Tag Archives: contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction

Do You Think the World is Ready?

I don’t shock easily, but two recent incidents had me reeling.

The first happened during a creative writing workshop I ran for kids in Grades 4-6. At the start of the workshop, several kids mentioned which of my books they’d read. Then one girl raised her hand and shyly announced that she wanted to read my books, but her mom wouldn’t allow her. “She says they have bad words,” the girl reported.

I tried to seem blase. “Has your mom read any of my books?” I asked her.

“No,” the girl admitted.  “But she’s seen the covers.”

I assured her that I was always careful not to use “bad words”–and that it wasn’t fair to judge a book by its cover. But how a parent viewed any of my covers and decided the text contained inappropriate language  was a mystery to me. And the sad thing was, this girl was an enthusiastic writer who clearly craved access to all sorts of books.

The other incident occurred at the start of an elementary school’s Read Aloud Day. Because my books fall into the  upper elementary/ middle school category, I was assigned a fourth grade class, as was the local middle school principal.  As the two of us chatted before the program, he asked what books I had on the horizon.

I told him about my upcoming middle grade novels:  TRUTH OR DARE (Aladdin, S&S/Sept. 20, 2016), which is about a mom-less girl’s experience of puberty, and STAR-CROSSED (Aladdin/S&S, March 2017), which is about a girl who has a crush on the girl playing Juliet in the middle school production of Shakespeare’s play.

The principal’s face turned pink. He laughed nervously. “Oh,” he said. “Do you think the world is ready?”

I explained that all my books were wholesome, completely appropriate for tweens. I hoped he’d express enthusiasm, maybe even extend an invitation to the middle school, or say he’d mention the books to the school librarian.  But he didn’t do either. Instead, he changed the subject.

I’ve been thinking about  both of these incidents  a lot lately, in light of Kate Messner’s recent dis-invitation from a school uncomfortable with her newest MG, THE SEVENTH WISH. That book, which I deeply admire, is about a girl whose older sister has a heroin addiction– a topic the school decided was inappropriate for its students .

What scares me is not so much outright book-banning, because that happens in the bright light of day, and often leads to heightened interest in the banned book, anyway.  What I find even more troubling is “quiet censorship,” the sort of thing that happens when an adult decides the world, or a school, or a classroom, or a particular kid “isn’t ready” to read about certain topics. And so he doesn’t extend the invitation, or order the book–not because the book isn’t good, or isn’t written at the right level, but because the subject makes him nervous. It’s a type of book-banning–but because it happens under the radar, it’s difficult to detect.

When Kate Messner was disinvited from a school, she had an overt act, the revoked invitation, to react to, and she did so eloquently and effectively, both on her blog and behind a podium at ALA 2016. But many authors who tackle challenging subjects just won’t get the initial invitation, or their book simply won’t get ordered by the library.  So how do they even know they’ve been “quietly censored”? And how can they–or their readers–protest? After all, schools and libraries are free to make their own choices, as they should be.  If they choose not to order a certain book, who’s to say the choice was motivated by the book’s challenging or controversial subject, and not by the author’s writing style?

I keep coming back to the realization that kids are older than we think they are, older than we were when we were their age.  Girls are menstruating at younger ages, getting eating disorders at younger ages (this is the subject of my upcoming eighth novel STUFF I KNOW ABOUT YOU (Aladdin/S&S Sept. 2017).  The internet has exposed all of our kids to a cruel, violent, judgmental world. If we don’t allow kids to read MG novels that reflect the world they live in, one of two things will happen. Either kids will turn off reading realistic fiction altogether (and with the internet constantly beckoning, that’s a real concern)– or they will crash the gate, choosing, and perhaps sneaking, YAs that are too explicit and dark for their years.  As any parent of a teen knows, once a kid starts reading YA fiction, he/she seldom wants to discuss the edgier content with an adult. Isn’t it better to allow access to books specifically geared toward a MG sensibility–the way  THE SEVENTH WISH is?  And shouldn’t we as adults want to stay in the conversation–even when (or especially when) the conversation makes us nervous?

We can’t be in favor of diversity in kidlit without welcoming books that include all sorts of previously ignored characters: kids of color, LGBT kids, kids in nontraditional families, kids coping with a family member’s addiction, kids coping with mental illness (like Dunkin in Donna Gephart’s  beautiful LILY AND DUNKIN).  There’s nothing inherently “wrong” or “inappropriate” about these characters–they’re just kids on the basketball team, kids on the school bus, kids in the play. And they deserve to be represented, read about, identified with, empathized with.

The world is ready.

Barbara Dee’s next book, TRUTH OR DARE, will be published on September 20, 2016.

Indie Spotlight: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville NC

malaprop's logo #2Independent bookstores are undoubtedly one of the most hopeful things  going for writers and readers today.  With special pleasure this month we feature Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (www.malaprops.com) which spoke up and pushed back pushed back in North Carolina this spring.  We are talking today with General Manager Linda-Marie Barrett.malaprop's front #1
MUF:
During the recent controversy over gender laws in your state, you appealed to authors and businesses not to boycott bookstores as part of their protest. Was the response encouraging? What role do you think bookstores like Malaprops can play in shaping independent and inclusive outlooks, particularly in the young?
Linda-Marie:After our open letters to authors, published in Shelf Awareness, in which we urged authors not to boycott us, we received very encouraging and supportive letters and phone calls from authors, publishers and other booksellers. Independent bookstores like Malaprop’s Malaprop's Thanksare often the only space in communities where controversial ideas are discussed. Independent bookstores are guardians of freedom of expression. We host authors and carry books that nurture inclusivity and awareness of different ways of being in the world.

MUF: Describe the atmosphere you have created in your shop.   What do you want people, especially young people, to experience when they visit? malaprop's interior #2
Linda-Marie: We hope most to be welcoming, inspiring and safe. We want to be a place where people relax when they enter our doors, find their next great read, laugh at some of our silly gift items, and engage with our booksellers and learn something new. We love our young readers and encourage them to find books that open their minds and their hearts and spark imagination.

MUF: What’s a good day at Malaprops?
Linda-Marie: Every day is a good day, but the best day for me is when I have a conversation with a customer malaprop's languagesand learn something from them that I can apply in my own life. I love when matching readers with books that might change their lives, or at the very least, bring a smile and a lightness to their hearts.

MUF: Malaprop’s is a relatively small shop. How do you decide what titles to carry and feature at your store?
Linda-Marie: We are not small for an independent bookstore, but we are very selective about what we bring in. We purchase based on what our customers have loved in the past, what we see being favorably reviewed in media we respect, and according to our tastes, too. We carry all of the favorite books of our staff. We also look for those special books that readers won’t find anywhere else. We like to surprise and delight our customers.Malaprop's Mr. PuffballMalaprop's League of Seven

MUF: As middle -grade authors, we’d love to know what titles, old and new, fiction and nonfiction, you find yourself recommending to ages 8-12 these days? Linda-Marie: I love Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars by Constance Lombardo, and The League of Seven by Alan Gratz. Lombardo and Gratz are local authors whose reads have a lot of heart, humor, and imagination. Lombardo illustrated Mr. Puffball and her drawings are hilarious!

MUF: Does Malaprop’s have any activities or events coming up in July or August that would be of particular interest to middle-graders? Malaprop's Harry potter
Linda-Marie: Our big event will be the Harry Potter midnight release party. Too much fun!

MUF: If a family from out of town came to visit your store, would there be family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they could have lunch or snacks after shopping?
Linda-Marie: We are fortunate to be surrounded by family friendly restaurants. Great places to eat are Early Girl, Laughing Seed, Tupelo Honey, and Loretta’s.Malaprop's interior #1

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for talking with us, Linda-Marie.  Readers, have you been  to Malaprop’s or think you’d like to visit?  Please add your comments.

Sue Cowing is the author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012)

Interview–and Giveaway–with Steve Brezenoff

Steve Brezenoff is the author of young adult novels Guy in Real Life; The Absolute Value of -1; and Brooklyn, Burning, as well as over a hundred chapter books for younger readers, including The Field Trip Mysteries, Museum Mysteries, and Ravens Pass series. He grew up on Long Island, spent his twenties in Brooklyn, and now lives in Minneapolis with his wife and their two children.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Steve joins us to talk about his middle-grade Museum Mysteries series.

Description from IndieBound: ” Join four friends as they take in culture and solve crimes in the Capitol City museums. Because of their parents’ jobs in the museums, the kids have unprecedented access to the exhibits, and because of their brains, they solve mysteries that leave the pros scratching their heads. Discussion questions, writing prompts, a glossary, and nonfiction resources continue the reader’s learning experience long after the story ends.”

brez4

The Museum Mystery series is one of several series you have written for Capstone. Can you tell us a little about the process of developing and writing a series?

I’ve done (or am in the midst of) five series for Capstone. The Museum Mysteries, The Field Trip Mysteries, Back to the Titanic, and Ravens Pass, as well as the Twice-Told Tales under the name Olivia Snowe. (I’ve also contributed titles to a series of sports books under the shared author name Jake Maddox, and a series that morphed into Ravens Pass under the name Jason Strange.)

When it comes to series for this market (school and library), series development is a different animal from trade publishing, primarily because librarians don’t want series that must be read in a particular order. It’s a difficult feat to provide books in order to readers, so being able to read out of order without losing any aspect of the story is ideal. The exception in my case is the Titanic series, which is ordered.

Because of this, development tends to be more thematic. That is, the story is not continuous, so we’re developing characters and scenarios. And because these are all work-for-hire titles, much of this work is done in-house at the publisher before I’m onboard. For example, for the Field Trip Mysteries, the idea of four sixth-graders going on field trips and solving mysteries came from Capstone. I created and developed the characters and placed them on field trips that, initially, came from the publisher as well. As the series went on, more of that became my responsibility. The Museum Mysteries in many ways grew out of the Field Trip Mysteries–they’re thematically very similar. In that case, I was given the four museums to bounce off of, and then developed other details–characters, backgrounds, parents, etc.–on my own.

brez3

If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from the Museum Mystery series what would it be?

I’m tempted to talk about science or art history or American history–in other words, one of the themes behind the four museums featured in the series. But the truth is I’ve been more focused on writing about these characters in a way that shines a light on race and gender and sexuality in a way that I haven’t seen much in chapter books for younger readers, readers at the bottom of the middle-grade range. It’s no secret that most of my fiction takes place in Minneapolis/St. Paul, or a very vaguely fictionalized version of the metro area. I try to make sure, therefore, that the characters reflect the Twin Cities I’ve come to know and love since moving here ten years ago.

It’s no surprise, then, that what has garnered the most positive reaction has been the diversity of the cast. The cover of one of the first Museum Mysteries titles, The Case of the Missing Museum Archives, features main character Amal Farah wearing her hijab. It was such a small gesture, to be honest, but it got a lot of very positive attention.

Brez1

There’s so much to like about the Museum Mysteries: An engaging plot with a diverse cast of characters, great illustrations, and (especially appealing to me) lots of science. It seems to me that reluctant or struggling readers would really enjoy them. What has been the response?

I think the response has been good, particularly to the diversity of the cast.

What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed your Museum Mysteries?

Well, obviously the Field Trip Mysteries, which are thematically very similar to the Museum Mysteries. There’s a great resource for young mystery fans here and here.

Some may know you more for your young adult titles. How does your approach differ in writing for the different age groups?

It might be a symptom of writing mysteries for younger readers rather than the readers’ age, but I tend to rely more on an outline from the outset for my chapter books than for my longer novels for older readers. I can’t even begin a Museum Mystery without knowing everything about the crime, the suspects, and how it was done. With a longer novel, I tend to just start writing, knowing little more than a couple of characters, maybe a setting, and I see where it takes me before I step back and think about outlining.

Brez2

Can we look forward to more middle-grade books from you?

There are two more Museum Mysteries in August of this year. And for spring 2017, we’re trying something new with the Field Trip Mysteries. I’ve pulled Sam, Cat, Gum, and Egg out of retirement, and next year they’ll star in four new You Choose mysteries, where readers can make choices for the junior sleuths and try to solve the crime. Stakes are high, and some endings will leave the culprit on the loose.

Steve has kindly offered to give away a set of two signed books from the Museum Mysteries series–The Case of the Stolen Spacesuit and The Case of the Missing Mom. Comment below before midnight on Friday, April 15 for a chance to win. The winner will be announced Saturday, April 16.

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers, Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).