Monthly Archives: September 2008

Our Privilege

To be able to write for children is indeed a privilege. As I told my own children when they reached that “certain age” when they expected an increase in their current privileges, responsibility comes with privilege. We have a responsibility to the children we write for, and beyond that, a greater responsibility to God, that we don’t treat lightly His gift of our writing. Psalm 145, verse 4 tells us: “One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts.”

Even if we never mention God’s name in our stories we will somehow be telling about His works through setting descriptions or character personalities. We have to be careful not to let the world’s influence slip in and infect the purity of our words. And we’ll be tempted at times, because of the popularity of fantasy and gross or edgy books.  We might find success at those levels, but not what we could be proud of.

May we always seek to please God, and perform the privilege of His gift with joy.

contributed by Shirley Shibley


Finding Their Voices

In a middle grade novel, it’s important for each main character and the main cast of supporting minor characters to each have their own unique voice. Important in novels for adults, it’s especially important for a novel for kids in elementary school, the target age of middle grade novels. Just look at any highly successful MG novel such as Charlotte’s Web and you’ll see how important voice is.

When you’re writing a middle grade novel, before you write that new scene, imagine sitting down with each of your main characters and minor characters. Picture you all sitting in a circle together. Now ask everyone to answer the same exact question about the upcoming scene. Write down what they each say.

If they each respond in their own unique voice—great! They’re ready to enter on the “stage” of this new scene. If, however, they all end up sounding vaguely similar in their response, work on their voice until they each answer in a way that’s uniquely true to their character.

For instance, let’s sit down with several characters from Charlotte’s Web. Pretend we’re E.B. White and are about to write the scene where they capture Wilbur to put him in the crate so he’s ready for the fair. Ask each character to answer the question, “Why should Wilbur struggle against his capture?” Here’s how some of the characters might answer:

Charlotte: “It’s important that Mr. and Mrs. Zuckerman believe that Wilbur is a special pig, but not a strange pig. A special pig still acts like a pig and struggles when being caught.”

Templeton: “I don’t care if he struggles. What do I care? As long as he doesn’t step on my tail it doesn’t matter to me what the Zuckermans think about Wilbur.”

The Goose: “Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Run around, Wilbur! Run around! Pretend like you don’t want to get caught, caught, caught.”

Can you see how each voice is unique for each character? Their very own voice reveals their very own personality. The choice of words and the way they say it work together to define their role in the story. That’s the importance of voice, and that’s how you want each of your main characters and supporting characters to talk in your own middle grade novel.

-Contributed by Nancy I. Sanders

The Middle Road

I‘m writing a middle grade novel.
The learning curve’s Mt. Everest.
With help from experienced Wordsmiths,
There may be hope for me yet.

Those Middle Grade posts from Marilyn,
Shirley, Catherine and Marge,
Nancy, Veronica and Gloria,
Will surely my knowledge enlarge!

I’ll print up each article written.
Not ONE will I overlook.
I’ll have them bound at Kinkos.
It’s a How-to-Write-for-Middle Grade book!

If you’re needing help with this genre,
And you’re teetering on overload,
Don’t worry…the posts from those Wordsmiths
Will guide you on the middle-grade road!

Sherri is still climbing Mt. Everest but has her trusty Kinkos-bound book in her survival gear.

Unusual Middle-Grade Novels

 Many writers are attracted to writing for the middle grades.  In some ways, this often seems easier than dealing with the structure and limited word count of picture books or the “edginess” of teen lit.  Also, many of the kids in this age group are “eager readers”, so there’s a ready audience.  Most of them know how to read well and they’re not as distracted as they may become in the teen years.


However, since editors’ desks are continually filled with manuscripts for middle grade novels,  we need to think of ways to stand out from the pack…to present simple ideas with a new twist.


For example:


Florida author Donna Gephart was in the right place at the right time with her idea for a book with a very long title, “As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President!”  Even before the current “non-traditional” candidates arrived on the scene, Gephart thought about turning things around by having a young girl’s mother enter the race.  Her publisher timed it to come out at the beginning of this year’s highly-charged primaries, and it’s done very well.


In Sara Darer Littman’s “Confessions of a Closet Catholic,” her main character is a Jewish girl who is convinced her life would be better if she were a Catholic.  When she takes steps to do this (in secret), the results are anything but conventional.


Chris Crutcher writes YA novels about tenacious athletes who often overcome impossible odds.  Yet in his biography (for middle-grades and YA), “King of the Mild Frontier,” he tells of the embarrassment he endured as a certified “dweeb.”


Here are some additional ideas to think about when you want to create an unusual middle-grades novel.


Nature—Years ago, I noticed the beautiful jacaranda trees that bloom profusely in Southern California during May and knew there had to be a story there.  My first Los Angeles Times story, “The Secret of the Jacaranda Tree,” became a series with a new story appearing every year for 5 years.  When you let the beauties of nature that appeal to you—the ocean, the mountains, a particular flower—into your mind and heart, you’ll be surprised at the stories you’ll find there. 


Turning Things Around—Instead of the usual “nerdy girl with glasses yearns to be accepted by the popular girls,” how about if, through a counting error (hanging chads, anyone??) the nerdy girl wins a beauty pageant and throws the whole pecking order of the 6th grade out of whack?  It could work.


Twins—In the current issue of Children’s Writer (Oct., 2008), Christina Hamlett looks at story lines involving twins and details what works and doesn’t work.  She suggests new ways to write about them, such as instead of the usual formula of separated twins wanting to re-unite, how about, she suggests, one twin deciding being an only child would be much better and tries to find ways to make that happen.   Hamlett’s article contains much more advice on this subject.


Good luck!  I’m looking forward to seeing some unusual middle-grade novels in print in the future.


Contributed by Marjorie Flathers



Secondary Characters in Middle-Grade Fiction

In my last installment, I talked about single character viewpoint in the middle-grade novel, briefly touching upon the importance of the supporting cast. Today, I want to give more time to those secondary characters who, when developed properly, can give direction to the story by (1) giving an extra dimension to the main character, (2) supporting the plot, and (3) reacting to the setting. Let’s take it one step at a time:

1. Dialogue. Almost all characters talk, listen, and talk again. They become believable through conversation: through what they say, through their choice of words, and through the rhythm of their speech. Well-written, distinctive dialogue gives the viewpoint character someone to talk to. It allows him/her to agree, disagree, or even argue — all things that give extra dimension to the traits you are trying to establish.

2. Plot. A story requires a cast of characters. You only have to read through the supporting casts of movies to remind yourself that it takes a lot of secondary characters to make a story. Interaction is the key word here. Sometimes a secondary character interacts so well that he/she threatens to steal the scene. This is not a cause for alarm. Such a character can often serve as comic relief, or as dramatic contrast. And there is a bonus — you never know when you might need this very character as the hero or heroine of your next novel!

Secondary characters do not have to be on stage in every scene — only when needed for support. Because they are often off-stage, they are able to report things that happened beyond the viewpoint character’s frame of reference. This technique is invaluable simply because your main charcter can’t be everywhere at once.

Jane Eyre did not see Rochester’s wife on the flaming roof. She heard about it from a reliable eye-witness. Neither did Angie in my book, To Catch a Golden Ring, witness Con’s terrible accident. She pieced together details from eye-witness secondary characters until it seemed that she had seen it herself.

Setting. Just as interaction is important to plot, so is reaction important to setting. In my book, A Place to Belong, the secondary character, Took, hates Bundy Street and everything about it. In the opening scene, he says, “This place is full of termites. I heard them crunching in the walls last night.” The contrast between his attitude and that of the viewpoint character is shown when Jessica discovers that she can see the stars from the roof of the very same tenement building. Her positive feelings are strengthened by the contrast of Took’s anger.

Develop your secondary characters with the same care you give a viewpoint character, and your story will be more believable, more graphic, and more memorable! 


Submitted by Marilyn Donahue

Diversify Your Writing


You’ve tried submitting your fiction middle grade manuscripts to several publishers, only to receive rejection after rejection. You’ve studied formats, researched websites, rewritten and reworked, yet to no avail. You sigh when you see some of the books in the children’s section of the local bookstore, telling yourself, “I can do better than this.”


Getting a middle grade fiction book contract is your goal; but unfortunately it’s the same goal of thousands of other writers out there. So what do you do? Do you give up, never realizing your dream? No…you side step, or, like in the financial world, you diversify.           


Try writing non-fiction. There is a need for non-fiction middle grade books that are both entertaining and informative. Pick a few publishers that look promising. Study their lists, looking for themes or topics they are missing. Then send out a query with a few ideas and see what happens. You may find yourself working on a proposal.


If you want to get published in the middle grade market, you need to look at your options instead of limiting them. Give non-fiction writing a try for awhile. You can still work on your other novels at any time. And you never know–your non-fiction book may eventually lead to a middle grade fiction contract.


 Contributed by Catherine L. Osornio

A Former Tween’s Perspective

“Come,” says my heart, “seek God’s face.”
“Your face, LORD, do I seek!”
Psalm 27:8

Every stage of life is an adventure! For me, the tween-age years were just the beginning! At this time in my life, reading was a great way to explore. My parents liked to read and there was always a variety of books, magazines and newspapers to enjoy. Was it accidental that among so much to read were also a variety of periodicals and books that would help form my faith? Hmmm… Even though we regularly went to the library, the reading material hanging around the house would prove to hang with me over the long run.

Along with lots of books to read, another gift from my parents was the love for being out in the woods. Our yearly campout in Kings Canyon was the crown of many outdoor adventures. It was during this time that I found my reading interests moving from picture books and story books towards nature and science. Reading and enjoying the outdoors nurtured this curiosity and I learned to look at God’s creation with wonder.

These are just a few gifts I received during my tween years that helped me grow in faith and love. How wonderful our God is for drawing us to him in ways that are unique to each of us! How caring our Father is to give us loving parents to guide us! And how great our Creator is for giving us such a beautiful world to explore!

Contributed by Veronica Walsh, former tween, and children’s book illustrator