Finding the middle, again…

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.

So…

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.

Poor things.

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.

19 Responses to “Finding the middle, again…”

  1. Amanda Hoving Says:

    Wonderful thoughts here, Laurel. You’re so right about that tricky step between young MG and YA. As a reader/writer of MG, and a mother to four kids from almost 15 down to 7, I’ve seen the difficulty is choosing books based on the recommended ages. It really has to be about the individual reader, and yes…those books that can transition the older MG reader and still retain the magic of childhood are among my favorites. Can’t wait to read yours.

  2. Kelly Barnhill Says:

    Laurel, this post goes straight to my guts. My daughter is eleven, in sixth grade – a restless reader, a restless thinker, and a restless little person right now. There’s something very mournful about the Middle School kid, and their relationship with books really reflects that. They are both rejecting and grasping their childhood selves as they run towards – and *away* from – their teen selves. They are frightened, unsure, angry, and without place. And it sucks. Even when it’s wonderful, there is an ache in these years that doesn’t go away until they grow into themselves.

    I love middle schoolers so very much, and I know exactly what you mean about writing the books that we write as gifts to the kids we used to be. I really believe that – somehow – my lonely, sad, desperate Middle-School-self actually *did* read my book, and it meant something to her. I can *feel* her reading it -you know?

    I’m so excited to give your book to my daughter, I can hardly tell you. And thank you so much for this post.

  3. Olugbemisola Says:

    Oh, thanks for this post. I have so many of the same thoughts about the beauty of “upper MG”, and that period of my reading life…and the gorgeous When You Reach Me.

  4. KDuBayGillis Says:

    Laurel. . . you’ve captured so beautifully a sentiment I tried to articulate yesterday to another writer friend over coffee. This is who I seek to write for, as well. I see me in your description of you, even though my life experiences were different. Thank you for getting this down and sharing it. I cannot wait to read BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX. I was that 7th grader who wanted independence and “knew” stuff, but didn’t want to let my childhood go.

  5. Niki Says:

    This was fantastically written and rings true for me. I’m a middle school English teacher, and I have the glory of developing my own literature-based curriculum. It’s so challenging to find books that hold all of the kids’ attention, and are age-appropriate, school-appropriate stories. I find it so frustrating that everyone is writing up, as I call it at this age- when really, these 7th and 8th graders are children still. I see nothing wrong with dealing with tough issues and problems these kids face, but so many stories are either far too mature or too young. I enjoyed Every Which Wall and look forward to reading Bigger than a Bread Box soon.

  6. R.J. Anderson Says:

    I see writing for upper tweens as a great challenge and privilege as well, because I remember wanting a certain kind of book at that age that was incredibly hard to find. I wanted to hang on to the adventure and excitement and joy I’d found in Narnia and the Prydain series and other books for younger readers, without the bleakness and moral ambiguity that I saw in some adult fantasy books; but I also wanted something a little darker and more complex, and I also wanted a touch more romance (but not French kissing or sex, eek!). If I could have found more books that fell into that category, I think I would have delayed my jump into “adult” reading a couple of years longer (and probably been happier for it).

  7. Ilene Wong Says:

    As someone who writes firmly in the YA playground, but sometimes yearns for that MG sweet spot, I just wanted to say that I LOVE this post.

    Can’t wait to get my hands on BBB.

    Mwah.

  8. Gail Handler Says:

    Wonderful post! Thoughts that many of us relate to. I am plotzing to read Bigger Than a Bread Box!!! Do you have a spare ARC I can read???? I’ll review, blog, ask you questions about it, whatever you’d like!!!

  9. Audrey Says:

    I’m late finding this, but wanted to thank you so much for this thoughtful post. You articulated so many things I’ve been thinking and stammering. This was wonderful to read. Thank you.

  10. Ruth Says:

    Awesome post–just discovered your blog (through the Blue Boards). I read Any Which Wall a couple of months ago and loved it, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Bigger Than a Bread Box. Middle grade does cover a huge range of experience. Have you read The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman? It’s another one for older middle graders that still conveys that sense of wonder and magic.

  11. An Evening With Our Fall Rep Pick Author Laurel Snyder « Random Acts of Reading Says:

    [...] Box is for tween girls who want to read books with what Laurel calls emotional sophistication. Here’s a great piece she wrote on her blog about how her books are “aging [...]

  12. Angela Sunde Says:

    Hi Laurel, I just discovered this post and can relate to your sentiments completely.The upper tween reader is certainly not emotionally ready to jump across to more edgy YA literature and its themes. Last Sunday I gave an author presentation at the Ipswich Children’s Lit Fest (Australia)on ‘Writing for Tweens’. I got my participants to remember back to when they were twelve and to dig deep for the emotions that were so strong at that age. It was surprising what they came up with. Thanks for your post. Angela

  13. Caroline Starr Rose Says:

    Yes to every single word here. Thank you so much for this. I’m linking to my blog.

  14. Natalie Aguirre Says:

    Great post. I so agree.

  15. Melissa Sarno Says:

    I love this post. I just discovered your blog. Thanks for writing a book for your middle school self (which sounds a bit like my middle school self) And thank you for reminding me of the books I loved as a girl.

  16. Joanne Fritz Says:

    I arrived here from Caroline Starr Rose’s blog. Enjoyed reading this, and remembering some wonderful books from my own upper middle grade years. And I love Bigger Than a Bread Box! What a great story. I’ve had the book on my staff pick shelf since it pubbed.

  17. terry lynn johnson Says:

    I LOVE every part of this post. Thank you!

  18. Jenny Lundquist Says:

    Thank you so much for this. I found this from Caroline’s blog. You’ve just summed up for me, better than I ever could, why I like to write for the upper middle grade market.

  19. THE LIEBSTER! | Ann Eisenstein Says:

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