I know, I know – middle-grade books are for EIGHT-to-twelve year olds. Myopic cretin that I am, however, I’ve chosen to focus on 12 for…no particular reason, really. I suppose because “finding your inner 8-12 year old” just looks kinda silly to me. Or maybe it’s just because my book’s protagonist is 12. I’m 40, by the way, soon to be 41, so it’s been quite some time since my twelfth birthday. What tools and techniques can a leathery old human saddlebag like me use to effectively capture the voice of a character whose tenure on the planet is so much more brief than mine?
If you ask me (I know you didn’t literally ask me, but you metaphorically did by coming to this blog, so just settle down, buckaroo), it always comes back to memory. I followed assorted tweets from the Caldecott & Newbery Awards banquet on June 27 (with only a soupcon of envy to poison my voyeuristic enjoyment), and Kate Messner reported that Rebecca Stead described her sublime MG novel WHEN YOU REACH ME as “an impossible mystery played out on the streets of my own childhood.” In a recent blog post, Nova Ren Suma said seventh grade “…was a very painful time for me personally, family-wise, socially, and more. But it’s so vivid—and I keep wanting to write it.” In this interview on Vivian Lee Mahoney’s blog Robin LaFevers candidly talks about how her childhood forms the basis for one of her signature characters, 11-year-old Theodosia Throckmorton.
So yeah, personal memories. Personal memories are big. That having been said, I also agree with cartoon memoirist Tracy White, who mentions the unreliability of memory in this Washington Post article. We do indeed forget some things, enhance some things, and diminish others. So! How to combat the memory slippage?
An obvious tactic is to hang out with 8-to-12 year old kids. That’s not a real easy tactic for me, since my own kids have a few years to go before hitting that age range, and I’m not a librarian like Nan Marino (although I do have a Slinky just like Nan does). I didn’t keep diaries like Sarah J. Stevenson did, although I am trying to take her advice and hone my skills at eavesdropping. Tricky, though – I don’t want to be creepy. Creepy is bad. Author Jodi Moore is also an inveterate eavesdropper, bless her heart, and for added value she watches the TV show “Degrassi.” Incidentally, this demonstrates one of the absolute greatest things about writing for children: a built-in degree of legitimacy for the consumption of sweet, fizzy pop culture. That is the very definition of bliss, yo.
Still, there’s a really obvious answer to the question of “how to best spur those 8-12 year old memories in order to crowbar them into a book.” It’s elementary, Watson. One of the prime ways to push a tap into those spongy, nerveless brain tissues and drain out some useful memories for your MG novel is to read a whole lot of other MG novels. There’s a reason why the entire kidlit industry goes on and on and on about the need to both write and read – the reason is because it’s true, babies.
The books I loved during my own middle-grade years are stunningly effective at evoking the sensations, thoughts and feelings I had back then, so I try and check back in with old favorites like DRAGONSONG or THE MERRY ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD or A WRINKLE IN TIME every once in a blue moon, although that gets harder as I continue to get older. Reading newer books like THE YEAR THE SWALLOWS CAME EARLY and THE STRANGE CASE OF ORIGAMI YODA, on the other hand, massages different places within the folds of my cranium – they don’t have the pure evocative magic of those old favorites, but that’s okay, because they stir up swirls and eddies of other memories that have been sitting on the shelf, undisturbed by other provocations. There’s a certain amount of distance when that happens – it becomes more about the adult me observing the childhood me, in a way – but hey, whatever works, right? Dude, this writing stuff is hard, and transmogrifying one’s self into a state of twelvishness is not exactly the easy part. Populating your desk with action figures, eating pop rocks, listening to the same Beach Boys records your cousin used to like, and especially reading books…you do what you gotta do, am I right?
Mike Jung has not yet conquered the galaxy with his mildly snarky MG manuscripts, but he’s working on it.