Saturday, October 12, 2013

Tips for Middle Grade from Ann Haywood Leal

Today I am chatting with my friend Ann Haywood Leal about middle grade novels.  Ann is the author of the critically acclaimed ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER/ Henry Holt and A FINDERS-KEEPERS PLACE/Henry Holt.


Debby:  Ann, thank you for being here. 

Ann:  It was my pleasure!  Thanks for inviting me.

Debby: I wanted to talk about writing the middle grade novel.  To capture the minds and hearts of middle grade students, you have to find subjects that will interest them.  How do you find that perfect balance to touch the ten year old reader with your story?

Ann:  I try to write for the ten-year-old that I was.  I was and still am such a voracious reader.  If I really loved a book when I was young, I would read it more than once.  My mom took my brothers and me to the library every week.  I’m sure I could still go straight to the places where my favorite books were shelved with my eyes closed!  My dream is to write the book that will have that same effect on one of my readers.

Debby:  I love the image of you searching for your favorite books in the library.  And I know you have already touched readers with your beautiful books.  What do you think about heavy subjects, such as homelessness and loss.  Do you think these have a place in MG books?

Ann:  I think that MG readers can handle a lot more than we sometimes think they can.  Homelessness and loss are very real issues that are happening right now around them and quite often to them.  Reading about those kinds of heavy subjects can help kids make sense of things in their own lives.
Debby:  My nine year old is reading A Wrinkle in Time right now.  Madeleine L’Engle weaves the romance into the story with a light hand.  It manages to be just the right amount for this age.  How do you balance romance so that you have just enough but not too much?

Ann:  I think it can definitely be a delicate balance!  MG readers love the hint of romance, but if you get too deeply into it, you run the risk of turning them off, especially those on the lower end of the age range.  I’m an elementary teacher, and I’ve noticed this with my students.  They love to tease each other and hint around that someone might “like” someone else; this information is often delivered second and third hand!  But if you get too much into the actual physical details, I think you are moving into YA territory.

Debby:  I wanted to talk about boy books vs. girl books.  With YA there isn’t the same pressure to be able to appeal to boys and girls at the same time.  Do you feel the pressure to write a book that can be appreciated by both boys and girls?

Ann:  I know that there seems to be a big market right now for “boy” books in MG.  I am often pleasantly surprised to see to whom my books appeal.  My main characters tend to be girls, because that is what my voice leans toward … but I like to have other major and minor boy characters to create a nice balance (if they belong in the story and move it forward in a natural way).  The most important thing, I think, is for a writer to have strong, positive characters, boy or girl, with which the readers can identify. 

Debby:  Can you give other writers some good advice about reacting to trends in middle grade publishing?  Right now, we are seeing so much fantasy—how can writers stay true to their own voices?

Ann:  This may sound a little like a cliché, but I believe it completely:  write the book that’s in your heart.  When you try to write for a trend, and it’s not coming out of your “writer self” in an organic way, it shows.  It can come across as awkward and one-dimensional.

Debby:  I am hanging that sentence on my wall for inspiration, Ann.  Thank you!  Can you give writers one good tip for writing middle grade fiction?  My tip is to read your pages aloud and listen to your words.  Then imagine you are ten.  Would you want to hear more?  What’s your tip?

Ann:  Write the book that you wish you had discovered when you were a MG reader.  Ask yourself what drew you to your favorite books, and what made you keep going back to those treasured stories.

Thank you, Ann, for inspiring me and everyone else today.

Ann:  Thank you, Debby!

For more about Ann, visit her website,, blog

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