Take an Umbrella, It’s Raining – The Overarching Conflict in MG

Whether we’re reading, writing, or recommending a middle grade story, conflict typically comes in at or near the top of the Important Elements list. But with regard to the specifics of conflict in MG — Single conflict or layered? Internal or external? How much is too much? — there’s a lot of different advice out there. Click five results after Googling, and you’ll get five different takes on middle grade conflict. For example:

  • One source might recommend a single line of conflict with only minimal subplot problems; another will say middle grade audiences can absolutely handle “richly layered” multiple struggles.
  • Some in the publishing industry define middle grade by not only protagonist age and content, but also by the conflict, which (they say) should be external (outside things cause trouble with which the MG main character must deal). However, others say MG characters can certainly be roiled by internal conflicts appropriate to their age, and that these internal conflicts drive actions, thereby sparking the external conflict.
  • Depth of recommended conflict depends greatly on maturity of intended audience…and calendar age of a child doesn’t always match developmental age. So one fifth grader may have a high degree of comprehension for and interest in a classroom bully story, but may or may not be quite ready for a book set during the Holocaust, like her friend in the same class.

So…it’s probably safe to say that, as with many topics in middle grade literature, there is no formula, no simple categorization system. There’s just no easy answer on conflict, in other words.

To me, this is a beautiful thing. The MG writer is free to let his or her particular story vision grow and change through different styles and intensities of conflict. And the MG reader is free to enjoy an amazing variety of stories, made inherently different by their conflicts.

But for the purpose of writing, teaching, or sharing thoughts on a middle grade novel, another way to talk about the character’s struggles might be helpful: the overarching conflict.

The notion of overarching conflict helps me understand theme and purpose in MG books that I’ve taught, and has helped me through the latest revision of my middle grade historical. An overarching conflict is like an umbrella that covers all other conflicts in the book—big, little, internal, external, resolved, unresolved. They’re all under there because, in some connected way, every smaller problem turns out to be a part of the bigger overarching problem.

This idea of overarching conflict is easiest to see with some series. Harry’s overarching conflict with Voldemort carries through all seven novels that comprise his overall story. So while each book’s plot offers its own main conflict plus multiple sub-conflicts, we also see Harry’s escalating succession of wins and losses against his biggest enemy as series-long conflict building blocks, culminating in the final epic battle that resolves the overarching conflict.

You can apply this overarching conflict idea to a stand-alone MG work, too. There are many ways to state an overarching conflict for a book; this is what I came up with for a few examples:

The overarching conflict in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars: How can Annemarie help to keep her friend Ellen safe in situations of increasing danger? When the overarching conflict helps align the MC’s objectives scene to scene, it’s easier to see how the internal conflict (Annemarie’s struggle with bravery) and the external conflict (Nazi occupation and oppression of the Jews in Denmark) exist in a two-way, fluid relationship, each affecting the other (instead of one driving another). This overarching conflict also helps bring together other conflicts (the death of Annemarie’s sister; trusted adults lying) that might at first seem disconnected, but prove by the book’s conclusion to be important parts of Annemarie’s attempt to help her friend.

The overarching conflict in Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy: How can Bud find not just a home, but his home? In this excellent quest adventure, individual conflicts arise one after another as Bud makes his way toward the home he hopes will welcome him. His mini-conflicts (the Amos family, the mission, Hooverville, Lefty Lewis) are resolved each in turn as he proceeds, each in some way giving him a piece of knowledge or inspiration moving forward, until he finally has the chance to solve his overarching struggle.

The overarching conflict in Robert Beatty’s Serafina and the Black Cloak: How can Serafina learn more about her past while living hidden from the world? As the external conflict with the man in the Black Cloak and his evil crimes intensifies, Serafina seeks answers about her mother, her background, and her own mysterious talents. Disagreements with her father and her new friend Braedyn create additional conflict layers. The author skillfully brings together the resolutions of Serafina’s external, internal, and layered conflicts in an exciting battle scene, and all work together to supply an answer to the overarching conflict.

In these examples, articulating the overarching conflict can help connect all the struggles for the MG main character, and it can demonstrate his or her constant, steady objective through a sequence of other misadventures. Indeed, maybe the greatest benefits of the overarching conflict are the depth acquired in the story without muddying the plot, and the invisible cohesion it provides.

Thanks for reading! Glad to be a new part of this great group, and eager to hear your thoughts on conflict in MG.

Challenge Day: The Boy in the Corner

The boy hunched in an empty corner of the gym while the rest of the seventh and eight grade sprint-walked across the floor to join two Challenge Day leaders in an impromptu dance party. Everyone in the room vibrated with nervous energy and twittering laughter. Everyone except the boy in the corner.

It was December and I was an adult volunteer for a six-hour, immersive Challenge Day experience at a local middle school. My job was simple: participate like everyone else and pay attention to any kids that might be slipping through the cracks.

Imagine a school where everyone feels safe, loved and celebrated. Imagine enemies finding common ground and making peace; friends healing past hurts and making amends; people igniting their passion for service and leadership; adults and youth working together to create a school where everyone is included and thrives. This is Challenge Day.

The first activities were mostly silly, racing to find a new seat if, as the Challenge Day leaders specified, “you were wearing clothes” or “woke up this morning.” All this racing around, interspersed with goofy dance moves, eased the tension in the room and shook up the normal social dynamics. Kids ended up seated next to people they didn’t know well. Everyone except the boy in the corner.

The program goes beyond traditional anti-bullying efforts, building empathy and inspiring a school-wide movement of compassion and positive change. We address some common issues seen in most schools including cliques, gossip, rumors, negative judgments, teasing, harassment, isolation, stereotypes, intolerance, racism, sexism, bullying, violence, suicide, homophobia, hopelessness, apathy, and hidden pressures to create an image, achieve or live up to the expectations of others.

Once they’d loosened up the crowd, the leaders shifted into more serious activities that unpacked different issues often found in middle school. All of this built to an intimate and intense small group activity just before lunch. In small circles of four, we took turns finishing these sentences:

If you knew me…
If you really knew me…

This far into the day, we were ready to open up. Each and every one of us in my group (which didn’t include the boy I was keeping an eye on) shared intense and personal things. We cried. We hugged. We supported. We were human in the very best way.

And we were hungry.

At lunch, we were asked to pair up with someone new. By the time I had my lunch bag, the boy in the corner was back in the corner. I don’t how he fared in his small group, but I decided that he was having lunch with me.

“Can I join you for lunch?”

He nodded.

“How’s it been going?”

He shrugged.

“That was pretty intense, huh?”

Another shrug. He wouldn’t look at me. I showed him a picture of my dog and gave him a piece of jerky. Eventually he told me about his cats and his siblings. We were human in the very best way.

Returning to the group, the leaders launched into an exercise called, “Cross the Line.” You’ve probably seen a version of it on Facebook. We began on one half of the room. The leaders asked us to cross over if we identified with a series of statements. Have you ever faced food insecurity? Are you or someone you love struggling with mental illness? Have you ever faced discrimination for your skin color? Your religion? Your sexuality?

After each statement, we were asked to send love to those who had crossed over, and if we had crossed over, we were asked to notice how many were standing with us. Tears streamed down our faces. We held each other. No one was ever alone. Not even the boy in the corner, and my lunch companion crossed many times: foster care, divorce, incarceration, suicide, bullying… These were his challenges. These and more.

At the very end of the day, we were invited to stand up and speak directly to others in the room. To apologize, to appreciate, to reach out, to connect, to commit to taking the lessons of Challenge Day into the rest of our lives.

I stood and took the mic and thanked my lunch friend for telling me about his cats.

***

For me, Challenge Day encompassed everything I love about the humans we call middle grade readers. They can be full of bluff and bluster, goof and gallantry. And sure, some of them, like my lunch friend, wear thick armor. But they can and do crack open in the most beautiful ways. They hold light even in the darkest circumstances, and they can be reached by the right teacher, the right librarian, the right book.

I hope you will consider learning more about Challenge Day. You could bring a program to your school. You could volunteer like I did. The experience affected me deeply, and it reminded me of exactly why I write the books I do. I write them for the boy in the corner.

***

Amber J. Keyser is the co-author with Kiersi Burkhart of the Quartz Creek Ranch series, numerous nonfiction titles, and two young adult novels. More at amberjkeyser.com.

Love, Ish

Hello Mixed-Up Readers! I’m excited to bring you this fun interview (and GIVEAWAY!) with Karen Rivers, author of Love, Ish.  But first, a little-ish about the book.

My name is Mischa “Ish” Love, and I am twelve years old. I know quite a lot about Mars. Mars is where I belong. Do you know how sometimes you just know a thing? My mom says that falling in love is like that, that the first time she saw Dad, she just knew. That’s how I feel about Mars: I just know. I’m smart and interesting and focused, and I’m working on getting along better with people. I’ll learn some jokes. A sense of humor is going to be important. It always is. That’s what my dad always says. Maybe jokes will be the things that will help us all to survive. Not just me, because there’s no “me” in “team,” right? This is about all of us. Together. What makes me a survivor? Mars is going to make me a survivor. You’ll see. * “A star-bright story of love, courage, and unflagging spirit.” —Booklist, starred review

 

Amie: Welcome to the Files, Karen! Why don’t you start by telling us who your favorite character is in Love, Ish and a little about why they’re your favorite.

Karen: Definitely Ish.  I think to write a book about a person, even one you’ve made up, you have to really really know that person and really really love them, even when they are flawed or even occasionally infuriating.   I love Ish and I loved taking this journey with her.

Amie: I agree! It’s a given that we’ll love our main character, isn’t it? Why else would we choose to write their stories? It would be hard to spend so much time with someone we didn’t like.  So tell our readers which scenes were the best/worst to write?

Karen:  I loved writing every word of this book, but writing the ending was a very emotional journey for me.   It was both the best and the worst!

Amie: I can definitely relate to that! Ish (Mishca) wants to go to Mars. Did you do a lot of research for your story?

Karen: I spent a lot of time researching different Mars programs and reading about the viability of Mars as a potentially habitable planet.   There are very widely differing opinions in the scientific community about, for example, whether the presence of perchlorate in Martian soil would simply preclude any possibility of humans being able to survive there.   Mars seems to be everywhere these days!  I watched the NASA feed closely for up-to-the-minute news of the rover’s findings.   At a certain point in revising, I had to stop adding new information though.  Our knowledge and understanding about Mars are constantly evolving in real time.

Amie: There’s a character known as Fish Boy (Gav) and Ish isn’t exactly fond-ish of him. Do Ish and fish boy ever become friends?

Karen: I’m reluctant to spoil too much of the plot, but yes, Mischa and Gav become friends.

Amie:  Was there any particular inspiration for Mischa’s (Ish) name?

Karen: I once met a girl named Mischa, whose nickname was Ish.   I loved the play on words of love-ish and Love, Ish.   When something is something-ish, it means it’s not quite that which it is trying to be.  Mischa’s whole journey starts out as one thing and becomes another, so I like the “ish”ness of that.

Amie: Does Mischa love anything else as much (or almost as much as Mars)?

Karen: Mischa loves a lot of things and people:  Her best friend, Tig, her sister Iris, and even her sister Elliot.   Definitely her pet parrot and her parents.   She is primarily motivated by the need to be someone who doe something special or different, someone who is remembered for being a “first”.   In so doing, she wants to figure out who she is and who she is going to be.   I think she loves more than she gives herself credit for.   When one is 12, it’s easier to pick one topic, one THING and make that your everything, whether it’s your favourite music or a personal goal or a hobby.   Kids tend to define themselves in fairly singular terms.  “I love horses” or “I’m a Katy Perry fan.”  In Ish’s case, she’d say, “I’m going to go to Mars” as her most defining characteristic, but it will be obvious to anyone reading that she’s so much more than that.  (I hope!)

Amie: All right. Last question. Does Ish ever make it to Mars?

Karen: I’m afraid I can’t answer the question without spoiling the entire book.  Once you’ve read the ending, you’ll understand why.  I’ll have to stick with, “You’ll have to read it to find out!”

Amie: Darn it! Those dang spoilers! Thanks for joining us at the Files today, Karen. Good luck to you and to Ish! And many thanks to Algonquin for providing an ARC of this book. They’re also offering a copy of LOVE, ISH to one  US reader. Be sure to leave a comment below to be entered!

Karen Rivers has written novels for adult, middle-grade, and young adult audiences. Her books have been nominated for a wide range of literary awards and have been published in multiple languages. When she’s not writing, reading, or visiting schools, she can usually be found hiking in the forest that flourishes behind her tiny, old house in Victoria, British Columbia, where she lives with her two kids, two dogs, two birds. You can find her online at karenrivers.com or on Twitter: @karenrivers

 

Amie Borst is the author of the Scarily Ever Laughter series; Cinderskella, Little Dead Riding Hood, and Snow Fright. There’s nothing “ish” about her love for writing. You can find her on her blog, her website, and her co-author website.