I teach a class at Portland State University called “Publishing for Middle Grade & Young Adults.” I can’t believe I get paid to teach it because it’s way too much fun to be work, really. I, and a small group of publishing grad students, read 18 middle grade and young adult titles in 10 weeks: old classics like Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies, along with spanking brand new titles that are either massively critically acclaimed (therefore working for that adult audience/filter) or massively popular (therefore bypassing the critical adult filters). As we work our way through several feet of stories, we discuss what gives them staying power or makes them so damned popular. We pick apart the writing as we learn good editing practices, we pick apart the covers as we learn good design, and we pick apart the websites and marketing campaigns as we learn how to generate buzz and sales.
Useful to children’s book writers? Well, I think so. When I’m critiquing a manuscript and find a particular issue, I will often (if not always) recommend some great books and authors to check out who have wrestled with and possibly conquered the same challenge. YA sex scene not as hot as you want it? Check out Graceling or Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Want to write boy characters that really resonate with boy readers? Time for some Neal Schusterman. Wonder if your unlikeable narrator will turn readers off? Try Feed or anything by M.T. Anderson to see how it’s done.
Here are the books we read last term (2011) and what children’s book writers might glean from them:
1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
Historical fiction that is still engaging to teens more than 50 years later. It’s also a good example of a narrator who is much younger than the intended audience, but still works.
2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)
Wonderful example of historical fiction that is not at all boring. Also a unique narrator to look at: Death. And the Grim Reaper is funny, even in a story set in Germany during WWII. How does Zusak do it?
3. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)
It’s amazing how fun and creative his middle grade fantasy still reads. And what a main character! That Dorothy is a heroine for the ages.
4. The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi (2010)
Without Dorothy there would be no Eva Nine. This is a great example of a middle grade fantasy with a girl main character that BOYS still enjoy reading (hint: as my 10-year-old son explained, “She’s not a girly girl, Mom”). How DO you convince those finicky boys to read “girl” stories? Here’s a great example. The story has so many elements that boys are looking for: lots of action, short chapters, cool monsters, weapons and battles, spaceships… And a girl narrator. Ha!
5. The Candidates by Inara Scott
This is a local YA author who came to our class to talk about her very interesting publishing experience for her first two books. She was first published by Hyperion, but is now moving to an e-book publisher. We discussed the pros and cons of each experience.
6. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)
Why is this series so phenomenally popular? Especially with boys, when they hate Twilight? It’s another great example of a heroine who appeals to boys, and a storyline that contains romance but doesn’t turn off boy readers (50% of the potential audience, after all). Great action, and great example of a dystopian theme that resonates with teens right now.
7. Graceling by Kristin Cashore (2008)
Okay, I’m a sucker for fabulous heroines (still not enough of them in kid lit, if you ask me). And Katsa is my all-time favorite. Deadly assassin with a heart of gold. This is also a great book to read for writing sex scenes. The author has an excellent blog post on this topic as well.
8. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green& David Levithan (2011)
Thinking about co-writing a book with another author using alternating POVs? Can it be done? Check this one out. Green and Levithan, YA gods, go toe to toe. Also a great example of where lgbt YA lit is at right now. And funny as hell.
9. before I fall by Lauren Oliver (2010)
A heartbreaking, amazing bully story with an unlikeable narrator and a brilliant plot structure: it’s Groundhog Day meets Mean Girls.
10. Feed by M.T. Anderson (2002)
The granddaddy of dystopian YA, truly creepy future, and another unlikeable narrator. M.T. Anderson is also a great “boy book” author (quirky boys, that is) and has a truly unique author “voice.”
11. Unwind by Neal Schusterman (2007)
Schusterman is also a master of boy books, how to write palatable romance scenes for boys, and unnerving dystopian scenarios. Also fantastic website.
12. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (2005)
I know there are a lot of haters out there, but you gotta read it. You can’t understand what’s happening now in YA if you don’t read Twilight. Plus, it has one of the best, hookiest first pages I’ve ever read. Ever. And funny, conflict-laden dialogue all the way through. And who can write a non-sex sex scene that gets the pulse pounding like Meyers? NO ONE!
13. I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (2010)
Okay, we read this one just to learn about James Frey’s “YA Factory” (which is how this book/movie was created). Disturbing, fascinating story in The Wall Street Journal. The book is a hack job, but boys LOVE is. Why? Action, action, action. Aliens. Weapons. Hot girls that want you. Lots of boy fantasies here.
14. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (1971)
The grandmother of the “drug novel.” You wouldn’t have Crank without Alice. Does it still hold up for today’s teens? Not really. But it’s still heavily banned, which means teens still seek it out. Also a good example of diary format. And some well-written drug trip descriptions. Not to mention a time trip to the good old seventies.
15. Crank by Ellen Hopkins (2004)
A drug novel writen in free verse? Could that ever work? Yes, and it could sell millions of copies and launch a YA brand. Hopkins is a masterful poet and each page is a tiny work of art.
16. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (Book 1) by Art Spiegelman (1986)
Graphic novels are the fastest growing YA genre. This book is where it all started. With its publication and subsequent Pulitzer Prize (!), graphic novels finally started getting the literary recognition they deserved. Now they are winning all the literary awards. A novel about the Holocaust with cats as the Nazis and rats as the Jews? And it works beautifully! So much to learn from Spiegelman about panel layout and how to convey meaning and emotion through simple illustration.
17. Amulet (Book 1) by Kazu Kibuishi (2008)
This is probably the most popular middle grade graphic novel series right now and it’s easy to see why. Another example of a female protagonist in a series that appeals strongly to boys. Like WondLa, it’s loaded with action, aliens, magic, weapons, monsters… everything those boys want. Plus a butt-kicking girl for the girl readers.
18. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Year 1) by J.K. Rowling (1998)
What can I say? Harry Potter changed everything in middle grade and YA literature. How they are written, how they are sold… everything. And why are they SO beloved by millions and millions of readers? I could write pages, but it’s worth rereading that first book to see how Rowling does dialogue, world building, chapter endings, and tension. She is a true master and worth studying.