When a child reads a novel, they want to be entertained and swept away into familiar worlds or magical places. I used to be a kid … long, long ago. As a fourth grader, I craved mystery and detective stories. I voraciously read Nancy Drew mysteries and Stephen King. As an author and a mother, I’ve learned that kids don’t want to lectured to or have moral lessons shoved down their throats. A kid will not pick up a book entitled “YOU MUST EAT YOUR GREEN VEGETABLES,” but they may read an action-packed story about Betty Lou’s struggles with the cafeteria bully who repeatedly steals her green beans (I may have to write this story…) What if it was possible to be entertained by a novel while inadvertently absorbing an important lesson?
It IS possible!
Issues such as racism, death, family values, LGBTQ topics, and much more can be subtle messages in a children’s novel while it focuses on telling a great story. This is important because a young person struggling with strong emotions can feel accepted and understood when they see themselves on the page.
As an adult, I revisited Judy Blume’s classic Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. I remember loving this as a kid because it was a fun story that involved kissing and bras “I must increase my bust!”. When I read it again as an adult, I was amazed at the depth of discovery and questions raised about religion and how these subjects were not forced onto the reader. The topic was intertwined in the story about a young girl trying to adjust to her new town in a home of divided faith. My biggest recollection of this book as a child was the fun story – not a hymnal about religious freedom, discovery, and choice.
Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson is an adventure story about three boys that skip school to do something amazing for their favorite teacher – who is dying of cancer. The story is fun but also approaches death from a different angle as the boys deal with their loss. Children struggling with loved one’s dying or a recent loss can find common ground as these young boys struggle to cope.
As a physician, I see young girls obsessed with selfies and social media focused on weight and image. In the book, Dumplin‘ by Julie Murphy, we meet Willowdean Dickson who is perfectly comfortable with her large size. When her beauty queen mother does not feel she should participate in Clover City Beauty pageant, Willowdean embarks on a journey to prove her mother wrong. Willowdean is a strong character that empowers young women to be themselves. The school hunk shows interest in Willowdean because of her spunk and personality and provides an great example of staying true to your self.
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli introduces the reader to Jerry “Maniac” McGee, an orphaned boy that decides to run – and keep running. On his journeys across a racially divided town, he touches the lives of many. It is a story of family, friendship, but also racism, poverty, and homelessness. This is one of my all time favorite books.
George by Alex Gino is a book about George, who happens to be a transgender girl. The important issue is that the story of George deals with an average ten year old trying to get a part in the school play, dealing with annoying siblings and a single working mother, and tackling school bullies – it is not a story focused on sexuality. A child struggling with their own identity reads a fun story of everyday kids – one who happens to be transgender. Hopefully, a queer child can see themselves as a normal kid and empower them toward independence and to be their own self.
I value these concepts and feel we owe it to children to offer guidance while respecting their need for a good story. I hope to apply this skill with the same grace to my own novels. In my Grymballia trilogy – Saving the World, Return to Grymballia, and the newly released, Journey to Deviland, I want the reader to be carried on a magical adventure. BUT I also tied in an underlying theme of friendship, family and sisterhood, standing up for what you believe, and preserving our natural resources. The entire series focuses on an adventure, but each journey is triggered by environmentally irresponsible actions that have lead to peril. I hope to subtly inspire children to recycle, plant trees, and save the environment while they read a fun story.
I recent read a great article in Writer’s Digest about writing middle grade.
The take aways from this:
1.Write as if you are a ten year old. See the world through their eyes and consider how they would perceive a situation.
2. Remember that kids are real people with complex emotions as they discover themselves. Don’t underestimate their abilities to comprehend and persevere.
3. Watch kids (but not in a creepy stalker way…) What do they say? How do they speak? Kids these days don’t say “golly” or “Gee whiz.”
4. Read more middle grade novels. I have not read an adult novel in years. I only read middle grade to immerse myself in the mindset and world of a child.
So…. go write and read! But don’t forget to consider your audience in a responsible and respectful manner. Nobody listens to a soapbox message – especially a child.
Thanks for visiting Pat’s Chat!!
The third book of my trilogy, Journey to Deviland, is now available on Amazon! I am having a book release party at the Eldridge Library Wednesday, February 19 from 5-7pm and again at the Bennett library Thursday, February 27th from 5-7pm. Join me for a reading, snacks, games and books to sign!