Little Darlings: "Why I Write Middle Grade"
By Tara Gilboy
The first novel I ever wrote was middle grade.
I don’t know that you could actually call it a “novel,” since it was probably no more than fifty pages. But it had chapters, and a beginning, middle, and end. I was eight years old, and I wrote it in a blank hardcover journal that had a picture on the cover of a girl in a pioneer dress feeding chickens. So I started the story with my main character, ten-year-old Martha, feeding chickens. Then she went west in a covered wagon and nearly everyone died. Only Martha and her sister Nan made it to Oregon.
Only recently, I stumbled across a copy of the book Seven Alone, one I’d read as a child, and realized I’d stolen nearly the entire plot of my novel from it. But that’s beside the point. The reason I mention my pioneer novel is because it was the first novel I ever completed, and it was a middle grade story. Middle grade is where I started out writing, mostly because I loved reading middle grade books. I was writing the kinds of books I liked to read.
Around this same time, my parents went on vacation to Florida and left my brothers and me in the care of our grandmother.
I was very excited about this because it meant finally I was going to have the opportunity to get away with something my mom had forbidden. For the most part, my mom indulged my bookish dreaminess, but she drew the line when I wanted to go to school dressed as my favorite book characters. My friend, Jenny, also a bookworm, and I had been planning this for a while, but my mom, probably worried I’d be teased, refused. My grandma, on the other hand, who usually gave me my way, didn’t mind at all.
For my character costume, I dressed as Samantha Parkington from the American Girl books. I wore a Victorian dress, but lacking the high-button shoes I needed, I wore tights and snow boots. I paired this with a shawl my mom had worn to her high school prom. Jenny would be Kirsten Larson, also from the series. Jenny wore a pioneer dress and styled her hair into looped braids.
That day, while we were at school, dressed as our characters, Jenny’s house burned down. Though no one was hurt, it was still a terrible loss for her family, but what spooked Jenny and me most was that the same thing had happened to Kirsten in her book. Kirsten’s house, too, had burned down. We were convinced something in the story had come to life and set fire to Jenny’s house.
Twenty-five years later, I would write a novel about stories that came to life, though this is not where I got the idea for my novel. But I think mine and Jenny’s belief that the story had come alive is probably not a unique one. Middle grade readers accept wonder in the world and in their stories in a way that adults may not. I don’t mean that they are naïve or unsophisticated. I just mean that they are able to suspend disbelief and allow themselves to be fully immersed in, as Mark Twain would say, “a good story, well told.”
As Lisa Cron reminds us in her brilliant book Story Genius, we are hardwired to immerse ourselves in stories. The same parts of our brain light up when we are reading about a character experiencing something as would light up were we actually experiencing it ourselves. Doesn’t this mean stories are real on some level? But we lose this ability to suspend disbelief a bit as we get older.
As I grew older, writing kind of slid to the backburner. When I was ready to seriously pursue writing again, in college, I turned to adult fiction, which after all was literary and serious and “important.” I decided I would write the Great American Novel. I penned lots of stories about serious subjects like marriage and relationships and feminism and social class, the kinds of stories I read in my literature classes. Some of them I even published. But I wasn’t having fun.
Then I started my MFA, which seemed the logical next step in my writing journey. I think I was worried if I didn’t complete an MFA, I might not have the discipline to keep writing. Perhaps this should have been my first warning sign—after all, if I loved writing as much as I said I did, I shouldn’t have needed to take classes to force myself to keep writing regularly. My first year of the MFA, I started working on a very serious historical novel that required lots of research. Every sentence was like pulling teeth. I couldn’t care about my characters, their financial problems, their marriage troubles, infidelity and in-laws, and struggles of raising children. Even though the teacher was fabulous, I couldn’t wait for the class to be over so I didn’t have to work on this book anymore. Writing was becoming a chore.
At the same time, I was taking a different class on children’s books and rereading all my old favorites and lots of new ones as well: Holes and Ella Enchanted and The Tale of Despereaux and Tuck Everlasting and RL Stine. They were filled with adventure and magic and excitement. These were the kinds of books that made me fall in love with reading (and writing) in the first place. They were filled with story, pure and simple. As I read them, I couldn’t stop thinking of new ideas.
I wrote stories about witches who threatened to chop off heads. I wrote stories about dolls who came to life. I wrote stories about ghosts, a haunted antique shop, an orphan in Victorian London, pirates, mermaids, fairies, and yes, even pioneers. I could write in any genre I wanted—there weren’t any “rules” other than telling a story that would resonate with child readers. I realized I did my best work when I was having fun. Once I returned to writing middle grade, the stories that had first made me a reader and then a writer, I never looked back.
Middle grade readers care about the “emotional truth” in stories. There is more truth in Charlotte’s Web, with all its talking animals, about friendship and love and sacrifice than in many thousand-page, extensively researched and poetically written epic tomes about, say, war. Adults read and admire these long, literary adult novels about what are no doubt important issues, but we’re not going to stay up until one in the morning reading under the covers with a flashlight. We’re not going to dress up like characters in these stories or think about what would happen if they came to life. We’re not going to fall in love with these stories, befriend them, make them real in our minds, the way we do as children. We do this with middle grade novels.
I write middle grade because they are the stories that made me a reader. They are the stories that first stirred me to write. And they are the stories that inspire me to love writing anew every single day.
This article was originally published on RavenEckman.com.
Tara Gilboy is an award-winning short fiction writer and author of the middle-grade fantasy Unwritten and its sequel Rewritten. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and teaches for San Diego Community College District. She's also worked as a fiction editor at Straylight Literary Magazine, served on the editorial board of PRISM International, and mentored for the PEN Writers in Prisons Program. As an editor, she pays particular attention to plot, structure, and character arcs.