Back when I first started writing YA, I was still a young adult myself. I was seventeen when I began drafting the book that became What’s Left of Me, where the main characters were fifteen years old, and I never spent much time figuring out how a fifteen-year-old spoke, or acted, or thought, because I’d been one myself just two years back. Even as I got older and continued the Hybrid Chronicles, writing in a teenaged voice felt very natural. Maybe that just makes me a teenager stuck in a twenty-something’s body!
Slipping into a Middle Grade voice, however, took a little more work. By the time I started my first MG book, The Emperor’s Riddle, it had been a very long time since I was eleven years old. But that was the age of my protagonist, Mia, and I knew that I wanted Riddle to be a Middle Grade. So how to rediscover those preteen years and remember what it had been like?
On some level, of course, I remembered being eleven. In fact, I’m lucky enough to remember explicitly thinking to myself that The Golden Compass and Ender’s Game were the books that perfectly captured what it was like to be a child. What that says about my childhood is up to your interpretation haha.
But in general, I remembered that sense of feeling entirely grown up (I also remember being twelve and thinking that I’d hit my peak and was done “growing up.” Oh, my pure, innocent self), that frustration with adults who didn’t take me seriously, but at the same time, that pride in being a child, knowing that I was privy to a world that adults just didn’t know, couldn’t understand.
I poured a lot of those feelings into Riddle. And once I got started, it was surprisingly easy to slip into Mia’s mind. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to work with children a lot, and I always kept our interactions in mind, as well, as I molded Mia’s character. By the time I started drafting The Memory of Forgotten Things, I felt far more comfortable with the MG voice.
At the end of the day, the most important thing—the thing I’d always remembered while writing YA, but had needed to remind myself of when slipping into a new genre—was that characters are people foremost. Once I stopped worrying Does Sophia sound like a twelve year old? and focused more on capturing, as accurately and truthfully as I could, the thoughts and mannerisms of a girl with her life experiences, her priorities and wants and hurts and needs, everything flowed much better.
The worst thing a children’s book writer can do, I think, is to give children (and teens!) too little credit. To think that their internal worlds are simplistic, their thought processes nonsensical. Mia and Sophia sometimes focused on very different things than did the adults in their lives, but the things that mattered to them mattered to them with the same ferocity, the same depth.
Hopefully, as long as I can keep these principles in mind throughout the years, I will never feel “too old” to find my MG or YA voice. 🙂
What do you think? If you’re no longer in the YA or MG age range, what are some books that you remember thinking really captured the truth of those ages for you?
Julie here again. I want to thank Kat for being our guest on PubCrawl today, and for the generous giveaway she’s offering readers of the blog! To help celebrate the publication of her second MG novel, Kat is giving away one copy of each of her MG books! Enter the giveaway below. (US readers only.)
Kat Zhang loves traveling to places both real and fictional–the former allows for better souvenirs, but the latter allows for dragons, so it’s a tough pick. Her YA trilogy, the Hybrid Chronicles, is about a girl struggling to survive in an alternate universe where people are born with two souls, and one is doomed to disappear. Her first MG, The Emperor’s Riddle, is about long-lost treasure, a missing aunt, and a summer trip to China. The second, The Memory of Forgotten Things, is about strange memories, parallel universes, and solar eclipses. You can learn all about Kat at her site, or listen to her ramblings on Twitter.