Friday, 6 February 2015

Why do I write middle grade stories? by Abi Elphinstone


So, SF Said comes along and posts this insanely eloquent and brilliant post here about 21st century middle-grade books then you get me showing up posting photos of myself as a unicorn. Sorry guys. Blame Darren from BookZone for letting me be a Middle Grade Strikes Back contributor. Although I'm tempted to post photo after photo of dragons and snow leopards, I'm going to reign it in (a little) and talk about why I write middle grade stories. 

Me as a unicorn

I didn't always know that I wanted to write for 8-13-year-olds. I didn't even know I wanted to be a writer until I was in my mid twenties. From the age of six I wanted to be a unicorn and after that I wanted to be a Blue Peter Presenter. Neither have happened. Yet. I did love writing as a child (I wrote morbid newspaper articles, a few highly unrealistic plays and a selection of wanted posters directed at my siblings when they annoyed me), but most of my childhood was spent exploring outdoors. There was something magical about those years (aged 8-13) - I was full of wonder at the world and I craved adventure. I ran everywhere; I had to see and do EVERYTHING. My 'YA years' may have held the excitement of 'growing up' but my parents' divorce during that time left me craving the naive idealism of my younger years. In fact it left me desperate to write about them years later.

Me (with a dreadful haircut) hitching a ride into the woods to build a treehouse

I grew up in the wilds of Scotland next to a farm. When I wasn’t building dens in the woods with my brothers and sister, I was mixing potions from flower petals or careering down the river on a lilo. My siblings and I camped under the stars up the glen, played monkey bars from the rafters of the barn and fished the pond for giant beetles. Birthdays comprised of wheelbarrow races round the garden and high-jump competitions over bamboo canes. When I think about it, I don’t really have any memories of being inside. At six, I could distinguish a skylark call from a yellowhammer and by seven I was scrambling up mountains in search of eagles’ eyries and riding ponies bareback on the beach.

Swimming in the river with my siblings

When I had to be inside I read everything that I could get my hands on (thanks to my Mum): Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series, Sylvia Waugh’s The Mennymns, CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – and it was these types of stories that sprinkled every adventure I had with magic. When I pushed open old, ivy-strewn doors into secret gardens, I genuinely believed Narnia might be on the other side; when I looked under ferny overhangs by the river, I wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen Tinkerbell chilling out on a toadstool. And so, years later, when I realised that all I really wanted to do was to write stories (because I was useless at everything else - in fact I was useless at writing as well at first but that's another story), it came as no surprise that I chose to write about an outdoors world filled with adventure and magic – the one I had inhabited as a middle grade child…

Um, I wrote this. But whatever, no biggie (just the single most exciting thing that's ever happened to me. Other than hugging Westley from A Princess Bride last year)

I started thinking about people who don’t live in traditional houses and before long, I was knee-deep in researching Romany gypsies and their beautiful wagons in the woods – and little by little, Moll’s world was born. In that world I knew I could let my childhood run wild again (tree forts, river swimming, herbal concoctions)… One of my all-time favourite books is Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – and I knew with my own book that I wanted to create a heroine as punchy as Lyra. And so along came Moll – hopelessly flawed but filled with courage and adventurous spirit.


Lyra with Iorek from Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights

People ask me what’s coming next after Moll and Gryff’s adventures – I don’t know what plot will unfold but I do know four things: there will be people who don’t live in houses (Inuits this time, I think), a heroine who packs a punch (Eska is slowly taking shape in my mind), a child-animal bond (for some reason I can’t stop thinking about a grizzly bear cub)… and it's damn well going to be middle-grade. Unless you want to read about my non-existent love life during my YA years when I was at an all-girls school. That's right. You don't. You want DRAGONS, UNICORNS, SNOW LEOPARDS, MAGIC, GOBLINS, SECRET WORLDS. Sorry, Darren, I'll calm down. Just one final YELL:


I LOVE DRAGONS SO MUCH!

14 comments:

  1. wow -it sounds like you did see and do EVERYTHING - can't wait to read The Dream Snatcher - hooray for Mums and Moll!

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  2. I LOVE THIS POST! It really gets to the heart of why MG matters so much. And it took me right back – The Mennyms! What a classic. Those books need rediscovering...

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    1. Thanks SF! Yup, those Mennymns books were so wonderful. I was enthralled by them as a child...

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  3. Great post Abi! But please can you tell me how to distinguish a skylark from a yellowhammer? Feels like the kind of thing I *really* should know and have *no* idea....

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    1. So, Dad said you can tell the yellowhammer because it sounds like someone saying 'a little bit of bread and no cheese' - with the 'cheese' really drawn out like 'cheeeeeeeeeese'! And the skylark is just really high and 'trilly'. Hehe. Ask Kester, he'd know. x

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  4. A great post on why to write for middle grade! I grew up on farm in the midwest US in a time where parents didn't run kids to town for anything but groceries. We played outside. We had a large pony named Red Baron that thought he was a dog, a rescued sparrow named Chicken, and Piggy Sue, a piglet rejected by her mother that we bottle-fed and kept warm in a box in front of the oil stove. Great memories! Thanks! Can't wait to read The Dreamsnatcher!

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    1. Wow, Jeri! I love the sound of your childhood! Piggy Sue sounds adorable... Really hope you enjoy The Dreamsnatcher - thank you!

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  5. Awesome post. What a great childhood you had. Sounds a lot like my own! His Dark Materials is also one of my favourite books ever! Bravo!

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    1. Thanks Kieran! So glad you liked it - and His Dark Materials. May re-read that this year. Love Lyra so much!

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  6. I have a pet baby dragon that keeps staring at me asking me to tell his story...And why aren't you on Blue Peter? You'd be great!

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  7. Definitely tell the dragon's story! Blue Peter - hopefully one day ;)

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