Last night I went to a school-wide book group with my older daughter. Twice a year the school holds these groups for the upper graders, reading grade-level books on a particular theme and then having kids and parents come in, break into small groups, and discuss the book. I think it’s a great idea and the turnout is fairly good. It has it’s problems (books tend to be better suited for girls’ interests, for example) but on the whole a really great school community event.
But what was interesting from my point of view was how hard I find myself biting my tongue at these events. Not because I disagree with what is generally being discussed, but because my studies give me a wildly different perspective on literature intended for children. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this problem.
My undergrad degree was in film and I have to be careful in general discussions about movies because I know too damn much. If I’m watching a film and suddenly find a scene that has been stolen from another movie (as might happen in, say, Quinten Tarnantino films), or someplace where a director has repetedly used the same sort of plot devices or themes (hello Spielberg), these moments pull me out of the film and ruin my enjoyment; I cannot see the movie for the flaws, as it were. But most people don’t notice or care about the minutia of these experiences – American movie audiences on the whole tend to prefer to be uncritical beyond “things blew up, that was fun” – and so my part of any discussion is muted.
So last night while I was sitting in our group I didn’t really care that much about the story as much as I did about how the group reacted to mechanics of the book. What did they like about the character? What did they think of the setting and the plot? What was realistic and what felt forced? Naturally there were differences between what the parents saw and felt and what the kids saw. And all of it was incredibly illuminating.
I was with a group of seventh graders, five boys and two girls, and all the parents women. Think what you will of those numbers and you’re probably right. The kids were candid and articulate, they knew what they did and didn’t like, and based on their ability to analyze the mechanics of a novel their teachers have done a damn good job teaching them critical reading. More than I ever got when I was their age. Hell, yes, I’m jealous.
Favorite comment of the night came from a boy who found several points of contention, but summed up his experience with the book this way:
“I was okay with the first two chapters because it was interesting. Then plot happened.”
And we laughed. But he was onto something, and so was I at that moment. This boy is no fool. He could see that the story was designed to lull him in and then wallop him with the message story. He was fine going along with the action but then felt a noticeable shift in the writing and felt betrayed. He used to word “promise” to describe the story and felt it “didn’t deliver” on that promise in the end. Others agreed and expanded on these comments. Debates over which parts they felt were “real” and which parts felt “like fiction” were had. There was even a discussion about the image on the cover, and how misleading it was, and how it didn’t accurately portray the main character (the girl on the cover was “too pretty” and didn’t match the description in the book). Discussion about the book’s theme – immigration and the role of immigrants in the wake of 9/11 – were glossed over as the group’s focus delved into what was wrong with the way the author delivered the message.
And I couldn’t help but think that more writers and editors need to hear these conversations.
It’s one thing for bloggers and critics and other reviewers to say these things, but it’s an entirely different kettle of fish when you hear it from the target market, the intended audience, kids. It made me realize the depth of the vacuum writers have to work in because the critique groups and agents and editors they have to get their stories past are adults and never the people the book is written for. Flip this idea on its head for a moment. What if the agents and editors were peer-aged with the audience; how many of the books that are currently published would get the green light?
No, we cannot accept that children would possess the critical facilities necessary to judge if a book should be published, yet we expect them to take what they are given without question? What I saw was something I think I want to see more of as a writer. I think once I get this writing thing down I want to spend some regular time around my target audience so that I can hear from them directly what works and what doesn’t. It would be a lot more helpful to me to hear what that 12 year old boy said above than to have an editor say “I need to see more conflict with the main character by the third chapter.”
I don’t know how I would have felt if I were the author of the book in that room last night, listening like a fly on the wall. I do know that as harsh as it may have been, I would have wanted to hear that before I published the book.
So here’s my idea of the day. I think it might be important for authors of books for children and young adults to spend time with children and young adults on a regular basis. I know there’s a creepiness factor to overcome – especially for male authors – but perhaps if authors helped establish and co-facilitate a regular book club at the schools in their area they’d have access to unfiltered opinions and gain a greater sense of what does and doesn’t work in the field.
And publishers and editors? Here’s one for you. Ask your authors if they’d be willing to help establish a book group at their local schools. Be willing to provide the group with galleys and ARCs of titles to be released and have the authors collect that feedback. The authors get an opportunity to work with the audience and you get fabulous raw data from the front lines about the market and what isn’t working.
And once again, my mini rant for those out there who haven’t heard: middle grade students want more mystery and they want more speculative fiction. They don’t want cute super-sleuth kids and they don’t want aliens and they don’t want secret agents or super-evil bad guys. They want human mysteries, they want science fiction that engages their heart and their mind, they want to see stories of kids facing the very real perils they face, and they want to see how others solve their problems. The want a message but not message-only books.
Oh, and they’d like realistic fiction to be set during a period of time that they were alive. They complain about having to read stories set in “ancient times” like the 40s and 50s. Last night these kids, who were in kindergarten during 9/11, expressed a fascination with what was going on in this country immediately following. They get the horror and they understand the war (to the extent that any of us can) but they don’t understand the smaller stories, about the personal effect on the curtailment of rights and freedoms; they don’t understand the situation in Sudan and Darfur and how the US responded (or failed to respond); they don’t know the stories of hate crimes in this country and abroad; they don’t understand fears or the basis of those fears over illegal immigration or the need for homeland security. And they want to know these things, they just don’t want to have to wade through crappy fiction to learn it.
That’s what I learned last night.