Why I Write Upper Middle Grade

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Flash back four years ago. My daughter was ten, an avid reader and seeking her next book. She wanted something different. She and I didn’t know what it was called at the time, but what she wanted was an “issue book”—a book that deals with a real world issue that she could discuss with her friends and, if I was lucky, she might discuss with me.

As a full-time lawyer who was already transitioning between careers to become a writer, I thought it would be easy to find what she was looking for. Wow, was I wrong!

The kinds of social justice books she wanted, whether historical or contemporary, were few and far between. It was easy to find what she was seeking over in the YA section, but as a parent, I didn’t think she was quite ready for some of the content. I didn’t want her love of reading to fizzle because of a lack of books, so I ended up previewing the YA books before handing them over to her. Now, to be honest, I love children’s literature, so this wasn’t really a trying task for me. But most parents don’t have the time or desire to pre-read all the books their kids read, and they shouldn’t have to.

Fast-forward a few years when my agent called, asking if I would consider writing for the upper middle-grade market. My first reaction: What upper middle-grade market? Did I really want to put my heart into a book when no publisher would want it?

But my agent followed-up with an explanation: Sonali Fry, the publisher of a new middle-grade imprint, Yellow Jacket, wanted to make a concerted effort to focus on that upper middle-grade category (ages 10-14; grades 4-9). Lucky for me, Sonali was also extremely interested in learning more about an unexplored topic in middle-grade books—polygamous communities.

Yes, I can hear your laughter. Polygamy and middle-grade? Believe me, I laughed, too, when I thought HOW on earth can I write about this topic for the middle-grade audience, even a so-called “upper middle-grade audience?”

And then, I thought about it a little longer. My background is in Religious Studies, so I already had the knowledge base to write the book (though I did update my research). More importantly, I started to ask myself questions. How would I think if I was born into one of these communities, and it was the only life I’d known? How would I feel about the rules being imposed on me as a girl and on my sisters and my mothers? How would I perceive the privileges and expectations placed on my father and brothers? And finally, would this be a book my daughter would want to read?

I soon realized I wasn’t really writing a book about polygamy; the community was only the setting. Instead, THE PROPHET CALLS explores female empowerment, the importance of family and questions of faith. In other words, it’s exactly the type of book my daughter had wanted.

As of late, my publisher is not the only one that has realized this previously unmet need for older middle-grade books. I’ve been so fortunate to debut with other authors who are also wrestling with important themes for this category of readers.

For example, PEASPROUT CHEN, FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD by Henry Lien is a futuristic fantasy that explores the politics of culture and identity. EVERY SHINY THING by Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen is a contemporary realistic story that examines a friendship between a girl who occasionally has to take on the role of parent and another who struggles with shoplifting. LEGENDS OF THE LOST CAUSES by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester is a western fantasy that delves into feelings of vengeance versus justice in the wake of the death of a loved one. And these are only a few of the fantastic books publishers have designated for ages 10-14 in 2018!

Four years ago, I could only hope to find books specifically written for my upper middle-grade reader on the shelves. I’m so happy these books now exist and, if you ask for recommendations, I’ll excitedly point out the numerous titles that are as diverse and wonderful as their authors. From what I’m hearing, educators and booksellers and parents have welcomed this overdue addition. And most important (to me at least), my daughter thinks it’s pretty cool, too.

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Melanie Sumrow received her undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and has maintained a long-term interest in studying world religions. Before becoming a writer, Melanie worked as a lawyer for more than 16 years, with many of her cases involving children and teens. THE PROPHET CALLS is her debut novel.

2 thoughts on “Why I Write Upper Middle Grade

  1. I just ordered this book and am really looking forward to reading it. I was wondering how you handled a subject like polygamy. I think upper middle grade books are a wonderful venue for exploring some of the issues that kids are exposed to and/or are experiencing themselves these days.

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  2. Congrats! This is on my TBR list (the line for review copies at #kidlitexchange is intense). The issue of religious abuse is underexplored (or rather under-discussed) in our society as a whole, and I’m so glad there’s finally a book that tackles it. 🥳

    Like

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