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.

 

 

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.

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?

 

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

 

How to get through the long winter

No, this isn’t a Game of Thrones post. Sorry.

This is yet another post about how my kid amazes me. When we moved from a southern state to one a little further north six (!?!) years ago, I dread spending  long, grey winters indoors.

Until I saw how happy it made my kiddo.

Me:  (wrapping scarf #2 around top of child’s head and ears)  Fifteen minutes. You have fifteen minutes to play, then you come inside and warm up for five minutes.

Kiddo: mmffff  hmm meh hhmmm fmm mm.

Me: What?

Kiddo: (unbundling face) You don’t have to worry.

Me:  Of course I worry.  Frostbite is serious business.

Kiddo: Not for me. I’m part penguin. (grins)

It was that moment when I decided to let go of my worry (within reason) and I’m so glad I did. I watched from the window as a pack of tiny bodies waddled in the snow, flung snowballs with reckless abandon, and, generally speaking, behaved like a bunch of young penguins on an iceberg. My son-of-a-southerner flopped face first into a snowdrift, arms and legs flapping, and scooted across the front yard on his belly. Why? Who cares. It was fun.

Subsequent winters saw us with more snowball fights, snowmen named Jasper who liked jaunty caps, snow alligators, green with food coloring, towering forts and even a three-headed snow hydra.

So, now, I actually kind of look forward to the first big snowfall of winter. When the air is heavy and smells like ice, and you just know when you wake up the world will be clean and quiet with new snowfall. It seems no matter how old my kiddo gets, his face still lights up when he looks out the window at new snow. Maybe he is part penguin.

 

 

About extremes

 

I think it was near the end of fourth grade when my child started incorporating some of the Disney-channelisms into his everyday language.

Everything remotely good that happened, whether it was a bowl of cereal or a three-point basket became  “epic!”

On the other hand, if something didn’t quite work out – a stray dribble of ketchup from the bottle hit the dinner plate –  that was “so much fail.”

It’s all normal, I know.  Kids will pick up expressions from the playground, the classroom, YouTube, and that ilk. They try on different aspects of their personalities like  hats,  trying to see which ones feel the most comfortable.

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but an adjective like ‘epic’ doesn’t pair well with anything other than Homer’s Iliad.  Maybe Star Wars. The noun that follows a word like epic truly needs to demonstrate heroic substance and weight. With all due respect to Kevin Durant, I question whether the most beautifully-executed three-point shots truly qualify as epic. Nor does a simple misstep along the way to the trash bin equal devastating failure.

For a while, I thought maybe these expressions were a byproduct of the hormonal roller-coaster known as puberty. And honestly, at our house, this is probably exactly what it is – a temporary step in the process of our kiddo growing up.

But it seems like everywhere you look, daily events are hyperbolized into life-changers of one extreme or another. I laughed out loud this morning at an advertisement for a cereal that proclaimed This. Is. Everything.  I had no idea honey-sweetened oats were so powerful.

bowl of cereal a.k.a. everything
Everything?

On the one hand, I am a big fan of celebrating everyday joys.  Doing a happy dance when I toss a wad of paper towels from the kitchen table to the trash bin *and make the basket.* My child and I singing at the top of our lungs in the car. Life’s too short to not celebrate whenever you can.

On the other hand, though, when everything is an extreme – either everything or nothing – we lose our ability to appreciate the vast majority of our lives that lie in between.

I think that’s a shame. All those in-between things, the everyday observations that would otherwise go unmentioned in the  novel of my life, are the daily simplicities that sustain us. Because it’s in those little things, my husband’s smile, my child’s yawn, my dog’s snore, those are the things that show me how near God really is all the time. And that, my friends, that is what’s really ‘epic.’

 

 

 

 

My Summer ‘To Read’ List

This year I was lucky enough to go to the Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference and hear the fantastic Nancy Lohr speak about writing for children. One of the first things she asked the group was “who here has read a children’s book recently?” More than half of us raised our hands.

She was happy with our response, and told us that she’d spoken to a number of groups – writers’ groups – in which no one had read a children’s book in the past year, five years, ten years. How can you write in a genre you don’t read?

If you’re a children’s writer, you have to read children’s books. And there’s plenty of incredible ones out there to soak up. Here’s a list of a few that are on my list for the summer months.

Anne Ursu’s Cronus Chronicles  Breadcrumbs 

I adored “Breadcrumbs” and “The Real Boy,” for their wit, the dialogue that’s grounded in reality while playing in a fantasy world, and simple, beautiful characterizations.  I’ve been itching to read the Cronus series for a while.

 

Absolutely Almost, by Lisa Graff

Story of a ten-year-old boy with learning challenges who changes schools and becomes the target of a bully.

 

Del Ryder and the Crystal Seed, by Matthew David Brough

Full disclosure – I had the pleasure of meeting Matt Brough at Blue Ridge, and was intrigued by how he described the heroine of this series. Del Ryder sounds like a character I could cheer for.

 

For Animal Lovers, by Kim Cano

Three short stories about animals (including a special needs swordfish obsessed with aliens), with a portion of the proceeds going toward the ASPCA.

 

What’s on your list? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday Morning

It’s as reliable as the rise and set of the sun.  Monday through Friday, getting our son out of bed for school is fraught with as much drama as an episode of “The Hills.”  I slog my way into his pre-dawn room, trip over an errant action figure or race car, kneel down by his bedside, and let my eyes adjust.

He’s beautiful when he sleeps,  I don’t mind saying, and when my eyes are sludge-free and I can stare at him at will, it’s not uncommon for me to swell up with tearful love for the kid.

Then I glance at the clock and there it is- the cold hard crack back to reality, and it’s time to yank the little cherub out of his rest and plunge him into the morning.

The drama usually begins like this:

Me:  Good morning sweet boy.  Time to wake up.  [*gentle smooch on cheek*]

K:  {thrashes from one side to the other, swinging an arm and smacking me in head/face/neck or upper torso} Mom.  NO.  I’m sleeping.

Me:  {rubbing the injured body part}  I know honey.  It’s time to wake up.  School day.{reaches over and turns on bedside lamp}

K:  {hoisting blankets over his head} Mom!  Stop it!  I’m SLEEPING.

I should point out that  this is where the direction of the dialogue goes one of two ways, one of them far more appealing to me than the other.  He either dives headfirst into frustration and angst and temporarily becomes a junior Rumplestiltskin, and I drag him step by step through breakfast, getting dressed, brushing teeth, loading into the car, shuffling to class.  (hint – not my favorite)

Or, he shakes off the early daze and becomes my absolute favorite, Happy Morning Boy, and he wants to play ninja battle force or – my personal favorite – racing tag – all the way to school.  All this before 7 a.m., and usually all this before I’ve had a single sip of coffee.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.  Five times.  Enter Friday night.  I say a fervent prayer, knowing that my dearest husband will very likely let me catch up on my zz’s in the morning and get up with K  whatever the crazy hour it is.  But I say my earnest prayer anyway, because I hold fast to a fantasy of a lazy Saturday morning, sunlight streaming in the windows, birds chirping, and a gradual easing into the day.  Sort of like a zero-entry swimming pool.  Dear, dear, gracious and kind Lord.  Please let our little angel sleep in tomorrow.  Let him rest.  He’s still growing.  I’m not asking for noon, just maybe 7:30.  Let me know.

It’s Saturday morning.  Or at least, I think it is.  It’s pitch black.   Could be Friday night.  A tiny hand clutches my shoulder in the dark, and I have to take a deep breath to keep from snarling.

K::  Mom?

Me:  (breathing in…) Yes dear?

K:  I had a bad dream.

Me: You did?

K:  (tearfully) Yeah.  Can I cuddle with you?

And there in the dark, with his warm little body molded to my side, I think about what kind of dream might have driven him here.  I wonder what monsters my mommy-arms keep at bay.

I  realize that someday in the not so distant future, I will have plenty of lazy Saturday mornings.  There will be far more time than I probably want to listen to chirpy birds.  I can comfort my boy now, but all too soon there will be tears shed that try as I might, I won’t be  able to dry.

So I cuddle him close, listen to the day begin, and just hold on.