I wrote a middle school book, not a middle grade book

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m convinced there’s an audience for my Stu Stories books. In fact–as I also previously noted–tall tales set in childhood have a long and distinguished legacy. (Note 1: if you’re interested in viewing a list of these books, the above-mentioned post should be simple enough to find; it’s been over two years since I started this website/blog, but in all that time I’ve only posted a handful of times. Note 2: saying books that aim to make kids laugh have a “long and distinguished legacy” is way too serious. It sounds as though I’m comparing Pippi Longstocking to, like, some sort of eminent scientist who discovered a planet. All I’m really trying to compare Pippi to is the prankster who tricked said astronomer into naming said planet Uranus.)

My faith in Stu’s (still mostly unrealized) audience isn’t only due to the number of similar books that are currently on their gazillionth edition. It also has to do with the age of the audience I’m targeting. While many of the books that inspired Stu are for third, fourth and fifth graders, Stu Stories is intended for a slightly older readership.

In other words, Pippi and The Great Brain are middle grade books; Stu is a middle school book.

This is, admittedly, part of the problem. When I talk to librarians and teachers and parents, they seem to have difficulty imagining a book explicitly for this particular age group. They’re aware of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, of course, and they realize a reluctant 7th grade reader might appreciate it along with the elementary age kids it’s actually aimed at, but it’s almost as if it never occurs to them that a series of (hopefully) funny stories could be for 7th graders by design.

In some ways, I expected this skepticism when I set out to write Stu Stories. In fact, it was specifically because I couldn’t find many (hopefully) funny short stories for 13-year-olds that I wrote them myself.

On the other hand, I’ve never been able to figure out why more authors aren’t writing these stories for these kids, or why more librarians and teachers aren’t asking for them. After all, I can’t think of an age group that loves short stories more than middle schoolers. When I was in 7th grade, the most popular teacher in our school was the one who told us the most stories. Kids couldn’t wait to go to his class to hear his next “real,” “true,” scary or funny (or both) “memory.” I put all those words in quotes because Mr. S told the stories as if they were actual recollections, even though most of them strained credibility–and we left his classroom debating whether or not to believe him, which is to say we left wanting to believe him so badly that we talked ourselves into doing exactly that.

When I became a summer camp counselor in high school and college, I re-told Mr. S’s stories and made up my own. They worked pretty well on everyone–all kids like stories–but it was the middle school campers who would lobby most energetically to hear them. Scary stories, for instance, were often too scary for younger campers, but for middle schoolers these stories inspired both snark and shushes, audible laughter and almost-as-audible gulps.

The camp had mandatory reading time; for 15 or 20 minutes after lunch, everyone was supposed to either read from a book on their own or have one read to them. It took me a few weeks to realize that getting read to aloud was’t just an elementary thing; if anything, my 7th and 8th graders were more hungry for story time, and more in need of it. Like me when I was their age, many of them had recently stopped enjoying books. Finding something to read on their own felt to them like homework. (They weren’t far off, of course; the whole purpose of making everyone read was so we could tell their parents that, at our camp, students wouldn’t slide backwards in their academics over the summer.) But if/when I could find the right read-aloud . . . well . . . WOW. They’d stop slouching or fidgeting. They’d tell each other to shut up so they could hear better. They’d ask, the next day, if we could read another chapter.

Unfortunately, it was difficult to sustain their interest because there simply weren’t many books they deemed both entertaining and, just as importantly, not beneath them. “Kids books” were instantly dismissed as patronizing. The all-time best read-aloud was a few chapters from Roald Dahl’s autobiography Boy. The middle school campers especially liked the scene where Dahl gets in a car accident as a boy and his nose is almost cut off, “hanging on only by a single small thread of skin.” Even Boy, though, could only keep their attention for so long.

When I became a middle school English teacher, I had all these memories of this exact age group getting swept up (or not) in stories. I remembered how crucial it was that these stories be short enough for one sitting but connected enough that students could ask for “another one.”  I also remembered a buddy of mine who relentlessly planned and executed classroom high jinks.

The truth is that I began telling Stu’s stories out loud to my classes because I noticed my students’ eyes glazing over and I couldn’t bear to have that happen in my class. English class was about more than learning to write a five-paragraph essay or use a semicolon; I needed them to know that. At its heart, English class was supposed to be more akin to story time than grammar time, and so I began, one story at a time, to tell them about this friend of mine who hid in podiums and wrote “anonymous” ransom notes demanding teachers’ candy and . . .

It worked.

Their eyes un-glazed.  They started reacting not only to these stories but to the rest of the class content as well. They said things like, “That can’t be true . . . can it?” and “You made that up . . . right?” and “You should write these stories down; you’d make like a million dollars.”

I took their advice. I wrote the stories down.

But I haven’t made a million bucks.

Yet.

I haven’t given up. I still believe that if I can convince librarians and teachers to give the book a shot, I won’t need to convince middle schoolers of anything. They’ll know right away that this book in their hands is written just for them.

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