Learning to Tell Stories in a New Way: Adventures in Reading Middle Grade & Young Adult

Hello from, well not quite a basement out here in the middle of Minnesota, but more so the lobby of a fitness center waiting for my daughters while they have their swimming lesson. Hope this missive finds you and yours doing well, and feeling hearty and hale. And if you’ve got the doldrums or some physical sort of ailment’s got you down, I hope you’re feeling on the mend soon.

Toasty here today. First sweltering day of the season (a scoche above 90 for those who like specificity), but not so hot we couldn’t get out and enjoy the day. I’m officially done with the school year (put in my last day yesterday), so I was able to take the kids on a brief bike ride around the neighborhood this morning. There were some strong headwinds on the return trip which made for some hard pedaling, so naturally I awarded us each 10 bonus points, leveling us all up to Level 2 Bike Adventurers for Summer 2022.

Any time’s a good time for reading, but the summer season is especially sweet. Sure, the days have their quicker-paced rhythms, chunks of time to tackle and complete projects, but there are plenty of pockets in-between to pick up an in-progress novel and read a chapter of two. Last Saturday I took the kids to the library and they signed up for the summer reading challenge. Since then, they’ve been working their way through the books they’d picked up as well as some favorites around the house. The Babysitter’s Club and the Nancy Clancy series have been the books of choice for them lately. And our youngest has recently discovered Mark Brown’s Arthur books, asking us to read DW the Picky Eater and Arthur and the Baby over and over.

I have a few different books going at the moment, and I’ll get to specific titles in a moment, but I want to talk a little about the types of books I’ve been reading lately and why.

As long as I’ve been writing, my girls have always asked if they could read my stories.

“When you’re older. These stories are for grownups.”

“Okay, Dad. Maybe someday you can write a book we can read.”

About a month ago, this refrain—which my kids have been echoing for years—finally worked its way into the creative core of my brain, and I decided I wanted to write some middle grade adventures, books my girls can read now, and my son can read when he’s old enough.

Plenty of ideas began swirling around my head, but the first book(s) I want to write centers around two sisters solving mysteries and thwarting otherworldly beings in Door County, WI. Oh, and they’ll be homeschoolers, because I don’t think (to my knowledge, at least) this type of learning is represented much in literature, and I’d like to try and remove some of the stigmas existing around homeschooling.

Because I’ve primarily read and written stories for adults, I wanted & needed to read some middle grade fiction to get a feel for characters, setting, conflict, voice, and format. So far, I’ve worked my way through Max Brallier’s The Last Kids on Earth and Galactic Hot Dogs series, as well as Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, and Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. I’ve also started digging into a couple of YA titles (The Shadowshapers and Ballad & Dagger by Daniel Jose Older and The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline), because some of my ideas for stories feel like they’d work better for older readers.

It’s been fun learning about middle grade fiction, especially wrestling with the problem of finding a way to remove the safety of parental support for the characters. In everything else I’ve written, it’s just been adults so long adult problems. If they need to get somewhere, they can just drive. If they need to acquire supplies, they can just buy them with money they’ve earned from their job. If stakes need to be raised by isolating a character, you can just have them be alone.

In middle grade fiction, you have characters who are still very much in an age bracket where they’re simultaneously experiencing dependence on the adults in their lives and also an increasing amount of independence. The trick, I’m finding, is figuring out how to get the protagonists away from their adult support systems, so they can struggle through problems on their own without killing the parents off nor immediately transporting the kids to an alternate world. I have a couple of possible solutions for this first book I want to write, but I’m not sure if they’ll work just yet.

So that’s the reading and writing adventure I’m currently on. I’m doing research for the lore and setting, and jotting down character and plot scraps. Then I’ll look to put together an extensive outline, with the hope of having a draft of the book done by the end of the year.

I’ll close for now. Thanks kindly for reading. Heaps of gratitude to you. Take care.


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