Today our guest is editor Gillian Levinson. Gillian edits books for young readers at the Razorbill imprint of the Penguin Young Readers Group. We wanted to talk to her because she’s an expert on Middle Grade Fiction, one of the Young Adult categories that is getting more and more popular within the Book Country workshop. Check out what she has to say about her work and its place within this fascinating genre.
LS: You are a passionate editor of Middle Grade Fiction at Razorbill, which to me says you are the perfect person to define for Book Country what “Middle Grade” really means. What’s your working definition?
GL: Well, technically, a middle-grade book is one for readers 8-12 years of age in which the protagonist of the story is also around that same age. One mistake that rookies often make is thinking that because children regularly read up, a novel’s protagonist can be quite a bit older than the target readership (say 14 or 15 years old). Unfortunately, however, that’s typically not how books are shelved in stores. If a particular novel’s protagonist is in high school, for instance, many stores will not stock that book in the Middle Grade section.
In terms of genre or subject matter, Middle Grade can really be anything, but all the best Middle Grade books give the reader a real sense of escape—it could be into a fantastical world or into a historical period or into the life of a child whose life experience feels somewhat removed from that of the reader—while integrating universal emotional experiences (e.g. wanting to belong, wanting others to heed one’s opinions, wanting to feel loved, etc.). Of course, the argument could be made that most great works of fiction, irrespective of target audience, offer that same combination of the personal and the unfamiliar, but in Middle Grade, it’s absolutely central.
LS: You also edit and acquire YA titles for Razorbill. What is the biggest difference in editing for a Middle Grade reader and a YA reader?
GL: I do edit both, though my list is more heavily Middle Grade. I think this has to do with the fact that, put simply, I was “better” at being an eight-year-old than I was at being a sixteen-year-old… but that’s another story. In any case, it seems to me that Middle Grade is arguably more voice and logic-dependent than YA; and any good editor of Middle Grade would do well to attend to these two features in particular. In my experience, a Middle Grade voice is just easier to get wrong—it’s tempting to be too cutesy, too precious, too falsely erudite, and sometimes even, too broad. Meanwhile, Middle Grade readers are generally the ones to read and re-read the same book over and over again. They’ll fixate on the way that pieces of a narrative fit together; and if the internal logic doesn’t hold up, they’re going to call you out on it. Commercial YA is, however, all about an author’s ability to capture an adolescent’s earnest sense of yearning. Whether the focus is on fitting in or righting some societal wrong or having scintillating sexcapades, I’d argue that in YA, the yearning is the key.
LS: How does your imprint work with libraries, schools, and parents? I would think that appealing to those audiences would be almost as important as to the Middle Grade reader themselves.
GL: You’re absolutely right. In Middle Grade, there are far more gatekeepers than in YA, and so we always need to be keeping them in mind. At Razorbill, we always ask our authors if they have any existing school and library contacts (and if they don’t, we gently suggest that they find some). Then, once that list is in place, we send galleys and finished books with personal notes from the author, editor, or publisher. We also attend conferences where we discuss our upcoming books with teachers and librarians (we always bring lots of fun swag to these), and we work with our authors to develop videos, discussion guides, and other materials that put their novels into perspective. Our School and Library department here at Penguin Young Readers is an enormous help with all of this, and they also assist authors in arranging classroom visits—both in person and via Skype in the Classroom. In addition, Penguin invites librarians to attend a preview event at our offices three times a year, where we discuss future titles that we think would be an especially strong fit for the school and library market. The thinking is that if we can get teachers and librarians excited about our books, then parents will follow. Of course, as in all areas of publishing, the importance of great marketing and publicity cannot be overstated.
LS: Give us some examples of Middle Grade books that you acquired or published in 2013, and tell us why you had to have them on your list.
GL: Now, this is the kind of thing that I LOVE to talk about! This fall we published THE FANTASTIC FAMILY WHIPPLE by Matthew Ward, which is about a family of world record breakers. I went wild for this one as soon as it came in because the novel’s circus-like world—where world-record breakers who accomplish zany feats are the greatest of celebrities—felt like the perfect amplification of our own culture of achievement as well as a way to do a fantasy novel without actually doing a fantasy novel (middle grade fantasy being a somewhat over-published area). In winter 2014, we’re publishing NIGHTINGALE’S NEST by Nikki Loftin and WANDERVILLE by Wendy McClure. These are two very different books, but they each have some very special ingredients. NIGHTINGALE’S NEST has soaring prose and really powerful emotional undercurrents. WANDERVILLE, meanwhile, fuses historical elements—including turn-of-the-century orphan trains—with children’s fantasies of making their own rules, the combination of which makes the book a true treasure. And finally, for Fall 2014, I’ve acquired the first in a super high concept series that’s not yet been announced, but it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In each of these cases, what sold me was the perfect integration of the two components that I named in the first question—escapism (be into a world dominated by world records or into a SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON-like self-engineered civilization) and universally recognizable feelings (i.e. of wanting to prove one’s worth; of wanting to find a home).
LS: What are three classic Middle Grade books you think every aspiring Middle Grade author should read?
GL: Oh, wow—this is kind of an impossible question. There are so many! At a minimum, I think that every aspiring author of Middle Grade should read some Roald Dahl (MATILDA being my personal favorite). He can teach writers so much about voice, but the trick is not to attempt to mimic him—so many individuals have tried and failed at this that by now it’s a futile enterprise before it even begins. To learn about world building, I’d suggest reading at least one of the Harry Potter books even if the writer in question is not interested in fantasy (which, to me, is the only acceptable reason for an aspiring writer of Middle Grade to not have read Harry Potter already). Also, reading Harry Potter can be educational in terms of identifying tropes for writers to avoid. That’s not to say I have anything against Harry Potter—let me now take the very uncontroversial step of stating that I’m a huge fan—but it is to suggest that it’s been so many years since the books hit the shelves that by this point much of what made them original has become standard for the industry. Still, though, while reading the Potter books, writers should ask themselves: Why did J.K. Rowling do X thing? Do I want to achieve the same goal? If so, how can I do so through other means? To take the easiest example from the series: Harry’s parents are dead. If a writer thinks to themselves about why this is the case, he or she might come to a variety of answers (i.e. Harry’s lack of parents forces him to grow up while keeping him humble and allowing him to get away with certain behaviors he might not have been able to had he had parental supervision); and therefore, that writer could potentially come up with an alternate way of imbuing their characters with autonomy without resorting to the dead-parents trope. Finally, I think that aspiring writers can learn a lot about writing for boys by reading HOLES by Louis Sachar.