Tuesday, January 01, 2013

New Year's Thoughts (Redux)

I'm deep into writing The House of Hades, so I won't be blogging as much, but I wanted to say Happy New Year to my readers and friends. I wish you all a wonderful 2013!

In case you missed it last year at this time, here's a longish post I did about a question I get a lot: "What age level do you write for?" As the post still captures my thoughts on the subject, I figured I'd share it again:

Happy New Year, Readers Young and Old

(originally posted Tuesday, January 03, 2012)

Here’s a New Year’s Greek mythology tie-in for you. Did you know that the tradition of Father Time with his toga and scythe giving up his place to the Baby New Year is based on the story of Kronos and Zeus? According to Bernard Evslin and other scholars, this is rooted in one version of the Titan War story (which I used in Percy Jackson) that states Zeus cut up Kronos with his own scythe when he took over the throne of the heavens. From this we get the image of the old king (Kronos = Old Year) with his scythe getting displaced by the baby (Zeus = New Year Baby). Over the centuries, we stopped focusing on the bloody aspects of Kronos getting cut up like his father before him, but it’s just another example of how Greek mythology is still with us.

In keeping with the New Year, thinking about youth and old age, I thought I’d address a question I get asked a lot: “Am I too old to enjoy your books?” I get many letters from readers in high school, college, or beyond who seem a little bashful to confess that they still like my middle grade books. At book signings, older teens and young adults will often say, “I’m sure I’m your oldest fan.”

To which I always reply: “No! And you’re not alone!”

In fact, at a recent event in Maine, a woman in her seventies came up to the signing table, after having waited in line quite a long time. She had no child with her, but that didn’t surprise me. I often have very patient, very dedicated grandparents waiting in line for their out-of-town grandkids.

“Hi!” I said. “Thanks for waiting! Would you like these signed to a grandchild?”

She gave me a brilliant smile. “No!” she said proudly. “These are for me! I love them!”

Here was a reader well outside my target audience who still found joy in books for kids, probably because -- like this author – she’d refused to grow up in all the right ways, by which I mean she retained a sense of wonder, a love for the absurdity and silliness of the world, and a hankering for an exciting story.

Her smile stays with me, because she was not at all ashamed of her taste in books. I love hearing from older readers like her! To answer the question they often ask: “Of course you are never too old for my books. If you enjoy them, please keep reading them! And you are not alone.”

Now, there is a corollary to this: If you don’t like middle grade books, it’s probably best you read something else. That sounds obvious, but sometimes readers expect my books to be something they are not. Sometimes, not often, an adult reader will complain that my stories seem childish, to which I can only reply, “Well, they’re written for children. So . . . yeah.” Whether you buy them physically or electronically, my books will be categorized in the kids’ book section. They are usually labeled ages 9-12 or 9 and up or something like that. I’m always happy if adults enjoy reading the books, but I’m not making any attempt to mask or market my work as something for adults (except, of course, for my private eye novels, which were written with an adult audience in mind).

Quite by design, I write for young readers. That doesn’t mean I try to write down to kids. Not at all. My prose hasn’t changed much since my adult mystery writing days, except for being curse-free. I write about very complex mythology that, frankly, adults find baffling even when the kids are following the details perfectly. But I do write with a middle grade sensibility. That’s just the sort of storytelling and the audience I know best. I write for the middle grades for the same reason I taught the middle grades so many years. I know those kids. I relate to them. I get their sense of humor and I understand what they’re looking for (I hope) in a story. Is that because I’m a big kid myself in many ways? You bet!

Some writers will say that they don’t have any audience in mind when they write. They write solely for themselves, or for posterity, or because they are driven internally to tell the story. That’s all fine and legitimate. But as a teacher, I always drove home one thing to my writing students: You must have a sense of audience. Who are you writing for? You can’t expect a business inquiry to be written the same as a letter to your friend. Nor should you expect a college physics textbook to be written the same way as a fairy tale book for elementary students. Audience, for this writer, is critically important. I would submit that it’s important to any writer. It’s a fundamental element of good communication. You should always be mindful and considerate of your audience.

Partly, my two sons are my audience. They hear the stories first. They are my beta testers and my best editors. But each time I write a book, I also imagine myself back in my middle school classroom. I imagine reading the story aloud to my fifth period class after lunch. If I can keep their attention – I mean all the kids, not just the A+ kids who will read anything I give them, but also reluctant kids in the back row – then I’ve done something right. I want all my students, and my readers, to be anxious for the next page. I want them to finish one book and long for the next. I want them, in short, to see reading as pleasurable.

I do this primarily by knowing my audience -- writing for them and to them. What does that mean? Writing with a strong plot, for one thing. Writing about characters that kids can relate to. Writing with humor and suspense to keep the pages turning. Writing as clearly as I can, so the sentence structure flows well when read aloud, and the prose becomes a smooth-running vehicle to deliver the story. And, like myths, my stories repeat familiar patterns – the hero’s quest, in particular.

As I’ve often said, these elements work just as well for adult readers, but books written for adult readers do not always translate the other way around. Writing for kids, in my opinion, is much more challenging than writing for adults. Kids do not have the patience for a story that meanders self-indulgently, glittering prose that leads nowhere, or a story that is drowning in what they see as superfluous detail. They want to care about the characters, to imagine themselves in the setting, and most of all they want something to happen.

I’m not saying all children’s books need explosions in every chapter . . . though I am quite fond of explosions. I love quieter books as well, but I tend to read children’s books with a teacher’s eye. I may love this, I ask myself, but will it work for kids? And again, I think of the class (and my readership) as a whole, not just the bookish kids, as much as I adore them.

By all means, we should challenge kids to read difficult texts as well, but the quieter or more complex the book, the better the teacher needs to be at guiding the students to appreciate and relate to the story. Sadly, students don’t always (or even usually) get this sort of support, especially the kids who need it the most.  I’ve done Shakespeare with middle schoolers many times with massive success, but it needs to be done with a great deal of contextual and experiential learning. I’d never hand a middle school kid Romeo and Juliet and say, “Here, read Act I. We’ll discuss it tomorrow in class.” To Kill a Mockingbird? Similar experience. And I’ll confess here – I never read To Kill a Mockingbird until I was a teacher. I fell in love with the book. It remains one of my all-time favorites. But I’m also aware that if I’d read the book when I was in middle school, I probably would’ve thought the same thing my son Patrick does, having just finished the novel in seventh grade: It’s okay, but there’s so much extraneous information! The story is so slow! Just because children are the protagonists does not make it a children’s book.

My point? I try to write for all kids, even the reluctant readers. I was a reluctant reader. I’m the father of two reluctant readers. My heart goes out to the kids who’ve never found a book they truly enjoyed, because I was one of those kids for a long time. My primary goal is to get those kids reading and loving to read. Does that mean I write for the lowest common denominator? Nope. The A+ students should love my books, too, if I’m doing my job right. In fact, I often hear from college kids who say they passed their undergraduate classics exams thanks to Percy Jackson.

But it does mean that I am always conscious of my audience, and I try to craft a story that will appeal to kids in the middle grades, roughly ages 9-12. Adults are welcome, but honestly, I’m not writing for them. Literature with a capital L? I love it; I’ve read everything from Chaucer to Faulkner and beyond; but I’m not interested in writing it. My writing heroes have always been the great populists – Mark Twain and Charles Dickens – who made no bones about the fact that they wrote for the masses. Dickens wanted his readers clamoring on the docks as they waited for the next installment of Little Dorrit to arrive by steamer. And as Twain remarked, “A classic is a book everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” Clearly, he understood kids, because this is exactly how they feel. Twain remembered being in Tom Sawyer’s shoes, staring longingly out the classroom window as the teacher lectured about some book that seemed completely irrelevant and boring. Speaking for myself: God forbid I ever write such a classic. I’d much rather write books that actual kids are excited to read.

So this is a long way of saying: All readers are welcome, whatever age. Just realize you are picking up a book for kids. If you don’t like that sort of story, no problem! There are many other wonderful books out there. But if you’re still a kid, whether you’re twelve or twenty or ninety, come on in! We’ve got monsters, silly jokes, magic, and cliffhanging, nail-biting, hero-challenging adventure aplenty.

Happy New Year to all my readers, young and old. I hope your year is filled with good reads!