November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Writing for the Middle Grades: A Roundtable with Birdsall, Stead, and Wilson

Kid lit authors Adam Gidwitz, Jeanne Birdsall, Elizabeth (Betsy) Bird, Rebecca Stead, and N.D. Wilson at the NYPL.

Earlier this month in New York City, authors Jeanne Birdsall, Rebecca Stead, and N.D. Wilson had lunch with librarians to informally discuss middle grade fiction. The authors joined the group ahead of the New York Public Library‘s Children’s Literary Salon Middle Grade: Surviving the YA Onslaught,” an event that also included Adam Gidwitz, author of In a Glass Grimmly (Dutton, 2012).

One of the many topics addressed by the writers was the ambiguity of just who is the middle grade reader.

“I think the middle grader is in that period of time where they’re moving away from identifying as just a family member, but they haven’t yet gotten identify as part of the peer group,” said Jeanne Birdsall, author of the Penderwicks (Knopf) series. “They’re learning to be individuals.”

Meanwhile, Newbery-winning author Rebecca Stead pondered, “Kids’ brains are unfolding rapidly, and there’s this golden moment where they’re so curious and intellectually able. They want to ask big questions and juggle plot puzzles and casts of characters.” And that’s what she gives them in her books; her most recent is Liar & Spy (Wendy Lamb, 2012).

And N.D. Wilson, author of the Ashtown Burials (Random House), amusingly recounted Birdsall’s definition of middle school readers as having the intelligence and none of the hormones.

Afterwards, School Library Journal followed up with the authors to talk more about their childhood literary inspirations, writing for the middle grades, and what they hope their books give to kids.

Middle-grade authors N.D. Wilson, Jeanne Birdsall and Rebecca Stead after a NYC luncheon with librarians.

What were your favorite books from your middle school years?

Jeanne Birdsall:
My favorite authors from my middle grade years (1960 through 1963) were E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, Noel Streatfeild, Mary Norton, and C. S. Lewis. These people wrote extremely well, and with intelligence and humor. (Not that Lewis was a barrel of laughs, but he taught me about honor and for that I’d forgive him anything.) Also important for me was how these authors insisted that siblings, indeed families, can be a good thing. Since this didn’t match my personal experience, their books gave me hope that a kinder, gentler world might possibly lie outside the walls of my own home.

Rebecca Stead:
In middle school I read a lot of science fiction—Robert Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, Ray Bradbury, comic books. I think escape was the name of the game.

N.D. Wilson:
The Lord of the Rings, especially The Two Towers, for typical boyhood escapist reasons [and] King Solomon’s Mines, because it made me realize how many stories were out there that I had yet to encounter. Also, every Tintin I could find because they were hard to get, deeply mysterious, and practically perfect in every way!

Is there a “trick” to being a middle school author?

Jeanne Birdsall:
There absolutely is a trick to being a middle grade writer. It’s all in the hair. If you don’t believe me, ask Laura Amy Schlitz, one of the best among us. Seriously? To write for children—of any age, not just MG readers—one must be able to feel the emotions of those children. As adults, we’ve learned that hurt fades, pain lessens, the joy we lose will be replaced by new joys, and the boy or girl who seemed at age eleven to be the only possible love forever and ever…wasn’t. Because children haven’t had time to gain this perspective, their emotions, good and bad, can be overwhelmingly intense. When writing for them, that’s where you start. Frankly, it can be uncomfortable.

Rebecca Stead:
No, sadly, if there are any tricks to writing (for middle-graders or anyone else), I have not discovered them. It’s just staying open, working hard, and a maintaining a willingness to revise.

N.D. Wilson:
Retaining the taste of a middle school reader. There are many, many books that I love across pretty much every genre and market, but middle grade adventure/fantasy is like my mama’s apple pie to my imagination. It’s where I find the deepest internal resonation.

In the NYPL literary salon, it was said during the discussion that “different books do different things.” What do yours do?

Jeanne Birdsall:
None of us can know what our books do, but only what we fervently hope they do. Here’s my wish list. Make children laugh. Give them comfort and hope, and temporary shelter. If they need assurance that all grown-ups aren’t bad, give that to them, too. Promote the idea that books are the best place to find every answer to every question, or at least attempts at such. And, maybe most important, encourage the belief that reading is a delightful way to spend your life, now, later, and on and on until the end.

Rebecca Stead:
I hope my books invite readers to enter and to be themselves, to draw their own conclusions. I often feel most like myself when I’m reading.

N.D. Wilson:
I aim high even though I’m unlikely to ever completely succeed. I hope that my books awaken a sense of wonder in my readers, a discovery that this world (our world) is a fantasy world, and an itch to explore and know as much of it as can be known by just one character living inside such a massive story.

NYPL’s salons are regularly scheduled events hosted by NYPL Youth Materials Specialist and School Library Journal blogger Elizabeth Bird. You can listen to this salon below.

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Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.



  1. ElisabethThunderberr (@saturdaynextup) says:

    Please can you send me some copies of ND Wilson book…Dragons Tooth and Drowned Vault!

    Thanks send info to my email……someone stole my ND Wilson book!



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