My son has a toy dog that knows his name and sings little song. “I’d like a [giraffe] please… it’s my favorite animal. I’d like it to be [purple]. That’s my favorite color!” You program it so it knows your kid’s interests.
I found Scout the same weekend I did a presentation on books and best friends, and I had selected a passage by Betsy Byars, from her book The TV Kid, in which its hapless hero imagines a friend he could buy at the store. He’s imagining it as a commerical: “To help that lonely feeling… buy Friend! The doll that’s as big and real as you are.” Scout was Friend for the baby set!
I used that passage in my presentation because I feel that books fill exactly that void, a temporary, artificial best friend for when you’re feeling lonely… and I think that’s especially true of kids between eight and twelve, that precarious period we call “the middle grades.”
Talk to any agent or editor of middle grade books, and they’ll tell you the main thing they want is a strong connection to the main character. Their instincts are correct–if they feel that connection, so will kids, and if kids feel that connection, the book will fill the void. They’ll have found a friend, at least for a few hours.
My Pal Scout is an engaging toy for an infant. Byron barely knows what it’s saying, but he likes the songs and he laughs when Scout talks. For older kids, I think Scout would be a bore. So you figured out my favorite food is pizza. Good for you. I see authors making that mistake, thinking they can win kids over by citing the right opinions: homework is a drag! Video games are awesome! I think grown-ups finding books for kids make that mistake, too, supposing a reluctant reader will be taken in just because a book is about his or her interests: you like baseball. The kids in this book play baseball!
I didn’t have much in common with Harriet Welsch of Harriet the Spy — she’s a rich kid in New York, I was middle class and lived in North Dakota — but the connection was there. Victor, of Lizard Music, likes Walter Cronkite and jazz music, two interests I didn’t even take up after reading that book to tatters. Mrs. Frisby is a middle aged woman… and a mouse. Every one of those characters feels like a dear old friend. I remember other books, vaguely, that threw out a few necessary and time-sensitive characteristics so kids could “identify,” but those books aren’t the ones who turned me into an ardent reader and writer.
I feel like the newer classics play by the same rules. A kid doesn’t have to be either a girl or a genius to connect to Millicent Min, nor a mouse to like Despereaux. American muggles feel plenty connected to Harry Potter and his pals. Real friends require a deeper connection than a few similar tastes, and so do the kinds of books that turn kids into readers. The right book will be different for different kids, but chances are if you feel a connection to the character, kids will too.
Kurtis Scaletta has written books about baseball, snakes, and fungi for young readers. He hopes you will read those books whether you like those things or not.