When I learned that he would be publishing a middle grade novel, I knew I'd want to read it because A) MG books are what my reading heart beats for the most, and B) I was curious about how an author who writes mainly adult and young adult horror would transition to crafting stories for a middle grade audience. I knew Robert's skill level as a writer, and had a feeling he would nail his MG book.
Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees takes everything Robert excels at in his books for older audiences--witty writing, fast-paced plots, big questions about humanity, and heart--and plants it firmly into middle grade soil. Three-dimensional characters, great world-building, and a super-imaginative/cool plot make this a great read for you or the young reader in your life. And the book got an amazing promotional blurb from RICHARD ADAMS, author of Watership Down. Yes, wow indeed.
Robert was kind enough to answer a few questions for me on the differences between writing for MG audiences and older readers. *I'm giving away an eBook of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees. Just leave a comment on this post to enter. I'll pick a winner via Random.org next Wednesday evening and will update this post. UPDATE: The winner is Dianne K. Salerni! Congrats, Dianne!
How do differences in the ages of MG/YA protagonists impact your approach with characterization? Let's start with Banneker Bones.
Hi Jessica! Thanks for having me back at your blog. You always ask me the most interesting questions. Last time I was here, I said that I try to let the character come from the story and then, once I'm writing it, the story from the character. That's no different for middle grade. In fact, Banneker Bones hijacked my story and made me throw out most of my plans.
The story for Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees was always going to be about Ellicott Skullworth, brilliant, but lonely eleven-year-old, being invited to Latimer City to live with his world famous cousin, Banneker Bones. Once there, I figured the boys would solve a mystery and Ellicott would find a place to belong as Robin to Banneker's Batman. But because I believe in letting my characters make their own decisions whenever possible, I read along with the reader as Banneker attacked Ellicott with a security robot, locked him in a pit, and tortured him in lots of other ways all because Banneker didn't want to share his room.
It's really inconvenient when the hero of your series stops acting like a hero. But ultimately, letting Banneker make his own decision about the sort of character he wanted to be made for a richer story than if I'd forced him to conform robotically to my outline.
And it helps that the tone of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is comedic. When you're going for laughs, characters can be more flexible. For example, Dr. Gregory House, on whom Banneker is partly based and who was himself based on Sherlock Holmes, was a nasty fellow, but was also somehow still the hero of his show for 8 seasons, mostly because he was funny. I didn't set out to make Banneker Bones a jerk, he just was one and I had to find a way to build my story around him so he was still the hero. But Banneker made me laugh more when I let him do things his way and hopefully the reader feels the same.
How did your writing/character approach differ with your books for older audiences, like All Together Now (ATN) and All Right Now?
Although they were published in a different order, I wrote Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees first and at one point All Together Now was going to be Banneker Bones 3, which in retrospect was a terrible idea. The ending I wanted for ATN wouldn't have worked out in Banneker's world and ultimately I wanted to tell a more adult story with convincing violence, so I switched from middle grade to young adult.
I still knew I wanted to look at the zombie apocalypse from a younger perspective and if I do write another ATN sequel (I'm on the fence), I might include an 11-year-old protagonist with the understanding that the book would still be for older readers. In ATN, Ricky Genero has to be a romantic. The plot demands it from him. The entire story hinges on a protagonist willing to risk his life traveling across the zombie apocalypse to find a cure for his infected brother, and you don't do that unless you're a romantic.
Because Ricky is 15, I tried to show his romanticism in his descriptions of every other female character he encounters (ATN is told in the first person), which made me laugh, as Ricky never met a girl he didn't love. He's also terribly bitter about his mother's affair and channels his feelings about his parent's divorce into anger against her, because he has a romantic view of morality. Ricky is also obsessed with death, most notably his own, which is understandable in his circumstances.
Supposing I had found a way to tone ATN's violence down to levels acceptable for middle grade (where's the fun in that?) and Ricky were instead 11, the plot would still demand he be a romantic. Instead of talking about the pretty girls, he'd fixate on the adults left in the world as surrogate parents. He might not understand his mom's affair, and so he'd more likely be questing in search of his mother as well as a cure for his brother. Instead of anger, or rather, predominately anger, he'd feel loss for his broken family. He'd still be obsessed with death, but I think he'd avoid talking about it and he certainly wouldn't acknowledge his own death as a possibility.
The situation, the zombie apocalypse, wouldn't change, but the plot would change dramatically because the choices each version of the character would make would be different.
In All Right Now, the protagonist is an adult and a new father, so he's far less fatalistic about his situation and far more practical in the way he deals with things. He's not worried about whether zombies can be cured, so much as can they be kept away from his infant son. I would never try to tell ARN in a first-person journal because Richard wouldn't have Ricky's time to write it. He has a baby to worry about.
Whatever age group you're writing for, I still recommend first figuring out what the set up of your story demands from your character, then allow the character to make your plot decisions for you. If you figure you out what's important to your character, which changes depending on their age, and show them working toward a goal, they'll show you who they are.
What, if any, are some advantages of writing for a younger audience?
If I'm honest, I write middle grade for love as I make more money writing horror, which I also write for love:) Really, the only reason to write anything is for love.
I've found middle grade to be more challenging to market because younger readers are more difficult to reach without a support system of librarians and teachers most independent authors lack.
The advantage, however, is that a young fan is more likely to sing your praise than an older fan. Many older fans have been kind enough to share my stories on social media and write me to let me know I kept them up late, as though that wasn't what they were hoping for when they bought a horror story.
Younger fans, however, tell everyone about Banneker Bones with an enthusiasm older fans haven't matched. None of my older fans have sent me pictures of themselves dressed up as my characters or illustrations of gadgetry they think Banneker Bones should use in his next adventure.
And statistically, I would argue a writer has a better shot at reaching a wider readership with stories targeted to a younger audience. All adult readers will have first been child readers, but not all child reader will be adult readers. Less morbid, a story for children has a shot at snagging a reader when they're a child and later, when they're reading for their own children. A writer who captures fans when they're young may also be able to later sell them horror stories when they're old enough for them:)
What, if any, are some limitations (aka what “society” might deem as MG no-nos) that you encountered when writing for a middle grade audience?
That being said, I didn't leave any essential content out of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees just because I'm targeting younger readers. The bees still stab one character with a stinger and badly murder another, even if it's "off-screen." After a nasty fight, Ellicott catches his parents kissing in the morning, implying they've had a good evening of making up. I think the worst thing a writer can do is think of their story as being just for kids, as adults will read them as well and I always try to keep my older readers in mind.
Is there any additional advice you might offer a YA or Adult author who’s looking to start writing middle grade fiction?
I've read more books about zombies than I ever cared to, but it would've been irresponsible to publish All Together Now without first knowing what stories zombie fans had already read (and movies and television shows they'd seen). It also helped to know what did and did not work in other zombie stories. The best way to avoid making a mistake is to watch someone else make it first.
If a writer is on the fence about what age group their story should target, I'll say this: if I had an idea for a middle grade story that could also work as young adult, I'd probably bump it up to young adult where it would also snag some adult readers and be easier to market. But I have a one-year-old and I want to share my stories with him, so I foresee a lot of middle grade in my future for at least the next decade.
What are you working on now?
Robert, thank you so much for your time! Again, leave a comment to win a copy of Robert's middle grade novel Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees.
Fifth grader Ellicott Skullworth has always felt out of place at public school and now he's tested into the Archimedes Program at Latimer University. While in Latimer City, he’ll be living with his world famous and insane(ly) brilliant cousin, Banneker Bones, the eleven-year-old inventor of robots. The only problem: Banneker doesn't want to share his room. And he's got an army of robots to make Ellicott miserable until he goes home.
When the boys are ambushed by robot bees as big as cars, Ellicott's only friend is carried off and held for ransom. To rescue him, Ellicott has no choice but to partner with his maniacal cousin. Ellicott doesn't know what's worse: facing a hive of giant robot bees or spending more time with Banneker Bones.
BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES features original illustrations by Adam Smith. It's a humorous, science fiction adventure for readers of all ages written in the spirit of a comic book.
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