It’s always particularly satisfying when you achieve something that knowledgeable and influential people told you that you couldn’t accomplish. For me recently this was writing and finding a publisher for a children’s book – middle-grade level, to be precise. You see, I’ve been an authentic sci-fi horror author since 2007 when my debut novel, “Vespa,” was published by a small press based in Philadelphia. Since that time, I have also witnessed my shocking, soul-searching sci-fi satire, “Space Games,” go to press as well, and in the wake of these two accomplishments, I felt I needed a break from all the horror and adult content. I had been looking into the abyss, as Nietzsche once said, for too long and the abyss was starting to stare back. In addition, readers and peers were wondering if I was this horrible person because my fiction made them feel terribly uncomfortable. Some began judging and measuring my works … after reading them in their entirety, mind you … based on their horrified reaction instead of the quality of each book, which to me is not fair. Ernest Hemingway, arguably the greatest American author who ever lived, wrote in a letter to his parents: “…a writer should not be forced to defend his choice of a subject but should be criticized on how he has treated that subject.” Ahh, never mind that, that’s over.
So I set out to write something sweet for a change, something for my wife and kids and dearly departed mother, something that didn’t have to come with a warning label and draw such anger and revulsion from readers who couldn’t handle it. I had a large number of people test-drive this middle-grade novel and two of the most influential of them told me coldly that it was NOT going to fly for a number of reasons. First, because I was a horror writer and I wasn’t working in “their” genre. Second, because the stories they wrote for teens and middle schoolers never contained as much tension and conflict as the new book I’d written. “Go and read some of the wonderful stuff that’s available to these ages,” one of them told me. And I did and I was horrified by how poorly these novels stacked up against the young person’s literature I grew up on—stuff like the works of Mark Twain and Scott O’Dell and John Steinbeck. It’s a different way of writing sure, but I get it and I won’t talk down to them or try to protect them from the key elements of every good story: characters, conflict (toned down a bit) and rhythm.
Anyway, I’ll soon join the ranks of authors/storytellers who write for both adults and children. In here at the top echelon are Stephen King, JK Rowling, James Patterson, Neil Gaiman, vicious Clive Barker, and even pulp director Robert Rodriguez, the latter who brought us the R-rated From Dusk Till Dawn but whom also delighted our kiddies with the Spy Kids series. It can be done!
And of course there’s Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, whom I can definitely cite as an influence for my new middle grade novel. I remember the power of his yarn and pronounced dialect as it came alive while reading The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County in middle school (even, just re-familiarizing myself with the title brings a smile). Whether you’re in middle school or older I hope you will enjoy my own yarn when it comes out in late 2014/early 2015. Be on the lookout. It’s called “Donkey Sense” and it’s suitable fun not just for middle graders but for all ages.
The one’s for you, Mom, and for you too Mark.