Kids are not as high-minded as adults. They can’t suffer through a thousand pages of literary fiction, watching everyone of importance die meaningful and moralistic deaths, and still call it a good book. Kids are not as low-minded as adults, either. They won’t settle for a cheesy romance plot, or bloody-fanged monsters chasing down screaming people in the dark. Kids are almost a species unto themselves.
One of the inescapable questions for every adult author turned middle grade is whether they find they must write differently for children than for adults. The infallible answer is no. No one finds writing for kids any different than writing for adults. At least, no one who knows kids.
If that’s the case, why does everyone keep wondering? And why would an obviously experienced author like John Grisham treat kids like idiots?
In the third book of the Theodore Boone series, Grisham suddenly switches from writing good plots with a good style to writing a sloppy plot with a ridiculous style. It was as if he decided that since he was writing for kids, they weren’t worth the effort.
The first two books in the Theodore Boone series weren’t bad, but they weren’t great, either. None of the suspense I’ve come to expect from Grisham was ever present. The character was a model student and a little Mary-Sue-ish. Nevertheless, the plots were okay and the style was smooth. I was okay with both of them.
The third book had several problems. First, the plot was sloppy. It got the main character into trouble ponderously, and even then, the threat was never real. There were three characters who were really against the main character– the rest were reluctantly introducing plot twists, wishing they could do anything but hurt this nice little boy. Of the three characters who disliked the main character, one was seen once. Two (the real antagonists) were seen… twice. They were unknown until very late in the story. The structure was terribly skewed. Once the main character started acting instead of reacting (always halfway through the story), everything worked out. There was no low point at all.
And that’s just the plot. The style was despicable. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Show, don’t tell.” I never knew quite how important it was until I read this.
Grisham obviously knows how to show instead of tell. He’s probably brilliant at it. Unfortunately, he decided merely showing wasn’t enough for stupid kids these days. He decided to show and tell at once.
“He frowned. He was unhappy.” “He nodded. He agreed with the idea.” “He shrugged. He didn’t know.”
That’s just… stupid. He’s showing body language and telling what that body language says at once. Kids can read body language too– they’re often better at it than adults. They know that when someone frowns, they’re unhappy. When they lean forward, they’re interested. When they sigh, they’re hesitant or whatever. (I can’t even describe the mood a sigh conveys.) Kids know this stuff just as well as adults do– there’s no reason to dumb it down.
However, all that is good for adults is not always good for kids. Excessive gore, mature subjects, moral quandaries– they won’t go for that. But that means content, not style or plot. The suspense can be just as great in a middle grade novel as in an adult thriller– the difference is whether the protagonist is being chased with a rusty knife or with a device that will tie their shoelaces together. The only difference is the content.
Imagine the Hunger Games without the killing. Take away the death, the bombs, the kissing. Make it about a team of people who are running around, trying to eliminate everyone else so they can take care of their families at home. What have you got? A pretty pathetic story, seeing as how it’s the same as any reality TV show today. The same idea cannot work with different elements– but that doesn’t mean a different idea can’t work with those different elements.
Adult writers are cheaters. They use presets. At that age, everyone knows how murder works, how romance works, how the world works. Kids are different. They think seriously about licking sharp knives, not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t know what will happen yet. Using that openness, you can introduce fantasy concepts no one else would buy because hey, anything could happen. They don’t realize that cars don’t fly– not because they’re stupid, but because they want to believe cars can fly. Kids are open in ways that adults can never be, and that’s both good and bad for middle grade writers.
As I said, kids will believe fantasy concepts more easily– but that doesn’t mean they won’t question them. They’ll question until their tongues fall off. You’ve got to be on top of everything, having figured out every possible thing they could ask before they ask it. You have to be smarter than they are, which is difficult because it means thinking like them.
Not only that, but since kids don’t have the presets that adults do, they don’t understand a few things. Yes, a person’s head was chopped off– does that mean they’re dead? No! What’s the use of fiction if people can’t come back to life? If the main character is being chased by an axe-wielding maniac, what’s the problem? They can just come back to life.
So middle grade authors have to use different techniques to generate sympathy and suspense. Rather than the loss of life, the loss of a prized possession; loss of an important friendship. These things can be regained, but kids know they don’t want to live for long without them.
Kids are as tricky to write for as adults are, or trickier. If you overanalyze them they’ll prove you wrong, and if you underestimate them they’ll disdain you. They aren’t stupid, and they definitely aren’t predictable. Treat them as adults when you can, but take the opportunities they give you to write better stories.