The KidLit Dead Pool

I read a lot of Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction. The official reason is because I write Young Adult/Middle Grade fiction, and it’s vital to read in the field you want to publish in. The unofficial reason is because there’s some darn good storytelling in those books. I feel like younger readers are less jaded, less burdened with silly rules (I’m looking at you, mundane sci-fi fans), less impressed with literary showoffery, and more focused on simply having a good story told well. (On a tangential note, I feel similarly about minority literature and literature from groups that feel disenfranchised from mainstream literary culture–they haven’t abandoned narrative. This very nearly was the topic of my master’s thesis.)

You can see the book I’m currently reading in the widget on the right. It was suggested to me as a possible comp title for my novel Vanishing Act, and I wanted to see just how comparable it was. The image is kind of small, but you can clearly see a silvery-gray circle in the lower left part of the title, which leads me to a prediction. I am almost precisely halfway through the book, and I’m all but certain that somebody’s got to die. All I’m trying to figure out is whether it will be the baby sister, the title character, or the girl next door. Because killing somebody and breaking the protagonist’s heart is the KidLit equivalent of being literary, and an award on the cover of a book is the sign that a Kidlit book is literary.

Don’t believe me?

Spoiler: Here are some examples off the top of me and Lisa's heads: SelectShow

Do you have examples that I missed?

TVTropes even has a name for this phenomenon: Death by Newbery

So why do authors of literary fiction for young readers hate kids, anyway?

P.S. Don’t go spoiling Skellig for me; I’ll be done with it in a day or so anyway. (I’ll go ahead and spoil Vanishing Act for you: nobody dies, so there will be no medals on the cover of this book. 😉 )

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8 Responses to The KidLit Dead Pool

  1. Marlana says:

    FANTASTIC write-up Joe! I love your reasons for writing YA / MG. You’ve voiced what I’ve always felt but wasn’t brilliant enough to explain the way you did. And your Old Yeller comment? HA! Thanks for the laugh and good read.

  2. David Flor says:

    I don’t have anything to add to the list, but wanted to thank you for not direct linking to TVTropes. I actually have work to do today, and don’t need a four hour time sink thanks to an errant link. 🙂

  3. Tom Emmons says:

    Yeah. Mundanity is dying a slow apathetic death of “meh” with readers. A death it probably deserves. (Guilty, as charged).

    Disney has often used death for various reasons, reasons not very literary at all. It often makes for an interesting plot, however. Sometimes the death of parents can free up the protagonist to be independent without a neglectful parent getting in the way of the story by having the reader hate them. I love meaningful death in almost any story. Even a meaningless death can spark a reaction, but it’s one of despair, and is not uplifting.

    I read an article recently that suggests that we seek out those tearjerker moments in fiction, where it’s safe. Like a life experience, we go through the grief to come out on the other side ready to move on, refreshed.

    There might be something to that.

  4. Joe says:

    *g* I’ve wasted many an afternoon on TVTropes.

    Next week I’m linking to Cracked. :p

    Tom, you’re right that one of the challenges in writing stories with kid protagonists is to get the parents out of the way so the kids can protag. In the Newbery-type stories, though, the special person seems to buy it at the end, as a sort of climactic moment.

    I think you’re right about seeking out dramatic moments in fiction where it’s safe. But I think that’s part of a larger truth: we read/watch to experience tension in a safe way, whether it’s family tension, physical danger tension, emotional tension, whatever. It does seem, though, than when it comes to the books we tend to force on kids in school 😉 we privilege a specific sort of tragic tension.

  5. jan eldredge says:

    Adding THE BOOK THIEF to your list.
    Great book, though.

  6. Joe says:


    Wow. That looks like a book I need to read!

  7. Amy B. says:

    One of the things I hope to come out of the YA book boom is greater flexibility and drive in mainstream adult books. This is partly because it has opened many adult to genres they wouldn’t have considered before, and partly because publishers see a market for the mold-breakers now. Huzzahs all around!

    Always when I think of “books with a Newberry medal on front” I think of N-honor book Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, because the way I found it was browsing the Newberry shelf at B&N. And it is one of my all-time favorite books. I don’t think it really fits the “someone’s gotta die” criteria, though. I mean, people DO die, but it isn’t at the end, and it isn’t so the protagonist feels all sad about it and learns a Lesson About Life. It’s because when stuff like that goes down, people die, and you don’t have time to stop and mourn. Even though their deaths still make me sad. ^_^

  8. Joe says:

    Full disclosure: my first awareness of Newberies actually was when I read Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, which, as I recall, didn’t end with a Lesson by Death (*giggle*). I thought it was a fantastic book, and came away associating the award with the most sophisticated writing for kids and young teens. And the few books I’ve listed here are hardly a representative sample.

    It’s in the last few years where I’ve come to associate a prominent death in a book that is not particularly plot-driven as being award-bait. 😉

    I finished reading Skellig and it did subvert my expectations. I’m gonna say it’s because that medal on the front is a Printz and not a Newbery. He shoulda killed the sister; then he would’ve gotten a Newbery. 😉

    I hope you’re right about a market for mold-breakers, because I’m finding it harder than I would have expected to come up with comp titles!

    Incidentally, The Thief sounds really good!

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