Friday, February 1, 2013

Middle Grade Fiction- Fun or Functional?

As I've been writing the "Currently Untitled but Previously Referred to Story- Edge", I've been researching middle grade fiction and reading a good deal of it too. As a parent, I feel it's important to have my characters evolve for the better, to learn lessons and do what good children should. But, will that appeal to my readers?
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Middle Grade fiction is characterized by younger protagonists (they are geared toward 7-12 year olds, thus the heroes need to be someone they can relate to), and typically, the themes revolve around the how the character fits into their world. Often, the stories are somewhat shorter in length, in the 45-50,000 word range  but I find that this is not a hard and fast rule. I've read many stories that are just as long as a typical novel and some of the books in the MG section are pretty darn thick! But, does there need to be a moral to the story built into the theme? Can there be a good MG story that doesn't teach the reader something?

Of course, there are cartoons that seem completely void of life lessons. Though it cracks me up, Spongebob Squarepants is one that comes to mind. The oddities of daily life are entertaining but not built to teach the observer anything. Basically, they're like junk food for the brain.
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Then there's the cartoons like Thundercats (I'm old) and even some of the newer versions of My Little Ponies, or the Carebears, that though they entertain, there's an element of good over evil or right v. wrong involved and the characters learn lessons though the hardships they face. In the Ben 10 cartoons, Ben fights aliens and saves the earth but also learns about relationships, loves and idolizes his Grandfather, and constantly struggles with his arrogance. Both types are popular with kids, but with the parents, are they equal? Not in my house. Some "junk food" shows are banned because the themes are more destructive than entertaining and teach my kids to call each other rude (though perceived as hilarious) names, and laugh uproariously at disgusting things like boogers, farts, and poop. (not that I can't appreciate the humor, but you know, sometimes we have to go into public.)

The "MOM" in me knows that it's better to have my characters face challenges, make choices, and survive the consequences so that over time they become better, more confident, considerate, empathetic people. Can I do that without getting on a pulpit? Can I accomplish an entertaining story that feels good to kids and parents alike? There's a fine line between lassoing the human condition, our need to be accepted, loved, and trusted, and preaching these ideals like I do in real life, when I feel my kids are veering off course. After all, I don't always want to be the person wagging my finger and looking over the rim of my glasses.

There is a way to do this. If we focus on the story and the story is something universally true, then we add a hero we can relate to- imperfect but who answers the call for adventure, and we make their journey a difficult one but one that ultimately causes them to learn something about themselves and the world, we can entertain our readers and sneak in a life lesson to boot. It's not impossible, but it's not easy either. But whoever said that being a writer was?

The next thing I'm wondering about....does it have to be a "Hollywood Ending?"
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