YA & Middle Grade Fiction

Stephanie Reed wrote: A fellow CBA children’s author and I heard that, because there are already so many good mainstream children’s novels, there’s not much need for CBA children’s novels. Do you agree? And if so, please tell me how great mainstream novels and great CBA novels for adults have peacefully co-existed for years. My point is, why not provide an excellent selection of CBA novels for children NOW (and believe me, we knock ourselves out to do just that), and thus have a ready-made market of loyal adult readers someday?

My thoughts: You said “novels” so I assume you mean middle-grade and YA fiction (as opposed to illustrated children’s books). I agree the market is difficult for NEW authors to break into. In my opinion, this is true for a number of reasons.

You said you were given the reason, “There are already so many good mainstream children’s novels.” What this means is that there is not a huge distinction between many of the good mainstream kids’ novels and the Christian novels… the mainstream ones are “clean” and deal with all the same topics and issues that a Christian one would, so there is not a big difference between them. CBA novels can’t be full of Christianese (the kids wouldn’t go for it), so that means they’re basically clean and have good values and good messages… like many mainstream novels.

You asked about how “mainstream novels and CBA novels for adults have peacefully co-existed for years.” Well, when you look at the entire gamut of mainstream fiction, you find copious profanity, sexual content, and supernatural themes that many Christians don’t want to read. So CBA became a safe alternative… a place where believers could be entertained as well as edified and encouraged in their Christian walk. That’s why CBA and mainstream have peacefully co-existed. CBA offered a true alternative. What you’re hearing about the kids fiction is that it’s not really an alternative, because it’s not really that different.

Another reason there is “not much need” for new authors in Christian kids’ fiction is that many publishers are coming out with YA fiction written by their authors who are already well-known and successful in adult fiction. Rather than try to break in a new, unknown author, it makes more business sense to use the “names” who are already selling books.

You asked, “why not provide an excellent selection of CBA novels for children NOW?” The publishers are doing that, to a certain extent. But the marketplace is very much driven by the consumers. They need to start buying the currently-available CBA kids fiction in higher numbers to prove there’s really more of a demand. Parents are still buying mainstream fiction for their kids, and no wonder. I have a hard time finding any Christian middle-grade fiction my kids will read. It is often too Pollyanna-ish, not to mention having badly out-of-date cover design and titles. When I do buy it, my kids leave it on the shelf in favor of mainstream books that are far more appealing. So there’s a bit of a circular problem going on; CBA children’s fiction needs to get better so that people will buy more, and people need to buy more so that publishers will produce more. (Keep in mind this is my opinion and my perspective from what I’ve seen. Others may see it differently.)

To go a bit beyond your question… I receive numerous queries from first-time writers who are writing kids fiction. The standard query tells about the author’s desire to “provide a Christian alternative” and to write “clean” fiction for their kids, and to share some kind of Biblical message. What I’ve found is that people’s heart to reach kids with positive messages is very strong, while their talent, i.e. ability to write a good book, is usually pretty weak. And with kids… maybe even more than with adults… you can’t fool them. You can’t serve up a positive message in a pretty little package that doesn’t spark their imagination and expect them to buy it. The story has to be great. The writing has to be great. As in adult fiction, the message is subservient to the story.

For those of you writing fiction for kids and teens… yes, it’s hard to break in. But rather than focus on that aspect, I’d suggest you devote yourself to studying and mastering the craft of writing for kids. It’s just as involved as writing for adults, only in some ways, harder. If you’re writing for kids because your goal is to share positive biblical messages, that’s not enough. You need the deep desire to be a writer.

P.S. If you’re interested in my statement “message is subservient to story,” I’ve expanded on it in the comments.
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

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  • Rachel

    >What do your girls like? (Somewhat off topic…but I have some book crazy daughters…)

  • Kim Kasch

    >What if you want to be a writer AND you’re a perfect example of Freaky-Friday, a little kid’s mind in a big body?…

    BTW, have you heard anything about the MG market picking up, or is everything slow?

    And, if it’s EZ’er to write for adults…maybe…

    I’m just thinking…out loud.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Not that long ago, I watched my nephew hand his cousin a stack of Bryan Davis books. “I like how he writes. I usually don’t read Christian fantasy because the authors don’t write very well.” I have not read Bryan Davis, so I don’t know if I share his opinion, but I thought it interesting that my nephew, a middle schooler, paid attention to writing quality.

    I agree wholeheartedly that we must tell a story and tell it well. I can’t, however, agree that the message should be subservient to the story. And I know of no good stories in which it is. The message is the backbone of every good story. Without the message, the story is nothing but a collection of events we have strung together.

  • Rachelle

    >Timothy I agree with you, and I wrestled with saying the message is subservient to story. I didn’t explain what I meant because of space considerations. But I’ll try here.

    You’re right, all stories have messages. But so do all non-fiction books, all lectures and sermons. A novel is none of those things. It’s a story that serves to illustrate a message. And you can’t get your message across with a poorly written story.

    If you’re going to choose to spread your message via fiction versus any of those other ways I mentioned, you are choosing the path of story and as such, you now have to learn to write a good one. Your message is there and will always be there; I believe your message will come out in whatever you do. In many ways, your message is who you are. Your novel, however, had better be more about the story because otherwise the reader will hear you preaching at them.

    Paradoxically, the more you allow your message to be subservient to your story (i.e. the more you focus on crafting a great one and allowing your message to come through it), the stronger your message will actually be. You will touch people much more deeply with your message if you are successful at powerfully capturing their emotions and their imagination.

    It may not be exactly accurate to say “message is subservient” to story… it’s probably a shorthand that’s too pithy. BUT if you are writing novels with “sending a message” first in your mind and “crafting a good story” second, I do not think you will be successful at either.

  • Pam Halter

    >I home-schooled my daughter. One summer I handed her Bryan Davis’s first book in the Dragons in Our Midst series and told her, you have to read this. It’s your summer reading.

    My daughter never read a novel before. She was 12 years old then. She loved it and now reads anything she can get her hands on. Last year we met Bryan at a book signing and she told him, I read books because of you. He was thrilled. Indeed, what could be better for a writer to hear?

    Bryan Davis is an amazing writer and he doesn’t hide his faith. But his plots are unique and his writing is strong. I enjoy his stuff, too.

    So, Rachelle is right on. We must learn our craft and know what the story requires. If we work on simply writing the story, knowing our characters and doing it because we love writing, our message will come through in a natural way. And our readers will love us for it.

  • Yvonne

    >I looked in the bookstores to see what is being sold for young teens (especially ages 12-14). The newer books are almost all fantasy or mysteries. There were the classics, but nothing comparable. I wondered if anyone read Heidi or The Secret Garden anymore.

    I saw a girl, about 12 yrs.old, perusing the shelves, so I asked her, “What kind of books do you like?”

    She said, “I like history stories. I’ve read all the American Girls and Little House books, but there’s nothing after that.”

    I could have hugged her. There was hope! There are kids out there that want wholesome, true-to-life stories. I think our society needs new “classics”. Does that makes sense?

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >My grandchildren are all readers so I am reading these posts with interest.

  • David A. Todd

    >I have found that almost all strong message writing, be it Christian, political, health book, whatever, is bad, because the writer is focusing on the importance of the message and forgets about the quality of the writing.

  • raballard

    >I hope that new authors are able to break into the Middle Grade genre. From the not-yet published web site I visit, there are a lot of us out here. I have recently started the process of Querying my middle grade fantasy, if there is no hope of breaking through why should I continue? I will tell you why, I believe in my novel. I have faith the right agent will believe in it the same as I do.
    I know comparing pitching a novel to Christendom is somewhat lame. But they both require a basic belief, unyielding faith, determination, love, and patience.

  • Dara

    >“BUT if you are writing novels with “sending a message” first in your mind and “crafting a good story” second, I do not think you will be successful at either.”

    I agree. I’ve read some Christian fiction where it’s too preachy and you don’t find yourself drawn into the story because of it.

    Yvonne, I would want to hug that girl too! I loved the American Girl stories when I was little (of course, there weren’t as many then, but I still have all the books for the character Felicity). I know it was those books that ignited my passion for history and historical fiction and why I enjoy writing in that genre too.

  • Lea Ann McCombs

    >I think it is sad that fiction, like so much of popular culture, is driven by numbers. As a business, it has to be in order to survive, but there are many people who find themselves just like that little girl in the bookstore who can’t find anything written for them.

    This gap seems to be growing. Whatever direction the culture is moving, so go the new books, TV shows, movies, etc. And the thousands who march to a different drummer are left with nothing.

    Does it seem to others that the breadth of popular fiction is narrowing? The options fewer? Even across genres, often the themes or characters are stikingly similar.

    Maybe I’m just getting old and I’ve seen it all before!

  • L.C. Gant

    >Rachelle,
    I absolutely agree with your point about the message being subservient to the story. It doesn’t matter how wonderful the Gospel is if you can’t get people (in this case, children and teens) interested in it.

    If you think about it, that was the essence of Jesus and his ministry. He didn’t launch into his message right away. He spoke to the needs and interests of people first (the woman at the well, for example), and then told them how they could be born-again.

    He also used parables, which were great stories even before he interpreted them.

    To be honest, this is why I’ve decided to submit my work to the secular market even though I’m a Christian. Some of the ideas I’d like to present are so controversial that I don’t know if they would be accepted in the CBA market.

    For example, my MC is not a Christian, so she engages in a lot of questionable behavior throughout the story. The message of Christianity comes to her, but it’s hidden within the central conflict. It’s like buried treasure; readers can find it, but only if they want to.

    • N.J. Kline

      L.C., don’t know if this feed is still live, but was caught up by your blog. I have written three MG mysteries, the first hopefully of a series. Aimed at 9-13 year olds, I wanted to create some really fun reading with some good intellectual value that leads kids (eventually) to think about Christ. The last thing I wanted them to do is sound like a Sunday school class(sorry) as I feel that many Christian kids books do. Like you, I don’t think that Jesus is like this. If He came to bring life and life abundantly, He is probably the most fun person that ever walked the planet (in a good clean way, of course). So I introduced my stories not even talking about religion at first, then bringing in the subject of God later where the idea is introduced that this is why these kids are so amazing, talented, beyond their years, etc. because their parents have raised them to know God! It is that “Come taste and see that the Lord is good!” concept . . tasting, a little at a time, until you have a full out hunger for Him. And creating characters that are so believably impressive that the young readers will want to know why they are as they are and are able to do the exploits they are capable of. So the kids will say . . I want to have what these kids have!!! When the characters are up against Harry Potter, don’t they as Christians have to exceed him?! This is my vision for kids books today. But, like you, am not sure exactly where to submit them to because they don’t talk alot about Christianity but at the same time have Christ deeply embedded in the heart of them. Would love feedback.

  • T. Anne

    >I write middle grades (a christian series) set in seventh grade. I thought of my daughter when I started this project. I wanted her to have something fun to read that I new the content of when she becomes of age. (even if it is off her laptop ;) Lucky for my dd I’m still pleasantly in touch with my inner middle grader.

  • Davey

    >I’ve enjoyed the comments regarding message and story. If writing were a road trip, perhaps “message” would be the destination, “story” would be the scenery, and “writing” would be the vehicle?

  • Susan Marlow . . .

    >OK, I’ll confess. I’m the “other” CBA author that got Stephanie going on this subject. Thanks for addressing it, Rachelle. Hey, if you’re interested, and you have girls in the 9-14 year range, send me your address and I’ll send you review copies of my Circle C Adventures series, which, incidentally, for the first time EVER, appeared in the CBD Kids catalog this week! *happy dance*

  • Stephanie Reed

    >Rachelle, thanks for your thoughtful answer. There are many points I would like to clarify, but the part which most concerns me is, “CBA children’s fiction needs to get better so that people will buy more.”

    Of course, I agree with the last part, that people need to buy more CBA children’s MG and YA books. What stings is that the fiction *has* gotten better. My author friend and I have already broken in, and we work hard at our craft. Reviewers are noticing, too. Here are excerpts from my two latest reviews of my second book, The Light Across the River, (the first source is Christian and the second secular:

    “This is a suspenseful page-turner with believable main characters that have palpable struggles. The adventure, history, and even some humor with a bit of old fashioned romance thrown in for good measure make for an enjoyable read for middle schoolers on up. Because of the superb writing comprised of well-chosen words and precise descriptions in keeping with the time period, this book is a pleasure to read.”

    http://www.thehomeschoolmagazine.com/Homeschool_Re views/2983.php

    “Ms. Reed has researched the Rankin family and used their notes as well as other historical information to help tell an accurate and thrilling story of how these deeply religious and courageous people risked their lives to gain freedom for others. This is an excellent true-life adventure tale for teens and adults.”

    Historical Novels Review, Issue 46 November 2008.

    You can check out my friend Susan Marlow’s Circle C Adventures, too. Her latest book, Andrea Carter and the San Francisco Smugglers, deals with American slavery, but not ante-bellum slavery. Andi Carter meets Lin Mei, a Chinese servant girl enslaved in San Francisco well after the Civil War. Two books about slavery from the same publisher? Yes, because slavery is rampant in the US and the world today. The issue is sadly relevant once again.

    We are two CBA authors who are already writing excellently reviewed, timely books for kids. As Susan said, she (and I) would be honored to send your daughters review copies of our books.

  • Timothy Fish

    >“[A novel is] a story that serves to illustrate a message.”

    That is why I have a hang-up with the statement that the message is subservient to the story. What we want is for the story to serve by illustrating the message, thereby making the story subservient to the message. What we don’t want is someone to write a story (however good it might be) and come back later and say, “Oops, I forgot to give it a Christian message. It’ll never make it in CBA if I don’t, so I’ll add a few paragraphs with the characters talking about attending Bible study.”

    I see nothing wrong with starting with the message and building the story to demonstrate our point (Fahrenheit 451, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Oliver Twist for a few examples), making the message ingrained in the story. Where we run into problems is when we start putting in message nuggets that have nothing to do with the main theme.

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Semantics aside, Rachelle we get the message. (Most of us.)

    And thank you.

  • Rachelle

    >Stephanie,
    I appreciate the information you shared here! And I apologize if you took anything I said personally. I always operate under the truth that you cannot apply a generalization to a specific situation. Kind of like an “average” rarely represents a specific case.

    So, when I say CBA kids’ fiction needs to get better, I’m speaking generally, globally, on an industry-wide basis. And like you, I could point out a whole bunch of examples of excellent CBA fiction for kids. Those are specifics, and I’m speaking generally.

    I believe we need MORE excellent kids’ fiction in order for there to be a general impression of excellence in CBA fiction for kids. When it gets to the point that a majority of our kids will read it just as willingly as they’ll pick up Harry Potter, then we will have gotten there.

    I SO appreciate what you do! If you and/or Susan would email me, I’d love to check out the kids books you’ve written.

    Thanks for the comment!

  • D. Ann Graham

    >Excuse me if I dig my elementary schoolteacher’s hat out of the closet for a moment…

    The menu offered for today’s juvenile literature is mostly DARK. Prevalent philosophies on the table tend toward a steady diet of the underworld: such as demons, dragons, witches, ghosts, ESP, and shape-shifters. Served up with lavish sides of violence, promiscuity, anger, death, and even cannibalism. Do your own poll if you doubt this. Yet, very few children travel unaccompanied to bookstores and make purchases with their own money, without a parent’s consent. So, who’s responsible for the stuff?

    The people who spend the money.

    The small amount of classics and wholesome literature still available are on shelves for only one reason: THEY STILL SELL. It’s a money-driven market. Period. And for those parents who say, “But the kids like to read what’s popular. Besides, teachers and publishing houses are the ones who put the books there. So, they can’t be all THAT bad. “

    To answer this I would challenge anyone who believes there is a panel of standard-bearers who guard the gate of children’s literature in order to insure nothing really harmful gets in, to do a simple Google search on the names of the editors responsible for all those books. Some of the pictures and opinions you will see on their FaceBook or MySpace pages will make your hair stand on end.

    So, any of you writers out there who are feeling pressed to aim your pens at the children’s market because it might be easier to break into… better not go there. It’s a huge spiritual battleground and the casualties are innumerable.

    Mostly children.

  • Amber Lynn Argyle

    >Thanks for the info.

  • Yvonne

    >D. Ann Graham, thank you for enforcing what I’ve been telling parents and other writers for a long time.

    I am also an elementary teacher, and I’ve been concerned about what is available and promoted for children to read.

    It’s not good for children’s imagination to be fueled with these things. There is a need for more wholesome books with strong Christian values.

    This is one author that will not bend to the trends of society.

  • Anonymous

    >Its not just parents. The kids I babysit get all there books from the school library, where these books are shown to them by teachers and librarians in an attempt to appeal to them so they read. Captain Underpants, Diary of Wimpy Kid, Magic Tree House, Harry Potter…ask any first or second grader and they know these books well. Most parents are just happy their kids are reading and not watching tv.

  • Dina

    >My daughter just read a wonderful CBA young adult fiction series by Melody Carlson called the “True Colors” series. She was completely addicted to it and so were several of her friends. It seemed that Carlson nicely wove spiritual themes into the typical young adult topics. I think that should be the purpose of CBA young adult fiction – to provide true spirituality rather than just a clean read.

  • Anonymous

    >Does age matter in the publishing industry
    If so how

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  • marketpl

    M
    Christian middle grade action-adventures @ mystery fiction are primarily what I
    write. Kids say reading one is like being in an exciting movie. Ten books are
    published and I have contracts for 13 more. In my case, middle grade is alive,
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    Max Elliot Anderson

    Amazon Author Page http://www.amazon.com/Max-Elliot-Anderson/e/B002BLP3EE
    Blog http://booksandboys.blogspot.com

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