Remember when you were in middle grade? For some writers, it wasn’t all that long ago but for many of us it’s been decades. K.L. Going is one of those authors who understands the middle grade audience and creates characters with authentic voices. We asked her about her success.
Middle Grade Mafia: Recently, you wrote an article for Writer’s Digest that summarized the physical and emotional traits of the tween. Can you tell us what makes a good MG character?
K.L. Going: I think about characters in books for children and teens the same way I think about any character – they need to be active, interesting, and unique. Whether the character is a kid, an adult, or a talking animal, they need to have something about them that pulls the audience into their story. Sometimes that’s a fabulous voice, sometimes it’s a fascinating or funny quirk, and other times it’s a plot element that makes them sympathetic, inviting the reader to empathize. These facets of character are true for any age or genre. What makes middle grade characters unique is their level of life experience and the ability that gives them to experience wonder, surprise, awe, and even disillusionment (after all, most books revolve around conflict). I love those qualities in young people and it’s fun to explore them.
MGM: In your WD article, you mention avoiding stereotypes when developing characters, yet middle schoolers seem to like putting people into categories. How do you avoid this?
K.L. Going: I don’t always avoid stereotypes. In fact, there are a few select times when stereotypes can be useful for an author, such as when a background character needs to make an impression on the audience but they don’t have dialogue or much time on the page. That said, when it comes to important, developed characters I try very hard to avoid stereotypes. There’s nothing worse than reading a novel where you feel like you’ve seen a certain character a hundred times before, and of course we need to be sensitive to stereotypes that are detrimental to others. Just because kids like putting people into categories doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge their perceptions.
MGM: Congratulations on your new middle grade novel Pieces of Why to be released in September which has already received wonderful reviews. Can you tell us how you came up with the main character, Tia?
K.L. Going: Tia’s character actually began years ago in a fragment of writing I’d put into a document on my computer but never had the time to develop. (I do that a lot!) I wrote the scene where she sings and imagines her song floating into the air like colored scarves. When I reread that fragment of writing years later, I still liked it, and felt that Tia had a lot of the qualities I need in a character. I liked her voice and the unique talent she has for gospel singing, and as I began to imagine her life I saw that she’d be easy to sympathize with… As I expanded upon that original scene I got to know Tia better and better, and found that she had a hard life, but a strong inner core that would enable her to prevail.
MGM: The novel takes place in New Orleans, how were you able to portray this setting so authentically?
K.L. Going: I lived in New Orleans for almost three years in a neighborhood exactly like the one I portray Tia living in. More important, I fell in love with the city. This enabled me to combine practical knowledge with the kind of passion that makes creating setting an act of joy.
I should also mention that I sang in a gospel choir in college, and this helped me to create the scenes where Tia sings with the Rainbow Choir. When you’ve experienced what your character is experiencing, it really helps to bring small details to light.
MGM: Can you think of some other books that have really authentic middle grade characters?
K.L. Going: I have so many favorites! Here are a few middle grade books with authentic characters I love…
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Ida B by Katherine Hannigan
Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins
The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath
I also love the Make Lemonade series by Virginia Euwer Wolff. Although that one crosses over into YA, I think some middle grade readers would love these books as well.
For more great writing tips and inspiration sign-up for K.L. Going’s mailing list at K.L. Going, Facebook is www.facebook.com/klgoing and Twitter is @KLGoing
“Skillfully tackles topics of race, class, and violence in a moving testament to family and friendship, love and loss, and the power of forgiveness.”—Publishers Weekly
“A tender, accomplished story about the coming-of-age of a girl whose good intentions are challenged by uncertainties and her efforts to do what is right, even when that’s frightening and painful.”—Booklist
See more tips on writing from other writers today at www.lisalewistyre.com.