I met Jodell Sadler last fall at the Wisconsin SCBWI conference—and loved her amazing presentation on pacing in picture books. She’s here today to talk about five great reads for middle grade and young adult readers (and those of us who refuse to grow up). If you want to write for this audience, read on. Jodell Sadler captures what works in five exceptional books and, in doing so, teaches us how to craft stories that sing.
What makes writers flip fear over fancy for the books they read, study, and write? What makes readers read flock to awesome reads? For me, the answer remains the same: craft. There is nothing like a well-crafted book MG or YA with great voice, strong inner characters, and authentic, believable world. Writers and readers want to immerse in a world that captivates, flatters them, but also has staying power. If we send them in to spend time with a flat character, will they stay? If all we give them is time to get their nails done, flaunt the latest up-do, or worry about wardrobe emergencies, will it be enough? Or do we do the deep dive into what is happening and share the trouble our character is having in the world and really all-out-no-holding-back share his or her views? Save that exterior stuff for Project Runway because when it comes to middle grades, it’s all about character—it’s all about heart and all the visual and emotional strings that directly drive the movement of our characters that matters most to readers.
A few ways to enhance characterization would include focusing on challenges, worldview, creativity, and flaws. Let’s face it—our readers crave detailed quirkiness, originality, and spunk. We want our character to long for something that we know means the world to them because this opens the world for the reader to enjoy as well. It’s all about the journey, the getting there, and the minor and major challenges along the way.
What we learn most from middle-grade novels is that every book should carry originality both on its spine and throughout, for this is what gives a book staying power.
Saint Training by Elizabeth Fixmer (Zonderkids, 2010). Saint Training is definitely a book that sings. Through voice and characterization she shows us “the difference between the writer who tries to copy the world using words, and the writer who makes a world out of words” as Selgin suggests in By Cunning and Craft (Writer’s Digest, 2007). Fixmer is a painter of words. Saint Training radiates color, heart, and humor though its main character, Mary Clare, who fights to help her family and discover her own place in the universe.
Mary Clare O’Brian wants the job of Mother Superior. She claims it’s perfect and sets out to get hired before she begins liking boys too much. She also wants to help her mother keep her faith despite another pregnancy, wants to gain popularity, and wants to see her brother’s application approved to become a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Becoming a Mother Superior, however, is her ultimate destination and secret mission. This would position her even closer to God, where her prayers—above all other prayers—will be answered. So, Mary Clare gets down to business and writes Mother Superior directly.
Dear Reverend Mother,
My name is Mary Clare O’Brian. I am in sixth grade and I am writing because I want to become a Good Shepherd nun. I like the Good Shepherd nuns best because you work with unwed mothers and their babies. I love little babies.
I have lot of experience with kids. God gives my family a new baby every year even though we have more than we can handle now…. (Saint Training, p. 5)
The novel’s literary letters are funny and show character growth as we sense that even Mother Superior has been changed by her relationship with Mary Clare.
The characterization in this book is masterfully crafted. We learn more about Mary Clare at the turn of every page. While humor remains at the heart of this story, Fixmer carries her reader through each scene by using voice and details to reveal character.
Middle-grade readers want spunk and voice and Saint Training delivers both. Mary Clare’s voice sings, and there is a lot for the reader to put his or her head around at Fixmer shares a gutsy girl who dares to find her own way and stay true to herself. Mary Clare is Mary Clare. She couldn’t be anyone else. She’s authentic. We know her, love her, and join in her journey because the author has invited us to care about her this character’s whole world and mission.
Keeper by Kathi Appelt (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 2010). This book delivers unbelievable magic when it comes to craft. Keeper is a novel that screams, “This writer has reached her stride!” Appelt is fluent in many genres and seamlessly incorporates the power of picture book writing into this middle-grade title to heighten characterization and the reader’s experience.
A Kirkus starred review reads, “Since her mother swam away seven years ago, ten-year-old Keeper has lived happily with Signe on a remote slice of Texas coast, convinced that her mother’s a mermaid. Keeper’s waited all summer for the blue moon, when Signe will make blue moon gumbo, their friend Dogie will propose to Signe and their elderly neighbor’s night-blooming cereus will flower. But when she accidentally spoils everything, Keeper sets out under the blue moon in a small boat, determined to row across dangerous Gulf waters to find her mother.”
Appelt’s poetic flair arrives in e. e. cummings-like line breaks that flow down the page, establishing that this author is fully in charge of her pen. When Keeper hears blue crabs “talk” to her, she figures they are calling her because mer-blood runs through her veins. The crabs want be rescued, and this action sets a whole awful day in motion. The pivotal point in the plot hinges on very few words:
…the Russian mermaids, the rusalki, had green hair.
It came in many colors.
Red like boiled crabs.
From this small transition, we feel this character’s emotional connection to the crabs and can guess what her next action might be. Later, when Keeper maneuvers a string and a piece of bacon to rescue the crabs, the text applies other poetic devices more commonly found in picture books.
What I enjoyed most about this book is the use of questions as internal dialogue. This immediately gives a sense of Keeper’s inner consciousness and worldview without telling the reader exactly what she is thinking or what happens next. It makes for a more interactive, game-like experience, which leaves lingering questions trailing the main character’s every move and adds to the tension within each scene: What will Keeper decide?
What is even more impressive is the use of flashbacks and front story. Keeper reads like a wave of adventure: unexpected shifts from prose to verse are a brilliant ebb and flow that mimics the waves of the sea and makes for a satisfying read. We talk about the need for action to follow scene, and in this book, not only does that hold true, but even chapters and overall structure support scene and the author’s theme. From scene to scene, there are splashes and playful frolics like the reader might experience while floating in a body of water. Keeper simply satisfies on multiple levels and it’s one exciting read that children’s writers of all genres can truly learn from.
Cirque du Freak Series by Darren Shan. When we aim to write the ideal boy book series for middle-grade readers, we might study the genius of one writer who dares to give his readers the ultimate, action-packed thrill ride over the course of a dozen books. The Cirque du Freak series by Darren Shan offers reluctant readers a racing read by presenting a great hook, and fast-paced plot with twists and spins, along with flashy, action-packed scenes, and awesome characterization.
As writers for children, a great hook is essential and must be immediate. Often, it’s the first seventy-five words on page 1 that determine that pivotal reader decision: Will I stay or not?
Warning his readers before the story even begins, Shan writes, “Real life is nasty. It’s cruel. It doesn’t care about heroes or happy endings and the way things should be. In real life, bad things happen. People die. Fights are lost. Evil often wins.” Why? It sets the tone, sets up for a great hook, and poses the question: Will evil win?
Vivid details punctuate characterization in this series. There are two different kinds of vampires: Vampires and Vampaneze, who are purple-faced fighters with red eyes, nails, and hair, who always kill when they feed. Both kinds are flocking to Vampire Mountain to take over the Vampire nation. Readers learn there exists a Vampire Lord, a Vampire Prince, and a half vampire, Darren Shan himself, who must complete a series of challenges, called the Trials of Death, in order become a full vampire. But Shan’s characterization doesn’t stop there. There is also a witch with one blue eye and one green eye, the colors shifting back and forth every minute; she can also transform herself from hag to beauty queen in seconds. There is a leader of the Cirque du Freak show, Mr. Tiny, a Little Person, and Harkat Mulds, a creature who has lost all identifying features and dons shriveled skin and serves others only wears a robe, for it hides their disgusting features. And these name only a few of Shan’s captivating characters.
As J. K. Rowling says, Shan’s series is “compelling . . . a plot full of twists which leaves the reader hungry for more.” When Darren Shan’s best friend, Steve Leopard, gets bitten by Madame Octa and Mr. Crepsley arrives to get her back, there is a price to pay—a life to pay. Shan must decide: Will he will give up his life and become the vampire’s assistant—a half vampire—in order to save Leopard? Readers have to grapple with the fact that Shan’s best friend may not be who he first appears. Does Shan really know his best friend at all? This is one read our whole family “chase read” together, each person tagging reading the next in the series once the other person was done with it. So much to offer, this is just on awesome series, which also happens to be particularly “boy.”
Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley (Ember, 2012). This is a book deserving more attention. Told in three alternating narrators, the characterization and personality of each is strong, and it’s hard not to love a novel about teens who ultimately support each other’s quirkiness and help direct a correct path. As poetry is Poet’s thing, and graffiti is Ed’s, it’s Lucy, and her glassblowing hobby and awesome internal characterization that make this title work well.
Writers and reader alike will love that Lucy is longing to discover someone she has known but is right under her nose. While the poet’s chapters were a bit to handle at first, they actually became a pallet cleanser to the other narratives after a while.
What is truly brilliant about this book is that it’s a mystery unfolding even as it is revealed. The reader knows the identity of Shadow, the guy Lucy is searching for, and this provides a more interactive and engaging read because of it. When one teen is slated to rob from the school, and the other teens talk him out of it, which is when this book really hits exclamation points with me.
Too often teens are pitched in a negative fashion, so this is a title that turns the coin and turns to a group of teen’s that find equality amongst all their quirkiness. That truly is the basis of acceptance and friendships, so this book shines through as authentic and real and genuinely engaging from page one to the end. Any writer-reader will admire how the art is used in this story to reveal inner character. It’s such a great example of quality characterization.
When we hear Lucy’s unique visions and how she views her world, the awesome bleeds out onto a very real canvas. It just calls out to the writers as artist, artist as writer.
Lucy shows us her visions with the clarity of glass and all the artistry of blowing glass into a form. Consider her very last lines. “It’s the sun. A ball of burning glass taking over the night. He hasn’t signed it. But I know who he is. I know who I am. I don’t know exactly who we are together, yet. Ed takes out a can and paints a little yellow bird. It’s not like that sleeping bird, belly up to the sky.
When the other characters interact with her glassmaking, it discloses more about both characters.
WONDER by R.J. Palacio (Knopf, 2012). This is one awesome read with creative characterization in multiple narratives—but it’s also a whole lot more. It’s just one dynamic book that touches upon what it means to be different, alienated, or stuck in some abyss of nothingness because of something way outside the character’s control. Consider how the rhythmic and repetitive use of one word punctuates this opening and reinforces the fact that we, as writers, as readers, are about meet up with quite the opposite of ordinary in this novel. But also notice the lay of words and how one word set aside does more to alert the reader of what is to come.
“I know I am not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.”
Wow, right? At the end of the short first chapter, Palacio writes, “My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
August, aka Aggie, according to the awesome CYBILS 2012 judges, “has always been home-schooled to accommodate for multiple surgeries and illnesses. Now that he is stronger, he must join the world of his peers and learn to deal with their perceptions of his extreme disfigurement. Wonder is his story, and it is at turns funny, heartbreaking, and illuminating, and always, always compelling. Palacio tells it from multiple points of view, a choice that allows readers to consider the feelings and reactions of many characters.
“Auggie is a character endearing, brave, and normal enough to challenge readers to wonder about some really big questions: What would it be like to be Auggie? Would I have the courage to be friends with him? How difficult is it to ‘choose kind’? This remarkable and surprisingly humorous first novel grips its middle-grade audience in such a profound and meaningful way, and it is a book we believe could make readers out of nonreaders–making Wonder our runaway top choice for this year’s Cybils Middle Grade Fiction Award.”
Having a penchant for disabilities and stories that portray them, this read is one to be shared in classroom everywhere. As Kirkus writes, “Auggie has had 27 surgeries to correct facial anomalies he was born with, but he still has a face that has earned him such cruel nicknames as Freak, Freddy Krueger, Gross-out and Lizard face. Though ‘his features look like they’ve been melted, like the drippings on a candle’ and he’s used to people averting their eyes when they see him, he’s an engaging boy who feels pretty ordinary inside. He’s smart, funny, kind and brave, but his father says that having Auggie attend Beecher Prep would be like sending ‘a lamb to the slaughter.’ ” Every reader will walk away from this one changed for having spent time getting to know this ordinary, extraordinary boy.
As a writer, it’s extremely difficult to narrow down any list to only five reads. There are many favorites, so this list is only partial. There are so many Middle Grades that are worthy of reading and studying for craft, so please see how these books have touched me as a writer and agent of children’s literature. What is clear is that each of these titles carries originality on their spine and throughout, for these titles certainly have staying power— great voice, strong inner characters, and authentic, believable world.
About the author. Jodell Sadler is an agent with the Sadler-Caravettte Children’s Literary. For more about her and the agency, please visit http://www.sadler-caravetteliterary.com.