Why I Write for Middle Grade

A few months ago I was emptying out an old file cabinet at the back of my closet when a folder caught my eye. “Early Stories” was printed across the top in neat letters. Curious, I opened it and papers tumbled out, looking timeworn and ancient, like ink-scrawled maps of my childhood. I recognized my childish looping left-hander’s script: they were stories I’d written between the ages of eight and twelve, with titles like “The Mystery of the Blood-Stained Emerald Sword,” “A Slip Back Into Time,” The Mummy’s Curse,” “Vampires and Death.” Even then it was obvious where I was heading. I wrote stories with my special fountain pen (considered cool in those days), and sometimes pencils, on the lined pages of big spiral notebooks. From the age of seven I wanted to be a writer. When I wasn’t writing, I was at the library, breathing in the musty odors of moldy books, losing myself inside tales of time travel, monsters and otherworldly enchantments. And then there were the scary sci-fi and Dracula films I watched on Friday nights with my next-door neighbor Jody at the local movie theater.

The books that stayed with me were The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Knight’s Castle and all of Edward Eager’s time travel books, Margot Benary-Isbert’s The Wicked Enchantment, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and stories by Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe. Some of their tales terrified me, while others transported me to strange and fantastic worlds. I often imagined that if I turned a certain corner, climbed a twisting staircase, or discovered an ancient ring, anything might happen.

As an adult I wrote newspaper articles and stories for adults. It wasn’t until I had boys of my own that I began writing for children. Reading stories to Ian and Derek took me back to the world of children’s books and I decided to write the kinds of books I’d loved as a child. A story written for a children’s literature course in grad school became my first published novel, The Dreamkeepers. The hero was my ten-year-old son and I set the book in Wales, where my husband grew up. (His parents, thinly disguised, are in there, too.) Having always been a huge fan of monster (my favorite toys were dinosaurs and a cyclops), I found creatures sneaking into my books: Usk beetles (from The Dreamkeepers), plague wolves and the genetically-engineered skraeks in The Owl Keeper, and giant scorpions in The Scorpions of Zahir. I quickly discovered that, like myself at that age, many middle grade readers are monster-lovers too.

Illustration by Kelly Murphy

Writing for middle graders, I’ve come around full circle. Middle graders are caught somewhere between childhood and the traumatic teens. They have a child’s sense of wonder and often a teenager’s fierce sense of independence. Life is scary and heartbreaking and adventurous and boring and exhilarating and confusing and hilarious – a jumble of conflicting emotions, usually happening all at once. Often when I write, I find myself back in that scary magical time when I was that age. Writing is a way for me to time travel, and be my eleven-year-old self again: the heroine who bravely confronts the unknown and tangles with the monster. For me, writing is a journey to those fantastic places where anything might happen.

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Magical Winter Reads

Edmund Dulac's illustration for "The Snow Queen"

“Late in the middle watch of a calm winter’s night, many years ago, a square-rigged, three-masted ship, the Sarah Casket, was making her way slowly through northern seas under a blaze of stars.”  And so begins the adventures of young Dido Twite, who is rescued from a watery grave by Captain Casket in Joan Aiken’s “Nightbirds on Nantucket.”

Here’s a list of ten magical reads for young and old, to be enjoyed by the fire on a cold winter’s night:

1.  A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

2.  The Box of Delights by John Masefield

3.  The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

4.  Northern Lights, known as The Golden Compass in North America, by Philip Pullman

5.  The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

6.   Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken

7.  Children of Winter by Berlie Doherty

8.  The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

9.  The Navigator by Eoin McNamee

10.  Last but not least, one of my all-time favorites: The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

“It was a lady; her cloak and cap were of snow. She was tall and of slender figure, and of a dazzling whiteness. It was the Snow Queen.

“We have travelled fast,” said she; “but it is freezingly cold. Come under my bearskin.” And she put him in the sledge beside her, wrapped the fur round him, and he felt as though he were sinking in a snow-wreath.

“Are you still cold?” asked she; and then she kissed his forehead. Ah! it was colder than ice; it penetrated to his very heart..”

Ten books to read aloud:

1.  The Tomten and The Tomten and the Fox by Astrid Lindgren

2.  The Story of the Snow Children by Sibylle Von Olfers

3.  Little Snow Goose by Emily Hawkins, illustrated by Maggie Kneen

4.  Ollie’s Ski Trip by Elsa Beskow

5.  The Big Snow by Berta Hader

6.  Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

7.  The Mitten by Jan Brett

8.  The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

9.   Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton

10.  The Snowman by Raymond Briggs