Seizing the Day, or Not, in Middle-Grade Sequels, a guest post by Michael Mann
Sequels seem rather cruel to me. Don’t your characters need a little moment in the sun after all their efforts in book one?
Or if not cruel, sequels can make your hero seem rather ungrateful. They’ve worked so hard to achieve dreams once already, if they set off on another quest, doesn’t it show a lack of gratitude for what they’ve already got?
These were two of the issues I grappled with when writing Nightspark, the sequel to Ghostcloud, a supernatural middle grade adventure, set in an dystopian London, in which the hero – a mixed-race boy called Luke Smith-Sharma – fights to escape the power station he works and to get back to his family. And which (if may quote them, as it is a lovely quote) Kirkus said was “like Charles Dickens, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book rolled into one”.
At the end of Ghostcloud (spoiler alert), Luke escapes the station thanks to his friends, bravery and accepting his nature as a ‘half-ghost’, and, as reward, gets to start the sequel Nightspark in a much better position. He is reunited with his loving family, on a pretty houseboat in the canals of my London, and on the verge of fulfilling his dream of becoming a detective – having passed the Detective Guild exams…. but (and you’ve guessed it) all is not well – because his best friend from the power station is still presumed missing.
What will he do? Or, perhaps, what could this writer do? Could I spare my hero the dual curse of the sequel – of cruelty and ingratitude?
Well, it’s a middle grade adventure, so of course, the first thing I did was cruelly throw more peril his way (Something watching from the shadows? Tick? Unresolved mysteries? Tick.) And of course, Luke, being that kind of kid, does risk everything he won in book one to save his friend in book two (bravely, compassionately, not ungratefully, I hope). I’m a teacher by training, and the most important thing for me is that kids keep turning the page.
But – and this is an important but – once they’re turning the page, I did want to see if I could find a way to free Luke, and the reader, and perhaps myself – from the sequel’s curse. I wanted Luke to realise it didn’t have to be that way. That sometimes, even if you’re the heroic type, or if there’s work left to do, you need to stop, smell the coffee (or the Horlicks in Luke’s case) and appreciate what you’ve got. You need to give yourself a break. You need to pass on the mantle. You need to stop seizing the day, and start soaking it up.
That’s right. Stop it. There’s too much seizing these days.
As a writer, on my sequel, this was something I felt quite personally. Because no sooner had I got my book deal for book one, I had to start writing the sequel. No sooner was the first draft in, then the edits or the social media started. There was always some goal – some ticking clock – and though my quests were less glamorous than a middle grade hero like Luke’s (none of my friends were missing, except for me, arguably, typing away in the attic), at times it felt rather oddly parallel. And as a teacher, well, it was the same – or worse – there was always a lesson to plan, a book a mark, or a display to make.
So in Nightspark, while it’s first and foremost a ripping yarn, I tried to stage my own mini-rebellion against all this seizing and heroism. Luke has a ticking clock – literally, it’s a watch, and a gift from his long-lost mother – and goals aplenty, but by the end of the book, when things are almost lost, when he may have to sacrifice everything, he wonders why he couldn’t have appreciated what he had at the start a little more.
And though in Ghostcloud, he and his friends, all desperately wished to escape and achieve their dreams – he to be a detective, Ravi to be a trader, and Jess to be the first female plumber in the guild – in Nightspark they all begin to wonder if these dreams were quite right. When Luke’s boss turns out to be corrupt, and Jess’s boss to be sexist, they question who – or what – they are serving with their dreams? Are there other ways to achieve them? More fulfilling ways, perhaps? And might they benefit from having a moment to reflect, and step back, and stop making each second count – and instead, to see where the seconds and winds of fate and life lead them?
To clarify, before you start worrying, I’m not against dreams. I’m a teacher, and my books are full of imagination, and I am huge advocate for dreaming. But I am also a believer in the power of uncertainty and the in-between. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was younger, and as a teacher of 9 and 10 year-olds, I can tell you, that though some kids are certain they want to be a doctor, many have zero idea. And I can also tell you, that too often, for all sorts of story reasons, MG books are populated with characters with clear goals and clear career ambitions – they’re over-represented. They’re fun to write. But I wanted to question that a little, that’s all, to open a space
I’m not sure I fully escaped the sequel’s curse. My hero, Luke, does not come across ungrateful, I don’t think – but I am a bit cruel to him. I throw so many dangers and cliffhangers at him, he has no choice but to make each second count (my most recent Nightspark review online said ‘My 10-year old inhaled this.’)
But I hope, in doing so, I have to some extent, helped spare my young readers the cruelty of the expectation – of the expectation that they should know what they want to be, and that they should be making things count and seizing the day. When frankly, so many of us should spending more of our energies soaking it up.
So, stop seizing. Yes, that’s you reader. Stop being productive and reading this semi-educational blog on your lunch break, when you could be smelling your coffee or Horlicks or the beverage of your choosing. Life is short, you have quests, and the clock is ticking… but it always will be, and you deserve a break once in a while.
Be a rebel, a renegade, and take that break right now.
Meet the author
Michael is a teacher by day, dad by night, and mostly writes when he should be sleeping. He owes the idea for his middle grade novels, Ghostcloud and Nightspark, to his coal-mining grandad and a lifelong love of cloudspotting. He’s half-Indian and passionate about diversity in children’s literature, and loves books that keeps kids turning the page. His debut Ghostcloud has won multiple awards, with starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. The latter described it as “like Charles Dickens, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book rolled into one. Thrilling.”
The rousing, magical sequel to Ghostcloud, set on the waterways of a richly reimagined London.
Michael Mann returns for the riveting sequel to Ghostcloud!
Several months after the ghosts freed the children of Battersea and uncovered Tabatha Margate’s sinister experimentation on ghostclouds and cloudghouls, Luke Smith-Sharma struggles to divide his time between learning the ropes of being a ghostcloud and studying to become a detective.
But not everyone made it out of the power station, and as he tries to adjust to “normal” life by pursuing his dreams, the guilt over his friends left behind is eating Luke alive.
When a seemingly new threat emerges, Luke’s investigations will take him far beyond the borders of London, forcing him to face his past and confront his deepest fears to try to save Ravi, the friend who was there for him in his darkest hours.
With the help of several unexpected allies, Luke and his friends—ghost-girl Alma and human Jess—embark on a new, thrilling adventure as they work together to find Ravi and to finally thwart the evil Tabatha Margate’s plans once and for all!
Publication date: 10/10/2023
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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