September 21, 2017

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Lynda Mullaly Hunt On Connecting with the “Middle-Grade Psyche”

Lynda Mullaly Hunt is the author of several critically acclaimed novels, including One for the Murphys and Fish in a Tree, an SLJ Best Book of 2015. A former teacher, Hunt now writes full time and is actively involved in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Fans and educators are invited to a live webcast event with the author on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, 10:30 a.m.–11:30 a.m. ET.

Who were you as a middle-grade reader? What were some books that you liked because you saw yourself in them?

I think it’s human nature to avoid the things we find difficult. So, I entered sixth grade never having finished—or having owned—a book. My sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Christie, handed me Tales of linda mullaly hunta Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, and I read it—not because I had developed a love of reading, but because I had developed something I had never experienced before: a desire to please my teacher. Mr. Christie completely transformed my life that year. My second novel, Fish in a Tree, is a long, late thank you note to him.

That year, I pulled The Cay by Theodore Taylor off our school library shelf and decided to sign it out because I thought the cover was beautiful. I was completely hooked and read it about 20 times in a row. I think my guts saw myself but my brain hadn’t caught up yet. Philip, one of two main characters, is difficult to help. But no matter how difficult Philip becomes, adult Timothy meets him with kindness and understanding. As I read this as a sixth grader, I’m not sure how aware I was of the similarities between their relationship and my relationship with my teacher. But I do know reading that book helped me open up to Mr. Christie, and more importantly, accept help that I had previously turned away. In 2012, The New York Times published an article entitled “Your Brain on Fiction,” chronicling a study that proved that readers can learn things like empathy and compassion, grit and resilience, from reading fiction. I have to believe that some divine intervention brought me The Cay and Mr. Christie at the same time.

By the way, I must confess that The Cay was the first book I ever owned. I lied to both my librarian and my mother, telling them that I had lost it while keeping it stashed between my mattress and my box spring. Neither was happy with me, as it was a hardcover and expensive. I had to work off some of the money to pay for it. No regrets.

We’ve started to see more books that include cultural diversity. There is also a need for books about students whose diversity may be “invisible.” During your years in the classroom, what populations did you feel needed to be better represented in literature?

fish in a treeWell, I left the classroom over 20 years ago and children’s literature is a bit of a different world now than it was then, I think. As a teacher, I was always drawn to doing read-alouds that showed characters overcoming some sort of adversity or learning something new about themselves.

I enjoyed reading The Cay to my students, as well as books by Katherine Paterson and Patricia Reilly Giff. I so admire these two authors for their ability to deal with difficult topics authentically and “get it on the page.” They remain two of my favorite authors.

There certainly were loads of incredible books available before I left teaching, such as Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Holes by Louis Sachar, and The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. There were some that explored other cultures, such as Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, and My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier, which portrayed both sides of the Revolutionary War. However, many of the mainstream books for kids that were available then didn’t explore the layers of all of us that today’s books do.

Today, there are many more books that open a bigger world for kids who are looking for mirrors (and windows) to help understand their journey and their place in the world. These books build empathy for others and selves. I have met kids who had not heard of foster care or dyslexia and have learned to empathize with others’ struggles. I have heard from many, many kids who have learned to cut themselves a break by reading my books; I consider this to be the greatest gift of this author gig. It’s important for us all to remember that by avoiding difficult topics in children’s books, we do not eradicate the questions kids ask. We eradicate the answers.

In addition to letting children see themselves in books, it’s good for students to see people who are not just like them. Do you have some ideas about how teachers can help introduce these topics in the classroom? 

There are so many rich texts out there now that serve as windows for young readers. A class read- aloud, along with some honest discussion, can do wonders in this regard. I think the approach to these other cultures is important as well. Approaching these windows with kids with an, “Isn’t this cool? What else would you like to learn about this way of life/religion/culture/et cetera?” attitude is paramount. I do believe that the way to drive out fear about people who are different than our students is to foster curiosity and learning—and model it.

The way that children with learning differences and in foster care are treated at school and portrayed in literature change over time and vary from place to place. How do you keep this in mind and try to make your books timeless and universal?

As I wrote One for the Murphys, my primary focus was on authentic character development, as the mainone for the murphys character’s emotional journey was based on my own when I was young. (I was happy that I had created a book that portrays foster parents as a positive. I think they sometimes get a bad rap in the media.) I feel that in order to create books that are timeless and universal, books must tap into things that all of us humans have in common regardless of race, socioeconomic status, geographical location, interests, abilities, and so on. Humans of all ages want to be seen, want to be valued, want to belong. We want to feel like we can contribute, have a place, are loved. Think of the books you most loved decades ago. I would bet that these themes are an integral part of them all.

You now write full time. How do you maintain your connection to the middle-grade psyche as well as current problems facing students?

I actually started laughing when I read this question. For better or worse, I don’t seem to have any trouble connecting to the middle-grade psyche. I am blessed to write for the age group that I do. Sometimes these kids don’t get enough credit for how much they really understand about the human experience. Many of them are just learning to put words to those feelings. I love writing for this age group because they can wade into difficult topics and still be open enough to develop an understanding—or even change their minds about things.

It was at this age that I took a stand myself and proclaimed that, “I will have a happy life one day.” I had just begun to know myself enough that I could stand up to those who told me otherwise. Not with lofty speeches, but with a quiet knowing. It’s an age where we are trying to figure out who we are and who we will become. Some align with external expectations. Others step outside of them. There is so much potential and magic in being a part of helping kids make what can turn out to be life-changing realizations. And, believe me, they are making those realizations at this age. I’ve met many of them.

Students frequently struggle when working in groups, while adults seem to take a lot of comfort in not being alone when they are writing. You have a strong support group of other authors. Do you think it is possible to implement writing groups in schools? Have any tips for teachers and librarians?

Absolutely! So, the thing about writing is that it is a vulnerable act. It can feel a little like mining the deepest parts of yourself, handing it to a stranger, and asking what they think. Just because kids are kids doesn’t mean they don’t feel this way. I’ve run into many kids in my travels who are afraid to write and many more who are terrific writers but are afraid to share.

I’m a huge believer in setting an example. When it was time for my students to write, I would sit at an empty student desk (there for that very purpose) and I would write along with them. And let me tell you, my writing was pretty dismal, but I was reluctantly brave because I knew it was important to model for the kids. So I would stand, and I would read, and I would think aloud about the things I liked and didn’t like. And I was very laid-back about my failures. I have never had any trouble laughing at myself.

I think it’s vital that we model for kids that failure is not a negative. It is not something to be afraid of—it is merely a stepping stone on the path to success. Failing doesn’t make you a failure; staying down does.

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Karen Yingling About Karen Yingling

Karen Yingling is a middle school librarian from the Midwest. She blogs about and reviews children’s literature at msyinglingreads.blogspot.com.

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Comments

  1. Ali Earle Pichardo says:

    I have only been writing Middle Grade stories a short time. I was on the other side of foster care. My mom was a foster parent and foster children were brought to live with us. It taught me a lot about acceptance, empathy and love. The last paragraph I wrote in my quote book giving you the credit for writing it. I have always believed failure was a stepping stone to success. That helps me deal with all the rejections authors get. 😀 Thank you for great advice and insight to writing MG.

  2. Wonderful interview!

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