By Paulette Bogan
From the Desk of Zoe Washington is Marks’s debut middle grade novel about a 12-year-old girl who searches for the truth about her father’s incarceration. Zoe is a young aspiring baker who discovers that her father, whom she never met, is innocent and sets out to find the truth.
Janae Marks (c) Jerri Graham Photography
From the Desk of Zoe Washington started out as a YA, and Marks led us through her process of discovering her voice as a MG novelist. “Middle grade chose me!” she said. Marks led us through the ins and outs of mature themes in middle grade vs. young adult novels.
“In middle grade, characters don’t typically over-analyze their feelings. In YA, characters spend more time reflecting on what happens to them and thinking about the meaning of things.”
Some examples of mature themes include:
“Kids are having these experiences or are exposed to them, and books are a great way for them to process their feelings and feel less alone,” said Marks. That’s why these issues are important in Children’s Literature. How one tackles these themes in MG can be very different from YA.
What’s taboo in MG can be just fine in YA. MG protagonists can experience the same issues but usually second hand.” She talked about how to handle these difficult themes respectfully. Marks says, “If a topic you want to explore is typically experienced by a marginalized community (e.g., racism, discrimination), consider whether you are the right person to tell this story.”
Marks read from two novels tackling mental illness, a MG novel, Where the Watermelons Grow, by Cindy Baldwin, and a YA, When We Collided, by Emery Lord. She discussed the difference in how the theme was handled. The group then did a writing exercise exploring a mature topic, first featuring a 10-12- year-old protagonist and then featuring a 15-18-year-old protagonist.
Some Reflections on the exercise:
• What did you notice about changing the age of the protagonist?
• How did it change your story?
• Did one of your scenes feel more “right” to you?
• How was your pacing?
Just a few titles from her Reading List:
· Just South of Home by Karen Strong
· Blended by Sharon Draper – can be read alongside
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (both cover racism/police brutality)
· Chirp by Kate Messner – can be read alongside
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (both cover sexual assault)
· The Stitchers by Lorien Lawrence
Some thoughts from Janae Marks:
About the future of children’s publishing, Marks said, “I hope it gets more diverse on all sides. I want more authors and illustrators of color to be published, but I’d also love to see more people of color become agents, editors, marketers, publicists, publishers, etc.”
About working in these difficult times, she said, “If you’re happy writing, great. If you’re having trouble writing, just read!”
Paulette Bogan is the author and or illustrator of over a dozen books for young readers, including Bossy Flossy, Virgil & Owen, and Virgil & Owen Stick Together. Her book, Lulu the Big Little Chick, was awarded the CBC Children’s Choice Book Award 2010. See her work at www.paulettebogan.com and Instagram: paulettebogan123