In the past, we’ve taken weekends off at Teachers Write, but this year, I thought we’d use the time for a little reflection and discussion of the issues that connect us as writers, readers, and teachers. Today, we welcome guest authors Meg Frazer Blakemore and Laurel Snyder.
Meg lives in Maine and is the author of acclaimed YA and middle grade novels like The Water Castle, The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, The Friendship Riddle, and her latest, Very In Pieces.
Laurel calls Atlanta home. Her latest novels include Bigger Than a Breadbox and Seven Stories Up, and she has a lovely picture book from Chronicle coming this fall – Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova.
Meg and Laurel join us this Saturday with a thoughtful conversation about books for kids and “reading up.” They’d love for you to share in the discussion in the comments today!
Meg: My first novel was YA, and I’ll be publishing a YA this fall, but in between I’ve written three middle grade novels. Right around the time I first started writing middle grade, I also shifted from being a high school librarian to a middle school librarian. As a high school librarian I was a big proponent of authentic portrayals of high schoolers in YA literature, and when I moved to middle school I felt the same way: books about middle school should portray middle schoolers authentically. The problem I ran up against as a writer and a reader was that middle grade books are marketed for an 8-12 audience. How could I write authentically about a twelve or thirteen year old — a middle schooler — while still making it appropriate for an eight year old? As I was mulling over all of these issues, I saw that you, Laurel, were doing a panel discussion at NESCBWI with Aaron Starmer and Kate Milton called “The Blurry Edge of Thirteen.” I went and participated in a great discussion about that issue, and I hope we can have a similar conversation with the participants of Teachers Write. Do you want to start by talking about your own feelings or thoughts on this tricky situation?
Laurel: Sure! And I should say that it’s an ongoing evolution for me. I find I’m more and more engaged with this topic each year.
When I began to write middle grades seriously about a decade ago, my goal was to write the kinds of books I loved best as a kid. I loved the humor and wild language play of folks like James Thurber and Edward Eager best of all. So THAT was what I was shooting for, and if you look at my first two novels, Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains and Any Which Wall, you’ll see that pretty clearly.
But as I began to interact with kids more and more (as an author and a mom), I found myself feeling frustrated by the way we parent our kids today. There’s this overwhelming hunger to keep them “safe” from fear and sadness, to sculpt an ideal experience for them. But that in no way prepares kids for the real world.
Then I found myself remembering other books I’d loved. The Egypt Game. Dicey’s Song. A Candle in Her Room. Books that delighted me in a different way. Books that matched me as I got a little older. As I hungered for something beyond whimsy.
So that’s what’s happening with my own writing. Each book seems to go a little further. I’m still invested in magic, language play, and childhood. But I’m really interested in trying to bring some gravity and grit to the magic. To recognize and honor the emotional complexity of what it means to be a 12 year old kid.
I wonder, what do you think the HARM is, really? I’m not sure I believe a book can hurt a kid, even if it does scare or educate them about the world.
Meg: What I really liked about what you said is that you write to “recognize and honor the emotional complexity of what it means to be a 12 year old kid.” I think we don’t alway recognize that because we don’t want to imagine our kids going through that kind of turmoil, but they do. And books give them a place to ask and answer questions. Are You There God It’s Me Margaret was such a touchstone for me as a fifth grade girl, and as I was working on The Friendship Riddle I kept asking myself, “What would Judy do?” Like, “Should I include a scene about the awkwardness of shopping for a first bra? Well, what would Judy do?” And I did include it, because it is a very important moment in a girl’s life. And, I don’t think talking about bras, or mentioning periods, is harmful to an eight year old who might also pick up the book — or to a boy. In fact, it’s probably good for boys to read about these moments in a girl’s life.
It’s interesting, when we got into this discussion, I was thinking about the twelve year old child, and how he or she deserves a literature that reflects an accurate twelve year old experience. But I think we also need to have some respect for the eight year old who might self-select a more “advanced” (thematically and content wise) middle grade book.
Laurel: Absolutely! One of my pet peeves is the idea that a book is “inappropriate” for a kid if it contains unfamiliar or confusing words or ideas or relationships. Is there a better way for a kid to learn a new idea? Is there a better way to be scared or saddened or confused? Books are a perfect form for introducing new things. They’re a healthy way to learn the world.
I’d love if people wanted to share their own moments like that– particular books that they remember introducing an unfamiliar idea! I remember how A Tree Grows in Brooklyn blew my brain open, taught me so many harsh, brutal, daily things about a period of history I’d only seen through rose colored glasses. We need All of a Kind Family AND A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. You know?
Meg: I agree — I would love to hear what books the Teachers Write participants remember as mind-opening or reassuring during their own early or pre-adolescence. Also, how do these issues play out in your classrooms with your readers?