Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Middle Grade Animal

This weekend, I am going to seriously work on a middle grade manuscript, and I have to steel myself for my daughter's editing. She may be only ten, but she has the ruthlessness of a Visigoth when it comes to critiquing. She rolls her eyes, gets a very patient tone and says, "Mom, you just don't get it."

I think Emma has a point. I have always said that middle graders are the hardest group to write for -- they are starting to develop slightly sophisticated taste, but they also have the brash criticism of young kids.

My first encounter with this was at a book fair. This one boy, he was about four feet three inches tall and wore a knit cap with a brim - he looked like a cartoon or one of the kids on South Park - walked right over to me and said, "Are you selling those Wimpy Kid books? Cause they suck." I was, for once, speechless. My daughter, who was next to me, sighed and said, "That's just Tyler. He's really smart but no one ever wants to sit next to him."


That's because so many middle graders are slightly crazy. This includes my middle grader. Here is a typical example of my life with her.

Yesterday, I kept seeing the light flashing on and off in the bathroom. Zen mother that I am, I rushed up the stairs thinking this was the beginning of some little known drug ritual the boys were performing or -- I didn't even want to go beyond that thought. I pushed the door open. My daughter looked at me, her eyes wide.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"Nothing. I'm just shutting the light on and off to catch my pupils changing size."

Oh. How could I not know that?

Every day now, she carries a pocketbook to school, and if anyone even touches it, she goes berserk-o on us. What's in it? Gummy lifesavers, gel pens, a few hair clips and a picture of a kitten she liked from a magazine. (We have four cats, and plenty of photos of them, but like I said, they are slightly crazy)

I think teens are easier to write for because they all pretty much suffer from bipolar level mood swings, extreme self consciousness (remember feeling watched by people even when you were alone? or was that just me at sixteen?) and their sex drives. There's a certain uniformity to teens.

Middle grade kids differ. Roughtly half of Emma's class still worships Santa, the other half stopped believing last year, and a few, like Emma, are Santa Claus agnostics. Some of them date. Others think the opposite gender has cooties. Emma carries hand sanitizer for the times when she has to do peer review on a paper - and that peer is a boy. Her best friend is on boyfriend #3 - they text each other regularly but never speak or go anywhere.

Every weekend, she wants someone to sleep over. They watch scary movies (think Goosebumps) and sleep with the cats and flashlights. She told me that she secretly likes that I don't let her sleep over anybody else's house, but she's glad her friends can come to hers. It would be way too scary to spend the night in a strange house, but it has never occurred to her that her friends might be scared at her house.

When I asked her and one of her brothers to give me a "nice" smile for a picture, this was their response:

Wish me luck.


Carrie Harris said...

To put it succinctly: the thought of writing for middle graders makes me shiver in fear.

And I'm a parent. How sad is that?

Marcia said...

Wow, interesting POV on mid-grade, because I've always considered teens the hardest group to write for. I enjoy the window into Emma's world.

adrienne said...

Great pictures! I hear you - my son is the same way about critiquing, but his instincts are so good I have to trust him...
LOL at the pupils thing - I remember doing that, and brushing my hair in the dark to see the sparks fly!

Anne Spollen said...

See, Marcia, I find teens are all pretty much terrified of the same things (doing something dorky in front of their friends, being considered "different" in any way), and it's easy to tap into that. Middle graders are more of a bag of mixed nuts (and I mean that both literally and figuratively)

Yes, Adrienne, their instincts are spot on. That's what makes them so scary. That and their complete lack of inhibition in saying, "Mom that idea really stinks."

TerriRainer said...

OMG that's funny! My 8 year old would so get along with your daughter. She's very "duh mom, what did you think I was doing".

As for teens, my son has turned out to be a better teenager than middle grade kid, I only wish I could say that about the two oldest girls...spawns of satan I say!

:) Terri

Anne Spollen said...

I'm with you, Carrie. I'm way more scared of them than teens. Maybe teens have evolved to a slightly higer level of social euphemism.

Terri, those spawns of Satan are from the FATHER'S side. I have one, too. People say he acts just like I did as a teen, but I see his father all over him.

Nora MacFarlane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nora MacFarlane said...

Let's try this again...

My son is now 19 and in college. He left all that teenage angst behind at HS graduation - what a relief! On the other hand, my 11 year-old daughter, is just getting started. Lord, help us...

As for writing for MG, I teach 4th, 5th and 6th graders and love it. I try to keep a record of the funnier things they do and say. Some of it has shown up in my writing.

Mary Witzl said...

You're right: pre-teenage kids are ruthless critics and full of all sorts of snarkiness. And of course everybody's watching -- even I knew that, way back when. My kids are always amazed to learn that we're not following their every movement and idea with breathless anticipation. Soon, I suspect, they'll be relieved that we're not...

Anne Spollen said...

God, Nora, I'm way, way, way older than 19 and I still have teenage angst. Only now it's termed something like middle age anxiety or spread or something, but it feels exactly like it did in middle school.

LOL, Mary -- my son sometimes says, "Did you see that?" and I always say, "You know I did." He's only 14, so he actually believes it most of the time. I also tell them I can read their minds...don't tell the mother of the year committee.