Tag Archives: Middle Grade

Happy Endings

I’ve read some sad middle-grade books lately.

I mean sad.  Books about war, separation, poverty, judging, death.

It’s no secret that today’s middle-grade books tackle some serious topics, that authors aren’t afraid to stare down the very same monsters our readers face every day. After all, if children must be brave enough to travel life’s imperfect road, we must be brave enough to write about their journeys.

I used to believe that sad subjects were okay in middle-grade literature as long as there were happy endings. You know, all’s well that ends well.

But some of the books I’ve read lately didn’t have happy endings. And, since some of the books I’m going to talk about are very new, I won’t say any more than that in an effort to avoid spoiling anyone’s reading experience.

Just last week, I finished Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow.

 wolf hollow

Not since William March’s The Bad Seed have I met a child antagonist as deceptive and wrong as Betty Glengarry.  Like anyone caught in the web of a narcissist’s lies, the narrator Annabelle can do little to break free of Betty’s ever-worsening cruelty. As I read, I found myself pleading for justice, fairness, and for Annabelle and others to prevail. But literature – and life – doesn’t always deliver justice and fairness and good over evil.

I also recently finished Pax by Sara Pennypacker.

pax

Okay, let’s talk sad. The book was passed along to me by an author friend I was visiting in Kansas City. I started reading in the airport and started crying on page six. Six. The heartbreaking separation of a boy and his pet  (Pax is a lovable and loving cross between man’s best friend and the most adorable house cat you can imagine  – but he’s a fox) at the very beginning was enough to make any reader believe that redemption would eventually come at the end. But literature – and life – does not always offer redemption.

So, does that mean I didn’t like these books? Or that I didn’t like their endings?

Not at all.  There’s more to a “happy” ending than joy. More than joy, I believe an ending must offer hope. And it must ring true.

Above all, it must ring true.

I can clearly remember having detailed discussions with my editor Claudia Gabel (then with Delacorte Press, now with Katherine Tegan Books) as we worked out the ending of my first middle-grade novel, The Beef Princess of Practical County. It’s a story about Libby, who raises cattle to show at the county fair. In the end, Libby’s beloved steer boards a livestock trailer for the slaughter house. It’s not the hoped-for Charlotte’s Web ending. But it has all the truth in it of a Midwest farmer’s daughter’s experience growing up on a cattle ranch. It rings true.

I promised not to talk about the endings of Wolf Hollow and Pax, so I won’t – except to say that both endings ring true.

And when we, as authors, pledge to traverse life’s imperfect road with our readers, offering truth is – in the end – the best that we can do.

Michelle Houts has written four books for middle-grade readers.  Her books have garnered an International Reading Association Award, Junior Library Guild selection, and inclusion on the Bank Street Best Books of 2014 List. She’s currently completing the first three books in a new science-minded series for younger readers, titled Lucy’s Lab (2017, Sky Pony Press).

 

Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?

When I first started writing middle grade novels, I was a total pantser. I’d get an idea, mull it around for a bit, jot down some notes, then plunge in without really having an idea where my story would go. It was a fun ride full of surprises, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I loved how my characters took over the story once I got to know them better, and couldn’t wait to see how they’d get out of all the situations they stumbled into. I was amazed at the gems that popped up! But then I realized how much muck I had to dig through. I didn’t have a full story arc. It was more like the fast ups, downs, twists, turns, and upside-down loops of a roller coaster. I’ve lost count of how many major rounds of revisions it took to turn my roller coaster rides into fully fleshed out story arcs.

roller coaster

I thought about outlining. For a minute. It felt too restricting. I didn’t want to know all the major details about my stories in advance. But I also wanted to have stronger structures to my novels. So now, I’m somewhere between a plotter and a pantser.

Before leaping into a new novel, I still do my typical brainstorming (which can last for a brief period of time to several months or even longer if I’m working on another project but can’t get ideas for a new one out of my head). I jot down any possibilities that hit and cross out ones that don’t look like they’ll work. But now I’ve added or enhanced a lot of other techniques, too.

  • My character sketches are much more in depth. I used to jot down a few ideas, then change a lot of it as I wrote and got to know my characters better. It feels strange trying to know so much about my characters before diving into their stories (especially after finishing a novel where I know my characters inside and out), but the more I brainstorm the story and work on the overall plot ahead of time, the more my initial character sketches work throughout the book (although it’s rare that I don’t make at least a few tweaks along the way). It’s way more than just a brief physical description and a few facts and traits now. I fill out character questionnaires, interview them, etc. One of my favorite questions is: what’s your biggest secret or fear? It’s great knowing what my character’s flaws are, and how they’ll be tested throughout their journey. Newest Plot Clock 2016
  • I love using Joyce Sweeney’s Plot Clock before writing a novel. It’s such a fantastic tool! It helps me get the bones down without feeling shackled to an outline. If you’d like, you can take a peek at some notes I shared a few years ago after taking Joyce’s Plot Clock Workshop, or you can sign up for Joyce’s newsletter then log in to her site to watch her free hour and a half Plot Clock webinar.
  • I saw agent Jill Corcoran state on social media that it’s helpful to have a pitch ready before you start writing a new book. What a brilliant idea! Not only does it help focus you, but you can also check to see if the concept seems strong enough for the market, and alter it if you need to before writing a single word of your manuscript.
  • During an SCBWI workshop, Lorin Oberweger said something that will always stick with me—know what your character wants before the story begins. I’ve looked back at past novels with this in mind, and figure this out before starting any new projects now.

Are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between, like me? What tools work best for the structure of your novels—and where do you struggle the most? In case you can’t tell, plotting is something I’ve had to study a lot, because it was one of my weaknesses. Joyce Sweeney once told me that plotting was one of her weaknesses, too—but she studied it so much that she was able to develop the Plot Clock and turn plotting into one of her biggest strengths. That’s so encouraging! I’m always looking for new tools to help me, and love seeing how much stronger my plotting is thanks to them.

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

Author Interview: Meet Nancy Roe Pimm

Ready for a quiz?  I know, this blog post just started, and already I’m quizzing you. But this won’t take long. Here goes:

1)  What was Amelia Earhart attempting to do when she and her plane went missing over the Pacific Ocean?

Of course, you answered that quickly. She was trying to become the first women to fly around the world.

2)   Who was the first women to fly solo around the world?

If you came up with the name Jerrie Mock, chances are you either live in central Ohio or you Googled the question before answering.

jerrie cover

Today I’m thrilled to have author Nancy Roe Pimm with us.  Nancy’s middle-grade biography of aviator Jerrie Mock, titled The Jerrie Mock Story: The First Woman to Fly Solo around the World, released on Tuesday, March 15th.  To find out more about this remarkable woman, let’s chat with Nancy. And, I promise, there will be no quiz at the end.

Tell us a little bit about Jerrie Mock, who she was, and how she became interested in flying.

When Jerrie was only seven years old, her parents took her to a fair where she took her first airplane ride. She loved it so much, she told her father afterward that she wanted to be a pilot when she grew up. In school, she saw pictures of exotic places around the world, and she was fascinated by other cultures. She aspired to combine her love of flying with her desire to see the world. After high school, she became the only female student studying aeronautical engineering at The Ohio State University. She did well in college, but in the 1940’s, there was a lot of pressure on young women to marry and raise a family. When her high school sweetheart proposed, she left college began the life others expected her to live.

As a woman aviator in the 1960’s, what challenges did Jerrie face?

When her children were a little older, Jerrie did go to flight school and eventually got her pilot’s license. At the time, women in the cockpit were not the norm. She tried to maintain her femininity for public perception, wearing skirts and heels for photographs. She entered flying races called air derbies and became known as “The Flying Housewife,” a moniker she very much disliked. Even though she was an airplane mechanic and pilot, her male colleagues expected her to get them coffee.

Jerrie and Amelia lived in different time periods. Do you feel Amelia paved the way for Jerrie to fly around the world? Why do you think it took so long for a female pilot to successfully complete the journey Amelia set out on?

Amelia Earhart was Jerrie’s hero. Jerrie was in middle school in 1937, a 12-year-old fan of the woman who was attempting to fly around the world. She’d race home from school every day for the radio update on Earhart’s journey. In the early 1960s, Jerrie was surprised to learn that no woman had flown solo around the world. I don’t know why it took so long for another female pilot to do it. Maybe it was because of the way Amelia’s journey ended in tragedy.

What do you hope middle-grade readers find when they read The Jerrie Mock Story: The First Woman to Fly Solo around the World?

I hope they find inspiration. Jerrie was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things.  You have to have a dream. Dreams can’t come true unless you have a dream. Jerrie also lived in a time when women had little power, but Jerrie very humbly did what she knew she could. The book shows how much womens’ roles in society have changed. Jerrie’s story has so much – history, culture, geography, science. I learned so much writing the book. I know readers will learn a lot reading it, too.

Finally, tell us a little about Nancy Roe Pimm.  Have you ever flown an airplane?

I’ve flown an Ultralight, which is like a motorized glider. I was with Mario Andretti (my husband used to drive race cars and we became friends with the Andrettis) and Mario told me to take over the controls just above the tree tops. I was terrified, but it was exhilarating! 

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I always dreamed of living on a horse farm. I married a farmer who turned race car driver. He drove in the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. He followed his dreams and encouraged me to follow my own dreams of writing. The Jerrie Mock Story is my fifth book for young readers.

Nancy-Roe-Pimm-websmall

 

 

Thanks so much to Nancy for taking time to stop by The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. You can find Nancy at www.nancyroepimm.com and on Twitter as @nancyroepimm.

 

 

Mixed-Up Files blogger Michelle Houts has written four books for middle-grade readers, including Kammie on First: Baseball’s Dottie Kamenshek, which is part of the same series as Nancy Roe Pimm’s The Jerrie Mock Story. Both books are part of the Biographies for Young Readers Series from Ohio University Press.