Secret Life of an Expat: This Writer’s Basics
a blogumn by Gudrun Cram-Drach
To prepare myself for my own “middle grade” novel rewrite, I’ve been studying the genre. Middle grade is the level below young adult, and from what I’ve learned, it is a short-ish, chapter book that doesn’t have sex or bad violence in it, and it could feature talking animals. A child may read a middle grade novel alone, or have it read to them.
Even during the years that I wasn’t a big fan of kids, I was always a big fan of fiction written for kids. I can’t say how many times I’ve read or listened to Harry Potter (it’s perfect background noise for long days of animation production when all I have to do is draw the same character over and over again). The same goes for the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (of which, The Golden Compass is book one). Both of these series start in a rather innocent place, I might say that the first 3 Harry Potter books are middle grade, then when people start dying and snogging, it moves into the young adult genre. The Pullman books are rather on the edge too, depending on how you feel about their content.
Every time I visit my parents, I search the house for favorite books from my own youth. Off the top of my head, I remember adoring Stuart Little, and The Trumpet and the Swan, both by E.B. White, and The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden. The latter of which I recently reread.
The Cricket in Times Square was originally published in 1960, and my 1980 edition is yellowed with a brittle binding. I had vaguely recalled that there were a few Chinese men in the story, but had forgotten the heavy racial stereotyping. “I Sai Fong,” “You got clicket?” “Oh, velly good!” Regardless, the story of a mouse, a cat, and a cricket hanging out in a newspaper stand in Times Square is beyond adorable. The book is still in print, and there is a companion book on how to use it in the classroom.I’m currently reading the 1952 Newbury Medal winner Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes. It’s about a small town family who acquires a puppy, purchased by the kids who earn a whole dollar polishing the pews in church. There is a lot of God talk, and it’s rather long by current standards. Many of its extra pages seem to recount the daydreams of the kids, which have little to do with the actual plot of the story. I wonder if a present day editor would not have cut some of that.
When I first started hanging out with M’s kids, I brought them a few Maine classics, one of which might be my favorite book of all time, One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey.
This book, also published in 1952, dips below middle grade fiction and is a very wordy picture book. It is the story of a girl named Sal who lives in a coastal town in Maine. Sal gets up in the morning, puts on her bathrobe and slippers, and realizes with horror that she has a loose tooth. Her mom explains she’s a big girl and she will lose all her teeth and big ones will grow in, then she tells everyone she meets about her loose tooth, including her little sister, her mom, a loon, a seal, her dad, then the tooth falls out and into a muddy hole from which her father had been digging clams. They can’t find it, but Sal still has the gap in her mouth to show off. They go into town and she tells everybody she meets that she lost a tooth, and they are all interested and admiring.
I don’t know why I love this story so much (perhaps I could try to decode it, like a dream), and I don’t know how it stirs an abstract memory of the same emotion it gave me when I was little, but it does. Maybe it’s McCloskey’s drawings (he also wrote and drew the perhaps better known Make Way for Ducklings), maybe it’s how excited little Sal is about becoming a big girl and losing a tooth. I wanted to be grown up so bad. Now I just want to be little again.
Does anyone have any favorite books from childhood that they would recommend?