My new book, Bigger than a Bread Box, will be out in September, and slowly– copies are making their way into the world. A friend recently wrote to tell me she’d picked up a copy at the TLA Conference, and I know some bookstores have received ARCs. I’ll be in Orlando next month, at the IRA Convention, and I’ll assume (hope) to see the book there.
As people are reading this book, some are emailing me, and they’re saying that it feels different from my other books. Partly because it feels older than my other books, and (not unrelated to that) because it feels sadder too, and more realistic. Some folks have asked if I’ll write a YA novel next, since my books are now “aging up.” So I wanted to take a moment to explain something. As much for myself as for anyone else.
This “aging up” was no accident. I set out to write Bread Box very intentionally. I knew, very early on (because it is rooted in my own memories), what this book would be about, in a way that I’d never known a book before. And more than knowing what it would be about, I knew who I wanted to write it for. I wrote this one for ME, for myself–my middle school self. Because I still look back, and remember that kid I was, and feel sad. I still wish I could be her friend, reach a hand back through the years to hold her nail-bitten fingers. I still remember how much a book– the right book (which I can only hope this is)– meant to her. So Bread Box is for her.
It’s true that all of my books (including Bread Box) have a suggested reading age of 9-12, but 9 and 12 are NOT the same, and I’ve always thought of third and fourth graders as my “sweet spot” until now. Because those were my happiest reading years, personally (if not my happiest years– they were complicated too). I loved discovering Dahl and Eager and McDonald and Travers and Nesbit and Thurber and all the rest. I think of them as the best-loved authors of my youth. My friends. I loved escaping into magic, into happy accidental worlds I could believe in. Summers full of library books, stacked on my bed. I have reread them all over and over through the years. They’re my escape. They’re how I evade adulthood. They rescued me from the writers’ block I experienced after I finished my MFA. They restored the sheer joy of reading and writing to me.
But third grade and seventh grade were very different for me–divided by a universe of experience and awareness. I was no longer the same reader in middle school, not remotely. And honestly, remembering that, I’ve felt a little funny visiting middle schools with a copy of Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains in my hand.
I stare out at those kids, into that sea of confused seventh grade eyes (God, how I loathed middle school!) with this illustrated princess book in my hand, and I want to say to the kids, “Look, we all know you’re reading Twilight already, but can you maybe take a minute to listen to what I’m saying? Because books are good, all kinds of books, and you might like this one too… if you give it a chance. Even if you think you’re too old for it now.”
And sometimes I do find readers there, at the middle school, for Scratchy Mountains or Any Which Wall or Penny Dreadful. Because the thing is, they aren’t all reading Twilight. They aren’t all ready to grow up. Some of them are still reading the kind of magic books I write. Some of them are still collecting (as I did until high school) unicorn figurines. Some of them still dream of talismans and otherworlds. But at the same time, they’re not little kids anymore. They know stuff. Stuff that a third grader doesn’t (shouldn’t) know.
I have a confession to make. Last year, as I was finishing Penny Dreadful, and starting to imagine writing Bread Box, I read a book you’ve probably read, a book called When You Reach Me. This book, this remarkable book, floored me. Not because it was beautifully written (it was), or intricately constructed (it was). Simply because it was written for my middle school self. It resembled the books I loved best in those years– books that were still looking over their shoulder at the whimsy of Eager and Dahl, but that were doing other things too, older things. I read Rebecca Stead’s book and remembered L’Engle, obviously. But also Patterson and Fitzhugh and Konigsberg and ZK Snyder and Voigt and Ruth M Arthur. Books that were not all the same, but that all shared a middle grade storyline and an emotional sophistication. A knowing child, who still wanted to be a kid, but couldn’t avoid dealing with and understanding the world anymore.
In this way, I remembered that what we called “young adult” when I was a kid was different from the young adult market of today. Somehow, reading WYRM, I recalled all the books in which kids were still kids, but they had experienced sadness, dislocation, divorce, loss, poverty, and any number of other difficulties. And as I went back and reread Harriet and Dicey and all the rest, my heart broke a little bit. Reading those books for the first time since I was a kid, I felt like I was splitting open again. I felt raw and sad. I felt like if I wanted to harvest the memories of those years in my own life, I couldn’t do it with whimsy alone.
So I owe a debt to Rebecca Stead, for reminding me that there’s an upper end to the middle grade. And to all those authors of my youth. The ones that revolved around on the paperback rack at the school library at Roland Park Middle School. Those yearling books I shoved into my backpack.
Kids don’t graduate from Half Magic and suddenly fall into Twilight. Or they shouldn’t, anyway. There’s a process, an education, an unfolding that happens. Kids get smarter, older. Life gets harder, more complicated. But that doesn’t mean they turn overnight into a vampire. Or a sex-kitten. Or an anorexic. Or even that they really want to kiss a boy. They’re still kids, and they are stumbling/running/poking around in the world the way kids do, but with open eyes. They see their parents and the world with more clarity than they used to.
So yeah– this book. Which I tried to write about being 12, for a kid who actually is 12. Because I remembered that the middle is wide, and I wanted to wade a little deeper into it.
But no– I won’t be writing a young adult novel anytime soon. I’m going to spend a few years, and a few books, in middle school. Maybe I’ll do it better this time around.