A Second Look at Middle Grade Books
I just finished reading another amazing book for kids, Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, written for middle grade readers. (Middle grade is considered to be for ages 10 and up or grades 5 and up.) This is the story of Willow Chance, a genius and misfit who loses her parents in an accident and then discovers an unexpected family. Her voice is so unique that you find yourself cringing at points for the way she interacts with those around her, but mostly because you want to protect her, and laughing at her cleverness at other points.
Sloan's editor, Lauri Hornik of Dial Books for Young Readers, said she fell in love with Willow when she first read the manuscript. She found the writing lyrical and liked the universal themes of family and feeling like an outsider. I appreciated all that too. But what I also noted is that this book doesn't follow the accepted formula for children's books: that the story be told entirely from a child's point of view. There are alternating chapters in this story, with a focus on three different adults, as well as an older teen. The chapters that focus on the adults are quite sophisticated in terms of subject matter and language, and this was a surprise to me. This book could just as easily have been pitched to adults as to preteens.
What this says to me is that there's an understanding in the publishing world that our young readers are more sophisticated, so can handle difficult themes and complex language. Also, from the writer's standpoint, it means that we can break the old rules for story structure because agents and editors are more open to what is ultimately their "next big thing" to sell. This does not by any means indicate that you don't have to pay careful attention to your writing. In fact, what it means is that your writing must be stellar in order for it to support a rule-bending format. If you shake up the structure just to be different, that won't be enough to get a book deal.
Read Counting by 7s, as well as the full range of new and classic books available for young readers. As I always say, it's fun homework!