Tag Archives: middle-grade readers

Spies Like Us

When I was a kid, my grandmother took me to see The HMS Pinafore, a Gilbert and Sullivan musical that premiered roughly one hundred and thirty nine years ago. It’s a story of mistaken identity that takes place on the high seas. Never mind that the elaborate costumes and high heeled shoes seemed utterly impractical for sailing, I was mesmerized. One thing in particular caught my attention and still drifts along behind me to this day. Buttercup, who the plot reveals to be an epic failure as a nanny (think the anti-Mary Poppins), sings a song called Things Are Seldom What They Seem. In the song, she offers a slew of ridiculous examples in support of this statement: skim milk masquerades as cream; highlows pass as patent leathers; jackdaws strut in peacock’s feathers.

Other than the milk reference I had no idea what she was going on about but the thought that what you see is not always what you get lit up my young imagination like a match in a gallon of gasoline. Imagine my delight to discover there were a number of authors taken with this idea, too. They wrote about spies. Who knew there were people out there in the world whose job it was to pretend to be something other than themselves? It’s no wonder that a geeky elementary school student who often wanted to blend into the walls would find this appealing. I started in on the spy novels and never looked back.

To this day I read and write about spies and spying and how things are never quite as they appear. And lucky for us, middle grade is chock full of spectacular spy writing. In no particular order, some of my current favorites. They’re not top secret so feel free to share.

  1. Spy School, by Stuart Gibbs (first in a series). Ben Ripley may only be in middle school, but he’s already pegged his dream job: C.I.A. or bust. So he’s thrilled when he’s recruited to the C.I.A.’s top secret Academy of Espionage. Only, it turns out, Ben hasn’t been brought in because the C.I.A. expects him to succeed. Instead, he’s been brought in as bait to catch a dangerous enemy agent. Now, Ben needs to step up his game before he ends up dead. Can he solve the crime, get the girl and save the day?
  1. Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz (first in a series). They told him his uncle died in a car accident but fourteen year old Alex Rider knows that’s a lie. Still, nothing could prepare him for the news that his uncle was really a spy for MI6 , Britain’s top secret intelligence agency. Recruited to find his uncles killers, Alex finds himself caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
  1. Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead. When 7th grader Georges moves into a Brooklyn apartment building, he meets Safer, a 12 year old coffee drinking loner and self appointed spy. Georges becomes Safer’s first spy recruit. His assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend?
  1. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. First published in 1964, this novel is the grandmother of all middle grade spy books. Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?

Do you have a favorite spy novel? I’d love to hear about it! Until then, make sure no one is following you…

Mixed-Up Instagram: an April #mglitchallenge!!

Fromthemixedupfiles.com is @mixedupfilesmg on Instagram!

And to celebrate our new foray into the world of #mglit pics, we want you to join us in a 30-day Instagram challenge.

The fantastic April #mglitchallenge

Here’s the deal: follow us on Instagram (@mixedupfilesmg) and post a pic that corresponds to the day on the image below. Don’t forget to hashtag it #mglitchallenge! We’ll be watching the hashtag to see what you’re posting, and  featuring the very best of your posts.

#muflit #mglitchallenge middle grade books authors librarians

Of course, fromthemixedupfiles.com is focused on middle grade books, so that’s what we’re looking for. MG authors, readers, and librarians, join us and show us where your passion for middle grade lit comes from!

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.