middle grade

Writing Tips

Writing About Difficult Topics for Kids

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The Secret Life of Sam (HarperCollins) in paperback 4/5/22.

I’ve written four middle grade novels, and three of them are about grief. Once, after a book signing, I overheard an amazing bookseller “pitching” my book to a parent: It’s beautifully written, but just so you know, it has a really sad ending. I get this “but” a lot from well-meaning adult gatekeepers who want to protect kids from anything that might be considered difficult or sad. According to them, kids have it tough enough, and exposing them to books about tough topics will only make it worse.

Here’s the thing: Real life is hard, even for kids. And kids who are dealing with grief, or homelessness, or mental health issues do not have the resources, skills, or power to tackle those things the way adults do. A child can’t seek grief counseling without the help of an adult. They can’t use their vast life experience to decide how to react to adversity, or how not to react. They don’t have the ability to choose their environment or the people in it.

But they do have access to books through schools and public libraries. Books can help equip kids for life and build resiliency, regardless of whether we’re talking about a contemporary realistic novel or an epic fantasy. The best middle grade stories reflect the lives of real kids. The characters in these books are messy, flawed, and ultimately relatable. Yes, the purpose is primarily to entertain, but readers also experience the journey alongside the protagonist, learning with them as they overcome obstacles, win battles, solve mysteries, or move toward a place of hope and understanding.

Real life is scarier than fiction

Middle grade novels can tackle almost any difficult topic, but they have one rule: They always end in a place of hope. The protagonist may not get what they wanted–especially if what they wanted was to rescue their dad from the afterlife like in my novel The Secret Life of Sam–but they always learn something about themselves that leaves them better equipped to face the world. And since readers are going on this journey too, they also leave better equipped to face an uncertain future.

Real life doesn’t work that way. Not every kid learns how to outwit their bully. Not every loss, of a pet or grandparent, ends with a moment of understanding and hope. Sometimes terrible things happen for no reason without any opportunity to grow or build meaning.

Stories can give kids a window into other lives, from humorous graphic novels to serious realistic fiction. Readers can see how a fictional character deals with a bully, or a pair of monstrous underpants, or a death in the family, and they can learn from that example. Maybe the character in the book did it all wrong, and after reading their story, readers can figure out ways to handle it better. Or maybe reading about a fictional kid experiencing grief and anger after the loss of a loved one doesn’t teach them any concrete lesson; it simply makes them feel less alone.

None of my novels are meant to be manuals on how to live a better life. My characters are just dealing with what life throws at them–from invisible skeletons to magical laptops–in the best way they know how. But sometimes just seeing someone else tackle a monster–whether fantastical or real–can help prepare readers for the actual scary things in life. And just because a book deals with grief in some way doesn’t mean that’s the entire story, or that the book was only written for kids who have lived through similar experiences.

First and foremost, authors want to tell good stories. That’s why I write, and my point isn’t that all kids should read so-called difficult books right now or else. My point is that we should stop writing off books that happen to touch on difficult topics because we’re afraid kids can’t handle them. Not only can kids handle these books, but these stories can help kids feel more confident when facing curve balls in real life.

Naming a monster takes away its power

A few years ago, I was searching through a box of old stuff and found a book I’d written in sixth grade. The Wednesday Mourning Club tells the story of five people who each lose someone they love and start a club to process their feelings.

I never lost a family member as a child, but like most kids I had lost beloved pets. Still, I didn’t consciously write that story to turn this terrifying, uncontrollable thing we call death into something manageable and meaningful. But, in retrospect, I can see how writing it helped me do just that.

My first two middle grade novels, both addressing death in different ways, had just released with Scholastic Press when I found The Wednesday Mourning Club. I had no memory of ever writing it, and I was stunned to find that I had been grappling with death and loss all those years ago. For me, the lesson was clear: Storytelling gives readers and creators power over difficult topics, even when we’re not consciously aware of it.

It’s the same reason why people gathered around campfires for centuries telling scary stories. The goal was not to give the listener nightmares, but to take power away from the monsters by putting them into narratives that we control. To show stories of bravery and love, fear and tragic loss, so that listeners can live these epic journeys and come away stronger, or wiser, or more empathetic than when they started.

Let’s try leaving out the “but”

The urge to shield kids from the worst parts of life is understandable, but restricting access to so-called difficult books isn’t the way to do it. Instead, let kids read widely and choose what stories interest them. If a book isn’t right for a young reader, they’ll put it down and try another one. Reading stories can help kids discover who they want to be in the world. They can live a day in another child’s shoes, gaining knowledge and insight from each obstacle the character faces.

Putting the “but” before books that touch on difficult topics is only limiting the insight young readers can gain. This isn’t about requiring certain books, but about allowing kids to choose which stories speak to them by presenting books without “buts” or caveats. I had never experienced a traumatic loss as a sixth grader, but I still needed better ways to understand death. Since I couldn’t find a story written for my age group way back in the Nineties, I wrote one.

Good stories are good stories, and kids deserve the opportunity to grow and broaden their minds within the safe space of a book. Let’s give them that opportunity and try leaving out the “but.”

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KIM VENTRELLA is the author of The Secret Life of Sam (HarperCollins), Hello, Future MeBone Hollow and  Skeleton Tree (Scholastic). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. The Secret Life of Sam was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2020. Bone Hollow was chosen as a Best Book for Kids 2019 by New York Public Library, and Skeleton Tree was nominated for the 2019 Carnegie Medal in the UK. For the latest updates, follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.

(Featured image by Johnny McClung from Unsplash)

Book News, Writer Interviews, Writing Tips

The Story Behind: Hello, Future Me (Part 2)

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HELLO, FUTURE ME tells the story of eleven-year-old June, a girl who tries to stop her parents’ divorce using her super planning skills, magic and a little help from her future self. Too bad magic has a way of going horribly, and hilariously, awry. June’s rollercoaster of emotions mirrors the turbulent path this story took from first draft to final product. In this edition of “The Story Behind,” I’ll focus on the writing journey that led to the publication of HELLO, FUTURE ME.

Sometimes, life stinks and there’s nothing we can do about it. But we keep going. And, hopefully, the stuff that seemed so terrible at first will start to feel a little less terrible over time..”

— June Day, from HELLO, FUTURE ME

This quote from June can definitely apply to writing. We all know the old saying: 90% of writing is revision. It’s true. We start with a crude sculpture and slowly mold it into something subtle, moving, magnificent. At least that’s the idea. But the revision process isn’t always that straightforward. Sometimes it’s not so much about whittling something crude down to a more refined form. It’s about building sculpture after sculpture until you finally realize the shape you’re trying to achieve, then starting from scratch with a fresh block of clay.

That’s what happened with HELLO, FUTURE ME. I wrote three complete versions of the story, each starting from a blank document, each informed and hopefully improved by the last. When I sat down for the third time, I had such a clear vision of what I wanted to write (the form I wanted the clay to take) that I wrote the draft in seven days. Now, I’m a fast writer, but that’s my fastest ever.

Why so many drafts? Why start from scratch when you could simply shave layers off your first attempt? Why would anyone put themselves through all that heartache?

Answer…they wouldn’t. Unless it just so happened to be their process, which they have learned to love and embrace over time, like me. Basically, I have no choice.

I can only truly understand a story when I experience it in narrative form, through writing it. Yes, I can create a beautiful outline with all the right beats and emotional touch-points. But when I sit down to write, it rarely stays the same. The characters veer off in new, more interesting directions, and I choose to follow them. I follow them because the paths I discover through prose are often more organic and emotionally honest than anything I could come up with in outlining mode. For me, the act of drafting gives me access to the wiser, more creative part of my brain, and so it pays to veer wildly off the path and see where it takes me.

That said, stories need shape and structure. That’s why my first one or two drafts (either partial or complete) often turn into narrative experiments. They allow me to feel the structure out using the most imaginative parts of my brain, but they don’t always lead to working stories. So I take what I’ve learned, all the wondrous discoveries, I open a fresh document and I put those discoveries into a brand new draft with both a clear vision and a working structure.

It makes sense to me. I’m not prescribing this method to anyone by any means. Even for me, every novel is different. Sometimes my wild first draft does end up largely staying the same through to the final version. But sometimes, like with HELLO, it’s a much more interesting and twisting ride.

Finding your voice.

One of the hardest parts of writing is finding your main character’s voice. In this case, it took three drafts before I found the real June Day, with her hopeful, determined, oh-so-totally enthusiastic outlook. In the end, she was the easiest character I’ve ever written, because she sounds exactly like me!

Well, she’s the voice in my head, mixed with some light Buffy-speak, plus about a zillion ounces of sugar and coffee. HELLO, FUTURE ME is also the only book I’ve published in first person, so it was especially important to find a funny, endearing, authentic voice. Wait…did I just call myself funny and endearing…um…technically, yes 🙂

It was especially fun writing three different versions of June: present, past and future. Future June was probably the most fun, because she’s so snarky and full of herself. Sigh. At times, it did feel like there were three versions of me, all chatting via IM, all getting super annoyed with each other.

What can I say? It’s the life of the writer.

If you have questions about the writing process, why not drop me a line in the comments? Or find me on social media and let’s chat!

Author photo

KIM VENTRELLA is the author of THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM (Fall 2020, HarperCollins), HELLO, FUTURE ME (Aug. 2020, Scholastic), BONE HOLLOW and SKELETON TREE. Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.

Book News, Writer Interviews, Writing Tips

The Story Behind: Hello, Future Me

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Books serve readers in so many ways: by providing escape, by inspiring imagination and creativity, by offering a framework for processing our own real-life experiences. My parents got divorced when I was two weeks old, or two months old (my mom can’t remember). Growing up with an absent parent, one I knew in name only, made it especially difficult to process what had happened. As far as I was concerned, nothing had happened. I had never known my family to be any different, so what was the big deal? That’s where books come in. They help us process and understand our lives in ways that seem closed off to us. They give us vocabulary and narrative frameworks that we can apply to our own situation.

HELLO, FUTURE ME tells the story of eleven-year-old June, a girl who tries to stop her parents’ divorce using her super planning skills, magic and a little help from her future self. My challenge with this story was to conjure up all the raw honesty I had never processed regarding my own situation, while adding light, humor, fantasy and sparkly magic. Rather than mirroring my own experience, the story became a way for me to explore how a break-up could go, if you infused it with imagination, kindness, empathy and hope. I wanted to be aspirational, while at the same time staying real and facing issues head-on.

Sometimes, life stinks and there’s nothing we can do about it. But we keep going. And, hopefully, the stuff that seemed so terrible at first will start to feel a little less terrible over time..”

— June Day, from HELLO, FUTURE ME

The novel isn’t autobiographical, but it did allow me to explore a side of my past I had previously ignored. Writing, for me, is always a process of self-discovery. I want to uncover and develop my hidden wells of emotion, hurt, love and loss, but with added touches of magic.

Crafting a cast of characters.

One of the most intriguing parts of writing is creating a brand new world full of rich, fully-developed characters. Even the people we only see on the page a few times need to feel real and rounded, and it’s a fun challenge to select just the right details.

Some of my favorite moments in the book involve June’s dad, a rough and tough biker/handyman with ALL the emotions. I loved writing the scenes where he and June are working on Honey Pie, his bike, and having tearful, breathless heart-to-hearts. And the moments where he breaks down, despite trying so hard to keep it together, and June is there for him with patience and a kind word.

June’s best friend, Calvin, was also super fun to write. The novel is written in first person from June’s perspective, but the reader still gets clued in pretty early on to Calvin’s secret crush…on June…his best friend…and his hilariously awkward attempts to reveal all. There’s one scene in particular that I won’t spoil, but let’s just say that Calvin’s attempt at using magic to woo June does NOT go well.

Another favorite side character may be kind of surprising: It’s June herself! Past and Future June, that is. When June’s dad gets her a second-hand laptop for her birthday, she’s thrilled, until she starts getting IM’s claiming to be from her future self. Future June is snarky, rude and so totally annoying! She treats present-day June like a baby and warns her NOT to interfere with her parents’ relationship, no matter what. Things get even more surreal when June meets her past self, giving her the opportunity to reevaluate her nostalgic view of her parents’ love story and ask, Where did things go wrong?

Writing the different versions of June proved to be an especially fun challenge. It allowed me to explore how we change and grow, how the stories we tell ourselves don’t always line up with reality and how, sometimes, making mistakes is the only way to move forward.

Imagining a brand new world.

June lives in the imaginary town of Tanglewood Crossing, somewhere near the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. Tanglewood claims to be the Bigfoot sighting capital of the world, and its quirky downtown features a hodgepodge of colorful shops, many with a Bigfoot theme. You can stop in The Friendly Bean for Merline’s famous scones, where you might see June and Calvin in the back booth plotting yet another elaborate scheme…with glitter…lots of glitter. If you’re feeling adventurous, join a group of tourists on one of the daily Bigfoot tours. The bright yellow bus features a giant foot on top, and you can buy hats or fanny packs to match!

In such an unexpected locale, it’s no real surprise when a new shop pops up, seemingly overnight.

This place looked like a magic shop and a fantasy unicorn tea party had gotten into a fight, and they’d both won.

–June from HELLO, FUTURE ME describing The Shop of Last Resort

Creating Tanglewood Crossing was definitely aspirational. I love exploring new places, especially tiny downtowns with old shops tucked away in dark corners. With Tanglewood, I was inspired by childhood trips to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, my love of colorful buildings and my desire to spend hours upon hours in coffee shops, the more unusual the better.

Don’t miss The Story Behind: Part 2!

In Part 2 of The Story Behind: Hello, Future Me, I’ll talk process. How did the story move from a proposal to the final draft? Hope you can join me!

Author photo

KIM VENTRELLA is the author of THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM (Fall 2020, HarperCollins), HELLO, FUTURE ME (Aug. 2020, Scholastic), BONE HOLLOW and SKELETON TREE. Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.