Do you write middle grade fiction?

I am teaching an online class through the Loft Literary Center beginning on February 2, 2015. Here is the description:

Many consider ages 8–12, “the middle grades,” to be a golden age for readers. Their novels include classics like Charlotte’s Web, the Ramona series, and the earliest adventures of Harry Potter. Most Newbery winners also fall into this category. In this class, we will explore some of the qualities that make a book a hit with young readers, with an emphasis on developing a character-driven story. Topics covered include creating a main character kids want to chase through the pages of a novel, avoiding stereotypes and cliches, and being attentive to the inner life of a middle grade novel. Participants will have an opportunity to share their work and get feedback from their peers as well as from the teaching artist.

And here are answers to commonly asked questions:

  • The class is completely online and mostly asynchronous. We do have weekly live chats to check in but the meat of the class is in the online readings and discussion forums. (We use the Moodle platform, but don’t worry if that doesn’t mean anything to you.)
  • There is a chance to share works in progress with the rest of the class; you also get private feedback from me on about 10 pages of writing.
  • The class is listed as “intermediate” primarily because of the expectation that writers are familiar with (if not steeped in) middle grade books, but if you have not read a lot you can catch up by familiarizing yourself with at least some of the following books. Most are Newberry medalists or honorees, so look on that bookshelf if your bookstore or library has one! These are not assigned class readings, but I use them as examples throughout the class (this is a partial list):
    • Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (and others in the Ramona series) – Beverly Cleary
    • Bud, not Buddy – Christopher Paul Curtis
    • Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh
    • The Giver – Lois Lowry
    • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH – Robert C. O’Brien
    • Hatchet – Gary Paulsen
    • From the Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler – E. L. Konigsberg
    • The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin
    • Holes – Louis Sachar
    • Maniac Magee – Jerry Spinelli
    • When You Reach Me – Rebecca Stead
    • Charlotte’s Web – E.B.White

    We also all read one recent book recommended and voted on by the class, and I try to get the author to join us for a chat.

Sign up for the class here!

The Unreadable Sentence and Other Thoughts on Charlotte’s Web

Charlotte's WebNote: This post is full of spoilers. On the off chance you have never read Charlotte’s Web, stop everything and go read it, then come back.

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I just finished reading Charlotte’s Web aloud to my son, and was surprised how often I was choked up while reading it. I expected the final chapter to destroy me, but not so much in the middle chapters, even the quiet ones: Wilbur’s bucolic day-to-day existence and the charming banter of animals was as likely to make me swallow hard and take five (my son staring at me in confusion) as Wilbur learning his fate from the old sheep.

I think what gets to me is Charlotte’s and Wilbur’s platonic love. Maybe all great middle-grade books are essentially about friendship, but no friendship is more peculiar and perfect than Wilbur’s and Charlotte’s. All my childhood I waited for that little voice to whisper from the darkness that she was there for me, and would reveal herself in the morning.

But as I grow older, Charlotte is not the friend I aspire to have, but the friend I aspire to be. She reaches out to Wilbur when he is muddy and pathetic and hasn’t a friend in the world. Her friendship transforms Wilbur, just by holding up a mirror of her own admiration. Soon the whole barnyard is swept up by her enthusiasm. The old sheep and the geese and even the bratty lambs start treating Wilbur with more respect. In turn, Wilbur considers Charlotte’s myriad legs and plump gray body and bloodsucking lifestyle and pronounces her beautiful, an unshaken belief until the end.

It is Charlotte’s gesture of friendship upon which the entire book revolves. It is also the source of the inspiration for her own life-changing art.

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I was actually less weepy at the end than I expected, perhaps because the boy was so squirmy and distracting (while also steadfastly insisting I keep reading). He was so blank-faced when Charlotte died I had to make sure he understood what just happened (he did). He was impatient through the next passages, but delighted by the baby spiders, and so eager to announce we were finished he missed the lovely “true friend and good writer,” bit at the very end. It was hard to be emotional with such an impatient audience.

However, there is one sentence I was unable to read. I saw it, knew I couldn’t read it, and simply turned the page. It’s the last sentence in the second-to-last chapter, and may be the saddest line ever to appear in a book for children. I won’t even put it here. It’s no better typing it than reading it aloud.

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Perhaps the most curious aspect of Charlotte’s Web is that it never once mentions God, which leads to some confusion about the plot: why is Wilbur, and not Charlotte, the subject of praise and wonder? In an increasingly secular world, the disposition of rural folk to attribute the unknown to the hand of God is less and less obvious.

Mrs. Zuckerman more than once suggests that the spider is the real phenomenon, but her husband dismisses her. It’s just a plain old gray spider, he says. Mr. Zuckerman uses words like “wonder” and “miracle” to describe what happens, and consults his minister, who gives a sermon, but nobody uses the G word. I suspect that it is because White, or perhaps Ursula Nordstrom, felt that they were perilously close to mocking faith itself, or would be seen as doing so. They played it safe by alluding to miracles and wonders without naming their presumptive Source.

White was a skeptic, but a devout worshiper of nature, and his masterpiece is a statement of faith: we don’t need a celestial creator; the spider is miracle enough. White picks up the Emerson strand of enlightened animism that runs through the American canon (especially poetry). It’s a faith but not a religion, and captures my own faith better than any religious text.

The doctor serves as White’s mouthpiece, giving his lecture to Fern’s mother, in a scene I had completely forgotten and will probably forget again. (It has no children in it, and no animals. It made my son restless.)

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Charlotte’s Web is beloved by writers for its smooth rhythms and pastoral descriptions, its epic catalogs of the humdrum. Reading it aloud tuned my ears to its stylistic mastery. There’s a reason the award for best read-aloud books is named for White. The style subsumes the story at times, as White patiently reels off the signs of seasonal changes, for example, or gives an exhaustive, almost ostentatious, list of things to eat at a fair or the contents of a junk pile. A certain type of children’s book reviewer is inclined to say they are “too much for children,” these languorous passages, just as critics have opined since its publication that Charlotte’s Web is too sad for children, that the sadness is ill-matched with the humor, that White bungled by establishing Fern as a main character just to demote her in chapter three. White’s children’s books do have structural peculiarities, but so do Andersen’s fairy tales. They defy our critical apparatuses. Children gleefully read, love, and cry over the book anyway, decade after decade.

When authors appeal to all ages they are said to appeal to the childlike hearts of older readers, but I think White appeals to the old souls in children.

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Wilbur WritesCharlotte is also a writer, of sorts: literally spinning words that shine in the morning sunlight, transforming the lives of the ones she cares most about. And so I aspire to be a friend like Charlotte, and also a writer like Charlotte, with her tireless commitment to high-minded goals and no longing for personal reward. I more often feel like Wilbur, tying an old string to his tail and leaping off of a manure pile. Perhaps it is only by disappearing into the woodwork that a writer can see his or work work become, to those staring in wonder, divine.

“A Spider”

I have been reading Charlotte’s Web to my son. I began it on a bit of a whim, unsure if he was old enough, but he loves it — he was goofing off and naughty this evening, and promise of more chapters in the book about the pig turned him right around.

Anyway. Tonight, as Wilbur lay lonely and weeping in the rain, and as the voice of a friend called to him from the darkness, Byron sat up in bed and started guessing who it was. He thought it was the gander, which made no sense. He thought it was Fern. And when, in the next chapter, he saw who it was he said, in hush and awe:

A spider.

I cannot tell you how it was to re-experience that moment through him. I don’t even know if experienced it; I think when I read this book for the first time I knew it would be about a spider. Also, I wasn’t as bug crazy as he is — if anything, if I was surprised by the voice from the shadows belonging to a spider, I was disappointed. But not Byron. He was thrilled, amazed, and delighted.

A spider.

His joy is my joy. And the joy carries with it a sense of gravity– knowing that this moment, like first steps and first words, is over in a heartbeat. Byron will never again reach chapter five not knowing that the voice belongs to Charlotte, a spider. He will never again, say in wonder: a spider.

Harry will get his letter from Hogwarts, and Ralph will ride his toy motorcycle, and who knows what else, but nothing will top that, ever.

 

 

 

Toy Story That Time Forgot

Last night Pixar aired their first television Christmas special, though it is only nominally about Christmas (and takes place two days later). It’s called Toy Story that Time Forgot, and hopefully will not be forgotten because one thing that Pixar quietly did was make a girl the lead this time, and shows everything to do right about creating girl heroes.

toy story special

Girl? Woman? It’s a dinosaur, voiced by the bubbly Kristen Schaal (who usually plays, in her own words, “kooky sluts,” on shows like 30 Rock and Flight of the Conchords), and either way it’s a great character. She’s brave, smart, and she’s definitely a girl, but veers away from the “take a male hero and give him a female body” answer to “strong female characters.” I loved her small part in Toy Story 3 and was thrilled that she took the lead this time. Her heroism is both natural in this series and in character.

I don’t want to sell boys short by saying they can’t enjoy a female hero, and the boy fans of Brave and Frozen prove they can, but here’s a non-princess character who’s got personality and style and will appeal to all kids. I hope we see more of Trixie. I hope Trixie’s lead role in this special is a sign of things to come for girl heroes in children’s movies that aren’t geared exclusively or mostly to a girl audience. And I hope Kristen Schaal voices more characters; she’s great at it.

Shame Based Learning

Yesterday Anne Ursu posted this and it’s good and you should read it but I’m not going to post directly about it. It just reminds me of something that’s been on my mind lately, rarely when I’m in a position or have a context to blog about it.

It’s about shame. I used to joke, at my last job as an educational multimedia consultant, about “shame based learning,” as my favorite pedagogy. (Googling I find 13,000 uses of the expression, none by me, so I am not the only one to coin this expression). I don’t know what inspired it originally, but the truth of the joke is how often we hope shame will fix people. The book is obviously such an example, as tender as it tries to be.

I doubt many of us can recall a time when shame improved us. We remember shame with hurt and resentment. No child recalls the time they were shamed for being fat and how they then got thin and started loving themselves. More like, they find that book in their Christmas stocking and feel a throbbing mental pain and try to anesthetize themselves against it by eating all the candy in the toe.  Or they develop an eating disorder and are even less healthy and ashamed than before. As an undersized, undermuscled kid I remember the shaming of gym teachers through about eighth grade and how little motivated I was by their disgust to put down my book and lift weights.

Adulthood has it’s shame moments to — acerbic comments and judgmental looks, sometimes deserved and sometimes not — and I have gotten no better at turning them into inspiration for self improvement. Shame makes you into a wounded animal, snapping and snarling. And yet, with the faith of Saints we still hope that shame will fix other people. In any commentary about schools you’ll find the comments full of grumpsters and gremlins who want to fix the schools with shame: shame for the students, shame for the teachers, shame for the parents, shame for the administrators. Shame is seen as this all-purpose fix all. If only people felt more disgusted with themselves!

Yeah, and Twitter and whatnot kind of has the same spirit. It’s one of the few things that unites people across the vast political and cultural divide: the confidence that we can fix the other side with shame.

The transformative moments for me were when people believed the best in me. When a teachers said — contrary to the usual feedback I got from teachers — that I was “a delight” in the classroom, I vowed to remain a delight and earn the compliment. Professionally, nothing has been more motivating than a friendly email with sincere thanks. I know that the way to effect change is to tell people: I see you as strong, already. I see you as smart. I see you as beautiful. I know you are a loving and compassionate person. I see you as capable. This is especially true when rearing children, but it’s even true with adults.

I guess we regress to shame, despite our own experience, because generosity is hard. And because we’re angry. And because, in that blind and frozen moment, we  don’t want to fix someone. We want to make them feel as small and hurt as we have felt.

 

Sledding without a cell phone

Yesterday we went to Thanksgiving dinner at my wife’s parents’ house. There is, in their spacious backyard, a perfect hill for sledding. There was, in the garage, a perfect sheet of plastic to fashion into a toboggan. We slid and spun down the hill again and again, me and my pink-cheeked boy, until the sun set behind the distant trees.

It occurred to me many times that this experience was perfect for Facebook — to make a short video of the boy sliding and whooping his way downhill, or at least to transmit the important status: “Sledding with son on makeshift sled! #blessed.”

But when my cell phone broke two months ago, I didn’t bother replacing it. I canceled my service instead, sick of the way the phone made me less present in any moment. Out with my wife, at the park with my son, whatever. I’d check the phone every few minutes for nothing-that-important. Occasionally it’s inconvenient to not have the phone (calling the wife, for example, to remind me what exactly she’d asked me to pick up the store I am now wandering aimlessly through), but I don’t miss it much. I think it makes me less annoying to be phoneless. The shame I used to feel when seeing those thought-pieces about people and their smart phones as turned to smug self-satisfaction. “Don’t even have a cell phone, anymore,” I remember.

But does it really matter if I have a phone with me, if I am mentally framing the moment, crafting the image, composing the status? Thirty years ago Annie Dillard wrote of the “running description of the present,” that took place in her head on hikes, the “talking too much,” even when she was alone. I definitely know this feeling, though I wonder what genre these thoughts mimicked in the days before Twitter, what imaginary medium and audience gave shape to her interior monologue?

I still have the cell phone in the hand of my imagination. Even if I want to believe that my own shutter opened and the moment imprinted itself on the silver of my soul, I was actually composing a blog entry in my head about how such a thing happened, and applying the “Rockwell Filter” to my mental Instagram.

But that’s not completely fair to myself. Flying down the hill there was nothing but speed and cold and the squeals of a happy child. It was so perfect I have no memory of it — I didn’t jot one down in my mind for later.

Makeshift Sled

(Photo taken by my wife from the living room window.)

Upon driving southwards along the Mississippi River at sunrise while listening to “Rhiannon” the day before my 46th birthday

Grain Belt Sign

My drive to work takes me south along the Mississippi River, on a bucolic road where cyclists zip along next to you in all seasons, and sometimes people walk little dogs from the expensive townhomes to the park. Lately the sunlight has been gleaming off the dark, frozen water, like the symbol of something, both blinding and beautiful. I could do worse for a drive, because there are stately ruins that have been left that way as a kind of public art statement by the city, and the memorial bridge replacing the one that collapsed a few years ago, and an ugly sign for a lousy beer that has come to be loved simply because it is old and outlasted generations (that can be said of both the sign and the beer).

I think the ruins are there because this is, really, a young city — there are no layers to it, like in New York or Paris or London, where you can dig up another era beneath your own. And yet we have an aching to be old, and let the ruins remind us that at least we weren’t born yesterday. There has been time for industries to fall into disrepair, enough history for there to be an historic district. (You can read vivid descriptions of this area the way it used to be in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, and in the Sinclair Lewis novel Babbit, though he calls his bustling metropolis Zenith.)

Yesterday the song “Rhiannon” was playing on the radio as I took this drive, and it suited my mood perfectly. Stevie Nicks, in her prime, had as good a voice as any singer, smokey and nuanced, and while I don’t know what the hell the song is about (Welsh goddess? A breakup?) she could probably sing anything at that time, to the polished and confident music of Lindsey Buckingham, and make it a hit. Remarkably, somehow, I can recall a forty-year-old song from its original radio heyday, and it feels like its been in regular rotation since. “Rhiannon,” like sunshine and prairie grass, is now a part of my landscape. Perhaps not deserving of timelessness, that pop song or that beer sign, but nevertheless permanent.

It’s been a rough year for me, in a lot of ways, though not without everyday joys, and the hardships smaller than those of other people, so it’s comforting to go down this timeless corridor — good to know that the same sun has gleamed off the same river since before humans saw it, and will continue to do so when the city has turned into dust and our descendants (lets be positive) have scattered across the galaxy, and bison have resumed their natural title as the rulers of the prairie, and (I expect) worship the beer sign, which is still there, as some kind of message placed there by Bison God, to mark a sacred watering hole, and somehow, in the background, there will be a radio blaring “Rhiannon.”