a dozen unique stories about their path from idea to shelf, whether they’ve self-pubbed or been picked up by one of the big houses. But you can’t get published if you don’t write.

The killer, of course, is that this is much harder than it sounds.

Life gets in the way. Work. Spouse. Kids. Pets. Plumbing. Illnesses. Miss one day and it snowballs into months in a blink of an eye.

So here’s my advice, as a pre-published author who also happens to freelance copywrite and proofread for a living. If you’ve missed a day (or year), put it behind you. Don’t beat yourself up. Start fresh. Start now. Make an appointment with yourself to write for however long you can, however often you can. And keep that appointment.

New Things.

pexels-photo-775779.jpegWell, we made it. A new year! And with the flip of the calendar page comes mystery and possibility and hope for making the next 365 days better than the last.

For some reason, in spite of the potential January brings, I sometimes get overwhelmed by all the excitement and determined energy around me.

In grad school we called this phenomenon “analysis paralysis.” It happens when you overthink a situation to the point of being unable to take logical next steps. You spend so much time thinking about your options until the thought of actually exercising any option and experiencing a possible consequence becomes ridiculous.

 

This failure to make a decision means that eventually, the passage of time makes your decision for you. It means instead of shopping for a good loan and buying a new vehicle to replace an unreliable one, you end up stranded in your hoopty on a busy highway at rush hour. Or it means you pay overtime plus weekend rates for a plumber when you could have sorted out the clogged drain when you first noticed it.

I’ve spent all of January worrying about which resolution to make, which bad habit to correct, what to do with my time. Maybe this is the year that I budget my time better. Or stop procrastinating. Or spend more time doing and less time worrying.  Am I too late to try?

Maybe not. Maybe my New Year starts February 1, when all the other resolvers start to wonder if they really want to stick with their new things.  Maybe I can cut myself some slack and remember that His mercies are new each morning, whether I’ve analyzed them to pieces or not. I can be thankful that grace is never indecisive.

 

 

 

 

What happened when I started a diet: A cautionary tale.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but this year I’m staring down the barrel of (at least) one family member’s wedding, a multi-decade high school reunion, and a cruise. Not only do I need to boost my stamina and endurance for these exciting events, I would love to feel comfortable in something other than sweatpants at these things.

So I made a plan.  Starting Jan 2, there would be:

  • No dairy
  • No processed foods
  • No bread or grains
  • No sugar

The days leading up to Jan 2 were pure gluttony. Of course I’d made Christmas candy, and bought cheese, and bread, and the list goes on because how can you celebrate holidays without shameless overindulgence? (there’s lots of sarcasm and embarrassment in that sentence that doesn’t come through on the screen, btw)

As I polished off a plate of cookies and let out my drawstring pants another notch, I could feel the dread flooding me like a melted chocolate wash. This was going to hurt. I knew it.

So tried to reframe my eating strategy in a more positive light. Instead of all the “no’s,” I thought about the things I loved that I could eat. For example,

  • I can have all the roasted brussels sprouts I want!
  • Yay blueberries and apples!
  • Steak? Chicken? Yes please!
  • Avocados anytime!

And I looked at old pictures, reminding myself that once upon a time I was healthier and stronger. Wouldn’t it be great to not be winded every time you climb stairs, I asked me. Won’t it feel better to, well, feel better?

January 2 was a long day. Not gonna lie. But I did it. Scrambled eggs with spinach and mushrooms for breakfast. Garden salad with balsamic vinaigrette and an avocado for lunch. Cashews for a snack. Shredded cilantro chicken over an avocado for dinner. Water and mint tea all day long.

I would love to tell you that it was fantastic and easier than I expected.  Some parts were. Giving up bread, breakfast cereal and pasta wasn’t as big a deal as I thought it would be. Eating vegetables and fruit, it turns out, is still possible to do without adding butter or cheese. And it still tastes good.

Somewhere around the middle of the day I developed a nagging headache, and noticed I was ridiculously irritable.  My filter was in overdrive by dinnertime, I was trying so hard not to rage on my family, our dog, birds outside. It was exhausting and confusing.

The third, fourth, and fifth of January weren’t much different. I adjusted pretty quickly to the eating plan, and I started riding our stationary bike again. So that was good. But this disturbing new She-Hulk personality still lingered.

Then I realized why I was so cranky: sugar addiction. I had been denial about my eating habits for so long, I didn’t really see it. My answer for everything – boredom? thirst? sleepy? stressed? – was to eat or drink something, and that something was usually sugary or starchy. I’d get my quick fix of sugar happy and be on my way.

My body just needed a little time to recalibrate. The headaches and moodiness lasted about a week and a half, and I learned to manage them without turning to a soda (or a chocolate covered cherry).  Epsom salt baths and ibuprofen helped, as did drinking lots of water.

What’s my point? I’m wondering the same thing. My point is not to be discouraged if you change your eating habits and it’s horrible and cranky-making. The detox process stinks, but it’s worth it. You’re worth it. Hang in there.

Anybody else kicking a bad habit this year? How’s it going?

 

An Open Letter to My Teenage Son

Dear Son,

You came into our world and brought joy with you.  You brought a fierce, pure heart and a genuine love that humbles me daily.

In your relatively few years on this earth, you’ve been blessed with triumphs as well as sorrows; gifts as well as challenges. Your faith and “silver lining” attitude has helped you persevere through them all.

Oh, how I wish I could say it gets easier from here.

Although the world desperately needs men of virtue and integrity, the world also makes it increasingly harder to become one.  We have taught you to be sincere, honest and kind, but you will be tempted to grow calloused, disrespectful and snarky by “entertainers” on YouTube, TV, movies, and elsewhere. We have tried to teach you humility and service, but you will be encouraged to compete for money, notoriety and status by your peers in academics and sports.  Even by teachers, family and friends who mean well, you’ll be encouraged to prioritize the things of this world.

When this happens, and it will happen a lot, my prayer is that you look to the best role model we have: Jesus.  Spend time each day reading the truth, and growing your relationship with Christ.  The lies this world will tell you have no chance against Him.

The truth is that your story began long before that snowy night in Kansas when you were born, and it is intended to be eternal. You are loved more than you know.  You were created for a purpose, and you aren’t going through any of this journey alone, even though sometimes it feels that way.

I am beyond proud of the young man you are becoming.

I love you more than my feeble words express.

I believe in you.

Love,

Mom

Cheese is the perfect vehicle for cheese.

My family gathered ’round the kitchen table early afternoon the day after Thanksgiving. Football was on, the kids were heavy into a foosball tournament, and us grownup-types were snacking and visiting. Waltzing down memory lane over leftover turkey.  It was good stuff. The visiting, that is, not the leftover turkey (although that was pretty good too).

Only I wasn’t actually eating the leftover turkey. My plate was loaded up with the remnants of Thanksgiving’s cheese tray.  For a cheese-a-holic like me, this moment was glorious, even though since we accidentally tossed the wrappers, I couldn’t honestly identify any of the cheeses on the cheese tray and had no idea what I was shoveling into my mouth.

But anyway.

The conversation was so lively and the company so warm that I was halfway through the pile on my plate before I noticed the lack of crackers and/or vegetables. It was amazing, but it was all. cheese.

My brain wheeled. I’ve been snacking nonstop, though. But how? 

In my hand, inches away from my mouth, was a wedge of hard cheese that had been dipped into a delightful herb-coated goat cheese.  I saw it. I shrugged. I ate.

This is how I discovered that cheese is, in fact, the perfect vehicle for cheese.

 

 

The power of being chosen

For weeks, my kiddo had been searching for a place to take karate lessons. I schlepped him to trial classes in pretty much every studio within a 15-mile radius.  No joy.

“Too noisy. Find another one, Mom.”

“Too many kids.”

“Not enough kids my age.”

“Too drill sergeant-y.”

“Too crazy. No rules.”

Goldilocks had it easy. “Find another one, mom” was the rally cry.  I wasn’t sure we were going to find any place he felt good about, and I really didn’t think there were any options left.

“But there aren’t other ones nearby, kiddo,” said me.  “There has to be another one,” he insisted. He’s persistent like this. He had expectations that I wasn’t sure any class or teacher would be able to live up to. But I had to look. He just knew there was another studio out there.

There was. It was 45 minutes away.

So we trekked south. To another town. To start a free two-week trial that I was convinced wouldn’t last two days.

The second we walked in the door, I knew there was no way this would be a permanent situation.  It was everything I knew my child hated: crowded, noisy, and chaotic. There wasn’t a clear surface in the room – every wall was either a floor to ceiling mirror or it was plastered with motivational posters, instructions, weapons, belts or commemorative plaques. Too many distractions.  Too many people.  It was too much.

I was mulling over whether or not to make a hasty U-turn when I heard our names over the din.  “McKinneys?” The voice was bigger than the woman wielding it.  A petite, smiling woman extended her hand, and my kiddo grasped it, and grinned at her. She nodded a greeting at me and led him to the gym floor. My doubts and I sat in the viewing area with the mish mash of parents, grandparents and siblings.

I watched them go through drill after drill in a corner of the room, ticking through the checklist, filling myself with dread.

The music is too loud, he won’t like it.  How many mirrors can one room have?  It’s too bright in here. The teacher has to yell instructions over the music – he hates yelling.  Wait. Are they doing calisthenics? How is that karate? Do they really need the music so loud? He’s going to get a headache. I’m getting a headache.  Oh, no. There are younger kids in here.  And much older kids too. He won’t feel like he fits in. He’s going to hate this.

At the end of class, the young woman returned my child to me and we stood awkwardly in an aisle as streams of families flowed in and out of the room. After weeks of trying out different classes, I knew what was coming, and I steeled myself for the sales pitch.

Here it comes.  She’ll tell me how much classes cost, and ask if we want to join. He’ll look at me and shrug, and I’ll tell her we’ll talk about it at home. When we get in the car, I’ll ask him and he’ll say ‘not this one.’ Then I’ll probably forget to call her back and she’ll call me every day for the next three weeks and … my stomach hurt just thinking about it. 

But she didn’t speak to me. She didn’t even look at me. She kneeled, and spoke to her sweaty pupil.

“Mr. McKinney, you listened very well and followed instructions the first time. That’s really important in this class.”

He nodded, and stood up straighter.

“I liked that you said yes ma’am and no ma’am, too, without being reminded. That showed me that you’re respectful, which is also very important.” She smiled.

He smiled back.

“I think you would be a good student to have in class.”

He stood even a little taller, and one corner of his mouth turned up in a modest smile.

She continued. “I hope you’ll want to come back. Would you like to come back next week?”

I held my breath, expecting to hear the same answer I’d heard week after week.

But he didn’t hesitate. “Yes.  Mom, can we?”

 

After I got over the initial shock, I felt foolish for letting my doubts and negativity blind me to what he had been looking for all along. I had been looking at my child through the wrong lens, thinking him picky and distractible rather than discerning. I suddenly recalled watching him each morning as he walked into elementary school – every day, he held the door open for teachers and classmates. And nearly every day, nobody said a word to him. He was looking for a place where he felt like his hard work would be noticed. He wanted to be seen and chosen (by someone other than his parents).

I will never forget that first trial class. His teacher noticed him, respected him, blessed him immensely, and made him feel cared about and important.  He studied with them for another year and a half, until we moved away.

I want to leave behind the doubts and impatience that lead me to frustration. Instead, I want to be like his karate teacher. I want to choose to treat people with respect and kindness.  I want to be like my persistent, positive kid, who knew in his heart if we kept trying we’d find a place he belonged.

 

“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, blessings and curses.” – Deuteronomy 30:19

 

99 Days

In my previous career, my employer was a big proponent of the management principle “measure what matters.” They had quantifiable goals for just about everything, from length of employment to number of phone calls the customer care line answered in an hour to how many Facebook ‘likes’ each post received.

It’s been several years since I worked for them, but some of those ideas stuck with me.  This morning, I had a measurement moment when I picked up my phone and a notification caught my eye.

The text was a daily reminder for my Bible In One Year app.  “Good morning, Kell.  Day 99 is waiting for you.” Day 99.  I’ve read the Bible every day for 99 days. That’s a lot of days. I’m on the threshold of 100. Nearly a third of the year I’ve spent each day deliberately with God.

If this sounds like a brag, I’m sorry. It kind of is, and it’s kind of not.

It kind of is a brag because I’m proud to have begun this new habit. My life has changed because of it, and I’m not just saying that. Seriously. I’ll write another post on the measurable ways my life has changed since I started reading the Bible. But for now, I’ll just leave it at I feel genuine joy in my life more often than I used to.

Another thing that’s changed –  I feel physical longing to read the Bible every day.  No matter what else I have going on,  until I’ve read, I feel incomplete. It’s weird. The closest thing I can compare it to is thirst.  I crave my time with the Bible.

Ninety-nine days later I’m the same, but I’m not.  I’m flawed. I’m selfish, arrogant, impatient, envious. But I’m reading about people from history who are just as flawed as me and God loved them. Forgave them. Taught them. Sent His Son to die for them so He could be with them forever.

Ninety-nine days later I’m finding that the more I read, the less alone I feel in the world.  So I want 99 more days. And 99 after that.  Because after all these years, I’m finally learning to measure what really matters, and it’s not Facebook likes.