Carl Hiassen did it. Walter Mosley did it. Susan McBride is doing it, and so are Lauren Henderson, Sherman Alexie, and Nick Hornby.
Certain critics and publishing players disparage it, and haven’t been shy about expressing their views. What am I talking about? The world of juvenile and YA literature, a universe that I’m entering myself.
Yes, after expressing my fears about leaving my Mas Arai mystery series for an indefinite period of time, I was able to sell my novel for adolescents at the beginning of 2007. My novel was supposed to fall in the category of women’s literature, but as what often happens when I start a project with new characters, the story tugs and pulls me in the direction where it needs to go. The ease of the process depends on if I can surrender and extinguish my personal expectations. So, here, based on the recommendation of my agent after reading my initial three chapters, I’ve followed the voice of my 13-year-old protagonist.
I used to think that my work-in-progress fell in the category of YA (young adult) lit, but apparently it’s MG lit, or middle-grade literature. I’m writing for tweens, 10 to 14 year olds. This is a good age, I think. Teenagers any older may slowly be making their way into grownup literature. At least that’s what I was doing at that age.
I’m the first to tell you that I never expected to write for young people. First of all, I’m totally old school. Many of you know that I recently switched over from Windows 98 to Windows 2003. I don’t own an IPod. I don’t IM or text message. When I worked at my community newspaper, our then high-school intern presented me with her Dope Dictionary (circa 1996) because it was obvious that I was so out of it at the time that I thought dope meant Mary Jane. (In 1996, dope meant cool.)
I’m not whimsical or fantasy oriented. I don’t have children yet. I am playful, however. I’ll be the first to jump onto a swing at the beach, take a whack at the plastic moles at an arcade, go ice skating in the middle of downtown, and bounce around on a trampoline.
There are certainly some social, literary, and economic advantages in appealing to this MG and YA market. While many of us have noticed the graying of our core mystery audience, these readers are the future. They are adolescents and teenagers. Books for young people are powerful; the best have enormous staying power. Certainly all of us have that close connections to early books, whether it be ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET; FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF BASIL E. FRANKWEILER; A WRINKLE IN TIME; THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH; the ALL-OF-A-KIND-OF-FAMILY series, etc. It’s no surprise that many of these formidable works are still being sold to young people today.
And aside from the Harry Potter novels and other fantasy books, MG books can be quite short. Forty thousand words, to be exact. In fact, that’s the length that stipulated in my contract, which was received only recently. At the time, I was planning to write a 60,000-word book, but now certain chapters have been compressed and now the manuscript is looking to be 45,000 to 50,000 words.
But more than these factors, I’ve discovered another benefit in entering this genre. Carl Hiassen’s quote on his website captures my sentiments: “Writing for young readers is a tonic for me.”
For me, 2006 was a tough year. We were still recovering from a death in the family at the end of the previous year, and then, as it often happens, we were socked in the stomach with more loss. The pain was tremendous and almost crippling to me personally. Anyone who has met me knows that on the surface I’m a cheery, optimistic person. I like to laugh. I don’t have frown lines. But 2006 hit me hard. I cried frequently—not a few pretty tears, but gut-wrenching sobs. The messy kind that produces red-swollen eyes and plenty of sticky, runny snot.
Angela, my 13-year-old protagonist in my middle school novel, is also experiencing trauma. In the book, 1001 CRANES, her parents are breaking up. She must spend a summer away from her home in Northern California in a working-class suburb called Gardena. She must negotiate certain unfamiliar cultural practices, like the folding of origami cranes for weddings, in midst of the dissolution of her own family unit.
Beginning to explore Angela’s loss wasn’t necessarily cathartic—I don’t believe that writing for pay should come from that place—but I understood her despair in a new way. I respected it.
In 2006 I also wrote three noir stories, darker ones than I’ve ever attempted. My mood certainly helped to develop the tone of these tales. One in particular spilled out quickly; it was one of these stories that wrote itself. I’m considering taking one of those stories and expanding the time period and characters into a standalone novel. It won’t stay at quite the same level of darkness as the short story, however. It will be hard for me to be in that place for a year or longer.
My MG novel is not about silliness and light, but I must admit that it’s been nice to reenter Angela’s world after writing these string of noir stories. It has been good tonic. Despite whatever obstacles are in her way, time is on her side.
YA and MG Lit Resources
One of the wonderful things about writing in a different genre is learning new things, both creatively and business-wise.
The MWA equivalent to this world is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). There are some fundamental differences in the setup of these organizations.While SCBWI is for-profit association devoted to the development of children’s book writers and illustrators, MWA is a nonprofit charitable organization devoted to promotion of mysteries.
The SCBWI holds conferences on the East and West coasts, featuring lectures by editors, agents, and experienced authors. I’m hoping to check out the one in August. They also have these monthly regional informal get-togethers in people’s homes.
MWA has its Edgars Award each year, and the American Library Association offers its slew of awards, most notably the Caldecott and Newbery. These are definitely the Oscars for writing for young readers.
You can imagine that there would be a wide range of offerings in terms of blogs and other Internet resources in this genre.
A writer who I will happily meet in person at the inaugural Asian Pacific American Book Festival, Pooja Makhijani, has compiled a great list of blogs, and I can personally attest to the usefulness of A Fuse #8.
A most helpful yahoo group is middle school lit. This is aimed for librarians and teachers, first, and writers, a distant second.
One thing I’ve observed with mystery listservs is many of them degenerate into BSP. Hey, BSP is a necessary evil, but there needs to be a sacred place where readers can post their honest opinions and observations. Here in this yahoo groups, librarians and educators are the primary posters and I appreciate reading their challenges while on the frontlines with our readers.
There are similar yahoo groups for YA writers, but in the interest of time, I haven’t joined them, so I’m unfamiliar with their postings.
And finally, I’m gradually letting go of my skepticism regarding book trailers. In fact, I love the Random House submissions for the inaugural Teen Book Video competition last year. I don’t know if the competition will continued this year, but check out last year’s three finalists.