Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Life-Altering Magic of Middle Grade Books

Guest post by Nanci Turner Steveson

One of my four brothers asked me a few years ago why I write literary fiction for the Middle Grade market, when authors who write Young Adult books make all the money and get movie deals. Good question, right?  I come from a family of six kids. Both parents, and my five siblings, all either graduated from Ivy League colleges, or UT Plan II (for the genius people). Not me. I didn’t go to college, so everything I know, I learned through grit, determination, a whole lot of reading, traveling, and studying on my own. Thank God for my insatiable curiosity.

My brother’s question is a fair one — although for me it came with that lifelong sense of not being quite up to snuff as the rest of my family. It is the rare, literary middle-grade novel that makes a big splash and earns an author a lot of money. It wasn’t even a writing “voice” that came naturally to me, as my editor at HarperCollins will attest. I had to work hard to move past my stuffy, overly-poetic prose to learn how to write for this age group. I read hundreds of books over many years to understand the specific voice that is comfortable and exciting to a middle-grade reader. Writing for a different market is certainly something I considered more than once — yet my commitment to upper elementary through middle school children remains strong and steady.

Here is the thing: If you are in a room with 100 people, and ask them all what their favorite book was as a child (“child” being an unspecified time period), 90% of them will remember a book they read when they were between 8-12. Charlotte’s WebAnne of Green GablesWalk Two MoonsMy Side of the Mountain. The list goes on and on. And, when they answer you, they’re going to smile. Not only is this the prime age which determines whether a kid becomes a lifelong reader, but they are perched on the cusp of adolescence when they begin the arduous hike through oh-so-murky-waters, and stumble upon the trickiest paths of their young lives. The books they’ve read can give them better footing as they navigate their way toward adulthood. It is the age when we, as authors, can assure them, “You’re okay — now go forth and stumble.”

Sometimes I hear rumblings of criticism about a theme in one or another of my books. This always startles me. I believe it is our responsibility to offer youth a glimpse of what real-life looks like, outside the cocoon of their upbringing. Death happens. Anxiety happens. Difficult relationships between parent and child happen. Blended families happen. Moving happens. Divorce happens. And what safer place for children to explore these things than on the pages of a book?

Where else can a young child raised in a homogenous society develop empathy and understanding for those whose lives are very different than their own? I point to Linda Sue Park’s book, A Long Walk to Water; R.J. Palacio’s Wonder; and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. It is here where children can explore the ideas of bi-racial marriage; different cultures; same sex parents; adopted and foster kids; single moms; single dads; people with disabilities; kids with an incarcerated parent; or, as in my third book which comes out next January, kids who are experiencing homelessness.

This is often where children see families like theirs who are viewed as different, and the message is: You’re okay.

One of my favorite reviews was from the Center for Children’s Books at Johns Hopkins University about Georgia Rules. The reviewer wrote: “Steveson takes time to develop and round out each of her characters and their histories, resulting in a singular, intricately woven story of people’s complicated, rule-surpassing existences. This book gives young readers a useful perspective on the negotiation of power in their lives, and it sheds a soft light on the imperfections of adults, creating space for honest and open dialogue.”

What a beautiful thing: to allow a child to experience power, and to create space for open and honest dialogue when they discover that we, as adults, are fallible and flawed.

I admit, I did not start out writing for middle-grade readers with these noble concepts in mind. I didn’t struggle to learn how to write for this age group because I held such lofty ideas that my books might change lives. I decided this intentionally for two reasons: One, when I was nine and knew someday I would be an author, I constantly had my face buried in books that took me away from a rather complicated moment in my life. They gave me comfort when no one else could. Two, because I regret not going to college. I would have been a teacher, and writing for the Middle Grade market allows me the opportunity to go into schools now, to teach and inspire kids to read and write, and to let them know that whatever challenges life puts in front of them, if they want something badly enough, they can make it happen. I am living proof.

The understanding that my books could make a significant difference to a child came about by default. In my first book, Swing Sideways, I never use the words “anorexia” or “panic attacks,” but it is clear that the main character struggled with these in her recent past. About two months after Swing Sideways came out, I got an email from a librarian who wanted me to know the impact that story had on one of her young students. The girl was eleven, a dancer, and a voracious reader. After reading my book, she recognized something of herself in Annie’s story, and was able to find the courage to tell her parents she had been hiding her own anorexia for a long time.

At age eleven it is easy to not fully understand what it means that you can’t eat, and it’s equally easy to hide what is happening by wearing oversized clothes so no one notices you are shrinking. The effects of this girl’s anorexia were already so severe, she spent several months in the hospital and out-patient care. I spoke to her mother once and, with a wobbly voice, she said to me, “I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t read your book.”

Imagine how humbling those words were for me to hear. I don’t write books with a planned “message.” I write from that deep, dark well inside me, that place we should all visit from time-to-time whether we are authors or not. I write about once-in-a-lifetime friendships that happen in a place where the rules of the real world don’t apply. I write about love and laughter, forgiveness, rising up from the ashes, and overcoming the odds. What young person doesn’t need to experience that, whether in real-life, or through the magic of the perfect words?

There are many days when I struggle with that frightening blank page, but then I remember that little girl and the difference my words made at a time when she desperately needed to read them. That isn’t to say other genres can’t have an impact on readers, of course they do. But for me, as a person who found great solace in books, it is a wonderful thing to offer hope to a child who might just need to hear me say, “Yes, yes, you really are okay.”


Nanci Turner Steveson grew up with a book in one hand, the reins of a pony in the other. After her children were grown, she moved west with her horse, a golden retriever named Peach, and a mysterious box given to her by a ghost. Nanci now is Stage Manager for a professional theatre and lives in a historic, meadow cabin in the shadow of the Tetons. In addition to writing books for middle-grade age readers, her favorite thing is to inspire young writers by teaching in elementary and middle schools across the country. Nanci is on the Board of Directors of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, and mentors high school students through Writers Club!