Category Archives: For Writers

Words and Music

Since today is National Buy an Instrument Day, we’re tooting the horns of middle-grade books featuring musical kids, as well as some great biographies.

There is so much comedy and drama built into a band or orchestra story. I well remember the gut-twisting terror of pop band tests and the frustration of never being able to attain first-chair trumpet. But for all of the trials, come contest or concert time, pep band or parade, nothing was quite as thrilling as playing my part in creating a spectrum of sound.

Front and center is Second Fiddleby our own award-winning Roseanne Parry! 

The author of Heart of a Shepherd offers another sensitive portrayal of military families, this time stationed abroad, in the city of Berlin at that historic time just after the Wall came down.

When 13-year-old Jody and her friends save a badly beaten Russian soldier from drowning, they put into motion a chain of events that will take them from Berlin to Paris and straight into danger. Jody must quickly learn to trust herself, because in the time directly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the border between friend and enemy is not as clear as it once was.

A fast-paced, coming-of-age story filled with adventure, music, friendship, and intrigue.

Band Geeks Seriesby Amy Cobb The band room. For band geeks at Benton Bluff Junior High, it’s the place to be. Their director, Mr. Byrd, may dress like he’s in the tropics, but he’s strict on the podium, getting his students to play like the musicians they are. These band geeks handle friendships, crushes, dances, fund-raisers, jealousy, divided loyalties, missing instruments, parents, grandparents, school dances, solo competitions, chair placement auditions, band camp, and more throughout the school year. Music is just the beginning!

The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & the Invention of the Piano, by Elizabeth Rusch and Majorie Priceman Award-winning biographer Elizabeth Rusch and two-time Caldecott Honor-recipient Marjorie Priceman team up to tell the inspiring story of the invention of the world’s most popular instrument: the piano.

Bartolomeo Cristofori coaxes just the right sounds from the musical instruments he makes. Some of his keyboards can play piano, light and soft; others make forte notes ring out, strong and loud, but Cristofori longs to create an instrument that can be played both soft and loud.
His talent has caught the attention of Prince Ferdinando de Medici, who wants his court to become the musical center of Italy. The prince brings Cristofori to the noisy city of Florence, where the goldsmiths’ tiny hammers whisper tink, tink and the blacksmiths’ big sledgehammers shout BANG, BANG Could hammers be the key to the new instrument?

At last Cristofori gets his creation just right. It is called the pianoforte, for what it can do. All around the world, people young and old can play the most intricate music of their lives, thanks to Bartolomeo Cristofori’s marvelous creation: the piano.

Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis Bud Caldwell has been an orphan since he was six. After 4 years of foster homes and orphanages, Bud has had enough. He hops a train from Flint, Michigan to Grand Rapids. Armed with just an old flyer, his suitcase, and Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself,  he plans to find his father, the great jazz musician Herman Calloway and his band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression. But once in Grand Rapids,  Bud begins to untangle the lies and secrets of his family history, all while falling headlong into the magical world of jazz. Like the music itself, Bud learns the truth is often complicated, both painful and joyful.

I am Drums, by Mike Grosso  Sam knows she wants to be a drummer. But she doesn’t know how to afford a drum kit, or why budget cuts end her school’s music program, or why her parents argue so much, or even how to explain her dream to other people. But drums sound all the time in Sam’s head, and she’d do just about anything to play them out loud–even lie to her family if she has to. Will the cost of chasing her dream be too high? An exciting new voice in contemporary middle grade, Mike Grosso creates a determined heroine readers will identify with and cheer for.

The Mysteries of Beethoven’s Hair, Russell Martin and Lydia Nibley At the time of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death, it was a common practice to take a lock of hair from the deceased as a remembrance, a sacred remnant of the person who meant so much when alive. One such lock of Beethoven’s hair survived through the years and eventually became the joint property of two men who, in 1995, opened the sealed frame that encased the hair and began the process of unlocking the mysteries of Beethoven’s life, death, and possibly his genius.

Follow the trail of Beethoven’s hair as it was passed on from the boy who cut it to his son and down through the years, as it was safeguarded from Nazi Germany and eventually sold at auction in 1994. Through careful forensic testing, the hairs in the lock revealed the causes of Beethoven’s deafness and his many illnesses. This fascinating story is not only a study of the secrets that forensics can reveal, but a moving history of many people’s devotion to Beethoven’s music. Husband and wife team Russell Martin and Lydia Nibley follow the success of Martin’s adult book, BEETHOVEN’S HAIR, with this retelling for younger readers.

The Reinvention of Moxie Roosevelt, by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel Moxie Roosevelt Kipper has endured thirteen years of being an ordinary girl with an unordinary name. Now that she’s entered boarding school, the time is ripe to reinvent herself. She’ll become unusual, outlandish, unexpected, sassy? someone worthy of a name like Moxie. But who exactly? From Mysterious Earth Goddess to Hale and Hearty Sports Enthusiast; from Detached, Unique, Coolly Knowing Individual to Assertive Revolutionary Activist, Moxie tries them all, while keeping her true talent for piano-playing a secret. But at boarding school, Moxie isn’t the only one who isn’t what she claims to be.

The Way to Stay in Destinyby Augusta Scattergood Theo Thomas has two passions: baseball and piano. Ripped from his life on his grandparents’ farm, and plunked down in Destiny, Florida with his cantankerous Vietnam vet uncle, Theo’s not sure how he’s going to survive past the sixth grade. But then there’s Miss Sister and her piano, and Anabel and her Hank Aaron project, and suddenly Destiny might not be so bad after all. As long as his uncle doesn’t find out what he’s up to.

 

A Crooked Kind of Perfectby Linda Urban Zoe Elias has a mother who is never home and a father who refuses to leave home. Ever. The odds are stacked against her. But that doesn’t stop her from dreaming of playing the piano at Carnegie Hall. Fortunately for Zoe, her father is listening. Unfortunately, he’s easily distracted and that’s how Zoe ends up the proud new owner of the Perfectone D-60 organ. Now not only is she stuck playing the organ, but suddenly there’s the Perfect-O-Rama Annual Organ Competition. And the strange boy Wheeler Diggs following her home from school everyday. Life for Zoe Elias is about as far from perfect as it can gets. She thinks.

Drums, Girls, & Dangerous Pie, by Jordan Sonnenblick Steven has a totally normal life (well, almost). He plays drums in the All-City Jazz Band (whose members call him the Peasant), has a crush on the hottest girl in school (who doesn’t even know he’s alive), and is constantly annoyed by his younger brother, Jeffrey (who is cuter than cute – which is also pretty annoying). But when Jeffrey gets sick, Steven’s world is turned upside down, and he is forced to deal with his brother’s illness, his parents’ attempts to keep the family in one piece, his homework, the band, girls, and Dangerous Pie (yes, you’ll have to read the book to find out what that is).

The Mozart Season, by Virginia Euwer Wolff When Allegra was a little girl, she thought she would pick up her violin and it would sing for her―that the music was hidden inside her instrument. Now that Allegra is twelve, she believes the music is in her fingers, and the summer after seventh grade she has to teach them well. She’s the youngest contestant in the Ernest Bloch Young Musicians’ Competition. She knows she will learn the notes to the concerto, but what she doesn’t realize is she’ll also learn―how to close the gap between herself and Mozart to find the real music inside her heart.

Vanished, by Sheela Chari  Eleven-year-old Neela dreams of being a famous musician, performing for admiring crowds on her traditional Indian stringed instrument. Her particular instrument was a gift from her grandmother-intricately carved with a mysterious-looking dragon.

When this special family heirloom vanishes from a local church, strange clues surface: a tea kettle ornamented with a familiar pointy-faced dragon, a threatening note, a connection to a famous dead musician, and even a legendary curse. The clues point all the way to India, where it seems that Neela’s instrument has a long history of vanishing and reappearing. Even if Neela does track it down, will she be able to stop it from disappearing again?

The Drum of Destiny, by Chris Stevenson The year is 1775 and twelve-year-old Gabriel Cooper is an orphaned patriot stuck living in a house of loyalists. But when the boy discovers a discarded drum in the East River, he sees it as a call to leave his home in New York and join in the fight for freedom in Boston. With rich, historic details, Gabriel’s adventure will captivate readers as they join the boy on the difficult journey to his destiny

 

I Heart Band Series, by Michelle Schusterman and Genevieve Kote Holly Mead’s first day of seventh grade isn’t going as planned. Her brother ruins her carefully chosen outfit, she’s almost late, and her new band director has some surprisingly strict rules. Worst of all, it seems like her best friend, Julia, has replaced her with Natasha, the pretty, smart, new French horn player! Holly is determined to get first chair, but Natasha is turning out to be some pretty stiff competition—and not just in band. Band might be a competition, but friendship isn’t—and Holly needs to figure it out before she loses Julia for good.

Looking for more composer biographies? Check out this list by the American Musicological Society. What books can you recommend for middle-grade music lovers?

Our Mighty Girls (and a mighty giveaway, too)

Last month fellow MUFer Sarah Aronson and I were happy to learn that a panel we proposed for this year’s National Council of Teachers of English (aka NCTE) was accepted. The topic is “Our Mighty Girls”, and we’ll be talking about how young middle grade series featuring strong female heroes can help build empathy and demonstrate peaceful problem-solving to all readers. Unless the conference’s organizers decide to give us a half a day or so, I’m afraid we’ll be hard pressed to say all we want!

Our two fellow panelists are:

Kate Hannigan, author of

Cousins Willow and Delia lead a diverse cast of characters who solve their challenges with smarts, humor, compassion and yes, sweets!

And Crystal Allen, author of

Mya, a true free spirit, longs to be a cowgirl. She meets issues of bullying, name-calling and miscommunication with enough spirit for ten kids and a heart big enough to both learn and forgive.

Sarah’s delightful new series  

debuts this month, and features a main character who knows what it’s like to work hard, be patient and never give up if you want to reach your goal.

The third book of my CODY series

is just out (more about that at the end of this post!)

Writing our proposal got us thinking about how many wonderful series there are for young middle graders, and how they pave the way for longer, more complex books without skimping on character development or rich themes.  Readers become long-term friends with these characters, and grow along with them. Two of my current-and-all-time-favorites are hilarious, heart-tugging “Clementine” by Sara Pennypacker and Marla Frazee, and droll, outside the box “Ivy and Bean” by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall.

And, to give away my age once and for all, here are three I loved when I was eight or nine:

Best friends forever and ever!

Who didn’t want to be Pippi? Or at least her friend?

Need I say more? That name has become synonymous with childhood.

Which are your favorites, old or new?

*********

I started writing my CODY books as a sort of antidote to my heavier-duty middle grade novels. I wanted to write funny. Simple. I wanted to stay in the light, away from the dark. But as I got to know Cody, a girl who feels empathy for everyone and everything (including skunks and Madagascar hissing cockroaches), I  realized it was going to be more complicated than I thought. Children feel things through and through. They feel joy in their toes, sorrow in their bellies, confusion prickling their skin. This might be truest of all for the younger middle grade reader.

So even when I’m writing about things that seems simple on the surface–a lost cat, a mean teacher, a first sleep-over, a big brother who’s sad–I try to honor how large they loom in Cody’s budding life. Funny and happy as she mostly is, Cody puzzles her way through all sorts of dilemmas. In the newest book, she learns what it means to wrestle with a conscience. Whew. It’s mighty hard.  But then, Cody is a mighty girl.

To celebrate  all the Mighty Girls, I’m giving away  a copy of the new CODY as well as the first two books, “Cody and the Fountain of Happiness” and “Cody and the Mysteries of the Universe”. Leave a comment below to enter. (U.S. readers only, please).

The Blurred Line Between MG and YA

It’s easy to tell that some books are middle grade novels at first peek—and the same goes for some young adult novels. But a bunch of them feel like they’re somewhere in the middle of MG and YA. With a main character who is 13 or so, the line between MG and YA feels blurred at times, because MG can explore intense topics and some YA are fairly tame.

I asked a bunch of amazing authors who have both middle grade and young adult novels published how they know if their books should be MG or YA, besides the age of their main characters. Here’s what they said:

Debbie Reed Fischer

As “Kidlit” authors, we aren’t just writers; we’re impersonators. Teens and tweens can smell an adult author doing a bad impersonation a mile away (so can editors). One word or phrase off, and you’re sunk. Sometimes we don’t always get it right. I went through an ‘Is this MG or YA?’ identity crisis with my original version of THIS IS NOT THE ABBY SHOW, my first middle grade novel. When my agent first submitted it to publishers, it was a YA manuscript (or so I thought) starring Abby: age 16, impulsive, funny, and ADHD. Editors responded enthusiastically to the premise and humor, but felt Abby’s voice and concerns were middle grade, despite the fact that the book contained profanity and sexuality. There were also other MG aspects, like a character who did magic tricks. You almost never see magicians in YA, but magician kids do appear in MG. Editors wanted to see the book again but as a middle grade. I had never considered writing middle grade, and I had heard from author friends that middle grade humor is difficult to pull off, so I shelved the manuscript for over a year. But eventually, I made the decision to give middle grade a try, because the only difference between me and a rottweiler is that a rottweiler eventually lets go. Also, I really wanted to get published again.

So I read middle grade books and started researching the differences between MG and YA. I learned that middle grade books focus more on family, friendships and the Here and Now. There isn’t a lot of serious long-term planning in their characters’ perspectives, whereas if you’re writing a senior in high school, personal life goals, serious relationships, and the looming future typically factors in. What’s important to a middle grader isn’t the same as what’s important to a high schooler. What’s funny to an eleven-year-old isn’t what’s funny to a seventeen-year-old. What scares a seventh-grader is not the same as what terrifies a high school freshman. Once I understood both the overt and subtle differences, I began again from scratch and completely rewrote the book. I eliminated several characters and added more members of Abby’s family, I toned down the romance aspect to make it more of a friendship story. I focused more on her evolving friendships, her struggle to control her ADHD impulses, her classroom experiences, her relationships with teachers, and the complications of daily life with her quirky family. I made it multi-generational, making her grandparents key characters, which is something you see more of in MG than YA. One to two words can make all the difference in tone and authenticity. Did you know some editors/ gatekeepers consider “crap” a curse word in MG? I didn’t. Word choice was challenging. I made the chapters shorter than the chapter length of my YA novels to reflect the pace of a middle grader’s point of view, and shorter chapters also moved the plot faster to reflect the reactive way a middle grade mind works. Shorter chapters also served to mimic an ADHD mind, which was important to me while writing from Abby’s POV. Ultimately, I learned that middle grade vs. young adult has more to do with voice and mindset than age level.

 

Dorian Cirrone

For me, the issues that the main character deals with in a middle-grade novel seem to have more to do with friendship and family. And while there might be a male-female bond brewing, it’s more of a crush than anything resembling the type of relationship you’d find in a ya novel. If I think of a story where characters are concerned more with the immediate world around them rather than a larger view of society or a relationship involving love and/or sex, I know it will be middle grade. This isn’t to say that middle-grade novels don’t involve heavy themes. They do, but they’re seen through a different lens, sometimes more earnest, less jaded. In addition, while young adult novels often end on a hopeful note, sometimes they don’t. I would say middle-grade novels almost always do in some way–at least the ones I’ve been reading lately. One more practical issue: If the characters can’t get to where they have to go (without adults) by foot, bike, or public transportation, I’ll have to rethink the setting or the age.

 

Sean Easley

The struggle in figuring out whether you’re writing a YA or a MG novel is very real, but I think it comes down to what the reader’s mindset is more than the characters, and what you’re wanting to communicate. MG readers are, mostly, still in a world of dependence, safety, and trust. They need adults, and they have to figure out how to accomplish their goals within a framework of that need. That carries through into their goals, and the way they see the world, too. If you live in a state of having your needs cared for, then your goals are to explore, to connect, to learn, to enjoy.

YA readers are in a different place. Freedom is on the horizon, and there’s a fear that comes with that. They’re butting up against their parents because they want to experience that freedom, to figure out what life is going to look like for them. They live on the edge, testing adult boundaries, figuring out who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives. Whereas MG readers live in dependence on the adults in their lives, YA readers are growing cynical of the boundaries placed on them. And while MG stories can be full of peril, at the end of the day their readers still often need the comfort of knowing it’s going to be okay, that there is someone they can trust besides themselves, and that the responsibility isn’t all on them.

Something important to note too is that, in writing for a target demographic, you’re writing for just under that age bracket, too, as well as (and this is important) all the gatekeepers who will decide what is appropriate for that group. This might not matter as much with YA, but in MG you’ll have to walk a very careful line with your content. More mature subject matter—while it might be something you are certain kids need to deal with and understand—will be content filtered by librarians, parents, etc. before it ever gets into the hands of your reader. Those harder topics will have to be handled delicately if you want to find your audience in MG, and if they’re not you’re going to have a rough time. A lot of determining whether your book is MG or YA comes down to when it’s age-appropriate to deal with the content, and the character, you want to share.

 

For all the nonfiction lovers out there, Jennifer Swanson, one of the queens of nonfiction, shared this:

When writing a nonfiction book, tone, language, and content are the things that determine the age range of your reader. The biggest factor is that you need to make sure what you are discussing in your book has already been introduced to your target reader. For example, if you want to talk about how plants grow, in a picture book, you will explain how they need water, sunlight, soil, and nutrients. But, if you are going to discuss photosynthesis, the process by which a plant takes energy from the sun and turns it into food for itself, you are going to be writing a book for say a 3rd to 5th grader. If you want to talk about the genetics of a plant, how they cross-pollinate, and the way you can manipulate their DNA and RNA, you will be speaking to YA reader. The voice of the manuscript will also help you decide the appropriate reader age. Books for middle graders will have a more lively, active tone and should still be fun. There should be lots of explanations and age-appropriate analogies. For instance, when I talk about height, I say it’s “as tall as a 3-story building” or maybe “it’s a long as a football field”.  When you write YA you have longer, more complex words and sentences. You can use bigger words and give more in-depth explanations and more sophisticated examples, such as exact measurements and exact scientific terms. That is because you assume that your reader has a much wider vocabulary. The length of the story also comes into play. Middle grade nonfiction tends to be shorter than YA nonfiction, which can run up to and over 30,000 words. Basically, if you are unsure which level your manuscript is, I highly recommend taking a look at similar books to see where they were placed. That will give you a good idea of what level your own manuscript might be.

 

Here’s the response of author and writing coach, Joyce Sweeney, when I asked how she can tell which genre her client’s books should be besides the age of the main characters:

There are a couple of differences between MG and YA.  The most obvious is romance.  In an MG, there are crushes and romantic feelings but they are pure and innocent, not going any further than maybe a kiss very close to the end of the book, at most.  In YA, main characters are more aware of their sexuality and openly lust after each other, fall in love and can even have sex in some books where it makes sense.  Another difference is that YA readers are aware that at some point in time, they will truly grow up and leave the nest.  MG’s are still ensconced in a world where grownups have the power.  So MG’s may save the world, question the system and fly on dragons, but at the end of the day, they still depend on adults to care for them or lead them in some way.  YA’s have an almost antipathy for adults which is a defense mechanism, because soon they will have to leave their care.  In many YA novels, the main character does end the book outside the care of adults, on their own in some way.  Finally I would close with this — in Picture Books, the reader lives mostly in their body, in Middle Grade, they live mostly in their minds.  In YA they live mostly in their emotions.  So while an MG reader has super patience with complicated world building, for instance, they are most interested in a smart main character who figures things out.  A YA reader identifies with a main character who feels deeply and acts on those feelings.

I’m sending a huge thank you to the awesome authors who took the time to help all of us make the line between MG and YA a lot less blurry than it was. You’re such a wealth of information!

I’d love to see your tips for knowing if a book is better for an MG or YA audience.