Master and Commander (of Middle Grade Fiction)

Lately I’ve been taken up with the Jack Aubrey novels by Patrick O’Brian, and it occurs to me that these are sterling examples of what middle grade novels ought to be. I’m not putting the books down by any means, just seeing that what O’Brian does are particularly good habits and strategies for middle grade authors. Here’s a short list of what I mean.

1. Jack Aubrey is, quite simply, an arse. He’s arrogant, closed-minded on a number of topics, ambitious, brash, and impolitic. We like him anyway because he is bold and extremely capable. He knows everything about being master and commander of his own ship, and he’s willing to take charge. I find that middle grade heros are often defined by their weaknesses — the kid who strikes out every time, the victim of the schoolyard bully, etc. Let your heroes be defined by their strengths and desires, not by their ineffectualness. They don’t have to be perfect by a long shot, but if they like themselves and care deeply about something, we will follow them anywhere. For a middle grade example, see “Wimpy Kid” Greg Heffley. He is a lazy, self-centered and judgmental kid, and doesn’t even have any outstanding talents, but millions of readers still happily follow his exploits because he likes himself and is enterprising.

2. Many writers intuitively drop a best buddy into a book without quite realizing their potential for character development, exposition, and plot agency. Stephen Maturin is all three. We learn so much about Jack from their interactions; and so much about sails and munitions through Stephen (literally and figuratively) learning the ropes, since he’s a physician and not a sailor; and of course Stephen figures into the plots as he saves Jack (from others and himself), overhears mutinous plots, and so forth. Moreover, Maturin is a principled and thoughtful character who sees Jack Aubrey for who he is, and is still completely committed to him — this builds empathy for Aubrey despite his flaws.

3. O’Brian’s books are exhaustively researched, and so should any novel, even if it’s for children. If the main character is deeply interested in something, he or she should know a lot about it, and hence so should the author. Whether you’ve decided the hero is madly interested in baseball, or dinosaurs, or fashion design, you need to make yourself equally fascinated by the topic and steep yourself in it for a while. Since you will be steeped in it, it’s best to pick something that genuinely does interest you, but to be fair, I didn’t know a thing about mambas before writing Mamba Point, and although I love animals snakes were far from my favorites. I did set out to learn everything I could, though, and found out those fanged monsters are actually amazingly interesting. They say “write what you know,” which I disagree with. But “know what you write.” You can learn it as you go.

4. Don’t force yourself to be funny. I think it’s conventional wisdom that middle graders love humor, so practically all middle grade novels are at least occasionally funny. Some are over the top zany, but I’m not a big fan of the silly names and potty talk path to the reader’s funnybone — it smacks of desperation. Patrick O’Brian can be quite humorous, but only when it happens naturally and comes from the characters’ personalities: Aubrey’s frank “sailor talk” at a high-class party, or the sudden squeamishness of hardened naval warriors when Stephen begins to describe a birth. In the middle grade set, I think Rick Riordian has a flare for this, injecting humor when it emerges naturally in the story without pulling out the cream pies and joy buzzers. It’s enough humor for kids, and usually a joke is funnier if it’s unexpected, instead of every page being a laugh riot.

5. Last and most importantly, when the story seems to be foundering, put in another battle scene.

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