Tag Archives: Aaron Starmer

Novellablog: On Swearing in Middle Grade and the Need for It (or Not)

I read three things this week that made me think this might be a post worth writing. One was Patrick Ness’s post in this year’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, in which he had to decide whether Far Far Away or Boxers and Saints would proceed to the next round. Full disclosure: I have not read either of these books, so I can’t comment on whether I agree or disagree on the points he made as they relate to these specific titles, but something he said that resonated with me was this: “I found the book false in the most objectionable way: the teenagers aren’t allowed to be real people.”

Fast forward to yesterday, when I finished reading Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman. Two points of full disclosure here: I consider Aaron a friend and the book’s very much about storytelling and its consequences, so I was probably somewhat predisposed to like the book. Not surprisingly, I loved it. But I also appreciated the fact that the characters who peopled it were painfully real, and full of the flaws and bizarre contradictions and oddball tensions and perceived inadequacies and irrational behaviors that kids aged 12, 13, and 14 are knit from. It so completely brought back the constant fear and tension and uncertainty that I remember acutely from those days, even now at age 37. These kids say things and do things that make me cringe, and that’s before the actual primary (and terrifying) plot gets going. That’s just life for these kids. And it feels true. The stakes feel high before anything even happens. But I’ll tell you what: this is a book that will put some people’s backs up, if they happen to pick it up thinking something like, “Oh, this looks like a nice creepy middle-grade romp.” And by some people, I mean some adults.

I don’t actually remember whether there was any particular use of salty language in The Riverman. There must have been; if not actual swearing, then certainly there were at least occasional discussions of the sorts of untoward subjects that almost-teenaged boys talk about. But let’s go back to Patrick Ness, who definitely called out the use of “zounds” rather than something harsher in Far Far Away as pulling him out of the story. Now, again, while Far Far Away is definitely on my TBR pile, I haven’t gotten to it yet, so I have no opinions on the author’s choice of expletive; this post is not about critiquing Mr. McNeal’s choices. (I am still really, really looking forward to finally reading Far Far Away.) And this is not to argue that every book for kids or teens needs to have heavy cursing, or even cursing at all, in it. Not every book does, which should hopefully be obvious. But when I read Mr. Ness’s comments, I thought immediately of an email I’d gotten from a teacher I’d asked to read a late draft of Bluecrowne when I needed fresh eyes, in which he’d more or less called me out for not letting my protagonist be a real person in a couple moments where I’d reined her in.

On Twitter I said that he’d told me Lucy Bluecrowne didn’t swear enough, but that’s not entirely true (that was my paraphrasing for amusement value). What he did was to point out a couple instances in which I’d pulled my punches when writing Lucy’s responses to things. This is a girl, he pointed out, who would know how to swear. (And boy, is that ever true.) I’d written a couple places where the idea that she wouldn’t have reacted with at least one sharp word was kind of unbelievable. He was kind enough not to put it that way, but he was right.

The challenge, I think, is this: write real kids. It can be put that simply, but it isn’t simple at all, and of course language is just one part of the elusive formula. For many writers who also happen to be adults, it’s easy to err on the side of writing kids either as we see them through our own (not always accurate and not always relevant) memories, or as we want to believe they are. Or, worst of all, we write gentler versions of our young characters because we’re afraid we’ll put people’s backs up if we don’t. 

Some stories are gentle, and this post is irrelevant to those books. Some books are about or for younger kids, and generally this post is irrelevant to those books, too. I’m not suggesting Charlotte’s Web would’ve been improved by some saltier language, I promise you; I’m pretty sure I left the hard stuff out of Greenglass House, for instance, because it just wasn’t called for. And softer language choices are only one way in which we, as writers, sometimes pull our punches. But when writing MG it’s important to challenge ourselves to write real kids, because we’re writing for real kids. It does get tricky sometimes when writing older MG, which sometimes walks the MG/YA line as if it were a tightrope and which sometimes makes adults uncomfortable in the same way kids of that age sometimes make adults uncomfortable. But it’s a challenge worth taking up.

Thoughts for a Thursday. Discuss?

 

Novellablog: Bluecrowne At the One Week Marker

One week down. 30% in the coffers. This is where we are: 40 backers have pledged $2445 towards our goal of $8000. It’s all so exciting! And so many wonderful friends are helping to spread the word through Twitter, Facebook, and their blogs. I can’t thank you all enough. Watching the numbers climb in these first days has been just amazing. You can take a look at the progress here at the Bluecrowne campaign page. As you’ll see, things are looking great, but we still have a long way to go. Original art is going fast, but there’s still time. There are also 3 copies remaining of Jaime Zollars’ signed Greenglass House cover prints. Remember how awesome the Greenglass House cover is? Here it is (picture it without my name and the title). Who doesn’t want that for their wall? I mean, really. I want one for my wall.

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So what am I, and the rest of the Bluecrowne team, up to during the campaign?

Well, I just turned in the first pass of Greenglass House. This was really exciting, because it’s the first set of editorial notes I’ve gotten since a pretty sizeable rewrite I did right before the Greenglass ARCs were printed. You might figure (and you’d be absolutely right) that my editor would never let ARCs go to press if she wasn’t happy with what I’d done. And yet it’s still an incredible relief to have the notes in your hand and see that they’re mostly about weird comma splices and places where you used the same word three times in two pages. Reviewing and approving and fixing all those edits took about a week and a half.

Meanwhile, Rachel is finishing up editing on Bluecrowne, and Miwako is finishing the titling for the cover, which she decided to hand-draft rather than use an existing font. It looks amazing, and I can’t wait to share the final front cover with you. My next task is to write the back text so that we can lock down the back cover; then it’ll be time to tackle Rachel’s notes and get the text locked, too. In the meantime, I have a few guest posts to tackle for blogs who are helping to pass the word about the Bluecrowne campaign.

I also have some prep to do for three upcoming appearances I couldn’t be more excited for.

On April 14 at McNally Jackson Books I’m honored to be helping, along with fellow author-booksellers Sarah Gerard, Carly Dashiell, Fiona Duncan, and Julie Carlisle, to launch Beth Steidle’s illustrated novel The Static Herd, which is being published this month by Calamari Press. Beth is an author, artist, and designer, and also one of the masterminds behind McNally Jackson’s Espresso Book Machine department. I couldn’t be more excited for Beth, or to be reading alongside the amazing women I’ll be joining. It’s going to be a totally varied group of readers–meaning, and I can’t stress this enough, it’s not a kids’ book event. (I, therefore, am going to have to really think about what I’m going to read. After all, as Madeleine L’Engle said, “If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Maybe Walker’s first appearance in The Broken Lands? Everybody likes a villain. Thoughts?) 

In May, I’m joining Aaron Starmer and Laurel Snyder at NESCBWI for a panel on 5/3 called The Blurry Space of Thirteen. This one’s going to be great, and we all think this is a topic that really needs more discussing in the kidlit world. Many of us get our backs up when younger kids’ books get referred to as YA, as if bookstores were shelving Charlotte’s Web alongside The Hunger Games and teachers, librarians, or authors recommending or writing them for the same readers. But even among the books classified as MG, there’s still a huge age range represented. We serve readers as young as 7 and 8 up to 13 and 14, and while we call this entire range middle-grade, these are very different kinds of readers. We’ll be discussing the need for tackling truly thorny issues in MG. I have high hopes for a truly great discussion.

Lastly, on May 17th at 4pm, in honor of the ABA’s Indies First Storytime day, I’m joining a group of 12 middle-grade authors for a dramatic reading from The Phantom Tollbooth at McNally Jackson Books. This is going to be wicked fun, and I hope many of you will come out to join us. The cast includes such luminaries as Adam Gidwitz, Michael Northrop, Natalie Standiford, Matthew Cody, Jeffrey Salane, Courtney Sheinmel, Kekla Magoon, Sophie Blackall, Claire LeGrand. Barbara Marcus of Random House Children’s Books will be narrating as well as moderating a discussion afterwards. Then we’ll all hang around and sign books. It’s going to be great.

Oh, and this weekend my sister and I are running a ten-mile race neither of us precisely trained for. The heckling from our husbands has already begun.

So that’s the report from Milford Command Central! Basically, yay for a great start, but the heavy lifting’s far from over. Thanks to the early supporters! Keep spreading the word, and let’s make this happen!

K