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Middle-Grade Greats panel recap

middle-grade greats panel

from L-R: authors Jeanne Birdsall, Bruce Coville, Alice Hoffman, R. J. Palacio, and Rebecca Stead with moderator Roger Sutton. Photo: Shoshana Flax.

To Jeanne Birdsall, middle grade means a series that follows a large family through its ups and downs. To Bruce Coville, it means a funny fantasy series. To Alice Hoffman, it means magical realism. To R. J. Palacio, it means a novel about someone who has trouble fitting in. To Rebecca Stead, it means a “big fat book of relationships.”

Among other things.

Middle-Grade Greats, a panel discussion at the Cambridge Public Library moderated by our own Roger Sutton, was “the hottest ticket on the East Coast” on Monday night — youth services manager Julie Roach thought she was joking when she first bestowed that description upon it, but realized after the umpteenth phone call inquiring about it that the tagline was truer than she thought. There was something for everyone on the panel of five authors, who offered a range of insights into their work and what middle grade means in addition to discussing their newest titles from Random House (Jeanne Birdsall: The Penderwicks in Spring, March 2015; Bruce Coville: Diary of a Mad Brownie, June 2015; Alice Hoffman: Nightbird, March 2015; R. J. Palacio: Auggie & Me, August 2015; Rebecca Stead: Goodbye Stranger, August 2015).

Jeanne described her writing as “pure middle grade.” In fact, she said she writes for an extremely specific middle-grade audience: herself in the second half of fifth grade, a time when she was “very bright and creative before hormones messed up [her] life.” Bruce, a former elementary teacher, isn’t crazy about the “clunky” term middle grade, but, he said, “it’s where I live in books.” He also often has a very specific reader in mind — one of his early books was an attempt to write the book he wanted to read on Halloween night when he was in fourth grade. Alice, who’s written for a wide range of ages, said she was confused as to what middle grade means, since readers often step outside their prescribed categories. The best time to read Ray Bradbury, she opined, is when you’re twelve; does that make his work middle grade? Publishing veteran R. J. (or Raquel Jaramillo, the real name she asked us to use for the evening) addressed Alice’s confusion, saying that categories like middle grade are a “publishing convenience” to make it clear where books should be shelved; her debut novel, Wonder (Knopf) has an adult edition as well as a children’s edition, with the same text but a different cover. Rebecca, whose Goodbye Stranger is about middle-school and early-high-school students, cited fifth and sixth graders’ need to “explore what’s ahead by reading,” and said she wanted to write a book that was “honest” about the lives of twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-olds.

Although most of the authors focus on particular moments in growing up, they have varied approaches to locating those moments in time. Technology and online identities play a significant role in Goodbye Stranger; “I did some Instagram” as research, Rebecca admitted. But both Alice and Jeanne prefer to leave their settings vague in terms of historical moment. Jeanne remembers that it was characters, not dates, that interested her when she read her favorite childhood authors like Louisa May Alcott and E. Nesbit. Alice tries not to include specific technology, creating a timelessness like that of a fairy tale. Bruce added that it’s hard to incorporate contemporary technology when it’s likely to change in two years. It’s also, he said, hard to get characters into danger in adventure stories when cell phones make it easy to get out.

Though they expressed different attitudes toward setting, the authors seemed to share an interest in creating characters who reflected real middle graders and their experiences. (More than one author with kids confessed to eavesdropping on actual, conveniently located middle graders.) As Rebecca put it, some adults may see the middle-grade years as an “uncomplicated time,” but it isn’t true. In fact, she said that if everyone in the room took a vote on who made the right and wrong choices in Goodbye Stranger, she hoped we wouldn’t all agree.

Porter Square Books sold the authors’ titles at the event, and they had a busy night. I think the signing lines have probably died down by now….

rebecca stead and roger sutton

Rebecca and Roger. Photo: Martha V. Parravano

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

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