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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Writing “The Scorpions of Zahir”

“The Scorpions of Zahir” started with a journey. In the summer of ’98 I traveled with my husband Peter and our two teenage sons to Morocco. We didn’t encounter giant scorpions, attacking desert warrior tribes or planets hurtling toward earth, but the experience was seared deep into my memory: the heat and dust, the exotic colors and smells, the frenetic pace of Marrakech. Most haunting of all was the Sahara, where we traveled by camel and camped overnight in the desert. As our journey progressed, I became intrigued by the idea of how the desert changes you.

So I created an “alternate family” – the Pyms – who make a similar journey to Morocco. Zagora Pym, eleven years old, has one burning desire: to go to the Sahara and find the half-buried desert city of Zahir. When her father, Dr. Pym, receives a mysterious letter from a friend who’s been missing ten years and claims to be in the desert near Zahir, Zagora gets her chance. She sets off with her dad and older brother Duncan, who’s nerdy, squeamish and obsessed with astronomy – and who definitely doesn’t want to spend his summer vacation in Morocco.

I sent the Pyms on the same route that my family took in Morocco, beginning with the night train from Tangiers to Marrakech – a mysterious, frenetic city – where we spent a few days, then rented a car and drove over the High Atlas (the highest mountain range in Northern Africa), stopping at a cafe in the Tizi n’ Tiki Pass where we met Mohammed, a Moroccan boy who invited us to his family’s house. We continued south, into the Draa Valley, ending up in a dusty town called Agdz, where we dined with Mohammed’s family. The following day we drove to the edge of the Sahara, to Mhamid, barely more than a desert oasis, where we bartered for camels and started our trek into the desert.

Zagora is a combination of my favorite childhood heroines – Pippi Longstocking, Meg Murry, Jo March – and she grows braver and more determined the farther she goes into the desert. The desert changes not only her, but also Duncan and the two Moroccan kids, Mina and Razziq, whom they meet along the way.

I write fantasy for middle-graders because that was the age when I was most excited about books. Reading was like a journey to the desert, filled with danger, mystery and adventure. That’s why I hope my books will spark the imaginations of young readers, transporting them from the everyday world to far-flung magical realms and unexpected places.

Illustration by Kelly Murphy for “The Scorpions of Zahir”