The Fluidity of History: On Middle Grade Historical Fiction

All fiction that speaks the truth is historical.When I was in eighth grade, my school district determined that girls and boys would study the exact same curriculum. This was progress.

In sixth and seventh grade, we girls had taken Home Economics while the boys had Industrial Arts. In eighth grade, however, we would rotate to take both subjects, one half year in each one in mixed gender groups.

I had Home Ec first. I remember making the first Caesar salad I ever ate. The recipe called for canned tuna instead of anchovies. It wasn’t authentic, but still delicious. I also remember a male classmate telling the teacher that really good cooks don’t need recipes. (We call that “mansplaining” now.)

The Industrial Arts teacher had an even worse adjustment than the Home Ec did. He took his eyes off what he was doing when a girl student called out to him, her unaccustomed high girly voice carrying across the class. He looked up, and he cut off three fingers on a circular saw. It was a memorable day for everyone. (We call that “being a distraction” now.)

Thus when I finally took my first shop class, my teacher was an experienced substitute who had been called out of retirement while the injured shop teacher healed.

Mr. Legg was a taciturn sort, and he had lived through a lot that was far worse than the unfamiliar presence of 13-year-old girls in his classroom. He bore an Auschwitz tattoo on his forearm. He wouldn’t talk about it, but he didn’t hide it. I think he wanted you to know it was there.

The Holocaust seemed so distant in 1983, but Mr. Legg had survived it.

Now I realize how close it was — the liberation of Auschwitz had happened just 38 years earlier.

I’m sure middle-school students now also think the Holocaust is ancient history. It’s not.

I’m sure that the softer bigotry the required different classes for boys and girls seems distant as well. It was just 33 years ago — history to current middle graders.

Antisemitism, sexism, and bigotry of all kind are not in the past. Racism didn’t end with slavery — it continues. Antisemitism and misogyny are resurgent, reactionary convulsions in the face of other progress. Genocide, religious, gender, and racial violence continue on the evening news, in Mosul, Ferguson, and Orlando.

It can be difficult for middle-grade writers to look at current events and culture with the clear eyes reserved for hindsight. History moves — current events slide into the past as we write about them. Distant events emerge as relevant.

But as middle-grade writers, we have an opportunity to make past and present real and vivid. That’s what historical fiction is for, even with the humbling fact that our own childhoods are now the realm of historical fiction. It’s also what contemporary fiction is for, turning the writer’s lens to the present.

We’re living in history, past and present. All fiction that speaks truth is historical, all is contemporary.

Originally posted on Project Mayhem

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Five Things Writing Novels Taught Me About Writing Picture Books

I write for children of all ages. Two years ago, when my first middle-grade novel, Deadwood, was released, I wrote a post called what What Writing Picture Books Taught Me About Middle-Grade Novels.

This month, my first picture book, Mira Forecasts the Future (illustrated by Lissy Marlin), hit the shelves. So now I take a look in opposite direction to assess what writing novels taught me about writing picture books.

5 things novels taught me about writing picture books

1. Nobody’s perfect.

When beginning to write picture books for young children, many writers have a tendency to want to model good behaviors. But good behaviors don’t make good stories.

Writing and reading novels prove that flawed characters are interesting characters. They make mistakes. They grow. They don’t have to be good influences.

Sometimes picture book readers — agents, teachers, parents, even kids — will call out characters for the wrong things they do, feel, or are. But the interesting, imperfect characters get your attention, and it’s the interesting, imperfect characters who have room to grow. That leads me to my next point.

2. Everybody arcs.

In my favorite books, every character wants something. Every character has their own story and growth. Even villains are the heroes of their own stories.

In a novel, there’s plenty of room to infuse each character with their own motivations, narrative, and character arc. This deepens the emotional impact of the plot and characterization, even if minor characters do much of their growing behind the scenes.

There’s not as much room in a picture book, but there also aren’t many characters. If you can make every character vibrate with their own motivations and change in the course of the story, your picture book will pack more resonance into 300 to 800 words.

3. Know your backstory (but don’t tell it all).

One of the biggest temptations when writing a novel — especially a big, juicy fantasy or historical — is to put all the worldbuilding and research on the page — addendums, family trees, glossaries, maps, footnotes with the history of the centuries. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it’s just an info dump.

When writing novels, you make a critical decision about what backstory not to include. Just because you know something doesn’t mean your reader needs to — the hidden history of your world makes the story more real even if you never put it in the foreground. That’s why it’s called backstory — you can’t show perspective and dimension unless there’s something in the background.

Of course, the few hundred words of text in a picture book don’t allow foreground backstory. The lesson from novels is to know the backstory even if you don’t tell it. If you understand your characters outside of those 300 to 800 words, if they live for you as people (or bunnies or sentient shovels), you’ll have a richer story.

4. Trust your reader.

One reason novel writers leave out backstory is that they trust their readers to pick up allusions and make connections. But can you do that when writing for very young children?

Yes. Your child readers may have only few years behind them, but they’ve accomplished hugely impressive cognitive growth before listening to or reading your story. They understand more than you think they do, and they are capable of understanding so much more than that if you give them a chance. So give them a chance.

5. Be in it for the long haul.

Writing a novel takes stamina. Even a short middle grade novel is 30,000 words. Adult novels are 80,000 and more, and don’t even think about the number of words in a multibook series. You have to write a lot of words, many days in a row or over the course of months or years until you reach the end. Then you revise, again and again. It’s a long haul.

A picture book is shorter than 1000 words, the amount many writers strive to draft in a single day. A picture book manuscript often doesn’t take long to write compared to a novel. But it’s still a long haul.

The individual manuscripts may be short, but shorter isn’t easier. Every word counts. You’ll probably rewrite each one. You may start from a blank page sometimes. You’ll workshop. Revise again.

And still, that first book you write probably won’t be published. Probably not the second. Maybe even your 10th manucript still won’t interest an agent. Maybe it will take your 15th or 20th to get published. And then maybe you’ll write 10 more before you get published again.

Picture books may be short, but they’re not a short cut. Every road in the writing business is a long one. Shorter isn’t easier. Younger isn’t lesser.

Writing is hard for every age. When it works, the writer finds the story, and the story finds the reader. And novel or picture book, that’s what makes it worthwhile.

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Not Only a Children’s Writer

How my daughter’s Mo Willems biography report made me realize I don’t value my own work enough

My second grader was assigned a Great Americans biography project. To help her decide on a subject, we checked out biographies of Elizabeth Blackwell, Mae Jemison, Mary Cassatt, Victoria Woodhull, Sonia Sotomayor, and Maria Tallchief — great American women who made achievements in medicine, science, politics, and the arts.

Despite reading those fascinating stories, the Great American my daughter chose to write about was Mo Willems.

My first thought was that he is “only a children’s writer.” I wanted to tell her to choose someone more important. And that says a lot more about me that about him.

Willems has won six Emmys for his work with Sesame Street. He has three Caldecott honors. He won two Geisel Medals and Geisel honors five times. He has written and illustrated more New York Times bestsellers than I have manuscripts in my trunk.

He is far more accomplished in his career than I even hope to be in mine, so what does that say about how I value my own career as a children’s writer, with one novel published and one picture book to come? It shows that I don’t value my own career enough — I have internalized that I am “only a children’s writer.”

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The Creative Value of a Binge

My winter vacation comes to an end, and with it the end of a binge — not the usual holiday eating indulgence (although plenty of Christmas cookies were involved) but of a lengthy reading binge spent immersed in Regency romance. I started with Austen, went deep into the Georgette Heyer catalog, then branched out into modern writers, then back to Austen.

The holiday binge is over.

As after most binges, I’ve ended feeling slightly overindulged — I’ve had enough younger brothers with gambling problems, dukes with rakish reputations, and haute ton society gatekeepers to last me another six months. I also have completed a crash course in rule-bound historical romantic tension, which is just what I need for the YA historical fantasy I’m writing.

Prolonged reading binges are how I became literate in the fantasy genre and in the middle-grade category. Until those self-directed educations, I read primarily adult literary fiction, and I haven’t gone back yet. Deep and wide immersive reading is form of research for fiction writers, and for me a purely pleasurable one. I had to know the voice and rhythms before I could find my own. I needed to learn the tropes and conventions so that I could avoid or deploy them purposefully, rather than falling into them inadvertently.

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In Praise of Prickles

Nobody wrote prickles like Diana Wynne Jones.

I’m reading her Dalemark Quartet for the first time, and it strikes me again how prickly her characters are. From The Spellcoats (Book Three):

Robin wrung her hands. … It annoys me when she does.

“We can go away down the River and find somewhere better to live,” I said. It was the most exciting thing I had ever said. I had always wanted to see the River. …

“But the Heathens!” Robin said, wringing away. I could have hit her.

The narrator Tanaqui is not nice. She isn’t patient or kind. She sulks when she doesn’t get her way, she teases her brother and snaps at her sister, and she turns out to be a hero in the end. Even then, she’s still not nice.

In Jones’s most popular novel, Howl’s Moving Castle, Howl is vain, lazy, and not very brave, but it’s Sophie who we root for as she becomes less nice.  Disguised as an old woman, she discovers her inner curmudgeon — commandeering and no-nonsense, where once she was timid and compliant. She gains an edge. This is character growth in the world of Diana Wynne Jones, and that’s why I love it.

Middle-grade characters are often so nice. They do the right thing. They even feel the right thing. They have flaws, but their flaws are the kind of answers they could give to a potential employer who asked them their biggest weakness in a job interview.

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The Darkness of Nursery Tales

A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest. (1)The other day my family and I was listening to an audiobook during a car ride — a middle-grade fantasy that retells a Grimm fairy tale. And of course, the princess’s father died right in the beginning.

My husband complained — he’s tired of all the dead parents of children’s literature. I defended the plot because that’s how stories work. Happy lives make dull books. The main character has to act on her own. She must suffer before she triumphs. She must face conflict.

Still, like my husband, I have tried to shelter my children from some literary losses — we haven’t read Charlotte’s Web or The Bridge to Terabithia. We never watched Bambi. We haven’t read the gruesomest Grimm tales that fascinated me as a child — the murdered stepson served as stew, the barrel studded inside with nails.

I remember my daughter flipping through my copy of Sing-Song, A Nursery Rhyme Book by Christina Rossetti. She was attracted by the little girl on the cover cavorting with a lamb, one of the gorgeous original illustrations by Arthur Hughes, the Pre-Raphaelite whose illustrations for George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin.

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Appropriate and Inappropriate Middle-Grade Books

Books for children are the ones most likely to be challenged based on content. If parents are to decide for their children which books are appropriate, that means that “inappropriate” books can and should be published so all parents have that choice.

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Headlight Goals: Seeing What’s Next

How to Keep Writing and Plotting When You Can Only See What’s Next

headlights

I’m working on a new novel, one that I have outlined in a synopsis but no further. I have a clear creative vision, but not a clear outline. I have novels that have been waylaid in the process of outlining, where I couldn’t solve a plot point and then the whole thing fell apart. As much as outlines have helped me in the past, this time I’m using the Headlight Method, which I first learned of in James Scott Bell’s indispensable reference, Plot & Structure.

E.L. Doctorow is credited with the saying, “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way.”

Neither pantser nor plotter am I, but something between. I need to see the next step, but if I have to have every detail done, I will never be done.
In the Headlight Method, you only need see as far as what’s in your headlights — you write scene by scene. When you get to the end of each, ask what next? What is the character’s emotional state? What is the next action the character needs to take?

I have a synopsis; I know where I’m going. I use the Headlight Method for what’s next.

This is going to be my approach to plotting but also writing goals, and other goals for 2015 too. When I have think about how long it will take me to write 100,000 words, I’m daunted. But I can think about 10K words, I can see my way to what’s next. Similarly, if I have to think about how to achieve a long-term health goal or a large financial goal, I’m overwhelmed. But if I can plan until the end of this month, I can be ready for next month.

So instead of New Year’s Resolutions or New Year’s goals, I have goals for what’s next in my headlights — for this month, this week, or today.

Or perhaps just next 30 minutes for  a writing sprint to get in another 500 words or another scene. Then I’m ready for what’s next.

Headlight Goals: How to Keep Writing and Plotting When You Can Only See What's Next

More explanation of the Headlights Method:
How to Outline a Novel Using the Headlights Method

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World Building in 1/12 Scale

I spent the day cleaning the house. This one:

Which is the same as this one:
That’s me in the heart-shaped deely-boppers, behind my little sister. It was my 13th birthday, and that was my new dollhouse. Dollhouses weren’t the coolest thing in eighth grade, but that didn’t stop me. I liked to build worlds, even if I didn’t know that’s what I was doing.

I Am Not My Books

Sometimes both writers and readers forget that they and their books are not one and the same.

Proof that I am not my books: We are often seen at the same place at the same time.

I put a lot of myself into the books I write. The characters come out of my head — the protagonists, antagonists, comic relief, parents good and bad, the passerby on the street who only has one line. But they are not me.

The dialogue comes from my head — philosophizing, wisecracking, both sides of an argument. But it’s not what I would say.

The writing, rewriting, querying, submission, editing, and marketing of a book takes a lot of time, emotion, and thought. There is a lot of my life and myself in my books. I have a creative vision, and it comes out in my books. But they are not me.

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