Why I Love to Write Middle-Grade Stories, a guest post by Ena Jones
Middle-grade stories hold a special place in my heart. Maybe it’s because I still relate so much to the child within me, and I understand that childhood can be a complex time. At least it was for me. So, as I create stories, I want to acknowledge hard stuff, but also have a good time, and that’s what I try to bring to my writing: A bit of seriousness, a lot of comfort, one or two big questions, a little outrageousness, definitely some fun, and mostly, entertainment from beginning to end, because—
Growing up is hard. Hard. And I remember that. In an instant, my mind can bring me back several decades, directly to a 3rd grade playground where a mob of girls pushed me toward a boy who said he liked me. I was so afraid. Or to my desk in a 6th grade classroom where I suddenly realized my hair wasn’t drying because I’d accidently soaked it in bath oil. The embarrassment!
Or, more tragically, when a 5th grader from our small city went missing, and then his body was found. It was so unreal that the world physically shifted underneath me. I knew him. My brother knew him. How? Why?
Or the time I was walking my early morning paper route—a car stopped and a man got out. He came toward me; the only thing more determined than his gait was the look in his eyes. What would have happened if my dog hadn’t come charging at him from out of nowhere?
And then, when a beloved relative did things he shouldn’t have, and when I finally told, the women who should have protected me, instead protected him and “the family.” “Just forget it,” they said.
Yeah, growing up is hard. And most kids hide their questions, their shames, their fears, not only from their peers, but from the many adults in their lives. That doesn’t happen by accident. They learn to do that.
For me, reading was my escape from the complicated world. It was a way to put myself in far off places, to observe other experiences, be they idealistic, fantastic, or horrible, from a distance. I remember reading a biography about young girl who lived through the Deerfield Massacre of 1704, and though many of her family members were killed during the attack on the village, she survived and went on to live a meaningful life. I read and reread the pages describing the surprise attack (which happened early in the morning while she and her family were sleeping) trying to understand it. Looking back, I think I was searching for hints about a path forward: How does one survive growing up? Getting to adulthood? How does one find or make a good life?
I think these are questions all children wonder about.
By the end of sixth grade I’d exhausted my local library’s children’s section, and I’d reread my treasured copy of LITTLE WOMEN until the binding was coming apart. So I moved on to adult books. We had an old hardcover copy of GONE WITH THE WIND at my house, and it swept me away. I read it at least 5 times by 8th grade graduation. I was fascinated by books I found in the library, like AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, by Theodore Dreiser, and IN COLD BLOOD, by Truman Capote. I kept asking myself, How can people be as horrible as the antagonists in those books? And how did ordinary people fight against antagonists, even the mild ones? Most kids don’t feel like they have the power to win against forces of evil, and I was no different. And really, aren’t we all still trying to figure out how to overcome those forces as adults?
I write for middle grade readers because I want to explore it all: The scary and difficult parts, yes, but also the love, the comfort, the funny, and the entertaining. Like the time my parents said “No!” to a pet goldfish, so I went down to the creek and collected at least a hundred minnows and put them in our only bathtub. That did not end well for me—or the minnows.
And today’s kids might be influenced mostly by social media, but when I was young, television commercials were what stuck in our minds. One day, after a big rain, I ushered my younger siblings out the door and we had a marvelous time sliding down the small hill in our swamped back yard. I can still see my mother’s shocked face after we tromped back inside covered head-to-toe with mud and I happily told her, “Don’t worry, Mom. Tide will get it out!”
Or the many times I chatted with my best friend as we sat on a concrete curb, knowing I needed to get home, but not wanting to leave in the middle of a vitally important conversation about our dreams, or school, or even that boy. The feeling of freedom, and also, how nice it was to be heard, and to listen to someone going through the same sorts of things I was.
The idea for my current book, SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, came as I reached back to my 12-year-old self from the safety of my current life, and thought about common fears. Not just the fears of children, but the fears of adults. I thought about the times I was afraid, and what, specifically, I had been afraid of. I also thought of places I felt safe and protected, and the people who made me feel that way. This took me straight to my adult life and my husband’s grandmother’s home in Maryland. She had a lovely piece of property, plenty of family history, and, as for herself, she was not simply a “sweet little old lady,” but a whole person full of vim and an independent personality all her own. Mostly, she knew how to love. She showed this in how she treated her family, my husband, me, and our children, her great-grandchildren.
In the case of SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, I began as I usually do, with “What if…” questions. One of the questions I considered was about guardianship. What happens if a parent or guardian isn’t there to protect a child or children? Parents worry about it, and so do kids! Then I wondered, What if there were a not-so-wonderful relative lurking who would love nothing more than to swoop in and take control? An antagonist whose only thought was for themselves, not the children who needed care?
I began to work with that premise, using my husband’s grandmother as the inspiration for a guardian who would do anything she could to protect her family, even if she weren’t around to physically care for them herself. This turned out to be an important aspect of Rosie and Baker’s story (the children in SFBZ). They had to figure out a way to be their own heroes, but at the same time, their “Great-Grammy” was always there, supporting them, whispering to them, despite the fact that she was no longer alive.
Of course, once I decided Rosie and Baker would need to hide their great-grandmother’s body in the basement freezer, I began to laugh and shake my head. Not just because I thought it was funny—I mean, where else would they hide it?—but because, at the same time it was terrifying. That’s when I began to have doubts about writing this particular story.
Through the doubts and the struggles I kept writing. And there were many struggles. Along with the external plot—Rosie and Baker having to cope with Great-Grammy’s death, hiding her body, finding the lost will, and protecting themselves from their grandmother, Grim Hesper—there was also Rosie’s internal, or emotional, journey to consider. It probably should have been obvious, but sometimes, when I’m distracted by the external plot, that internal plot can be difficult to figure out. In SIX FEET BELOW ZERO it turned out to be the character of Great-Grammy who spoke up, telling Rosie (and me) exactly what Rosie needed to learn: “One of these days, Rosie, you’ll treasure what we have here the way I do.” Of course, Rosie flat out ignores this suggestion.
It took me a while to see this nugget of truth for what it was, the theme of the book and Rosie’s journey. She wanted a picture-perfect house, one without embarrassing yard art and shower contraptions. She needed to understand that she already had the perfect home, and to “treasure” it.
Sometimes, in life and in books, the answers in our stories aren’t as straightforward as we’d like them to be, or as satisfying. Which is probably the biggest reason I love writing middle-grade fiction. I’m always searching for the comfort of a good story and a mostly happy ending.
Aren’t we all?
Meet the author
Ena Jones is the author of the CLAYTON STONE series and SIX FEET BELOW ZERO. She enjoys long walks along the ocean, preparing fun dinners for friends and family, and sinking into the couch with a good book. She currently lives in North Carolina with her family.
About Six Feet Below Zero
A dead body. A missing will. An evil relative. The good news is, Great Grammy has a plan. The bad news is, she’s the dead body.
Rosie and Baker are hiding something. Something big. Their great grandmother made them promise to pretend she’s alive until they find her missing will and get it in the right hands. The will protects the family house from their grandmother, Grim Hesper, who would sell it and ship Rosie and Baker off to separate boarding schools. They’ve already lost their parents and Great Grammy—they can’t lose each other, too.
The siblings kick it into high gear to locate the will, keep their neighbors from prying, and safeguard the house. Rosie has no time to cope with her grief as disasters pop up around every carefully planned corner. She can’t even bring herself to read her last-ever letter from Great Grammy. But the lies get bigger and bigger as Rosie and Baker try to convince everyone that their great grandmother is still around, and they’ll need more than a six-month supply of frozen noodle casserole and mountains of toilet paper once their wicked grandmother shows up!
This unexpectedly touching read reminds us that families are weird and wonderful, even when they’re missing their best parts. With humor, suspense, and a testament to loyalty, Ena Jones takes two brave kids on an unforgettable journey. Includes four recipes for Great Grammy’s survival treats.
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 04/20/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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