Monday, May 20, 2013

MEANWHILE...MIDDLE-GRADE: How We Deal With Issues In Our MG Books!

It's another Meanwhile...Middle-Grade Monday! There's a big divide in terms of what content is okay in MG vs. YA books, but middle-graders still have to deal with tough issues. They're not immune to situations that include violence, strong language, or even sex. However, the way these issues are handled in MG books often requires a different scope than in YA books. Here are some examples of the issues in our MG books and how the authors approached them for their intended audience.  

For my characters, there is more of a "suggestion" of things happening.  For example, my main character Ratchet has somewhat of a crush on Hunter, but nothing physical or romantic happens between them.  They become friends, which is really what Ratchet is longing for.  In the wholesome world of middle grade, I think characters becoming friends, with the "hint" that there might be more to it, is satisfying enough for the reader.

PARCHED is told in three voices: Sarel, a young girl, Musa, a young boy, and Nandi, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. The story opens with violence--the kind of violence that I couldn't show in real time from the perspective of a child narrator. I needed a buffer so that my audience could experience the scene from a distance. I didn't even have to think about how to handle this--the scene just naturally belonged in Nandi's voice. She could show the events in a sensory way that obscured details while giving voice to the emotional tenor of the scene.

According to Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft: “Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction. . . in literature only trouble is interesting.” And in my middle grade story in poems, GONE FISHING, this is true. The main character, Sam, has to deal with two relatively common, yet complex, issues: a seriously frustrating sibling rivalry, and facing defeat in a sport in which he longs to excel – fishing. Sam handles both in a way that isn’t entirely upstanding, but that is funny and appropriate for this age reader – he curses his sister for messing with his fishing tackle box and he wishes she would disappear when she’s too noisy on the boat. And he’s ready to chuck fishing altogether when he fails to catch even one fish. Humor also plays an important role in how Sam is able to overcome his obstacles, and in the end, it all works out for Sam (and his sister), although not necessarily in the way that a reader might expect. Regardless of the outcome, my hope is that readers will identify with some part of Sam’s frustrations and cheer for him as he navigates through the turbulent waters of his family dynamics to attempt achieving his deepest desire.

In the course of GENIE WISHES, which runs from the start to the end of fifth grade, Genie Haddock Kunkle weathers the loss of her longtime best friend to the boy-crazy, makeup-wearing new girl; her first "health class"; the growing cliquishness among her classmates; and some low-key bullying, both in person and online--all while she's serving as the elected class blogger, assigned to write on the school's assigned theme of Wishes, Hopes, and Dreams. Despite the drama swirling around her at times, Genie herself stays relatively grounded, remaining fairly confident about her own course and instincts.

The issues in the book--puberty, social stratification, etc.--are issues that fifth graders can't help but face, so I wanted to address them. Judy Blume's books--ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET especially--were funny and illuminating and reassuring for me when I was a MG-age reader, and I always wanted to read more books like hers. So, many years later, I decided to write one. Some kids at the younger end of the MG range (eight- and nine-year-olds) might not be ready for this book, while others will. But fourth, fifth, and sixth graders will really get it, I think.

In The Flame in the Mist, main character Jemma faces terrible evil caused by the Agromond rulers: child abductions, misery, Mist and more. But to me, the point of writing about such darkness is not for its own sake, but to show its transformation and defeat. 

So Jemma’s journey, though harrowing, is balanced with the levity, light and love that eventually win through. Her supporting cast includes her magical (and cute) pet rats, Noodle and Pie, with their wisdom; her friend and crush Digby, with his irreverent wit; supernatural Beings who come to Jemma’s aid; her no-nonsense nurse, Marsh; her real parents, guiding her from afar; and a beautiful character whose entire life has been in service to her mission. Their dedication and loyalty, as well as Jemma’s courage and powers for Good, make her story, ultimately, a hopeful one.

I believe these positive elements can inspire young readers to identify with similar qualities in themselves, giving them a kind of inner map for navigating their own, sometimes difficult, worlds.

For the most part, Rump is a pretty light and humorous read, but there are moments that are more serious and deal with difficult things, such as bullying, and the death of a loved one. Bullying is an issue with most kids at some point, whether they're on the giving or receiving end, so I felt this played naturally into the story in a way that was completely appropriate for the age. Death is always a difficult topic, but I also feel it's important that we don't shy away from it because, sad as it can be, it's inevitable. We all have to come to grips with the reality that everyone eventually dies, so the death that occurs in Rump is a sad and emotional event, but in the end there are elements of hope surrounding that death, a feeling that loved ones can still be with us in certain ways, and endings can also be beginnings. 

MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT is a pretty lighthearted book, and my character Hilary's quest to become a pirate is funny and fantastical, but the emotional core of the book is serious, and I've tried to make it as true to life as possible. Hilary is told by her parents (and by her whole society, in fact) that she can't pursue her lifelong dream, but she refuses to let anyone stop her from doing what she loves. At the same time, however, she desperately wants to make her parents proud. I think most readers will be able to identify with those conflicting emotions, even if they haven't spent much time sailing the High Seas, and I hope readers will see their own gumption and determination reflected in Hilary's story.

In SKY JUMPERS, bandits invade and take my main character’s town hostage. Middle grade kids don’t have to worry about bandits invading, but really, the bandits are bullies— something that middle grade kids very much have to worry about. Sometimes it’s bullies at their school, and sometimes it’s even adults who do the bullying. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to someone (especially if it’s multiple someones, or someone who has a lot more power than you). My main character stands up to them in a very foolhardy way to begin with, which is a natural reaction when kids see someone they care about being bullied. But in the end, it’s the fact that she figures out what her strengths are, and uses those strengths to her advantage that truly makes a difference. It’s the same thing for all kids— they have a multitude of untapped strengths, and have more of an ability to make a difference than they realize.

In THE NEPTUNE PROJECT, my characters actually have to face death three times in the course of the story, and I knew I had to be careful in each of those scenes. I tried not to linger too long on the moment the characters died or be too graphic about their injuries. My heroine's name is Nere, and her mother sacrifices herself to make sure that Nere escapes safely into the sea. Her mother's death does haunt Nere, but I don't allow Nere to dwell on her death quite the way I would in a YA story.
I'm thrilled that KIRKUS seemed to think I "muted" the death and violence in my novel "appropriately" and I think that's the perfect verb in this situation. Sometimes for middle grade readers you do have to mute the harshness more than you would for a young adult audience.

Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan

Because GOLDEN BOY is based on a real human rights abuse happening in the world right now, to tell the story I had to be true to a certain level of violence. However, to make it middle-grade-appropriate, I did make some very specific choices. Graphic human violence happens “off-screen,” and I skipped the sexual aspects of the superstition that leads to the abuse of people with albinism entirely.
That said, many reviewers, including Kirkus and the Junior Library
Guild, have "aged up" GOLDEN BOY, listing it for an age range from
12-17 due to the seriousness of its subject matter.

THE PATH OF NAMES is middle grade fantasy set in a summer camp.  So I immediately faced the question:   how should I (as a middle grade author) represent the bad language and obsession with sex that are typical of the summer camp experience in the years around puberty? 
I dealt with those issues by largely sticking with the point of view of a thirteen year old girl.  At that age, (in my recollection, anyway) while there’s a lot of talk about girlfriends and boyfriends, it’s mostly just talk.  So while the main character has to deal with an unwelcome crush and some talk that she doesn’t like, it’s all pretty peripheral to her main interests.  As for the bad language, perhaps the most fantastical part of this fantasy novel, is that the thirteen-year-olds don’t curse more.  There is some violence in THE PATH OF NAMES, but it’s more implied than explicit, and it didn’t trigger the editorial alarm bells in the same way that curses and mentions of sex did.

The characters in BROTHERHOOD deal with some tough issues (bullying, racial prejudice and the Ku Klux Klan). For the book to be suitable for middle-grade readers, I had to tone down the violence and limit the offensive language. But the story really isn't about the violence! It's about a boy finding a place where he thinks he belongs, only to discover that this group--this brotherhood--is bad news. He pledges allegiance to them, and when they start doing things he knows are wrong, he's stuck. He can't make them stop and can't get out. So he handles it as best he can. BROTHERHOOD is set in the defeated South after the American Civil War, and although the bullying at that time was extreme, bullying happens in every generation (Klan chapters still exist today), so the core issues remain relevant, whether you're a middle grade reader or an adult.


  1. It's a tightrope walk. Thoughtful post, Liesl!

  2. Interesting post and lots of good books listed here. Some are new to me.