When I was a kid, I won a lot of awards. Now that I’m a grownup, I’ve found that trophies don’t get handed out just for showing up. Being honored for work is a feeling I nearly forgot. Thus this award for Deadwood means a lot — the silver Moonbeam Children’s Book Award for Pre-teen Fiction – Mystery. The Moonbeams are given by the Jenkins Group and Independent Publisher, recognizing books from smaller publishers. My publisher, Spencer Hill Press, made a great showing this year — great company to be in.
It’s Middle Grade Month on Diversity in YA, and I’ll be posting there with some amazing authors, like Jacqueline Woodson, Sarwat Chadda, Crystal Chan, Coe Booth, Sharon Flake, Varsha Bajaj, and more! Thanks to Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo for inviting me to participate.
Leaving Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín
Our Diversity, Our Connectedness by Crystal Chan
My Multicolored Heroes by Sarwat Chadda
Inspiration from Unexpected Places by Sharon Flake
Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj
Getting Understanding by Jacqueline Woodson
Growing Grayson by Ami Polonsky
I am a middle-grade writer first, but not only.
I read so many picture books when my children were young that I wanted to write one. Finally an idea hit me, and the story flowed out in a sitting. But that was the beginning — that story required many, many more sittings, drafts, and subsequent stories that improved on my first effort. As simple as a picture book manuscript looks, it’s hard to write one.
Switching gears between middle grade and picture books creates challenges, but it has its lessons. Here’s what I’ve taken into my middle-grade fiction from my efforts to write for younger readers.
Super pleased by a new review for Deadwood from Foreword Magazine! Here’s one of my favorite parts (it’s but hard to choose!):
“…these two strong characters — both of them sporty and clever, with diverse backgrounds — can hold their own. Short chapters amp up the pace and hold attention, bolstering the story’s wild suspense.”
Science fiction writer Jennifer Mason-Black hosted me on her blog Cosmic Driftwood, asking some really thought-provoking questions about magic and ecology.
Deadwood is reviewed in the August 2014 issue of School Library Journal, and it’s a good one! I’m so happy to be included.
“…the story is fun and engaging, and the characters have enough depth to make them interesting… budding tree huggers will love the sweet bond that forms between the kids and this unusual personification of Mother Nature.”
When I first had the idea for my middle-grade fantasy/mystery Deadwood (Spencer Hill, 2014), I knew it was about a cursed tree with messages carved in its bark. But one of the challenges of this scenario is that trees are not the most active characters. Sure, they’re great at photosynthesis, removing pollutants from the air, and providing the oxygen we breathe, but they’re terrible communicators and they tend to be, well, rooted. They don’t get around much.
So when I began writing the story, I introduced a talking squirrel character who acts as the tree’s representative – its Watcher. That makes sense, right? A squirrel is much more likely to be able to talk than a tree because they actually have mouths. They are scrappy little critters, able to leap from tree to rooftop in a single bound, probably excellent at eavesdropping, which is handy in a mystery. And who doesn’t love talking animals?
Apparently, many people do not, beginning with my agent at the time. When I told her about the story I was working on, she was lukewarm. Lose the squirrel, she said.
But but but. How could I lose the squirrel? Without him, the story seemed so drab, so colorless, so rodent-free.
Anybody can scare a middle-grader with age-inappropriate scenarios. But what makes a book frightening within a strictly middle-grade world view?
Once my first book came out last month, I braced myself for reader reactions. One thing that I was surprised to hear is that Deadwood can be scary for the youngest middle-grade readers. I didn’t know I was writing a scary book — suspenseful, yes, but scary? It’s not violent or graphic by any means, and I have a low tolerance for gore even as an adult. And it’s about a tree — not high on anyone’s list of spooky things.
Then I realized that the scariness comes from the supernatural occurrence in an otherwise realistic setting. A book is scarier if it seems as if it could really happen in the reader’s world. At 2 a.m., what seems scarier: a tale of a harmless ghost that hums sweet nursery rhymes in the hallway, or a book about a ferocious dragon that terrorizes a medieval village? (Trick question: nursery rhymes are naturally scary.)
But as a principle of spooky tales, familiarity makes frightening, whether the suburban school settings of R.L.Stine or “it happened to someone my cousin knows” of urban legends and campfire tales.
I had a fantastic visit at Penn Wynne Library August 19, 6:30 p.m. I love speaking with young readers, especially in the area which inspired Deadwood. I especially enjoyed previewing a new story I’ve written — and of course, the Corner Bakery cookies. Thanks to all the readers, Corner Bakery, and children’s librarian Alison King.