Listening is a skill.
We’ve all met someone who actively, purposefully listens. Not everyone does this. It’s not innate. It’s a skill honed and practiced and used with deftness. It’s a magician’s trick, because it makes the one being listened to feel valued and cherished. Except it’s not a trick. It’s the real thing.
(Bear with me, this will circle around to Middle Grade lit; I promise).
I’m a teacher by trade. Last week, I read the picture book THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS by Robert Munsch to my kiddos. While I read, I didn’t show the illustrations, but it was their job to listen and draw. When finished, I looked at each of their drawings and noticed that one child had a dragon inside a cave–a cave that was colored entirely blue (to be clear, there’s nothing *blue* in the text). When I asked the illustrator why the cave had ended up blue (also to be clear, I’d assumed they’d scribble scrabbled blue just for kicks; we’ve had problems with this of late) they said, “The cave is blue, because the dragon’s favorite color is blue, so the dragon painted the cave blue.”
(I’m getting closer to my point; hold on.)
Often, Middle Grade lit is mentioned as sitting at the kids table. There are two reasons people find this worth mentioning. First, that it’s terribly easy to equate the silliness of childhood with childhood itself as being silly. Second, that it’s a joke.
Humor and the telling of jokes is filled with power dynamics and social constructs and a way for “in-groups” to push people to the outside. This is what happens: at some point, people graduate from the kids table at holiday to the adult table, and when we look back at the kids table (or worse yet, oh horrors–if we have to return and sit at the kids table ourselves), it’s done so with shame or embarrassment or eye-rolling laughter.
Do we see how easy it is to turn “childhood” into “childish” into “silly and unimportant”? How easy it is to turn childhood into a joke? The punchline of a joke. Better yet, do we think kids don’t notice?
(Here we go; this next part is my main thought. See, I promised I’d come to books eventually.)
Middle Grade literature is not talking to children, or talking at children, or talking around children. This is what adults tend to do to kids. We talk to them, or at them, or around them. But Middle Grade literature is none of these things; at least, it shouldn’t be. Rather, kidslit is talking with children.
And when MG is at its finest, it’s listening.
At its heart, Middle Grade lit is authors listening to children. It’s the moment adults bend down, look children in the eye, and listen respectfully to their logic (that dragon’s cave was blue for a reason), their lives, their experiences, the way they value relationships and act within friendships, and the deeply held needs and desires they have. And we do not, not ever, treat childhood itself as a joke.
As Middle Grade authors, it’s our job to make the decision to listen, and also to find value in what our audience has to say. With every book we write, I hope our readers know that always, always we’re listening.
Juliana Brandt is a Middle Grade fantasy author represented by Natalie Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency. When not writing about strange and dreamy magic, she teaches Kindergarten and hikes in the mountains of Appalachia. She has mentored other writers through Pitch Wars since 2014. You can connect with Juliana on Twitter at @julianalbrandt and on her website http://julianalbrandt.com