Over the summer I had the (much belated) fortune of reading When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. I loved it! It’s that middle grade voice I’ve been attempting (quite unsuccessfully) to develop in my own writing. The main character, Miranda, defies the stereotype that middle grade characters lack complexity, and after reading this book, I knew I wanted to write an article exploring the notoriously tricky topic of voice in middle grade novels.
My initial research afforded me no more than a heap of redundant idioms, overused writing exercises, and commonplace advice arranged in neatly formatted lists with “ten-things-that-will-make-your-middle-grade-a-masterpiece” sort of titles. I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I thought to myself “why don’t I just ask Rebecca Stead to reveal her secret…?”
The problem was, Rebecca Stead is a Newberry Medal award winning author from New York, and I’m a nobody, freelance writer in Oregon. I knew it was a long shot, so with my “impressive credentials,” I went ahead and emailed her agent, and to my great delight (and surprise!), Rebecca kindly agreed to do the interview.
I hope you enjoy the bit of insight and wisdom I was able to glean from this talented and inspiring author:
As a novice writer experimenting with middle grade/young adult writing, I find myself continually asking what makes “voice” believable? Authentic? Engaging? Voice is the one thing that many editors feel they can’t fix – it’s too intrinsic to the art of writing itself, too personal. In my experience as a reader, it is particularly rare to find a female character I connect to in middle grade books– a character that I not only enjoy, but somehow awakens the 12 year old girl in me – the me that’s wise beyond my years but still stumbling around the mystery, confusion, and awkwardness of growing-up. Will you explain a little bit of your process with the development of Miranda, and particularly her strong voice?
Miranda’s voice came fairly easily, probably because I was drawing directly upon my memories of being eleven and twelve. Setting the story in the time and place of my growing up – New York City in the 1970s – gave me the freedom to steal from myself pretty openly. Miranda is not exactly a portrait of who I was as a kid, but she has a lot of the same questions and observations I had, and her physical world is very close to the one I remember.
When I think about voice in middle-grade and young-adult literature, here’s what comes into my head: M.T. Anderson’s Titus in Feed, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Isabel in Chains, Tim Tharp’s Sutter Keely in The Spectacular Now, and pretty much anything by Geraldine McCaughrean.
When I read these books, I’m excited because the voice tells me right off that there’s a lot I don’t know – about the character I’m with, about the place I’m in, about the situation that’s unfolding. Voice done this way is much more than a character – it’s the whole story. With every line, I’m getting glimpses of something rich and intricate, and it’s a delicious feeling. When a voice is created the way these authors are able to, there’s an immediacy and vividness that compels me to read. I want to give myself to the book.
One thing that’s changed over my life as a reader is that, when I was a kid, I really enjoyed discovering voices that felt like “me,” whereas now I much prefer voices that allow me access to something very different from my own interior life.
What is the most difficult/challenging thing about writing middle grade/YA novel?
Discovering the material. I don’t think that would change if I wrote for adults.
What is the most rewarding thing about writing middle grade/YA novels?
The freedom to ask big questions. At age eleven, I thought about unanswerable questions all the time. I thought about mortality, I thought about missed connections – what if this had happened? What if this hadn’t happened? I thought about who I would be at future points in my life, and whether I would in fact even be the same person. I thought about other paths my life might have taken, about the unknown people I would eventually love in my life and what they might be doing at that very moment. I don’t think I was a remotely unusual kid, however. Kids grapple with big stuff, and writing for kids allows me to tap that now-underused part of my brain.
You’ve talked about the influence of A WRINKLE IN TIME in your writing, what other books did you enjoy as a child?
So many books. Here’s what springs to mind: James Herriot’s vet books, Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind-Family books, Judy Blume’s books, Norma Klein’s Mom, the Wolfman and Me, Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Daddy Was a Number Runner, by Louise Meriwether.
Any current favorite middle grade/YA books that inspire you as an adult?
Again, so many! I’ve mentioned a few already. I’d add Hillary McKay’s Casson family books, Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, Louis Sachar’s Holes, Jerry Spinelli’s Wringer, David Almond’s Skellig and Kit’s Wilderness, Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard, Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief (and follow-ups), Kate DiCamillo’s Tiger Rising, Coe Booth’s Tyrell, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
All of these books affected me as a writer, along with hundreds I haven’t named.
Every writer has a tool box of “best practices” to make it through the commitment of a novel. What are some of yours?
I don’t have too many concrete writing practices other than sitting down to work – I don’t interview my characters, though I know it works beautifully for some people, and I don’t do writing exercises or write in a journal. I think I’m afraid to waste my writing energy on something that has no chance of being part of what I’m working on. That’s probably wrong-headed.
One thing I like to do is note a couple of passages in my work where the voice feels really right. These become touchstones. If later I’m struggling to find words, or I’ve rewritten something so many times that it feels dead on the page, I’ll go back and re-read a touchstone passage as a way of reconnecting with the voice I’m after.
My other tools: Fighting off that ever-present nagging sense of discouragement. Staying in touch with friends so that I don’t get too lonely. When I’m very lonely I don’t write well (and yet I can’t write with other people around). Also, taking the time to stop and write down any thought that occurs to me as I’m walking around. If I have to lean up against a building and scribble on a napkin, I do it, because the writing that comes in those “off-duty” moments often ends up telling me something important about the book I’m writing. (Or sometimes it’s just a piece of dialogue I’ve overheard that I’m weirdly attracted to.)
What advice would you give aspiring writers to craft a believable voice?
Read. Listen. Wait a little, if you want to. Let the voice gather force in your mind. But don’t wait forever.
And mostly, don’t be discouraged if it feels terrible for a while.
Many thanks to Rebecca Stead for agreeing to do this interview! If you have yet to read WHEN YOU REACH ME, I highly recommend it.
Happy writing everyone!