Thursday, December 6, 2018

GUEST POST: "Why I Don’t Write Middle Grade" by B.A. Williamson

I love middle grade books. I have since before there was a difference between YA and MG, back when I picked up The Giver, devoured it in one weekend, and simply called it a book. But whenever anyone asks me why I write middle grade, I have a very simple answer:

I don’t.

Picture this: You’ve made it, you’re a published author, congratulations. You’re at your local Barnes and Noble, standing in front of a table covered with copies of your book (because, of course, you should never be behind the table.) Thirty identical covers gleam at you, creating a swath of your own personal color palette. You have a stack of bookmarks in hand, ready to strike up a conversation with anyone who walks in that door.

And here comes an anyone: an adult, with no child in tow. You make your pitch, they seem interested, but they ask you that dreaded question: “What age is this for?”

Of course, the real question is, “Guess the age of the kid I’m thinking of.” Guess correctly, and you’ve just made a sale. Guess wrong, and off they go to look at coffee table books about Sinatra.

I have some flippant answers I like to use: “Well, how old are you?”, or “From kids age 1 to 92.” (Not really--Gwendolyn Gray is not for toddlers.)

But usually I say something like this: “It’s kind of a book for everyone. I don’t write kids stories—I just write good stories, and they’ve got kids in them. I know that 12-year old’s like it a lot, but I’ve found teenagers who love it, and third graders, and plenty of adults. It’s for anyone who likes good stories about kids having adventures with monsters and airship pirates and super-boring schools.”

See, I never sat down to write a middle-grade novel. I just wanted to write a Brent novel. (That puts the B in B.A.) And to anyone who knows me, this is an absolute Brent novel, from ADHD children whose imaginations come to life, to a cheeky classical literary tone, to skydiving ninja-pirates who fight clockwork robots. I stopped just short of adding a TARDIS and a luck dragon.

I wrote a story about everything I love, and I love books, and I was a kid who loved books, and I wanted to write about a kid who loved books because that was me and that’s what I know and that’s what I wanted to put out into the world.

I didn’t write a story for twelve-year-old’s. I wrote a story about twelve-year-old’s, and they seem to really like it. And so do people who were twelve once, or are going to be twelve someday. But it’s also a story about friendship, loss, love, magic, and most importantly, imagination.

At the risk of being controversial, I think sometimes we coddle our readers. We dumb it down too much. There’s plenty in my story that only my older readers are picking up on, but I wanted to write a book that everyone could read, so there’s no sex, there’s no swearing, the violence is kept pretty mild, and there’s only a tiny bit of grog-swilling.

Don’t pigeon hole yourself by the constraints of a label. The best middle-grade books out there are the ones that break out of that box—when was the last time you heard Harry Potter or Percy Jackson referred to as “middle grade?” They are, but in a way that transcends the label, because they’re just good stories.

So by now it sounds like I’m hating on middle grade, on a site about middle grade, and let me say that is absolutely not the case. I’m saying that middle grade is at its best when authors find the heart of the story they want to tell, and stick to it. When they take their reader seriously, and give them serious things to think about.

I really wanted The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray to feel important. I wanted it to matter. I wanted it to have weight. And one way to do that was to make sure that there were realistic consequences for the character’s actions.

Travelling to other worlds? That would spin your head! Losing your home? That’s not the sort of thing you get over after one or two chapters. And if someone dies, right in front of you, that’s a significant trauma for a twelve-year-old to witness, and it would stick with them, probably for the rest of their life. Keeping those things in mind makes your characters feel like real people. It makes your imaginary story about shadow monsters and steampunk cities feel like real worlds, where the stakes are real and the lives are real and the consequences are real.

Another reason to keep the MG label on the outside, rather than the inside? The kids. Kids know when they’re being pandered to. And writing middle-grade stories accurately, with really authentic middle-grade characters can be… cringe inducing. I’ve had some drafts where Gwendolyn did things that didn’t make sense, or came across as self-centered and petty and awkward, and I thought, yes, well, have you ever been in a middle-school cafeteria? It’s full of awkward, cringe-inducing self-involved kids! Instead of ultra-realism, show the kind of preteens that kids wish they were, but with the kind of struggles they already have.

That’s when you can show the magic of this particular age group. They’re just starting to realize that there’s a whole world around them, full of other people with their own thoughts and feelings. They learn that the things they do matter. There’s a whole new version of themselves that they haven’t met yet, and they’re just learning how to shape themselves into that person.

There’s an aspect of romance in my book. This has been an incredibly polarizing element among reviewers. I’m told that kids this age shouldn’t be acting like that, or that it isn’t middle-grade appropriate. But the middle schoolers I work with are just certainly noticing each other, and it is constantly on their mind. When I read the book to my students, and ask them whether I should cut that out, the answer is always a resounding No, you have to keep it! I tried to capture all the adorable awkward puppy-love of that first crush age, and the love of these two characters is what gets my students crying at the end. The adults who view this through the lens of their kids think, gross, my kid isn’t ready for that sort of thing. But the ones who remember being a kid themselves find that it resonates with the hormonal mess we all were at that age.

So start with a great story. Write some great characters. If those characters are interesting, and go on marvelous adventures, kids will want to read it. And if those characters are interesting, and go on marvelous adventures, and just happen to be kids, everyone else will read it too. And when it’s all said and done, you can put that middle grade label on the cover and know that you’ve written an amazing story that shows why middle grade is one of the genres that matters most. These are the books that help shape who these kids are, and who they’ll grow up to be. All you have to do is flip through the pages of Gwendolyn Gray to see all the things I’ve loved before, all my formative influences, and most of them came from middle-school. If you don’t talk down to your audience, don’t patronize them, but give them a story with real characters that strike the heart, with real stakes and real messages, then you’ll have an outstanding book that people will love, and yes, that will include lots of middle schoolers.

B. A. Williamson is the overly caffeinated writer of The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray. When not doing battle with the demons in the typewriter, he can be found wandering Indianapolis with his family, singing in a tuxedo, or taming middle-schoolers. He is a recipient of the Eli Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship. Please direct all complaints and your darkest secrets to @BAWrites on social media, or visit

Part fantasy, part dystopian, part steampunk, and all imagination, The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray follows dreamer Gwendolyn as she evades thought police, enters a whimsical world, befriends explorers and pirates, and fights the evil threatening to erase everything she loves.

Gwendolyn Gray faces an overwhelming battle every day: keeping her imagination under control. It’s a struggle for a dreamer like Gwendolyn, in a city of identical gray skyscrapers, clouds that never clear, and grown-ups who never understand.

But when her daydreams come alive and run amok in The City, the struggle to control them becomes as real as the furry creatures infesting her bedroom. Worse yet, she’s drawn the attention of the Faceless Gentlemen, who want to preserve order in The City by erasing Gwendolyn and her troublesome creations.

With the help of two explorers from another world, Gwendolyn escapes and finds herself in a land of clockwork inventions and colorful creations. Now Gwendolyn must harness her powers and, with a gang of airship pirates, stop the Faceless Gentlemen from destroying the new world she loves and the home that never wanted her—before every world becomes gray and dull.

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