This last Saturday, June 4th, I spent a glorious day at the Shoreline SCBWI 13th Annual Conference in Doe Boyle’s yard. The weather was perfect, the garden spectacular, the company wonderful, and the presenters inspiring.
The Shorelawn (as the conference is affectionately called) is Boyle’s brainchild. After attending an event where she was a speaker and unable to attend sessions of other speakers whom she wanted to hear (because their sessions conflicted with hers), she decided to take matters into her own hands. She invited folks whom she knew would have interesting things to say about children’s literature to come to her home and talk about topics she chose, and invited other folks to attend (provided they brought a lunch dish to share, and a lawn chair).
The results have been awe-inspiring. The conference quickly outgrew the confines of her house—which meant that for 5 years we met at libraries and schools because of the weather—but when, as on Saturday, weather permits, we still fit on her lawn. We continue to share lunch. And the speakers have never disappointed.
This year’s topic for the day: What Have I Written? An Exploration of Choices in Middle Grade and Young Adult Novels.
Boyle started with a challenge for the speakers: how can you tell if what you have written is middle grade fiction, or young adult, or perhaps even adult fiction? Here are a few nuggets from their responses:
- Adam Gidwitz suggested that we should know our readers, literally. Also, kids get what they’re ready for. An innuendo that will make 6th graders gasp may go over the head of a 3rd grader.
- Rob Buyea challenged us to take risks. If our work is distinct it’ll stand out. He also told us to take Richard Peck’s wisdom to heart: you’re only as good as your first sentence.
- Ann Haywood Leal reminded us that some 12-years old are YA, and some are still solidly middle grade. If you can’t read your book aloud with your parents sitting next to you, then there’s a good chance that it’s YA. A middle grader still has a certain innocence in their longing.
- Michaela MacColl talked about writing books that she wanted to read as a kid. Whether her historical fictions about famous people become YA or middle grade depend in large part upon the age she chooses for the individual she is writing about.
- Carah O’Brien emphasized how important it is to write to please yourself. If you don’t like the writing, then what are you doing it for? In writing YA, you can write about sex without being carnal, can use violence as a tool (rather than gratuitously), and although profanity can feel more authentic to a reader, it’s also possible to use clean language while writing about harrowing subjects.