Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Laugh and Cry Like A Nine-Year-Old

By Vonna Carter, @VonnaCarter

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome Vonna Carter to the blog today to teach us all how to be childish. This is a very undervalued skill, believe me, especially if you happen to write for children. If you don't write for the younger readers, then you can still learn how to tap into your inner child to make your stories stronger.
The books Vonna read between the ages of eight and fourteen opened windows to fantastic worlds. Now she writes books her eight-to-fourteen-year-old self would have loved—stories of magic, mystery, humor and love.

To find an agent who would be an ideal match for her writing, Vonna compiled a list of conferences where agents who represented middle grade literature, young adult literature, and picture books would be speaking. She made a similar list for editors. Happily, Vonna found her perfect agent—Kristen Miller of D4EO Literary Agency. But to help others find their agent or editor, Vonna posts the Agents at Conferences and Editors at Conferences lists on her blog, VonnaCarter.com, and updates them throughout the year.

Take it away Vonna...

While sitting in the school cafeteria with my son when he was in second grade, I overheard a boy at the table bragging about how far he could jump—he supposed it was about a mile. The boys at this table seemed to take this comment in stride. They saw nothing odd about someone being able to jump a mile. Oh, they probably knew it was impossible, but so what? They wanted to believe their friend could jump a mile.

The kid was telling a good story.

This is what I love about writing for the younger end of middle grade—kids this age are willing to believe the unbelievable for the sake of fun.

Laughing is fun, but crying can be fun, too. Even being scared can be fun, especially when you’re pretty sure the thing scaring you isn’t real. Remember when you were eight, nine, or ten years old? During those times, what scared you at night?

My fears were mostly teenager-induced. An obnoxious older cousin planted the worry that a severed green hand lurked beneath my bed, ready to strangle me as soon as I fell asleep. Another beastly older cousin terrorized me with tales of a witch who inhabited their fireplace, saying if they lit a fire in it, she would awaken and put curses on us.The teenage girl next door claimed she was a werewolf. I could totally believe that! The girl had a Jekyll and Hyde personality, so being a werewolf explained a lot. Plus, I knew she sneaked out at night.And from my own imagination came a variation of monsters in the closet—goats. Slaughtered, and hanging upside down. Clothes, of course, but I swear they looked like goats. I shared a room with my (older) sister, and this was her side of the closet. I kept my side closed.

Remember what made you cry?

This age is beyond crying for simple disappointments, like not getting ice cream at birthday parties because you’re allergic to milk. (Yes, that was me in the Picture Book and Early Reader years). Middle Grade is the age of lavish sentimentality.

Any disaster that befell an animal was cause for tears. My friends and I held funerals for dead birds we’d found. Seriously, we’d weep. When I was ten my class went to see Of Mice and Men. I—and just about every other girl in my class—cried when the little dog got killed. When the dog came out to take a bow with the other actors, we cheered with wild abandon, squealing and hugging each other.

I had dozens of pets which I hid at the homes of kids whose parents weren’t as jaded with the whole pet thing as my parents. But eventually, the cats, dogs, rodents and reptiles got sent to my house as other parents grew weary with my menagerie. Then the inevitable, terrible, bad thing would happen—my parents would find a home for these creatures far, far away. I kept mementos—assorted feathers, dog tags, and locks of fur. I cried every time I looked into my animal memory box. I did this a lot when I was bored.

Friends moving away. While this was truly sad, it also provided the opportunity to wallow in sentimental reflection. For each friend who left, or who I’d had to leave behind at camp, I bought special stationery. We’d write fervently for a few weeks, then we’d just send each other stickers or pictures we’d cut out of magazines until we no longer had anything in common. Then I would gaze at my souvenirs of lost friendship and yearn. Friends were often more noble in retrospect.

What made you laugh? Silliness!

I remember being at my friend’s house that had a hallway with waxed wood floors. We discovered that by getting his little sister (who was still in training pants) to sit on her padded bottom and hold her feet in the air, we could slide her down the hall. With him at one end and me at the other, we’d get the pre-schooler in position then give her a big shove. As Missy rocketed down the hall, we’d shout, “Go, Missy, Go! Bite your toe!” Then all three of us would laugh so hard we’d collapse. Lame, you say? Wrong! HILARIOUS!

Teasing each other about who loved who was always a hoot—until the boy your friends were teasing you about spoiled the game by announcing that he truly loved you. What a kill-joy.

Testing out our super powers—like jumping a mile—was a daily exercise. When a kid tried on a new pair of athletic shoes, who didn’t race down the aisle of the store to see how fast he could go? Who didn’t try to see how high she could jump? Every kid liked to think he was strong for his age. We proudly wore “muscle shirts” to show off our nine-year-old biceps.

Middle Grade is exuberant. These kids have more of a filter than younger children; they know when they’ve gone out of bounds. But their filters are still far less restrictive than those of Young Adults. Middle Graders’ emotions are barely under the surface. They like to feel their hearts race with delicious fear, they enjoy mourning over sweet, sad memories and most of all, they love to laugh. Humor is King.

Whatever the emotion is that I am trying to convey in a Middle Grade novel, the key is to make it BIG--angry is furious, sad is devastated, embarrassed is mortified. And love is so big it can swallow the universe.


  1. Hahaha, I love this post! Those years aren't that far behind for me still.

    I can remember sobbing over Elsie Dinsmore--she led such a hard life! What kept me awake at night were the Mines of Moria. I was ten when I read the Fellowship of the Ring for the first time, and the drums in the deep stuck with me.

  2. Oh, what a wonderful post! It captures everything wonderful about that age, and the melodrama. Oh, the melodrama :) Fantastic :)

  3. Yes, the sheer exuberance is what makes the middle grade years so special! You almost feel like maybe that little boy really could jump a mile. I loved all the specific examples. Great post, Vonna!

  4. Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, and make 'em never want to put the book down.
    Tall order, but we're taking it. Thanks, Vonna.

  5. Rachel6, it took me most of my teen years to make it through The Lord Of The Rings because it gave me such nightmares I had to stop and hide the books from myself!
    Wen, some people don't get the fun of melodrama, but at that age, it was golden!
    Ruth, I still know that kid, now a teenager who carries a skateboard everywhere. I think he's still working on that jump!
    Mirka, it is indeed a tall order, but so worth it!
    I'm so glad each of you stopped by!

  6. What a fun post, Vonna! Oh, the drama of the middle grade years--makes great fodder for novels!

  7. Thanks, Lynne!

    And Janice, thank you so much for inviting me to be on your incredible blog today!