Let’s talk about middle grade books, young adult books, and that liminal space between, that magic spot of readers ages 10-14 who read up.
There’s a certain kind of voice you expect from a YA book that tells you “this is about a teenage experience.” It’s different from the exploring/discovery of the world voice we generally hear in MG—it’s more mature, sometimes more cynical. It’s not an adult voice, but it is no longer the voice of a child.
YA has been aging up for about 15-18 years now. In the early 2000s, we called books like Holly Black’s “edgy,” but that sensibility is now par for the course in YA, and generally the books you see shelved in the YA section of a bookstore star protagonists who are 15, 16, 17, 18—very few YA novels star 12-14-year-olds anymore.
This coincided with the vast numbers of YA readers becoming adults, as well—last we heard, more than 80% of YA readers are over 18, purchasing books for their own reading, not that of an actual teenager in their life.
Which for me, as someone who publishes books for children and teens BECAUSE I want to serve the population of children these books are intended for, is VERY frustrating. When books I publish in the YA market for 12-year-olds get dinged for actually sounding like a real 15-year-old is talking (“this book sounds middle grade” to paraphrase one review of one of my books because it didn’t contain romance), I feel like we have fundamentally lost our way if we aren’t serving our target market (or when reviewers don’t remember or don’t care about the books’ target market).
But these are the realities of our current system, so what’s emerging out of it is that MG seems to be picking up the slack for that forgotten, now-underserved tween audience who used to be the core readership for YA books.
Where does that leave the publisher of MG and YA books, though? Do I publish what I’ve always published as YA now as a MG? That doesn’t make sense, either, because the voice doesn’t sound MG–the voice is that of an emerging teenager, not an 8- or 10-year-old.
Yes, 12-18 is a very large developmental gap. We do need to allow space for the older YA—I’m glad it’s finally finding a home. But to then define YA as just what’s happened in the last 10-15 years is to ignore the huge body of work that has been YA for decades before that.I’ve seen more bookstores have tiers (8-11, 10-14, 14 and up, etc.), which is great, but publishing only has the two categories, and B&N only has the “children’s” section (with various subsections) and the “YA” section (now also broken down by genre, but not age), so it’s a challenge to communicate to accounts exactly where to shelve the books, and confusion can arise.
So: if you are a writer for that 10-14 age range, where do your books get shelved? Editors: what solutions have you come across? Readers/teachers/parents, where do you look for books for that age group? Librarians, how do you figure out where to shelve books for that age range?
In celebration of their exhibit The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter, the New York Public Library has released a list of 100 great children’s books from the last 100 years. I’m pretty happy to see that 27 of the 100 titles are diverse (in humanity) titles, and that there’s even more diversity in the authors (Donald Crews’s Freight Train, for example, doesn’t feature human diversity in the text, because the main character is a train, but the author is African American). How many of them have you read?
I’m updating my dragon booklist today and putting it on Pinterest. Now that my nephew is eight, he’s into full-on middle-grade books, and STILL loves dragons, three years later. So what dragon books have come out in the last three years? What books did we keep off the list last time because they weren’t that great for readalouds? Let me know in the comments here, as I think the old post is old enough that the comments have closed there.
If you’re in New York City and have the time (i.e., you’re not out volunteering or salvaging your own home) the A Is for Anansi conference at NYU this weekend is still on, despite the university being shut down for the week after the hurricane due to flooding and electrical outages. That is now taken care of and they’re getting back on their feet, and looking forward to discussing literature for children of African descent on Friday evening and all day Saturday.
There’s an RSVP number at that link, but if that isn’t working (I’ve heard there might be troubles with it), don’t worry—just show up. The conference is free to the public, so anyone may come.
I’ll be on the fantasy/science fiction panel on Saturday, along with Nnedi Okorafor and Zetta Elliott, which I’m really looking forward to. We’ll be talking about the scarcity of fantasy/science-fiction books featuring children of African decent and how we hope to fix that. I hope you can make it!
November 9-10th, 2012
Location for all programs: Kimmel Center-NYU,
60 Washington Square South, E&L Auditorium, 4th Floor
Are you starting off on your yearly Nanowrimo marathon? If so, perhaps you’re thinking about how to diversify your cast or settings. Preferably both, right? This month I’m working on at least one new diversity post, but I also thought perhaps a list of existing resources in one place would be useful. Most of these links, which I’ve been sharing via Twitter and Facebook as I find them, can also be found on the CBC Diversity Resources page, specifically on the resources for writers page, along with resources directed at other publishing professionals such as editors, sales and marketing, and booksellers. I’ve added a few more recent articles/sites that I’ve recently run into, as well.
This is kind of a hodgepodge of links, but I think it’ll help you have plenty to think about. If I run into anything more in the next couple of days, I’ll likely add it. Most of these links apply to writing cross-culturally, but as I like to remind people, this can mean anyone writing from a perspective not their own. I’ve talked to New York City-based writers who make assumptions about Iowans based on what they’ve seen on TV that I as a Midwesterner find unbelievable at best. I’ve known probably as many writers of color who want to write about different cultures that fascinate them as white writers who would like to write about people of color. In all of these cases, if you aren’t writing “what you know,” then research is involved. You have to know what questions to ask, what assumptions you’re making because of your own worldview that your character wouldn’t make. These resources will help you with that.
Though, beware, there’s a lot of info here. If you’re Nanoing, perhaps you might want to go with one at a time to leave yourself time to write!
Chimamanda Adichie’s transformative TED talk, The Dangers of a Single Story, shows us what happens when writers focus on only one kind of story, and how a multitude of voices from minority cultures need to be heard for that danger to pass away.
When writing cross-culturally, we need to remember whether we’re acting as an invader, a tourist, or a guest. Nisi Shawl addresses how to watch out for stereotypes, bad dialects, and other problematic portrayals of people of color.
A Tumblr that seeks to provide a visual representation of the everyday of microaggressions, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Each event, observation and experience posted is not necessarily particularly striking in and of themselves. Often, they are never meant to hurt—acts done with little conscious awareness of their meanings and effects. Instead, their slow accumulation during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience, making explanation and communication with someone who does not share this identity particularly difficult.
Uma Krishnaswami on the use of parenthetic comma phrases to explain cultural details to the reader as if the reader were always an outsider to the culture. How else might these details be conveyed without alienating readers who come from that culture?
Peggy McIntosh provides a classic list of privileges which a white middle class woman enjoys that many of other socioeconomic statuses or races do not. An example for writers seeking to write from a perspective not their own to muse on their own privileges, whether similar or different, so they can see their blind spots.
Things I Don’t Have to Think about Today
In the same vein as the above, science fiction writer John Scalzi talks about “Things I Don’t Have to Think about Today” paired with his post on narrative usurpation, covering why he wrote “Things I Don’t Have to Think about Today.”
Uma Krishnaswami interviews Stacy Whitman about using cultural experts to read cross-cultural writing or to check details of a controversial or historical subject (even when the writer is of that culture).
This book by Joseph Shaules is directed to potential US expats living abroad helping them to think about cultural differences and ways to adapt to their new countries and enjoy the journey. But when read from the perspective of a writer, the questions Shaules raises can be applied to world building and culture building in writing.
My talk on the need for diversity in fantasy and science fiction (includes a resources for writers section in part 3).
The Language of the Night This book is unavailable electronically and also out of print, but if you can find Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection used or at your library, published by HarperCollins in 1978 and 1989, two excellent essays for writers on diversity are “American SF and the Other” and “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”
Hey, remember how I published three books this fall? If you’re looking for great reads for the science fiction or fantasy buff in your life, you should remember Tu’s go some great books! Here are some links for you in case you need them, or go down to your local bookseller. If they don’t have the books in stock (B&N has Tankborn and Wolf Mark, but sometimes an indie might not), ask them to order them in! The more a book gets bought in a local indie, for example, the more they take notice and think maybe it should be on their shelves.
Things are looking up for Tyler Sato (literally!) as he and his friends scan the night sky for a star named for him by his Tokyo cousins in honor of his eleventh birthday. Ordinary stars tend to stay in one place, but Ty’s seems to be streaking directly toward Earth at an alarming rate. Soon the whole world is talking about TY SATO, the doomsday asteroid, and life is turned upside down for Ty Sato, the boy, who would rather be playing hoops in his best friend’s driveway.
Meanwhile, aboard a silver spaceship heading for Earth, M’Frozza, a girl with three eyes and five nose holes, is on a secret mission. M’Frozza is the captain of planet Mrendaria’s Galaxy Games team, and she is desperate to save her world from a dishonorable performance in the biggest sporting event in the universe.
What will happen when Ty meets M’Frozza? Get ready for the most important event in human history—it’ll be off the backboard, around the rim, and out of this world!
Best friends Kayla and Mishalla know they will be separated when the time comes for their Assignments. They are GENs, Genetically Engineered Non-humans, and in their strict caste system, GENs are at the bottom rung of society. High-status trueborns and working-class lowborns, born naturally of a mother, are free to choose their own lives. But GENs are gestated in a tank, sequestered in slums, and sent to work as slaves as soon as they reach age fifteen.
When Kayla is Assigned to care for Zul Manel, the patriarch of a trueborn family, she finds a host of secrets and surprises—not least of which is her unexpected friendship with Zul’s great-grandson. Meanwhile, the children that Mishalla is Assigned to care for are being stolen in the middle of the night. With the help of an intriguing lowborn boy, Mishalla begins to suspect that something horrible is happening to them.
After weeks of toiling in their Assignments, mystifying circumstances enable Kayla and Mishalla to reunite. Together they hatch a plan with their new friends to save the children who are disappearing. Yet can GENs really trust humans? Both girls must put their lives and hearts at risk to crack open a sinister conspiracy, one that may reveal secrets no one is ready to face.
Luke King knows a lot of things. Like four different ways to disarm an enemy before the attacker can take a breath. Like every detail of every book he’s ever read. And Luke knows enough—just enough—about what his father does as a black ops infiltrator to know which questions not to ask. Like why does his family move around so much?
Luke just hopes that this time his family is settled for a while. He’ll finally be able to have a normal life. He’ll be able to ask the girl he likes to take a ride with him on his motorcycle. He’ll hang out with his friends. He’ll be invisible—just as he wants.
But when his dad goes missing, Luke realizes that life will always be different for him. Suddenly he must avoid the kidnappers looking to use him as leverage against his father, while at the same time evading the attention of the school’s mysterious elite clique of Russian hipsters, who seem much too interested in Luke’s own personal secret. Faced with multiple challenges and his emerging paranormal identity, Luke must decide who to trust as he creates his own destiny.
And just a reminder that in the spring we’ll have two more great books for you to check out!
Cat Girl’s Day Off by Kimberly Pauley
Never listen to a cat. That will only get you in trouble.
Actually, scratch that. Listening to cats is one thing, but really I should never listen to my best friend Oscar. It’s completely his fault (okay, and my aspiring actress friend Melly’s too) that I got caught up in this crazy celebrity-kidnapping mess.
If you had asked me, I would have thought it would be one of my super-Talented sisters who’d get caught up in crime fighting. I definitely never thought it would be me and my Talent trying to save the day. Usually, all you get out of conversations with cats is requests for tummy rubs and tuna.
Wait . . . I go back to what I said first: Never listen to a cat. Because when the trouble starts and the kitty litter hits the fan, trust me, you don’t want to be in the middle of it.
Vodnik by Bryce Moore
Teacups: great for tea. Really sucky as places-to-live-out-the-rest-of-your-eternal-existence. Very little elbow room, and the internet connection is notoriously slow. Plus, they’re a real pain in the butt to get out of, especially when you’ve gone non-corporeal.
When Tomas was six, someone—something—tried to drown him. And burn him to a crisp. Tomas survived, but whatever was trying to kill him freaked out his parents enough to convince them to move from Slovakia to the United States.
Now sixteen-year-old Tomas and his family are back in Slovakia, and that something still lurks somewhere. Nearby. Ready to drown him again and imprison his soul in a teacup.
Then there’s the fire víla, the water ghost, the pitchfork-happy city folk, and Death herself who are all after him.
All this sounds a bit comical, unless the one haunted by water ghosts and fire vílas or doing time in a cramped, internet-deprived teacup is you.
If Tomas wants to survive, he’ll have to embrace the meaning behind the Slovak proverb, So smrťou ešte nik zmluvu neurobil. With Death, nobody makes a pact.
More and more teens are getting e-readers in the last year or so. There was a big wave of e-reader purchases for them at Christmas and Hanukkah last year (see this article in the New York Times covering that trend—a NYT article that actually gets it right about children’s books!). E-books are growing, especially in e-books for teens, and with the iPad there’s even potential growth in e-books for younger readers with illustrations.
Teens, particularly, seem suited to e-readers and electronic devices that can carry an e-reading app. For parents who can afford it, e-readers might be the thing that gets that reluctant reader child to get interested in reading again.
Then there’s the flip side of the coin. My friend Sandra Tayler, the mother of four children, recently blogged about the reasons they still do paper books, including with their kids, two of whom are teenagers and two of whom are in middle school. She’s got some great points:
I can hand a child a $7 paper back and not have to police the treatment of the book. Books end up in bathrooms, spattered with snack food, left on floors, buried under piles of clothing, stepped on, shelved, stacked, and read. I could not do the same with a device costing over $100. I would have to keep track of it and spend time training my kids to treat it correctly.
I have four kids. I want them all to be reading, sometimes simultaneously. I don’t want to spend $400-$700 to get enough reading devices for everyone to read at the same time. Additionally we have a house policy that a child can have an electronic device when they care enough to buy it with their own money. This way they have an emotional stake in taking care of the device. If my kids save up $150, they’ll buy an iPod or a 3DS, not an e-reader. They regularly spend $3-$15 buying books for themselves.
One of the best ways to get kids to choose reading is to have books laying around where the covers can catch their interest. Many moments of boredom have resulted in hours of reading because book was laying nearby. This does not happen if all the books are neatly filed on my Kindle.
Physically taking my kids to the library addresses reading in a new way. The kids are able to speak with a librarian and really think about what they are looking for in a book. Then sometimes their favorite books are ones that happen to be shelved near the one that the librarian was showing them. Involving a librarian in the book selection process means a new perspective and opens up new possibilities for the kids.
Owning a physical book and shelving it with their possessions is one of the ways my kids begin to form their identity. Different kids will latch on to different books or series of books. Then they loan them to each other. There is power in being the one who loans or recommends a book. If all the books are organized in the same electronic library my kids will not feel the same sense of ownership.
My children spend a lot of time playing computer and video games. Sitting down with a paper book gives their brains a break from the flicker of screens. It encourages them to switch over into a relaxed way of thinking. I’ve had them read things on my Kindle or Howard’s iPad, they read for shorter lengths of time because the presence of the electronic device is a constant reminder that there are video games in the world and that those video games might be more fun than reading.
In the same post, Sandra talks about how sometimes reading on her e-reader makes her think of work, which I completely agree with. Reading a paper book, for me, is completely unlike work. I know this book is finished. On my Sony Reader—or now on my Nook or Kindle app on my phone—I can read finished books, but I find myself easily distracted because it feels like I’m working, so I keep noticing typos and things that I would have edited a different way. The Reader is the device I read a lot of manuscripts on, so it really feels like I’m editing.
And I notice a lot of the things that make reading an interesting experience for Sandra’s children are the same ones I enjoy: going to the library and browsing, or just browsing my own shelves. Those experiences are tough to replicate on a device, especially for kids. I still read electronically—mostly on long trips or my commute (though if I’m reading electronically on my daily commute, it’s likely a manuscript).
But let’s talk about this in terms of the children’s book industry. As e-books become more ubiquitous, what might the future library or bookstore look like for children? Are there ways to address these very real concerns that a parent has about losing the benefits of siblings sharing books, owning their own physical books, finding a book to relieve boredom, and other reasons that a physical book is so important?
Not all parents will have Sandra’s same concerns. An only child won’t have sibling concerns, or some parents might prefer a more minimalist look in their house over owning possessions. But however you feel about any individual point, Sandra’s concerns in general reflect a lot of thoughts I’ve been hearing from other parents. Sandra’s reasons are the same reasons I don’t think paper books will ever go away entirely. Yet I also think that we need to think about usability in more than just the actual reading process in our rush to convert to e-books, and think about innovating ways that address these very real parental and sibling needs. Heck, they’re not just parental/sibling. I need these things too when I go to the library or am bored, and I’m a single adult woman who lives alone. Sure, it’s easier for me as a tech-savvy adult to just go look for a book on Amazon or even on my library’s website, where I can check out electronic books (and it’s so easy to do so–the books return themselves, which is something I have difficulty with doing on time in real paper!). But as Sandra notes in the rest of her post, there are ways to get distracted from that if I go onto a multipurpose device like a computer.
If you’re in publishing, how do you see our industry and libraries addressing these issues in the future? If you want to get into publishing as an editor or other industry professional, these are issues you’ll be dealing with as the industry continues to evolve. Maybe your generation will—should—innovate something that my generation never would have thought of?
In celebration of my Simmons classmate Anna Staniszewski’s new book release, I thought perhaps we could make a list of children’s and young adult books by Simmons College children’s lit program alumnae. (The women’s college is open to guys in the grad programs, but I think most of the alums who have been published are women. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.)
I only know of a few, but I bet my Simmons friends out there can add to this list!
Reader reactions are so subjective. One person might think there’s not nearly enough worldbuilding in a book (“give me more! MORE!”) and another might say of the exact same book that what worldbuilding there is was way too confusing (“I couldn’t keep all those made-up words straight!”).
So how do you, as the author, balance the needs of such a wide range of readers when you’re working in a complex world that needs development? And how do you balance the need to establish your characters, setting, and plot with the need to spool out information to your reader to intrigue them rather than confuse them?
This is a question that pretty much every author and editor of speculative fiction struggles with, particularly because we, as veterans of the genre, are already more comfortable with a lot of worldbuilding jargon than your average teen reader, particularly teen readers whose preference for fantasy runs more toward the contemporary paranormal variety. There are a number of reasons why I think Twilight was so popular on such a broad scale, but one of the biggest ones was the relatability of the situation. So what if you’ve never had a vampire show up at your high school? It could happen!
Think about all the really big fantasy hits of the last few years in children’s and YA fiction: Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight, Hunger Games. Of these books’ beginnings, only The Hunger Games is all far that outside the everyday experiences of your average young reader, and even The Hunger Games starts with a relatable situation—a coal mining family lives in a desperate situation and must hunt for food; while most kids who would have access to The Hunger Games don’t live under a despotic regime, it’s plausible that it could happen in the real world. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are ordinary kids going to school, living somewhat normal lives (even if abusive ones, in the case of Harry) before their worlds change with the discovery of magic. Their starting point is relatable.
What this means is that readers of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Twilight figure out the world alongside the main character. Information is spooled out as the character needs it, so the reader doesn’t have to absorb everything at once. This is a low bar for entry, not requiring much synthesis of information.
What about Hunger Games? Now it gets a little tougher. Suzanne Collins starts out with a perfectly relatable (if a tiny bit cliche) situation, the main character waking up and seeing her family. We get some exposition on Katniss’s family and the cat who hates her. But it becomes non-cliche by page 2, when we learn about the Reaping. Ah! What’s the Reaping, you ask? We don’t know yet. Now the bar for entry is raised. There is a question, the answer for which you’re going to have to read further to find out. The infodumpage level is low, but there is still some exposition in the next few pages, letting us know that Katniss lives in a place called District 12, nicknamed the Seam, and that her town in enclosed by a fence that is sometimes electrified—and which is supposed to be electrified all the time.
Collins’s approach to spooling out a little information at a time is to explain each new term as she goes, but some readers think that feels unnatural in a first person voice because the narrator would already know these things, so why is she explaining them to the reader? It depends on the story, in my opinion—Collins makes it work because of how she crafted Katniss’s voice. It is a very fine line to walk—I can’t tell you how many submissions I’ve gotten that start out with, “My name is X. I am Y years old. I live in a world that does Z,” an obvious example of how this approach becomes downright clumsy when not handled with Collins-esque finesse.
Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum, in which the reader is given clues to work out rather than having any new terms explained to them. This approach needs just as much, if not more, finesse. It’s a process that some readers who are new to speculative fiction might stumble over the most, which is why I think there’s so little of it in middle grade and YA fantasy and science fiction. I’ve seen it called “incluing,” which is a silly word, but I don’t know of another name for it and the description of incluing in that Wikipedia link is exactly the kind of worldbuilding I prefer to see in the beginning of a book, particularly one set in a world that has no connection to our own, or if it’s in the future of our world it’s far enough into the future that the society is probably unrecognizable to us, such as the society in Tankborn.
The prominent example I like to give writers for this kind of worldbuilding is from The Golden Compass. Check out the first page of that book:
(I hope that embed worked right! It’s easier just to show you the first page from Google Books than to type up the first few paragraphs myself.)
Pullman jumps right into the scene, with Lyra sneaking down the hallway with her daemon. We don’t even know what the daemon physically looks like until paragraph 4, and even then we don’t know why he’s called a daemon or what makes a daemon special. In fact, this is one of the major conflicts of the book—we need to read more to find out about daemons, and further mysteries are revealed as we read that deepen our understanding of daemons. As we discover more clues that intrigue us, we want to know more, and keep reading.
But the line between intriguing the reader and confusing the reader is very thin, and I would argue that for some readers it’s in a different place than for others. Those of us who are familiar with fantasy might be more willing to patiently wait for more information about daemons because we trust that this author will let us know what we need to know when the time is right. We know that they’re teasing us with this information so as not to overburden us within the first few pages of the book (or, in the case of The Golden Compass, because the reader can’t know what the majority of people in that world don’t know, either).
In situations in which you need to establish a world that’s entirely different from our own, I find that putting a character in a situation that’s somewhat familiar to the reader can help with establishing the unfamiliar. In Karen Sandler’s Tankborn, for example, Kayla has to watch her little brother instead of going to a street fair with her friends. While Kayla might call him her “nurture brother” instead of just her “brother,” it’s still a situation to which a lot of readers can relate, even if it is set on another planet and her brother is catching nasty arachnid-based sewer toads instead of familiar Earth frogs and toads.
For me it’s also the difference between showing and telling. Philip Pullman shows us how his world works, rather than pausing to tell us how it works (“in this world, all people are born with an animal companion called a daemon”). Telling can work, though, especially in small doses—Katniss’s voice is so conversational that the brief moments of telling in the first few pages of The Hunger Games work, particularly because Collins is mostly showing what Katniss is up to. The brief pauses to “infodump” feel like the reader is being told a story by a storyteller, like a friend telling a story over the kitchen table after a nice big meal would pause and explain something you didn’t understand (a friend who’s a very good storyteller). It’s an awareness of audience, in a way, that most speculative fiction doesn’t have the luxury of.
Showing isn’t always better, and telling isn’t always bad, when done right and mixed in with showing. Whichever method you use, remember that sometimes readers will trip over new words so you need to give them as much context as possible without over-infodumping. And here is where the art comes in. I can’t tell you what that balance is, but if you look at examples like the ones above, you’ll get a better feel for how much to reveal and how much to hold back in your first few pages—revealing enough to orient your reader and give them a sense of the differences of this world (while grounding them in something familiar like Lyra’s hallway or Katniss’s humble home) while seeking to avoid overburdening them with too much all at once.
The line for each reader will still be different—heaven knows that I’ve seen reviews criticizing the first few pages of the same book that another reviewer found not-meaty-enough—but you’ll come to find the right balance for your story.
What about you? How have you found the right balance of worldbuilding without overburdening the reader? What books do you recommend as examples of good worldbuilding in the first few pages?
I’m going through a big stack of submissions that have been languishing for a while (and if you submitted a partial before Sept. 1 and don’t get a request for a full manuscript by the end of the week, you’ll know the answer is a no thanks). I’m on the lookout in particular for a book that will appeal to middle-grade girls, and I’m having a bit of a frustrating time of it. Mostly because humorous middle-grade voice seems to be a hard one to nail, and so many of the submissions in my pile seem to be going for a humorous bent.
Voice is the one thing that I don’t feel, as an editor, that I can fix. It’s too intrinsic to the art, too personal, something that has to be worked on before it comes across my desk. And a humorous voice? Even harder to shape as an editor. I completely appreciate how tough humor is just in general. It’s very subjective. So something that makes me giggle madly might not tickle someone else’s funny bone.
However, there is also a certain voice that I can only describe as “trying too hard.” The intended humor is super-goofy, overexplaining the jokes and losing the reader in the process. It feels too self-conscious, like the character is watching herself too closely instead of living her life. Humor should come, in my opinion, as a side effect of situations that happen to be a little goofy, rather than forced out of something the character finds funny, which is harder to translate into reader laughs. Thus, I personally think it’s really hilarious that Tyler Sato gets a killer asteroid named after him because, coincidentally, his cousins happened to name a star after him. But Tyler Sato himself doesn’t find it all that funny.
Part of the problem is that self-consciousness can sometimes work in YA, at least more than middle grade, because teens are more likely to notice things comment on them in a snarky way. Middle graders aren’t expected to be jaded just yet. But it’s not just that. Have you ever noticed that whenever, say, Stephen Colbert loses his deadpan, the joke loses a little something? Part of the hilarity is in the deadpan delivery. And we also have to acknowledge that not everyone is a humor writer—and that’s okay. Sometimes a book can be better when it’s not trying so hard for the laughs.
What I’d really like to see in my submission pile, though, as far as middle-grade books are concerned, is not necessarily humor—after all, we’ve got the hilarious Galaxy Games coming out this month already; go buy it! or read an excerpt!—but rather straight-on fantasy, science fiction, and mystery for middle-grade readers of both genders, but particularly girls because I don’t have much on my list for middle-grade girls right now. I’d love to see something more along the lines of Shannon Hale’s books for middle grade readers (one of my favorite books of all time is her Book of a Thousand Days, set in a Mongolia-like world): adventure and coming-into-her-own (not necessarily coming-of-age, which is more of a YA thing; would love such YAs, but I’m talking MG here right now). I also wouldn’t mind something along the lines of Michael Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm, while noting that even though the book is funny, the point-of-view character, Sabrina, is the straight (wo)man. It’s everyone else around her who’s all wacky-fairy-tale-ish.
…aaand another thing! Slang. Slang is the bane of every writer, and getting it wrong can definitely affect voice for the negative. It’s so hard to get slang right—current enough that today’s readers will not feel like the character sounds like their parents (even though it was probably written by someone from that generation or older), but also not trying so hard that it sounds corny or—worse—gets dated before it even comes out, just new enough to be thought up-to-date by the adult author but old enough to be completely out of style for the young reader. It’s particularly hard in middle school, an age where kids are sometimes just getting the hang of slang themselves. How do you write up-to-date slang without sounding completely wrong?
The general consensus among the writers of my acquaintance can be summed up in Kimberly Pauley‘s response:
Make it up. 🙂
If you’ve ever watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly, I think one of the biggest strengths of those universes are their mostly undated slang, because they didn’t go for the easy late-90s slang everyone and their brother on Dawson’s Creek was using. Joss Whedon really is a master at made-up-yet-contemporary-sounding slang. (The hairstyles in Buffy, however, haven’t stood the test of time so well.) Find a way to fake-curse, for example, by playing with language and using something that would be unique to your character—it will make them stand out more in a good way anyway, and avoid trendy words that will be out of date before the book even gets accepted by a publisher. You might also run your slang by the tweens in your life, and if you get an eyeroll, you might reconsider.
Voice is tough to master for any writer. So perhaps take a look at your book and consider: am I trying too hard to make it funny? Can it be played straight and enjoyed for the adventure, mystery, magic, and fun of it all, whether it’s funny or not? Because perhaps its strengths lie elsewhere—and that’s a good thing!