Monday, January 20, 2014

Is Your Book Boring?

I've noted a couple of excellent posts lately about the problem of the "missing middle" of books which cause middle-grade readers to jump to the end of the book. Dianne Salerni (author of We Hear the Dead) should know. She teaches the middle-school rugrats and polled them on how many jumped to the end of a book. She writes an excellent article on the subject at Project Mayhem. A couple of possible reasons she suggests: The kid just can't wait to find out what happened, or the middle of the book was boring, or they just always do.

I no longer know what goes on in the mind of a middle-grade reader. I used to be a middle-grade reader back when dinosaurs walked the earth. Today is completely different. Or is it?

What grabbed me back in ancient times was the development of the story. What would happen to Black Beauty? I was pretty sure he'd be okay in the end because Happily Ever After is not only a trait of bad romance (doesn't anybody ever freaking die?), but also with some childrens' books. But he might have been beaten to death after all. But Ginger dies, so not so happy an ending after all.

When a book reaches into the teen years of YA, then some bad stuff might be at the end of the tale, but the norm is a reasonably happy ending or at least not an ending where everybody dies. Unless, of course, everybody dies but they all become zombies.

I am personally weary of the straightforward path to the happy ending. Returning to the golden days of yesteryear, what happened to Charlotte in Charlotte's Web. Just after you got over your arachnophobia and loved that spider like she was your best friend, what happened? She DIED! I remember weeping in my 4th grade classroom at storytime. The teacher (Mrs. Miller, the bitch from hell) mocked me because I found the story so sad. I cried. I missed Charlotte. Today, I have to wonder what was wrong with the teacher? What was wrong with the other kids? Didn't they feel sad?

Let's take Old Yeller. O.M.G.!!! That was so sad, I barely got over it. I'm tearing up now as I write this.

Did I want to jump to the end of those books? No. I knew from experience I might very well be very very very unhappy with the ending. I put it off. I didn't want to go there. But the writer dragged me along, kicking and crying to the final sad line...or final happy line. I didn't know which way it would go.

What does this have to do with a book being boring? It's because if any semi-intelligent fourth grader knows that everybody will be all jolly and happy at the end of the book, why bother with the middle?

Don't ignore the middle. Just putting a bunch of words there won't cut it. Make it your mission to FORCE those kids to read every. last. word. They should turn to the last page with trembling hands, afraid of what they'll see. They won't be flipping to the end yawning because they know what will happen. Princess will get Prince. Charlotte won't die, but turn into a fairy queen. Old Yeller will live happily into old age. Those could be fine endings, but your young reader shouldn't know which way it will go until they read every word.

Don't let your middle-grade book have a boring middle. You'll lose your audience.

1 comment:

  1. I also was a middle-schooler back in the dinosaur days, and I can remember being taught - don't read the end first because that will spoil everything! What's important is to know how you get there - what the process is. And being the obedient child that I was, I never read the end first that I can recall! Take The Secret Garden, one of my favorite books. It has a happy ending, but what comes in the middle is so absorbing! It has great characters that you love reading about!