October 2, 2012 by Heidi
I love Middle Grade literature for the same reasons that these authors love writing it. When you are that age, every book has the opportunity to change who you are. When you love a book, you really love it–you’ll read it over and over again, and if you don’t like it you’ll just put it down. The books I fell for when I was a Middle Grade reader remain some of my favorites to this day, and as such, I still read quite a bit of what is written for this age group. I feel like reading Middle Grade captures a bit of the magic that was being a child, along with the stress and heartache of some of the hardest years of my life.
This past Sunday I was fortunate enough to be able to attend this lovely event at Books of Wonder in Manhattan featuring Newberry Medal and Honor authors Shannon Hale, Avi, Ann M. Martin, Richard Peck, and Rebecca Stead. Did your head just explode at that line up? If it didn’t, I feel sorry for whatever went wrong in your reading childhood. But–it’s not too late! Each and every one of these authors has written critically acclaimed (and in my personal opinion, wonderful) books that withstand the test of time and transcend age. Pick one up as an adult, or share one with your own kids, you won’t regret it.
Shannon Hale has just published what I believe to be her 8th work for Middle Grade readers (she also writes for other age groups–like the lovely Austenland for adults), Palace of Stone, a sequel to Princess Academy. She revealed that her first book event was also at Books of Wonder, where she debuted alongside Christopher Paolini (who everyone cared about) and Suzanne Collins (who no one knew…yet). She confessed that she was hesitant to write a sequel to her Newberry winning book because so many fans had made their own predictions about the futures of the Princess Academy characters–she didn’t want to take that away from fans. But, she loves writing books that seem tricky or difficult, and so Palace of Stone eventually fell into place.
Richard Peck was unexpectedly delightful and hilarious. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never read any of his books! I can say the same for Rebecca Stead, but as she’s only published 3 books while Peck has published dozens and was doing so when I was young, it’s quite embarrassing. I will certainly be rectifying this! Richard claims that he writes each book six times. He doesn’t outline because it would give him too much authority, and if a character isn’t comping up with unexpected words and phrases halfway through–they must be put to death.
Rebecca Stead described her writing process as akin to walking blindfolded off a cliff, and made a mental note never to have to follow Richard Peck again. She and Shannon Hale also joked that they felt like such frauds sitting there with all of these authors they deemed truly great, but of course the other three were lovely toward them.
Avi, who was the first author I ever met at the Wyoming Young Authors banquet something like 17 years ago, was wonderful. He was early and went around talking to young readers he saw with his books, which made me incredibly happy. I still have my beloved signed copy of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and his new historical fiction, Sophia’s War sounds wonderful.
Also–can we just acknowledge that I got to meet the author of the freaking Baby Sitters Club?! I realize Ann M. Martin has critically ‘better’ books, but since BSC were the ones I read as a kid, I was more than a little excited by this fact.
Of course, after each of the authors introduced themselves and talked a little about their books, the evening got to my favorite part of any event–questions! Many of these were posed by Middle Grade readers in attendance, which I love:
The Newberry is equivalent to an Academy Award for books–how did winning affect you?
Avi — Stated that the Newberry Award was a gift, to which all of the other authors emphatically agreed. He said that his first thought when he won the medal was ‘Oh, God! The next one better be good.’ Although, his first thought upon winning the honor was ‘Oh good, they’re going to have to read the next one.’
Ann M. Martin — She agreed that it made it hard to write the next book, but said that after winning she began to think of characters differently and to look for stories in different places.
Richard Peck — Joked about how when he won he began receiving a number of letters saying ‘I just read your first book’…the book that had won was his 30th. Some of these letters were from librarians. *Gasp*
Rebecca Stead — Said it didn’t change the experience of her writing, but it did make her more self conscious. She doesn’t like to think about people reading her work when she’s writing it. She also stated that along with being a gift, the award has little to do with actually writing.
Shannon Hale — Equated it to Tolkein’s short story, The Smith of Wootton Major, in which a cake was served with a piece of star in one piece. The child who ate that piece would get a star on their forehead that would grant them favor throughout their lives–but they didn’t do anything special–they just showed up for the cake. Shannon feels like she just showed up for the cake, but as a result gets all of these amazing experiences.
Why did you decide to write for a Middle Grade audience?
Avi — They’re the best readers. They’re very discerning and there is no debate.
Ann M. Martin — It just seemed like the most natural voice for her, and there is such an opportunity for working in a variety of genres.
Richard Peck — He actually began as a YA author–he was a high school teacher for many years. When he transferred to Middle School, he felt as if there weren’t as many good books for that age group to read, and he also feels as if teachers and librarians are better about promoting Middle Grade literature both in and out of the classroom.
Rebecca Stead — She feels like with Middle Grade readers, she can do anything and they’re right there with her. She feels that children this age are curious, open-minded, and able. She was deeply inspired by reading at that age, and also feels her strongest memories come from that time.
Shannon Hale — Simply stated that that is the age when stories meant the most. I couldn’t agree more.
If you could only pick one of your books to have been published what would it be?
Avi and Shannon Hale both said they would choose whatever book they’re currently working on (they’re always in love with what they’re writing).
Ann M. Martin — A Corner of the Universe (her Newberry Honor winning book).
Richard Peck — The River Between Us (He says emphatically that it is his best book).
Rebecca Stead — When You Reach Me (Her Newberry Medal winning book).
Dessert Island Book:
Avi — The Wind in the Willows and/or Great Expectations
Ann M. Martin — To Kill a Mockingbird
Richard Peck — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Rebecca Stead — To Kill a Mockingbird and/or So Long, See You Tomorrow
Shannon Hale — The collected Calvin and Hobbes
I kind of love that all of them chose books that feature young characters.
Each of the authors weighed in on inspiration, which came from reading, parents, and life experiences, and they also discussed reading for fun vs. reading in the classroom. The authors seemed in agreement that reading is a very personal experience, and they hope to find a balance between reading for fun and being analytic. They wish that more of the creative process were taught in school and that kids could learn to love books and reading without the pressure to learn something specific.
All in all, it was a wonderful afternoon and I am overjoyed that I was able to attend. It was great to see so many young readers there, but also nice to see so many my own age who haven’t quite gotten over their love of Middle Grade literature–and hopefully never will.