I read with great interest Caroline Starr Rose’s blog post here, responding to Colby Sharp’s post here. Nutshell: the difference in the responses of adult readers and young readers to middle-grade books. Because adults have read so much more than young readers, can something that feels ‘tired’ to us still be new and wondrous to the child reader?
With the usual (and vital) caveat that *not every book is for every reader*, I’d like to continue the conversation. I believe that there are truly only a handful of story modules in existence. We humans tell the same stories over and over. It’s a great strength of humanity and a tribute to the enduring power of stories: How they tie us together across time and space.
You don’t have to be an adult to have read many examples of the kinds of stories that people tell. An enthusiastic 10-year-old reader has probably already come across most of them. The writer’s task is to make those same old stories new again.
There is a danger in the line of thinking that ‘middle-grade is for kids, to whom All Is New.’ It’s a slippery slope to lazy writing: I can use this tired plot line, these stock characters, this trite language…because it will be new to them. I don’t know any writers who think this way consciously, but alas, I frequently read books in which these kinds of thoughts would appear to be in play subconsciously. (Editors and publishers must shoulder their share of the blame here.)
When I am writing middle-grade novels or stories, my first responsibility is to the story itself. I’m not thinking of the age of the reader. I’m focused on choosing the right words and putting them in the right order to best serve the story. In the very late stages of revision, I might have a thought like, Hmmm, maybe kids won’t know what that is, won’t be able to picture it. I’ll add an image for reinforcement.
I’m glad Mr. Sharp was helped by the thoughts of Linda Urban, and glad too for Caroline’s thoughtful post. But Mr. Sharp, if you’re reading this, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss your concerns about staleness. There are times when you’re right. All readers, and especially young readers discovering the power of story, deserve nothing less than the best effort of the storyteller.
If I do my job well, the young reader might indeed experience something new. And the ‘old’ reader will hopefully experience the same-old same-old in a way that makes her or him see it in a new light.
Which means that a good middle-grade book is indeed for you and me. And them. For anyone who wants a good story.