At a recent SCBWI conference, I had the pleasure of meeting editor Kaylan Adair from Candlewick Press. Her breakout session was rich with examples from books she has edited and how she helped the author discover more about their characters and conflicts that took the story to the next level. I also loved the way she defined the differences between MG and YA, something I have heard many times from a wide range of sources. Her insights and advice were too good not to have her visit us at Middle Grade Mafia.
Middle Grade Mafia: What was your path leading up to working at Candlewick?
Kaylan Adair: I was an English major in college and wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do with my degree — though I knew that I didn’t want to be a teacher or a journalist. A friend and fellow English major talked about being an editor one day and I remember thinking that that sounded so boring! Who wants to sit around correcting grammar and spelling mistakes all day? (Clearly I had no idea what an editor actually does. It’s the copyeditors and proofreaders who do that stuff — and I’ve come to admire and hugely appreciate the worthy and-not-at-all-boring work these folks do!) Anyway, my college encouraged us to apply for internships during the summer before our senior years and I couldn’t think of anything else, so I applied to editorial internships at the Big Six (at the time) publishers in NYC, as well as to one small, independent children’s publisher outside of Boston, whose internship posting I happened upon on Monster.com. (Wow, I’m really dating myself here!) I never heard back from the big publishers, but I got that internship at Barefoot Books and absolutely fell in love with children’s — and independent — publishing.
MGM: How does a MG character differ from those who are portrayed in YA and early readers/chapter books?
KA: The divisions between chapter books, MG, and YA are far from clear, but generally speaking, I think of chapter book characters as still inhabiting the world of childhood, where the grownups tend to have all the right answers and where there is a clear distinction between right and wrong. I think of YA characters as being in the process of moving fully into the adult world. They’re largely left to solve their own problems — and some of these problems are incredibly complex, with no clear right answer. Middle-grade characters, though, are setting foot in the adult world for the first time. In so doing, they are forced to confront the fact that the world is not the black-and-white, right-vs-wrong world of childhood but rather a complex, confounding, and often overwhelming blend of grays. Often middle-grade characters are realizing that everyone is flawed, themselves included, and that part of growing up is learning to accept those flaws. They may be able to retreat to the relative safety and simplicity of their childhoods by the end of their stories, but they are forever changed by their exposure to the adult world. It’s an amazing time — and one that is rich fodder for novels!
MGM: How can writers use this to create a richer, more authentic MC?
KA: As I said, I think there is a lot of drama and pathos inherent in the middle-grade experience, as your character is trying to apply the simplistic rules of childhood (right versus wrong, good versus bad) to the complicated, morally ambiguous adult world. The middle-grade character is realizing her own limitations, as well as those of her parents, teachers, and friends, which can be a scary thing. As you write your middle-grade character, try to imagine what it would feel like to suddenly have the laws that have governed your life be upended, to have the people you’ve always counted on disappoint you. But don’t dwell only on what is lost during the transition from childhood to adulthood — remember, the middle-grader is not yet leaving childhood totally behind, and she’s also likely excited at the prospect of growing up; consider, too, what is gained. How is your character made better from her experiences? Are her relationships with others stronger? Does she have a more solid sense of self? Is she moving into/through adolescence with more confidence? Etc.
MGM: Growing up, what character(s) impacted you the most as a young reader?
KA: I was an exceedingly reluctant reader growing up. I actually threw up on a book once — in class, in front of everyone — because I wasn’t able to finish reading it in time and couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing my teacher. (A desire to be the teacher’s pet + struggles with reading = rough!) And then I discovered Lois Lowry’s Anastasia books. For whatever reason — maybe because the character looked vaguely like brown-haired, bespectacled me, or maybe because I found the first book in my best friend’s room, which likely made it seem “cool” by association — those books clicked for me and suddenly I was a reader! I devoured those books and then went on to read everything of Lois Lowry’s that I could get my hands on. I think that’s one of the reasons that I love working on middle-grade novels so much — the thought that I could be working on books that turn kids into readers thrills me. It’s an incredible honor, getting to do what we do.