Monday, March 20, 2017


If you write middle grade fiction, it can be difficult to keep track of the ebbs and flows of a middle schooler’s daily life if you are not the parent or teacher of kids this age. I interviewed a middle school guidance counselor (I’ll call her Ms. Counselor) for insights—some granular details ranging from school day schedules to substance use to gender, sexual orientation, and the beginnings of romance. These insights are specific to a community on Cape Cod: a community with a seasonal economy and a wide range of socio-economic status that is majority-white and in a semi-rural setting that requires that kids take buses or get rides from parents to school and activities. These details (some can be generalized while others are specific to our location) may be useful as you craft your middle grade story.

1) Scheduling
Middle schoolers (grades 6-8) don’t sit in the same classroom all day. They change classes for subjects such as English, Math, Social Studies, and Science, and they have different teachers for these subjects. Kids are generally on teams, which enables their teachers to get to know them better. Schools use different methods to coordinate schedules; for instance, one school may use an A day-B day pattern, or a ‘rotating block” system. It can be confusing, especially for sixth graders, but they tend to learn it fast. (The adults may have a harder time catching on than the kids!) Also, they cannot go to their lockers whenever they want: there are prescribed times of day for going to lockers.

2) Substance Use
Sixth graders tend to be rule followers. Most of them will think that substance use is “icky and wrong,” but there are always outliers who will start experimenting on the early side. Ms. Counselor says that seventh graders start experimenting more, trying alcohol or cigarettes over the summer between sixth and seventh. In seventh grade, there are relatively few kids using substances, but they loom large in the consciousness of the peer group, leading to an “everyone is doing it” narrative and a skewed sense of proportion for kids. Finally, substance use increases in eighth grade (dabbling in alcohol, cigarettes, or pot).  Ms. Counselor points out that extra-curricular activities serve as an interesting “zone” in which there might be some of this experimentation going on. It’s a time when parents think kids are being supervised (ie team sports, dance, theater), but these activities are not as rigid and scripted as the school day. This is especially important for writers to consider; these activities can serve as a “gateway,” where a kid might be faced with substance experimentation and accept/reject that option. At the same time, these activities form a social support network of both peers and adults that Ms. Counselor sees as an important ingredient for well-functioning middle-schoolers. As you craft your story, it's important to figure out how your middle graders are getting from place to place, and what activities they might be participating in. This can have a big impact.

3) Cross-gender friendships
In sixth grade, boys and girls generally separate by gender in places like the cafeteria, especially in the fall.  By spring, there is more mixing—there are still all-boy tables and all-girl tables, but lots more mixed tables; this keeps increasing in seventh and eighth grades. (One interesting note from Ms. Counselor: this year, a sixth grade transgender student started a trend of bringing a book to lunch and reading. He was quickly joined by two other boys, and now there is an informal “reading table” in the caf where kids congregate to eat and read quietly.) There are boy/girl friendships that survive the social pressures of middle school. These friendships seem to ebb and flow over the school year in all three grades, indicating cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium in gender-friendship dynamics.

4) Middle school romance
Some use the term “going out” or “with”—“are you still with Laura?” This starts in sixth grade slowly, increasing each year. Ms. Counselor notices that all the social groupings and boundaries seem to blur and morph in the outside-of-school social context of texting and group chats. Kids who don’t seem to associate in school are part of the same group chats/texts outside of school. (Group texts and chats are BIG! A lot happens and there can be lots of drama.) One thing that has not changed is the tension around revealing a crush—that is a very big deal. Disclosing a crush is still huge, and having knowledge of who likes who gives a kid a lot of power and sometimes leads to betrayal and teasing. There is not much PDA (public displays of affection) in middle school. It happens the most in eighth grade, and kids in same-gender relationships seem to be able to get away with it the most.

5) Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity
There is so much more awareness on the part of kids, and more parental awareness and acceptance, when it comes to kids and their sexual orientation and gender identity now. Ms. Counselor runs a gay-straight alliance and it is very active at her middle school. The older generation’s binary thinking about “in the closet/out of the closet” is dated and obsolete. Ms. Counselor says that framework does not apply anymore, “not even close.” Kids talk about their preferred pronouns, and these pronouns may shift week to week. Kids in the GSA consider their identities to be fluid; they identify as bi (bisexual), pan (pansexual), “a” ( asexual), trans (transgender), and gay. This can also shift week to week or month to month. Girls don’t tend to use the word lesbian but will declare that “I like girls.” Ms. Counselor says the kids don’t attach permanence to their labels, saying things like, “I’m calling myself pan right now,” or “I like ‘a’ because I don’t see myself with any specific gender” or “I’m attracted to the person so I’ll go with pan or bi.” There are trans kids in middle school, as young as sixth graders, who are actively working out how they want to present themselves to the world. It can vary day by day, or week by week,  in terms of wearing male- or female-signifying clothing and accessories. All of the trans students who Ms. Counselor has worked with in the past few years have been female to male. There is no “old-fashioned clarity” (as Ms. Counselor calls it) about these labels and identities, and she says that kids are perfectly fine with this fluidity, able to talk and ask about it, while adults are sometimes confused and unsure, trying to understand and do/say the right things.

Finally, Ms. Counselor stuck up for middle schoolers: “People think middle school is horrible, full of drama and hormonal changes.” She says kids at this age turn themselves into “porcupines,” using distancing behaviors like eye rolling and sarcasm to hold adults at bay. They need this distance developmentally in order to individuate and develop. At the same time, “as soon as you step around their defenses, you realize that every kid needs connection. Those defenses are empty. In reality, they need adults.” This is pure gold for writers to consider: how does my character both crave connection and create distance from sources of support as they navigate the bumpy ground of early adolescence? They are dealing with a lot, presented with lots of choices, conflicts, and closeness.  These pushes and pulls, ebbs and flows present endless possibility for the writer creating middle grade fiction.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

IT'S ONLY A GAME: Games from Page to Reality by Eden Unger Bowditch

Sometimes, characters in our books come up with a good idea. And then what? Well, in The Strange Round Bird… Noah invents a game. And it works. And it is fun! The game literally jumped off the page into reality.

It started with spare time and an idea of what to do with extra pawns from a broken chess set. Moving the pieces around, I began to see how they could work as a separate and different game. What if it was a broke board? What if there were six pieces? How would they move? What was the goal? And then, with an explosion, the game slipped into the story as a way to distract a nervous character from being frightened. So, to be honest, there was an idea, the idea worked in the book, and in the book the game came to life.

Now, I’ve had people send me recipes they created from descriptions of dishes in these books. I’ve had people send me photos of themselves dressed like characters. But this is something slightly different. This is an invention that came to life in the story. At first, I did not believe that there could possibly be a game on a board of squares that did not already exist. I researched online and even brought it to a games expert. Apparently, it did not exist. I worried that it was because it was just a bad idea so I started bringing it with me to schools at visiting author events. People seemed to like it. My publisher had a minor freak out and sent me a patent lawyer, insisting that I patent the game before taking it out to the public. Thanks, guys. I hadn’t thought of that.

After hours upon hours of playing (thank you, my children and all of their friends) the game ‘Sufuuf’ made its way into the world, with rules and pieces, just like a real game. The games expert gave me names of game manufacturers who might be interested. I was even contacted by the ‘Seen On TV’ people who had a rather remarkable financial offer. Clearly, they had never read the books since the story takes place at the turn of the last century. Not a good fit for TV. I declined.

So from the page to the real world, Sufuuf has come into being. Do you have characters that invent or build something in your stories and those things come to life in the real world? It is very exciting! My first event in is Los Angeles in May. I’ll let you know how it goes.

-       Eden

Monday, March 13, 2017

On Fiction, History, and Wishing the World Were Otherwise, by Anne Nesbet

            I've been thinking a lot recently about the places where fantasy and history overlap, and in particular about the strange things that sometimes happen when our stories revise the past by making the painful parts of history otherwise.
            Making things otherwise is a desire very much at the heart of most writing, of course. It's pretty much the essence of fiction! In real life, we can't tweak what has already happened--we can't, in real life, heal wounds inflicted hundreds of years ago by one human being on another. But in fiction, we can. And so, we do. It strikes me that sometimes I find these twisted histories satisfying and moving--and sometimes the fictional mending of the past unsettles me. Loopholes, it seems, can have unintended side-effects.
            I was recently quite moved by a historical fantasy by H. M. Bouwman, A CRACK IN THE SEA (2017), which is explicitly about loopholes, about "a crack in the sea" that allows doomed and desperate people from our world--Africans thrown overboard from slavers' ships, Vietnamese refugees whose boats are damaged by pirates and then sink--to travel to another world, where the water is sweet and people are very few.

            As Heather Bouwman explains in her very thoughtful Afterword, the inspiration for this book was the true, awful history of the Zong, a ship transporting enslaved human beings across the Atlantic Ocean: in 1781 the men sailing this ship threw 133 living people, men, women, and children, into the ocean to drown, so that the owners of the ship could collect insurance payments on the lost "cargo." One of the characters in Bouwman's story, a girl named Venus, comes from the Zong; the story of A CRACK IN THE SEA, as the author explains, had its origins in a longing to change what can't actually be changed:  
            "And the Zong is the heart and soul of my book . . . . [F]or me, the story first became alive with Venus--with my feeling that she had to escape, somehow, from this terrible historical fact, this thing from which, in real life, there was no escape."
            From my perspective, the power of a historical fantasy like A CRACK IN THE SEA depends very much on the reader knowing that what he or she is reading is a counter-factual wish, that in real life, these real people died terribly--and we wish so much that that could be otherwise that we are willing to write stories in which something else happens. What happens, however, when a student who doesn't know about the real history of the Zong--or the real history of the Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s--reads this story? Perhaps the effect is quite different.
Although Bouwman's story is a fantasy, it does its best to take historical suffering seriously (as her author's note reminds us), even while opening magical/historical loopholes. A more extreme example of that approach might be Guillermo Del Toro's film, PAN'S LABYRINTH, in which a brutal tale of the Spanish Civil War gains another dimension through its young heroine's fantastic adventures. How one reads the ending of that film depends on whether one understands the "loophole" (the fantasy kingdom) to have been really, truly, literally real or, more poignantly (in my opinion), if we take that "loophole" as a reflection of our human and endlessly thwarted desire for the world to be other than it is.
        Other books go to bleak moments in human history and make them positively blithe, however. Remember the opening pages of J. K. Rowling's THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (1999)?

"Harry moved the tip of his eagle-feather quill down the page, frowning as he looked for something that would help him write his essay, 'Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless--discuss.'
            The quill paused at the top of a likely-looking paragraph. Harry pushed his round glasses up the bridge of his nose, moved his flashlight closer to the book, and read:
            'Non-magic people (more commonly known as Muggles) were particularly afraid of magic in medieval times, but not very good at recognizing it. On the rare occasion that they did catch a real witch or wizard, burning had no effect whatsoever. The witch or wizard would perform a basic Flame-Freezing Charm and then pretend to shriek with pain while enjoying a gentle, tickling sensation. Indeed, Wendelin the Weird enjoyed being burned so much that she allowed herself to be caught no less than forty-seven times in various disguises.'"

            This description gave me a bit of a jolt the first time I read it, to be honest, and now that I've gone back to find it again, I understand better the reason for the jolt. The account here is jolly and lighthearted, but on the other side of this fictional lens (on the other side of this "otherwise") lies some pretty awful historical stuff, real people whose suffering had nothing at all in common with "gentle, tickling sensations." It's humorless of me to state the obvious this way, isn't it? But bear with me: I'm trying to figure out what makes some fantastical reworkings of history cut deeper than others. It seems to me that whereas A CRACK IN THE SEA focuses on the poignancy of the "otherwise" (by keeping the "terrible historical fact" close by, even while the fantastical loophole is opened), THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN puts more weight on the loophole, and lets the historical fact float away.
            Have you read any historical fantasy recently? What effect did it have on you? Have you encountered stories in which the "wish that the world were otherwise" particularly moved you? Does a purely humorous approach to rewriting history unsettle you at all, or do you merely find it refreshing? (A good recent example of history rewritten for comic effect might be MY LADY JANE, by the witty trio of Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; in this novel Lady Jane Grey turns out to have been at the heart of various romantic and magical plots--and gets a happy ending, very unlike her historical fate.)
            So perhaps what I am discovering is that I am most satisfied when some trace of the tragic historical fact remains, even if veiled, in the counterfactual rewriting--the tension between fact and wish can then work a very powerful and poignant magic of its own. I am very curious to hear your thoughts, however--on historical fantasy, on loopholes, and on wishing the world were otherwise....

Thursday, March 9, 2017

On Rage and Hope in Margarita Engle's MORNING STAR HORSE

I was recently honored to have a chance to read MORNING STAR HORSE by Margarita Engle, who has won a huge list of the most prestigious kid lit awards for her previous books: the Newbery Honor, the PEN USA Award, the inaugural Walter Dean Myers Award, three Pura Belpré Awards, and on and on and on.

MORNING STAR HORSE is a historical verse novel with a sprinkling of magic realism. It immediately engaged me with its beautiful imagery, gripping settings, and fascinating historical moment. Since I have bilingual kids, I was delighted to see it is available in English, Spanish, AND bilingual editions. I’m thrilled to be able to ask Margarita a few questions about her newest book.

JOY: MORNING STAR HORSE is a very unique blend of the historical and the fantastical. On the historical side, I was fascinated to learn about the Raja Yoga Academy, which I had never heard of (though I grew up very near Point Loma!). It’s a fascinating setting for a middle grade novel. And before the main character arrives at the academy, she lives the first few years of her life in a cave and then emerges to explore the island of Cuba. Can you talk a little about how setting informs your work, and how the verse format plays into your use of setting?

MARGARITA: Thank you! The settings come straight from history. Entire armies hid in caves during Cuba’s wars for independence. It’s a limestone island, underlain by enormous networks of caverns. The Point Loma setting is historical also, since the Raja Yoga Academy was a real school. Admittedly, I added the magical horse, and perhaps I exaggerated the bioluminescent glow of beaches in the tropics, but that glow actually does occur, and it’s amazing when you see a flying fish leap out of a wave, illuminated by radiant water. These naturally poetic images are inherently suited to verse. I chose free verse because of the rhythmic flow. While I was writing, a horse walked, trotted, cantered, and galloped through my imagination.

JOY: Also with regards to the format of verse, middle grade is my favorite age for verse novels. Why do you think verse is such a good fit for middle grade readers? Is there anything verse allowed you to do with this story that you might not have been able to do in a prose novel?

MARGARITA: If modern American children—with all their electronic distractions—are ever going to fall in love with poetry, it is probably in the middle grade years. Verse allows me to show emotions in a way that might seem melodramatic in prose. Verse also allows me to distill complex historical events down to their emotional essence. For instance, instead of showing grisly details of the chaotic post-war situation in Cuba, these simple poems invite readers to imagine how it felt to live in that time and place.

JOY: One of the things I really loved about the book was the portrayal of Estrellita’s anger. Girls in our culture are rarely given the permission to express their anger, and I think it’s powerful for young readers to see when a character’s anger is respected. In a poem called Reflections, it says,

Now, all I do is wonder—
will there ever be a place
where this much sheer rage
will fit?

That really speaks, to me, so much of being a girl, and it’s something I think present day readers will connect with a lot. Estrellita has a LOT of reasons to be angry. And at first she lets her anger consume her enough that she shifts from being bullied to being a bully. I think sometimes writers are worried about allowing their characters—female characters especially—to be “unlikable.” When really, it seems to me that allows kids to see themselves in all their complexity. Can you talk a little about Estrellita’s anger and why portraying that was important to you?

MARGARITA: Thank you! All my female characters have moments of rage, and most of them are historical characters, not fictional. Even though Estrellita is not based on a specific real person, she suffers from all the normal feelings of every child, including anger, envy, shame, joy, and above all: hope. Rage just happens to be the stumbling block that eventually leads her to an understanding of hope.

Oh I just love that. Rage as a stumbling block that leads her to an understanding of hope. That alone should convince readers to dive into MORNING STAR HORSE!

Congratulations, Margarita, on the release of MORNING STAR HORSE and thank you so much for taking the time to chat with Project Mayhem!

Project Mayhem readers, what are some of your favorite middle grade verse novels? And what are some of your favorite middle grade moments of rage? Do they lead to hope?

Monday, March 6, 2017

I SENT WHAT?! by Hilary Wagner

We've all done it. I don't care how well published you are or how new to the industry you are, but we've all sent something out with a big fat humbling and in most cases highly visible typo--and many times more than one. It's unavoidable. No matter how many times you read through a manuscript, you are bound to miss things. It's simply part of being human and how the brain works.

Now then, If you've recently sent a manuscript out to an agent or editor and realized you've left in some conspicuous typos, don't freak out. Take a step back and know that it happens to everyone. Besides, if someone was going to bounce you out of consideration for a typo or two (or even a couple more) in your 250 page manuscript, possibly it's someone you wouldn't want to work with anyhow. Clearly, there are flagrant typos, wherein the reader is tripping over typos in every paragraph, that's not going to fly, but everyone, from writers, to agents, to editors, miss things now and again. After all, we are only human and if humans were perfect, there would never be typos in published books--bestselling books--books that have been combed through by the author, the editor, readers, and copy editors, BEFORE they hit the shelves. In other words, it happens. It does. Period.

Tips for catching typos:
Print it out: Print out the full manuscript. Somehow a lot more typos slip by the naked eye staring at a monitor than when you hold the physical manuscript, knocking out typos like Mike Tyson with your almighty red pen.

Read your work out loud: This requires you to read every word from start to finish. Time consuming and dry throat inducing? Yes, but a lot more effective than skimming through it silently.

Let your work sit a while: This is a hard one for me, as I'm about as patient as a starving bear, but do it. Even if it's just for a few days, let your work sit. This will cause you to read your words more thoroughly and thoughtfully, rather than flying through something you were just working on.

A second set of eyes: When time permits, I always have my husband read through my work before I send it off. Since he's reading it for the first time, it's far easier for him to catch "to" versus "too" than it would be for my eyes, which at this point in the process, have gone blind to the little things.

Okay, truth time. In my first manuscript I had typos. After I caught them (which was after I hit "send") I sat at my laptop and cringed, wondering how on earth I could have missed something so glaringly obvious. I probably read through the manuscript at least 50 times, but there they were in all their glory, "shutters" instead of "shudders", "there" instead of "their". You get the picture. I wondered if I'd be automatically rejected based on this, but I learned editors get it. They understand how things get missed. It's about your impelling story not your misspelling of "accommodate".

In the end, I got published! Luckily, the typos did not. ;)

Long story short, there will generally be normal inconsequential typos somewhere in something you send out. Don't sweat it. It doesn't change your story or your hard work. It only makes you human.

PS: If there are typos in this post, please blame someone else. :)