Monday, October 3, 2011

Voices You Should Hear: Tami Lewis Brown

Kidlit writers are some of the nicest people on the planet. And one of my favorite people in the kidlit world is Tami Lewis Brown

Tami is not only sweet and generous, she's also talented. Her middle grade debut novel, The Map of Me, is outstanding - I predict that it will be read and loved and rewarded. Tami has written a wonderful blog post for me, and I'm proud to bring it to you.

Middle grade novels and their protagonists come in every flavor—Nancy Drew to Artemis Fowl to India Opal Buloni. Eight to twelve year olds want to be entertained with fun light reads, but kids who love to read also want to dive into a book that touches their budding emotional lives. They yearn to explore horizons beyond home and school and a serious middle grade novel can chart the way.

Eight to twelve-year-olds are fluent readers and the books written for them are windows into the great big outside world, perhaps offering them a taste before they explore that territory for themselves. Middle grade books offer entertainment—no nine-year-old will sit still for a boring book—but they can also serve up complex emotion and writing every bit as sophisticated as YA or even adult novels.

But even though every adult was once a middle grade reader, grown-ups in our country seems to suffer from some kind of adult onset reading amnesia. Many adults believe middle grade books are simplistic. Easy to read. Even easier to write.

No way.

Try one of these passages on for size:

I come from a family with a lot of dead people . . . (Daddy) say “It’s not how you die that makes the important impression, Comfort; it’s how you live. 
                                                            Debbie Wiles’ EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS

When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved.
                                                            Carolyn Coman’s WHAT JAMIE SAW

There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road.
                                                            Kathi Appelt’s THE UNDERNEATH

The stories these books tell and the writing these writers use to tell it are every bit as sophisticated as any novel for older readers. Actually they’re even better because these writers fully respect their readers, often exposing them to difficult concepts and well-chosen words for the first time. Great middle grade authors put me in the mind of butterfly hunters as they catch elusive ideas with nets spun of prose, trapping tough concepts just long enough for young readers to observe and understand truths.

I wrote about hard ideas in THE MAP OF ME—exploring tough subjects with images and language middle grade readers relate to. One of my favorite bits is when the protagonist Margie pulls on her disapproving father’s jacket, symbolically taking on his feelings.

The jacket smelled of clove aftershave and the bacon-cheddar biscuits Daddy slipped in his pocket mornings he worked opening at the store. A whiff of ink from an old ballpoint that leaked in the pocket, its oily stink left along with the mark. Old Gold Filters he’d borrowed off Al and smoked behind the World of Tires. What Momma didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Soft and sad had worked into the jacket’s old plaid lining, leftover from a thousand days on Daddy’s back. Time and space were grooved into the corduroy. I pulled the front closed, tighter than the zipper, but I still didn’t feel warm.

But is the story of a girl who thinks she can’t do anything right, who can’t satisfy her father, who worries she’s run her mother off too heavy for middle grade readers? Is this really YA with a too young protagonist? Or even an adult novel in middle-grade disguise?

I don’t think so. Margie’s voice and experience are young. And young doesn’t mean dumb or blind to the world.

Obviously every reader has his or her own taste. No book is for everybody. But many middle grade readers know all about not measuring up. They don’t have to come from a family where a baby was thrown, or a pet cat dumped, or even a family with a whole lot of dead people to understand sadness and loss. And happiness and redemption, too. I’m so glad my job is writing those kinds of hard, true stories for people just learning about life.

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