Tag Archives: Middle Grade

Exploring a word that sometimes gets a rotten rep: middle

1114537406586n57I thought I would explore the word middle just a bit. After all, this is a blog about middle grade books. There’s a lot of stuff middle that just gets a bum rap or just seems, by its very essence, problematic.

You know, like middle school. Middle children. The Middle Ages.

Let’s first get to the origin of the word middle. According to the website membean.com, the word comes from the Latin root word medi. And medi has given birth to loads of words like mediocre, medium, and medieval.

In my opinion, all words with some bad associations.

Mediocre—This means not bad not good. Pretty blah. And according to the Oxford Dictionaries comes from the “Latin mediocris ‘of middle height or degree’.”

Medium—Which means the center of things. And medium isn’t one of those words that’s all bad. But it does seem kind of boring. You don’t want you steak rare, or well done but medium. It seems very sensible but blah. But then there’s psychic mediums who get into the center of spiritual spaces and relay messages. Kind of cool. And there’s medium as an instrument, like words. Hey, I’m liking medium—how about you?

Medieval—No forks during this time a pest problem, and it was known as the Dark Ages. But today, historians are less bleak about this period. In fact, historians want to call it the medieval period versus the Middle Ages since they don’t want to imply that it was something not so impressive wedged between two more impressive eras. However, this seems like a silly PR job to me as medieval basically just means the Middle Ages! Why the fear over the word middle, folks? Really. It’s not all that bad.

Personally, I’m enjoying the wisdom and the self-confidence of being middle aged. I’m not longer so young that I don’t know who I am, but I’m not closed off to new experiences. I no longer care so much what others think. I’m not longer working so hard at being impressive. When I was younger, I used to never go anywhere without popping in my contacts. And I’d wear them forever, even if it meant a corneal abrasion. These days I’m perfectly content with my glasses, thank you very much. I’m myopic and if someone doesn’t want to befriend me because I’m bespectacled then it’s his or her loss.

You see, the space between is perfect; it’s not too high or too low, neither hot nor cool. I mean there’s a reason why Goldilocks liked Baby Bear’s soup the best!

And a mediator is someone who is in the middle of a conflict yet helps to solve it.

Don’t we value someone who jumps right into the middle of things and takes action? You know they take immediate action.

So maybe that’s why I love reading and writing middle grade fiction. It’s that space between younger forms of fiction and young adult. It’s a transitional place, and that implies dynamic change, a place of learning. And yes, sometimes the middle zone gets overlooked or disparaged. But these days, I’ve got thick skin, and don’t worry about it.

To me the between place is a place of magic, a space to pause to try something new, a place that invites the imagination. A place where a child’s sense of selfhood expands, where true independence begins.

I’m so glad to be a middle-aged woman, writing middle grade books. But I must confess to being happy that I’m not living in the Middle Ages!

How do you feel about the word middle?

Hillary Homzie is the author of the newly released Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009). She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page.

10 Ways Writing a Middle-Grade Book is like ZUMBA®

I recently earned my Zumba Instructor certification and it occurred to me that writing middle-grade books has a lot in common with Zumba.

1.You’re never too old

I never understood why adults think that middle-grade books are beneath them. (Have you ever had anyone ask you when you are going to write a real book?) As for Zumba, you can work at whatever intensity you want. Don’t want to do that jumping move? Don’t. Just step instead. There are Zumba Gold classes especially for those with limited mobility, but if you can put one foot in front of the other, then you can do a regular Zumba class. As for teaching Zumba, suffice it to say that I have both a Zumba Instructor Certification and an AARP card.

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2.You can do it in the pool

There are Aqua  Zumba classes for those who enjoy that kind of thing. It’s especially easy on the joints. I don’t care for them, at least in an indoor pool, because the music echoes so much. As for writing, I do some of my best writing while swimming laps. I don’t bring a computer or notebook into the pool with me, but the meditative action of lap swimming can sometimes help me work out sticky plot points.

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3. Music helps

The Latin and International music is one of the major appeals of Zumba, at least for me. I often need music to write, and coincidentally, it is often International music, because the lyrics are not in English. English lyrics seem to short circuit the neural writing pathways. (Even though I understand French, those lyrics don’t bother me, because I’m writing in English. I haven’t tried the converse experiment—writing in French while listening to English lyrics.)

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(photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

4. Earplugs help, too

Several people I know use earplugs in Zumba classes, especially with some of the younger, more enthusiastic instructors. They like to crank the tunes. Some writers work better when it’s quiet. I know I resorted to earplugs when they tore up my street last summer.

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5.Working together has benefits

Some authors have writing retreats together, and the peer pressure to be writing while your fellow retreaters are writing can increase productivity. Some writers connect online and hold each other accountable. Word sprints are an online productivity tool. You each commit to writing without stopping for a set amount of time, say fifteen minutes, then you report your word count. Sure, you can lie about it, but you don’t. As for Zumba, research has shown that dancing in unison can have health benefits above and beyond simple exercise. Even more benefits than dancing independently to the same music.

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6. You can learn from each other

That’s what critique groups are for. That’s why you go to writers’ conferences. That’s why you read a lot. It’s how you figure out what works for you. Same with Zumba. You go to different classes with different instructors. You watch the choreography videos. To get ideas. To see how other people interpret the same music. That person next to you in class adds a turn or a flourish of the arms to the same step you are all doing. Hmm. What if…?

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7. A marathon session can be painful

The Zumba Instructor Training went from 7:30am to 4:00pm. It started with an hour-long master class, and although we didn’t dance the entire time, there were multiple sessions of learning the steps and variations, warm-ups and cool-downs, and practice putting together choreography. I learned that Zumba uses just about every muscle, because just about every muscle was sore for days. A marathon writing session can also leave me pretzel-like, because I find myself in the vulture position when I am really concentrating.

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8. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

We learn in elementary school language arts class that a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Zumba, we start with a warmup, to ease the body into the class, get the blood moving, and increase the heart rate. Then at the end, a cool down gradually decreases the heart rate, and stretching helps reduce muscle pain later on.

9. The middle is the hardest part.

In a Zumba class, the most strenuous, fastest songs fall between the warmup and the cool down. Authors refer to the “dreaded middle,” “sagging middle,” “middle muddle,” “sticky, icky middle,” and so on. You know where the book starts, and how you want it to end. The trick is to get your reader to the end without getting bored.

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10. There’s a supportive community

The children’s writing community is one of the most supportive groups I know. Whether it’s a hug at a conference, an email or Facebook post to show an author a photo of their book “in the wild,” or offering goods and services to online auctions to help pay another author’s medical bills, you can count on the kidlit community. There’s a lot of support among Zumba aficionados, too. The instructors sub for each other and get together to run charity Zumbathons. And if you are a regular participant in a class, you are definitely missed when you don’t show up.

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Whether it’s a publishable manuscript or a healthier body you’re after, you can’t just wish for it. You have to work at it. So get your butt in that chair or get your butt to the gym. You’ll feel better for having done it.

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).

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.

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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.

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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).