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Children's Literary Salon in Retrospect: Middle Grade Fiction on February 2, 2013

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[Zoology class at # 1 Ukraine middle school in Khust], Digital ID 51793, New York Public LibraryTo be honest, I have been puzzling over the meaning of the title of this panel (Middle Grade Fiction: Surviving the YA Onslaught) from the time I heard about it until I saw the "It's a Children's Book (Not Young Adult)" blog on the projected screen of the South Court Auditorium where this Children's Literary Salon occurred in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. The fact that these salons explore areas that I was not previously aware of is precisely why I love these lit salons so much. Also, there was a synergy that evolved between the panelists of this middle grade salon. There was a refreshing energy in the air that sparked intriguing conversation.

Lost Between Kids and Teens? The panelists for this program are all authors of middle grade fiction, which is sometimes misclassified as young adult literature. At NYPL, we classify children's literature as grades 0-6 or kids aged 0-11 years old. Young adult materials are defined as serving 7th through 12th grades or kids 12-18 years of age.

Betsy Bird, Youth Materials Specialist at NYPL, hosted this Kid Lit Salon. First she introduced the panelists. Rebecca Stead is a NYC native and a former public defender. She started off writing "Very Serious Stories," but now she writes books for kids. Adam Gidwitz is a schoolteacher, and he was fascinated by the Grimm tales. While he was reading one of the stories, the kids begged him to "put that in a book." He stated that it was already in a book, but their comments and urging lingered within him until he eventually did put that into a book, and the result was A Tale Dark and Grimm. He has the kids to thank for that. He has a very good web site; the colors and illustrations all are similar to the cover art on his stories. His photo gallery is revealing, and he also posts reviews of his books and information about upcoming events, such as this lit salon. Jeanne Birdsall is a photographer, and she has information about current and former pets on her web site, including a snail. (I am an animal lover, so I was delighted by that part.) N.D. Wilson writes fantasy novels for children.

Middle Grade Versus Young Adult Fiction: Bird's first question was concerning the fact that YA (young adult) is very hot these days and pop culture wants to call all middle grade fiction YA. She asked what distinguishes YA from middle grade fiction, if there is a distinction at all.

Birdsall mentioned that she considered voice to distinguish middle grade from young adult fiction. She mentioned that the four panelists came from diverse perspectives. Gidwitz seems to be saying to the reader that the book will be scary, and the very fact that he is telling the reader lets the reader know that it will not be that bad. Stead works in the first person, but her books always include a trusted adult figure, which balances the scary factor. The classic way to write middle grade novel is in the third person, which is how she and Wilson write. All of the panelists are writing middle grade fiction that lets kids know that they will not be faced with something awful.

Wilson said that there is a period of tension in his books that eventually breaks. There is also lots of weirdness and insecurity. He said that he is not sure if he provides security for his readers.

Birdsall commented that she believes that he does provide security for his readers.

Gidwitz said that hopefully if people are designating works as middle grade fiction, kids will be taken care of in the books.

Turning Young Adult Books into Films: Bird commented that nowadays many young adult books are being transformed into films. She asked if the panelists were worried that because mainstream culture is embracing young adult books that kids will rush into YA rather than read middle grade fiction. She mentioned that Stead has a fifth-grade son who was reading The Hunger Games.

Stead said that The Hunger Games was a phenomenon about a year ago since the film was coming out and many fifth- and sixth-grade kids were reading the book. There may be some pressure for kids to turn to YA books when they are 10 or 11 years old. She finds middle grade fiction to be very nuanced, complex, interesting books about internal experiences in which she learns about herself. 

Birdsall mentioned that if she thought kids were jumping to YA, she would be worried. She hopes that kids are reading both. You want a safe message to be communicated in middle grade fiction. When there is a conflation of YA and middle grade fiction (when the two are smashed together), that is problematic.

Gidwitz thought that The Hunger Games was classified as a YA novel due to the brutal and relentless violence within. However, some fifth- and sixth-graders have already seen much worse. In his reading of one book, a giant has sex with a dwarf, and then a court jester rapes a dwarf. This is the kind of stuff that would be really upsetting and destabilizing to little kids. The last book in a trilogy tends to be upsetting. It always seems that someone is dying. Distinctions between YA and middle grade novels are not always so clear; some middle graders will read certain books that other middle graders will put down. Sometimes it depends on the individual interests of particular kids in terms of which literature they will choose.

Wilson opined that The Hunger Games was classified as YA not for its violence but for the deep ethical problems that are left unresolved in the book. For example, there was no discussion about whether the killing in the book was self-defense or not; it was left somewhat ambiguous. There is so much complexity that kids at younger ages might barge through to get to the action and violence. The Hunger Games does read like middle grade fiction, but the bigger issues are not addressed. It is a page-turner. Another example of a big issue left undeveloped is why the kids form a suicide pact. 10- or 11-year-old kids might ask themselves incredulously why they would form a suicide pact in an attempt to beat a game. Some kids believe that YA is a reading level in that it is comprised of more difficult vocabulary versus containing deeper issues. Middle grade fiction is seen as less sophisticated and is somewhat "dumbed down" in that respect.

School Leveling Changing Kids' Reading Behavior?: Bird mentioned that leveling with kids in the schools influences their reading behavior. Kids tend to want to read on the levels that they are assigned in school rather than for content and issues.

Gidwitz stated that kids will read on level D or C. He mentioned that he went to another state in the US and kids are awarded points based on what they read. His books were assigned seven points each, and other authors' books have more pointed associated with their works. He is not sure how their points system works.

Stead mentioned that her son read many books over the summer, and books over 400 pages long counted as two books. Bird said that someone characterized the purpose of children's fiction in the following manner: Picture books tell kids what the world is like, middle grade fiction let kids know that the world is unfair, and YA books lead to self-discovery. She asked the panelists if they agreed with that assessment and there was a resounding "No." in response. The authors of books for children of all levels all have varying perspectives and information to communicate to kids in a variety of ways, with text, art and now with the animation of electronic books.

Stead mentioned that different books accomplish different things. Middle grade fiction for kids leads a kid to truth by leading them to assess their own psychologies.

Birdsall mentioned that truth had been discussed twice already; middle grade fiction is about telling emotional truths. She said that the middle grades are a lovely period of time where kids are learning to be individuals and the entire world is open to them.

Stead has read interviews that say that women write from the heart, and men write another way. Authorship is also about moral complexity. There is more pressure nowadays for kids to act older than they are. Sometimes tweens (10-12 year-olds) are being marketed to as if they are already teenagers.

Bird mentioned that Scholastic did a research study and found that kids like ebooks because other people cannot tell what they are reading from their computers or nooks. Kids might be embarrassed about reading books at a different level than is expected of their age group.

Stead commented that some adults are embarrassed about reading romance novels on the train when people can see the covers, but not when they read them on e-readers or other electronic devices. Not to romanticize, but she thinks that kids' brains are opening up like landscapes. They want to suck down these worlds. She sort of feels like we should give it to them.

Wilson said that writers of middle grade fiction use all of the intelligence but none of the hormones. They are not in a social sphere that is a pressure cooker. Some people think that middle grade is less intelligent, but it is not.

Bird stated that three of the four panelists have been called middle school writers. Schools tend to have fiction for kids and literature for teens. She asked where middle school literature fits into this scheme of things.

Gidwitz classified the reactions of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to his school visits in the following manner. The seventh-graders always seem to make snarky comments about things such as his tie. The eighth-graders think that they are already in high school, so he really has to convince the kids that his work is still relevant to their lives. The sixth-graders are just very excited to meet an author.

Wilson mentioned a time when he wanted to throw his homework in the trash. He was also pulled off the roof at school. He was tired of schoolwork, and he simply wanted to be done with it. This all happened during a two-week period when he was in fifth grade. When he tells this story to third- and fourth-graders, they become very nervous about him. However, the middle schoolers are really okay with this information, since it happened in a grade that they have long since passed and they are removed from that reality. Writers have to discover what clicks with kids at different ages.

Birdsall mentioned that a high school actually invited her to speak to kids. The kids were mainly interested in learning how to get published, and she told them that they were too young for that.

Want to Write a Teen Book?: Bird asked the panelists if they were interested in writing YA books.

Birdsall does not understand YA as a category, which was not in existence when she was a child. To her understanding, YA is a book published by a children's department that adults are willing to read. Like teens, YA books are somehow a hybrid of child and adult interests.

Bird said that what Birdsall described is basically what the term "new adult" means. "New adult" fiction is geared towards teens and young adults, aged 18 to 30 years.

Wilson stated that some of his work is branded as YA. Regardless, he enjoys what he is writing, and he would still be writing the same stuff whether it is labeled YA or middle grade fiction.

Bird mentioned that some people will label any book YA that has a protagonist teenager.

I know the feeling. I read a book called A Horse For Mandy, which seemed to read like a chapter book, in terms of vocabulary. Even the emotional issues explored in the book did not seem that complex, which kids younger than teens could definitely relate to. However, the girl protagonist was 13 years old. In our catalog, the audience is described as for "ages 8 and up."

Bird asked the panelists what they projects they were working on now.

Birdsall said that she was writing her fourth Penderwicks book. She plans to write five books in that series total.

Gidwitz is currently writing his third Grimm book.

Wilson is working on a magically realistic tale.

Stead is working on a middle grade book.

Bird then opened the floor for audience questions.

Writing for Girls Versus Boys: An audience member thought that the panelists discussed middle grade readers as though they were genderless. He wondered if each of the panelists could say something about the differences between writing for boys and writing for girls.

Wilson has stereotypes in his own mind about gender as it relates to his books. He is writing for the kid that he was in fifth grade when he wanted to throw away his homework because he would rather run in the wheat fields and climb in the barn. His female readers are much more versatile, while the boys seem to be more staunchly prejudicial. Kids want to be aspiring to get to the next level, so they prefer to read books in which the protagonist is one or two years older than them. In this day of social networking interactivity and video gaming, kids want to have active engagement with the books. They make choices and decisions at each moment, so they will critique his books and tell authors what they think should happen at different spots in his works. It is his impression that boys are reading more actively. 

Birdsall writes for herself, in particular what she wanted to read and love during her second half of fifth grade. During the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about getting boys engaged with reading, but she thought that girls needed to read as well. She decided to simply allow her literature be for girls and not feel bad about it. Boys do read her books, but they are in the minority. Usually, those boys are from large families, and they can relate to the relationships inherent in her books.

Gidwitz said that he consciously uses a girl and a boy in each of his books, and the girl is at least as bad-ass as the boy, if not more so. To his surprise, the girls are just as enthusiastic about the bloody parts as the boys. Girls like horror, too, and they talk to him about the latest scary movies that they watch. However, Gidwitz likes to scare other people, not be scared himself.

Stead does not think about writing for boys versus girls.

Making Kids Feel Safe: Another audience member asked how the panelists ensure that kids feel safe while reading the books yet still have suspense in the books.

Gidwitz contemplates this point often. While writing, he thinks about the kids that he knows and how they will react to what he is writing. In one of his books, a frog lost a leg. After the first print run, he had kids emailing him saying that it was not okay to hurt animals. Before the next print run, he actually changed that scene; luckily, the editor agreed to do so. So, in some books, he misses a step and does not always connect with kids as he had hoped.

Birdsall said that she is definitely a person who cannot stand to see animals hurt, but she knew that Gidwitz would take care of the frog in that book.

Wilson mentioned that if his book is in a pressure-cooker state, he is always looking for a rest or regroup, which often involves food or some sort of sustenance. When things get really bad, his characters tend to get hungry. Sometimes, characters are expecting things to be bad and something upbeat happens. He attempts to keep the balance between suspense and rest.

Birdsall said that she tries to keep her books honest and not too scary.

Stead mentioned that her books are pretty quiet. She never worries that her pacing is too intense. She is always trying to hook the reader to the emotion of her characters. There are always emotions running underground which are not secret. Then you have power or a high point (climax). When the emotions surface, you get powerful moments where you recognize your own emotions.

After the program, I asked Gidwitz if kids contact him on Facebook. He said that sixth- and seventh-graders love to talk to him on Facebook all of the time. However, the older kids (eighth-graders) tend to contact him less often. Kids also tag him.

Thanks to Betsy Bird, host of the Kid Lit Salons, and the panelists for coming to NYPL to share their perspectives as authors of middle grade fiction for kids that is sometimes mislabeled young adult literature.

Future Children's Literary Salons
Saturday, March 2
2 p.m.-3 p.m.
Diversity and the State of the Children's Book
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building ("the library with the lions")
Margaret Berger Forum (Room 227)

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