Tag Archives: “writing for children”

Interview with Celeste Lim, author of The Crystal Ribbon

In a story set in medieval China, Celeste Lim brings a young girl of exceptional heart together with the animal spirits of ancient myth to overcome a dark fate. Wed at age eleven to a three-year-old,  Jing’s life seems like a dismal sentence, and yet it is full of surprise and adventure.  In the interest of full disclosure, Celeste began weaving her tale while in my class at Manhattanville College’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing. From the first evening she read aloud, her writing voice captivated  me and I felt certain that her tale was destined for publication. And now that it’s here, I get to interview her!

Would you tell us a little about your writing background and early writing experience?

Growing up in Malaysia exposed me to a myriad of languages at a young age. We learned Bahasa Malaysia, our national language, in class; English was a compulsory subject as well because we were colonized by the British; and I went to a Chinese school because of my heritage. Therefore, what I has been exposed to growing up taught me that English books were written for and about Western people; Chinese books were written for and about Chinese people; Malay books for and about Malay people, and so on. So naturally, when I attempted to write my first English novel at age seventeen, I wrote a story about three fair-skinned, red-haired sisters who live in New York City, a place I’d only ever read about in books and saw on TV. That manuscript has been sitting in a hidden folder on my computer ever since.

How did you come to write Jing’s story?

Your first class focused on writing from our unique reservoir of seminal experience. I remember how groundbreaking it felt to me to realize that I was actually allowed to write about what I knew in a language that was supposedly foreign to my culture. That was a huge turning point in my writing journey and was also how Jing’s story was conceived.

The Crystal Ribbon’s magical creatures or jing, are important elements in the story. Could you explain more about them here? Did the jing characters spark your imaginyation as a child? Do you have a favorite jing?

This is one of my favorite things to talk about! Just like beings such as fairies and mermaids, jing are mythical creatures that sprung from the lips of storytellers, and since then have consistently appeared in ancient and medieval Chinese literature. The existence of jing came from the Taoist idea that through enough spiritual training, anything is able to attain a higher level of existence. Jing are non-human creatures that, after a hundred years of spiritual training, have attained the ability to speak, and a human level of consciousness and intelligence.

Because these ideas are so much a part of our mainstream religion, as a child I took them for granted, being more intrigued by gnomes and fairies. But now I do actually have a favorite jing–the huli jing, or fox jing! Other than being a very handsome creature, it feels like a very complex character, having the potential to be equal parts good and evil, which is why I chose it to be my character Jing’s unlikely friend.

Although Jing’s world contains magical helpmates, she couldn’t escape being sold into marriage at age eleven. At the hands of her three-year-old husband’s family, she suffers many cruelties. Were these scenes difficult to write? Explain how you approached them.

The novel actually started out as a third-person narrative. As a person living almost a thousand years later, I found it difficult to write in a way that helped me connect intimately to those experiences. But when my editor suggested I switch to first person, the barrier seemed to disappear. First person is not my writing strength, but in this point of view, I was forced to experience everything as Jing.  I found that the words in these scenes came easier and sounded more authentic, raw, and immediate.

Although The Crystal Ribbon is set in medieval China, Jing could be a role model for girls today. What qualities do you think serve her best?

I’ll name two of the traits that I admire in Jing, resilience and introspection. I believe her resilience stems from hope, something that she carefully preserved and did not let her hardships extinguish. Initially, her hope might be that things will eventually change for the better on their own, but I think it is her introspection, her constant self-examination, that allowed Jing to discover the strength to change the course of her life.

Having a first book published can be both thrilling and daunting. Since this is your first experience with having a book published, what surprised you about the process?

It was surprisingly less stressful than I anticipated! I am admittedly a bit of a Hermione Granger when it comes to things I’m unfamiliar with. I remember researching and reading up tons about the publishing process and hearing many anecdotes of bad publishing experiences from fellow authors. But fortunately, I have a good working relationship with my editor. I believe that is a huge reason why I feel safe and reassured in her hands.

Writing Irresistible Kidlit: An interview with Mary Kole

If you’re a MG or YA fan, you’re probably already familiar with Mary Kole, creator of Kidlit.com. Kole is also the author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers and when she’s not writing or blogging, she works closely with writers to get their books into the best shape possible at marykole.com. Today, Kole is talking to MUF about mistakes writers make, her love of books that tackle real issues, and where the children’s publishing industry is headed. (Want to win an autographed copy of Writing Irresistible Kidlit? Enter below!)

Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole

Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole

Mixed-Up Files: Tell us a little about yourself, and your daily routine.

Mary Kole: I moved from NYC to Minnesota, where my husband is from, in 2013. I grew up in California. The climate has been a huge adjustment, to say the least! I worked in publishing and agented in CA and NY starting in 2009. My passion has always been books for children, whether picture books or YA novels. That’s what I represented when I was an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and that’s primarily what I work on now that I’m a freelance editor. Instead of working with publishers to broker deals on behalf of writers, I now work directly with writers to get their manuscripts submission-ready and help them take the next steps in their craft. I couldn’t be happier! Our son was born in March, so my routine has had quite the shake-up. Now that he’s in daycare part time, I have a lot more flexibility. I like to do some exercise every day, whether it’s a yoga or barre class, a walk around the small lake across the street, or just a half hour on the bike downstairs. Moving keeps my mind sharp! Otherwise, I’m working on client manuscripts, writing blog posts, and reading writing craft books because I’m noodling another book idea and I want to see if the project has wings. Creating my craft book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, was such a highlight for me that I’d love to do it again. My husband is a chef, so he works long hours. When he’s home, we’re spending time as a family with Theo and our two pugs, Gertie and Olive.

MUF: You provide a great deal of helpful information to writers on your site and in your book. What made you choose this as a career path?

MK: Writing has always been a part of my life. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t working on some poem or script or short story. Or reading. My parents were academics, and our house was always full of books. So I decided to “read for a living” and work in publishing. Ha! That was a bit naive, since most agents and editors read submissions in their free time and concentrate on the nuts and bolts of the publishing business during their actual work hours. But I was always passionate about story and the writing craft, so I pressed on, interning at Chronicle Books, earning my MFA, and joining Andrea Brown as an intern, then an agent. My favorite part through all of this was working directly with writers to help shape their manuscripts in terms of concept, plot, character, and voice. I’ve always dabbled in writing myself, and the blog and book were great extensions of that. Plus, I get to work from home and pick my own schedule. I’m stubbornly independent, so I was always going to create a career for myself, no matter what I ended up doing. I’m thrilled that it’s in the world of the written word that I love so much!

MUF: Writing for kids can be tough when you’re no longer one yourself. When it comes to mistakes people make in writing #kidlit, what do you think the biggies are?

MK: This is a great question. I think one of the biggest mistakes in any age category, from picture book to middle grade to young adult, is to come at the novel with an agenda in mind that you NEED to pass along to young readers. In that mindset, you’re separating yourself (wise adult) from your reader (naive child). Picture books in this vein always have a teacher or parent preaching the moral of the story at the end. Novels like this lay really heavily into the theme, telling it at every opportunity. The most successful stories, on the other hand, have theme in spades, but it’s left to the characters–and, by proxy, the readers–to discover. Nobody ever states “the point” outright. It comes across organically as the character experiences things. In order to truly do this with the respect and dignity that all young readers deserve, you need to dig deep in your own childhood experiences. There are universal coming of age themes everywhere. Kids are looking for a sense of identity, to belong, to differentiate themselves, to feel like they matter in a big and overwhelming world. How can you weave these elements into plot points? How can the character react to situations where they’re confronted with these truths? Writers who are passionate about the kidlit categories for the right reasons are more likely to be grown-ups who carry their childhoods around as part of their journeys, rather than people who grew up and left the wonder, pain, and experiences of childhood behind. I think it all boils down to seeing young readers as worthy of great stories instead of as receptacles for your opinions about life. I know this might seem obvious to some writers, but that just means you’re ahead of the game!

Mary Kole of Kidlit.com

Mary Kole of Kidlit.com

MUF: What are some of your favorite middle grade novels? 

MK: When I think about the wonder and nuance of the tumultuous middle grade period, I instantly think of Savvy by Ingrid Law, which came out in 2008. Sure, it’s “old news” these days, but I love it for several reasons. First, Law has such a light hand with the magic premise. Yes, it’s a “kid gets powers” story. And those are a dime a dozen in the slush pile. But it’s, above all else, a family story. And a voice-driven story. And a coming of age story. I see a lot of writers aiming for a high concept premise and forgetting the character-driven human elements of great middle grade. Editors are always going to be looking for fantastic middle grade with both girl and boy appeal, adventure, and a touch of Hollywood stakes. I would prescribe a reading of Savvy if you want to see this very commercial type of novel done with enormous heart.

MUF: Lately, we’ve seen MG books finding success while tackling difficult and mature subjects. What’s your take on this?

MK: As you can probably tell from my theme answer, I am all for books that tackle real life head-on. Even for younger readers. We now know more about what’s going on in the world, good and bad, than we ever did before. Kids are becoming aware of some really big truths at a younger age. I love this trend because it lets us all tackle this experience called life together in a way that lets kids feel authentic and vulnerable. If they’re going through something difficult, they can come and see that reality on the page, and they won’t feel so alone.

For a long time, sugar-coating was popular because there was this perception that kids’ fiction had to be nice. Like a little oasis. Well, kids will be the first to honestly say that not everything in life is nice! I think kids today tackle as many tough experiences as they did decades ago, but some of the stigmas against discussing difficult issues are finally going away. This is great. It’s been proven over and over again that repressing difficult feelings leads to problems. Sure, there are some issues that will be more controversial than others. In the middle grade category, your publisher’s customers are more likely to be gatekeepers like teachers, librarians, and parents. Depending on their institutional or family values, they may not buy books that are seen as too edgy or gratuitous, so houses may not spring for subjects that are too violent or sexual. Middle grade still has more buffer than YA, but you’re right, those standards seem to be changing these days. Some books don’t sell because their controversial elements are gratuitous. They’re in place for shock value, and not so much as a necessary part of exploring the issue. Books like this are much less likely to succeed than those where the edgy elements are unpleasant but necessary to an honest portrayal of the topic.

So the best way to honor what kids are going through is to be honest. And it just so happens that honesty is also the best way to tap into your authentic writing self. You have to experience your personal truth about life in order to communicate it, and manuscripts that come from that true, messy, emotional place are the ones that can be the most relatable.

MUF: Parents often worry about a book being too scary/mature/etc. for their child. Do you think parents/caregivers should read books along with their kids, so they can discuss the book together? Do you think young readers know they can stop reading a book if they’re not comfortable with the subject matter?

MK: It all depends on the family and the child. In an ideal world, a parent and child could read the same book and be able to discuss difficult topics openly. But everyone’s values are different. There are lines that certain parents or school administrators will not cross. I think that kids are very capable of deciding for themselves whether something is too challenging (emotionally or in terms of reading level). If something doesn’t feel right, a kid is likely to put the book down. If they have a receptive atmosphere at school or home, they may even talk to an adult about it. My answer in most cases is, “Try it.” The child might pull away, and that’s okay. Or they could really surprise you.

MUF: Industry-wise, can you read the tea leaves for us? What’s going to happen in #kidlit? Any trends you see bubbling up? Asking for a friend 🙂 …

MK: The market is quite healthy these days. Especially, as I mentioned, for middle grade. That means, however, that agents and editors expect more. Higher stakes. Twists on familiar concepts. Blends of action, adventure, magic, fantasy, etc. Barring a high concept premise, a really strong coming of age theme in a contemporary setting. Big feelings. Above all else, though, today’s MG gatekeepers demand voice and humor. If a character falls flat, or the writing doesn’t sizzle, you are in for stiff competition. Don’t take this as advice to litter your manuscript with #slang and references to Snapchat. But do read your work aloud. This is my most potent advice, and not many writers actually do it. You will learn so much about your characters and yourself if you take this step. Take risks. Be funny. Have fun. Get in touch with that inner middle grader. Sometimes writers are so busy trying to prove that they’re great writers, that they forget to listen to their characters and their own inner voice. You may surprise yourself!

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Andrea Pyros is the author of My Year of Epic Rock, a middle grade novel about friends, crushes, food allergies, and a rock band named The EpiPens.

Subtext in MG

(For study purposes and maybe a potential future post, I am putting together a list of middle grade books that excel in the use of subtext. Please feel free to add any titles in the comments section that you feel belong on this list. Thanks!) 

We recently had a #MGLitChat on the topic of subtext. I signed up to co-host and was scared to death of this chat. My concern was embedded in the fact I felt I didn’t know enough about subtext and figured I needed to do a lot of research to be able to hold my own. Lo and behold, I harkened back to my own middle school days and didn’t study. Fortunately, I was able to play the comic relief to the intellect of my co-host for the night, Lee Gjertsen Malone. When the chat was over, not only did I feel a whole heckuva lot smarter, but I had a whole new appreciation for subtext, especially in middle-grade literature.

What exactly is subtext? The important part that is not there is what subtext is. The stuff which exists in space between what we perceive and is there without being told or shown it is there. I came across a cool quote from Ernest Hemingway about subtext:

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of the movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

With the iceberg image painted firmly in our reader and writer mind, we get a solid idea of what subtext is. The words we read in a story are the part floating above the water. The tips of the story icebergs act as the guideposts, while the space in between the guideposts, Hemingway’s 7/8ths, becomes the meaning and character and flavor existing below the surface which makes for a richer narrative. Subtext gives us stories that are more than they appear to be on the surface. Subtext gives us satisfying stories with more of everything.

The four basic types of subtext.

  • Privilege – The reader has information the characters don’t.
  • Revelation – Reveals a certain truth over time.
  • Promise – The story goes the way a story supposed to go and the way the reader expects it to go.
  • Question – As a story advances, the reader begins to ask questions about where the story is going.

K.M. Weiland did a recent Helping Writers Become Authors post and podcast about subtext. It is an excellent resource to assist the writer or the reader through the literary dark forest that is subtext. She presents five steps to work subtext into your writing.  

(1) Story subtext arises from the space between to known, fixed points. The writer builds a framework of dots and lets the reader connect the dots as they read. When the reader connects all the dots, a rich and full story picture emerges. The writer should tell the reader what they need to know, not tell them everything single thing. That’s not very entertaining.

(2) Story subtext must exist below the surface and (3) remain existing under the surface. The writer needs to know the whole iceberg in order to design the tip that paints the picture of the whole iceberg in the reader’s mind with telling every single detail.

(4) Story subtext is created by the dichotomy between the interior and exterior behavior. Once something rises to the exterior, it can no longer be considered subtext. In practice, it’s simply, as K.M Weiland says,  “avoid presenting characters and situations for exactly what they are”.

(5) Subtext exists in the silent spaces. Use your character’s silence to leave out things in order to make sure they don’t tell each other every single thing.

Maybe the most important thing we can do when working on the skill of subtext is to trust the reader. The reader will be able to put together the shape and scope of the submerged story information iceberg. The reader will be able to connect the dots and then put these connections together to reveal the story picture to themselves. Even a middle-grade reader is deserving of this trust and can rock at the art of subtext, as long as the subtext relates to the reader while remaining appropriate for the characters and the story.

Experiment with subtext in your writing. Learn how to spot it being used in your reading. Most of all, learn to trust your reader to connect the dots you place and see the pictures you intended them to see.

That is reading and writing magic.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=730855

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=730855