Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Parenting Problem in MG: #4 Sibling as the Parent

Welcome back, everyone who's been following along! If you're just joining us, we've been talking about ways to get the kids away from the parents / guardians when writing middle grade. Because it's only when you get the kid separated from those who would fix all the really big problems that the kid gets to do it themselves. And that's what kids really want to read about when they pick up a middle grade book-- they want to see kids just like them being capable and doing the hard things that save the day. So far, we've talked about The Orphan, about the Absent / Busy / Bad Parent, and about the Capable Parent / Capable Child. Today, we get to tackle a Sibling as the Parent!

Sibling as Parent


The parents are either deceased or otherwise unable to take care of the kids, so they are being raised by an older sibling.


I'm going to use a couple of movies / TV shows as the examples, because try as I might, I can't come up with good book examples. (I know they're out there, though! If you can think of any of them, please mention in the comments, and I'll get some book examples up here.)

So in Lilo, her parents have died, and her older sister is taking care of her. In Carly, her mom is deceased (I think... I'm not sure I've seen an episode where it has said.) and her dad is in the military and always gone. So she lives with her older brother.

  • Let's be honest: siblings generally don't keep as good of an eye on a kid as a parent does. They just don't. And voila! This makes for kids who have much more freedom to go off and be heroes than they would otherwise.
  • It adds an element of sibling dynamic that you don't usually get to explore. The sibling has to not only fill the role of the sibling, but also fill the role of parent, which gets things interesting.
  • Sibling parents tend to be over/underprotective on random and unpredictable things, making them flexible in both good and bad ways.
  • It's not overdone. (Ha! See above inability to list books... ;))
  • Coming up with a way to make the circumstances in which the kids would be being raised by a sibling believable can take a lot of work. 
On next Tuesday, we'll talk about parents who are missing entirely. Until then, have the most wonderful of Thanksgivings! I hope it's wonderful and glorious and filled with family and good times and pie.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Parenting Problem in MG: #3 Capable Parent / Capable Child

If you've missed it, we've been talking about how to get kids away from the adults who so want to solve all the big problems, so that the kids can be the ones to solve them all. (SOOOOO important in middle grade books!) We've talked about two of the most common methods for getting the kids separated from the parents / guardians: The Orphan and the Absent / Busy / Bad Parent.

Today, we're talking about one of my FAVORITES METHODS OF ALL TIME. The Capable Parent / Capable Kid. I think what made this one work its way into my alley of love was the TV show Kim Possible. (A.k.a. one of the greatest cartoons of all time.) Kim's mom is a brain surgeon. Her dad is a rocket scientist. They're smart. They're capable. And they're around a good deal of the time. So how do the writers get Kim away from her parents so that she can go save the day? By making her capable as well. Uberly capable, in fact. So much so that her parents can trust her to go fix all the problems, and still make it home in time to do her homework.


Consists of one or both parents (or even a guardian / guardians, such as grandparents, adoptive parents, etc.) who are capable caretakers. This works when the main character is also a capable child whom they can trust.


In Rump, Rump's grandmother is his caretaker. She is a good guardian, and trusts Rump. So when he goes off to find his destiny, it works. In Sky Jumpers, Hope has good parents. There's also a bad situation where she can help, so she goes off with her mom's (but not so much her dad's) blessing. In Kim, they trust her to go off, because they know it'll be okay.

  • It is a method not used as common, so there's a lot more room for uniqueness.
  • It can be nice to model good parents. It's something of a rarity.
  • Sadly, a lot of kids don't get to experience this in real life, so it adds an element of fantasy / wish fulfillment.
  • Teachers and parents appreciate when they aren't depicted as incompetent.
  • Extremely hard to pull off, especially repeatedly and especially if the book is more realistic. (I can speak to this firsthand! I got my capable character away from her capable parents just fine in book one. But repeating it gets more difficult-- especially if you're trying to do it in a way that doesn't make the parents / guardian or the child seem like they're making a bad decision, and without making the child defy the parents and sneak off, knowing that the capable parent has said no.)
  • You get less sympathy for the character in this area. Nobody is going to cry crocodile tears for your character who has caring adult figures in their lives.
Come on back tomorrow-- we'll talk about the fourth method: the Sibling as the Parent.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Parenting Problem in MG: #2 the Absent / Busy / Bad Parent

On Friday, we started talking about how to get the kids away from the parents in middle grade books, so that they kids can be the ones to really shine and do the do the hard things, without the responsible adults stepping in to do it for them. We already talked about having your character be an orphan. Today, let's talk about the parents (or parent-figures) in middle grade who.... well... aren't the best role models ever. Because let's face it-- it really helps when the parents are NEVER AROUND. (Haha! I just realized how that last sentence sounds if only read it and nothing else. Parents are awesome. Keep them around. Unless you're writing a book, of course. ;))

The Absent / Busy / Bad Parent

Usually characterized by a single parent, who is caught up in his/her own life, sometimes because of work, sometimes because of social. (Wicked Step-Mother also fits into this category.)

In Janitors, the MC's mom is a single parent who is gone a lot. In Ophelia, her father is in the middle of curating a display for a museum, and extremely busy with that over the course of the book. In Gregor, his mom is very sick, and his dad is busy trying to keep everything in order.

  • It's easy to get kids off on an adventure believably. Tons of kids come from single-parent homes where the parent is rather busy and gone a lot (or even double parent homes where they both work a lot), leaving kids free to go on whatever adventures / mischief they'd like. So it's not a stretch for kids to believe that the kids are off doing things on their own.
  • Many kids have parent(s) who fall into this category, so it's very relatable.
  • It can annoy the gatekeepers. Middle grade books get read out loud by teachers / parents / guardians / other adults quite a bit. And let's face it: we kind of get tired of the adults in the stories making us look bad.
  • It's been done a lot. So, just like with orphans that we discussed on Friday, it's a little more difficult to make it feel fresh and new.
Tune in tomorrow, when we'll discuss one of my favorites-- Capable Parent / Capable Kid!

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Parenting Problem in MG: #1 The Orphan

I think it's high time for some more posts on Writing Middle Grade! What say ye?

The biggest key thing in writing for a middle grade audience is LETTING THE KIDS SOLVE THE PROBLEM. Seriously. Issue nĂºmero uno. And sometimes that's easy. But sometimes.... not so much. Why? Because responsible adults wouldn't let the kids be the ones to go off and save the world / do the really dangerous things / tackle issues all by themselves. They step in and help. It's what we do.

So the trick is to get them away from the parents or other responsible adults in their lives. For however long is needed in the story for them to really solve the problem on their own.

How do we do that? Make them all orphans? After all, Roald Dahl said, "Kill the parents!"

And that is definitely one way. For the next 8 days (skipping weekends and Thanksgiving, of course!), I'll talk about the eight different methods you can use to separate the kids from the parents/guardians so that they can be the ones to save the day.

First up: Let's go the route of Roald Dahl's suggestions, and talk ORPHANS!

The Orphan


Parents are usually dead or missing, and the child is either being raised in an orphanage, a foster home, or by absent / unfit replacement parents.


In The Boxcar Children, the kids are orphaned and living by themselves in an abandoned boxcar, figuring out everything they need to survive. In The False Prince, Sage is living in an orphanage before he gets dragged into his adventure. In Harry Potter, Harry is an orphan living with mean relatives. All of them have lost their parents, and are trying to make it on their own.

  • The parents are conveniently out of the picture.
  • You get instant sympathy for your character.Who doesn't feel bad for a kid who doesn't have parents? We pretty much instantly root for any kid in this situation.
  • There's more at stake, since no one is coming to their rescue.When they don't have parents somewhere who care for them, there's no hope that they'll get saved by someone else.
  • Kids find the concept fascinating. Think about when you were a kid. You probably wondered several times what it would be like if you were an orphan, and had to do everything on your own-- and had the freedom to do whatever you wanted whenever you wanted.
  • Because having orphans as main characters is so prevalent, it makes it harder to feel more fresh and integral to the story.
  • To be able to function on their own, many times the character ends up thinking and acting like an adult, which creates a credibility gap.
Things to look out for:

Look at the reasons why you want to make your character an orphan. Is it integral to the plot? Is it so that you can force the character to grow up faster? To give them more responsibility? To leave them isolated and wounded and more vulnerable?

Or is it just a convenient way to get the parents out of the way?

It will be more compelling when there is a good reason for them to be parent-less.

Check in tomorrow, when we'll talk about the Absent/Busy/Bad parent. Until then, happy writing, all!

And if you live in Central Utah and want to get a jump on your Christmas shopping by getting SIGNED BOOKS (the best Christmas present ever, right? :)), I'll be hanging out with 10 other authors tonight at the Orem, UT Barnes and Noble. If you can, come by and say hi!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Favorite bedtime stories

Happy National Young Readers day!!

Casper Sleep is a new company that makes American made, ship to your door memory foam mattresses. They are celebrating National Young Readers Day by combining their two favorite things, comfortable beds and books. So....

Yaaaaaaawn, smack smack

...let’s talk favorite bedtime stories!

Mommy Mine (written by Tim Warnes, illustrated by Jane Chapman) was one of my kids’ favorites! It shows a bunch of different animal moms with their little animal babies– beautifully illustrated, and snuggling together. Not only is it sweet and gets kids calm and ready for bed, but it shows that every mom is different, and that your own mom is special and perfect for you.

Between the ages of about 1 and 8, My middle child was a HUGE dinosaur enthusiast. So we pretty much all turned into a dinosaur family (partly because it was impossible not to). Our very favorite picture books EVER is Saturday Night at the Dinosaur Stomp (written by Carol Diggory Shields, illustrated by Scott Nash). This book is so very much fun to read out loud! The words are fun and catchy and completely stand on their own, yet are brought to life so colorfully and fun (as evidenced by this awesome cover!). And, of course, at the end of the fun, the dinosaurs all fall fast asleep in the swamp (where they’re still asleep today). I love this book so very much.

And, because– dinosaurs!– another bedtime favorite was How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? (By Jane Yolen and Mark Teague.) The first half of the book shows what dinosaurs would look like throwing the same type of tantrums that toddlers/preschoolers do when it’s bedtime (which is hilarious!), then it shows how dinosaurs really fall asleep— like perfect little examples.

What are some of your favorite bedtime picture books?