Thursday, February 11, 2010

Guest Post: Susan Quinn on Writing a Thinking Book

This is blog vacation week! And to celebrate, I've got a series of guest posts for this week...and a chance to win tons of free books! Today we're welcoming Susan Quinn, author of the blog Ink Spells. She's writing today about books that make you think. Thank you so much for making me think, Sue!

Writing a Thinking Book

What does it mean to write a Thinking Book (patent pending), and why would you want to?

I’ve been giving this some thought (Ha! And you thought this would be a thoughtful post! Ok, I’ll stop now), and Beth graciously allowed me to guest post and share my thoughts with you (really, I’m stopping now).
I've spent years searching for appropriate books for my three boys (now ages 6, 9 and 11). They are all advanced readers, starting at very young ages, and finding books that would challenge their reading skills, intrigue them, and still are wholesome enough to pass the “Mommy Test” . . . well, that was no small trick. It meant a lot of time in the library, looking through reviews, and asking friends for recommendations.

My blog, Ink Spells, grew out of those years of searching for appropriate material for my kids. At Ink Spells we talk a lot about finding books for advanced readers 8-12 years old, but also about writing them, as I’m also working on a couple middle grade and young adult novels.

The reading level of a book is often a reflection more of the vocabulary than the content. In fact, many teen books have a lower reading level than many middle grade books (I know, I was shocked too). So, if you’re tempted to give your middle grader those young adult books because you think they are more challenging, think again. They are likely less challenging to read, while having more mature content.

While it’s difficult to find fiction with reading levels higher than about 6.0 (grade 6, zero months), it is somewhat easier to find Thinking Books. A Thinking Book is one which urges young readers to think about serious topics, be they social issues (oppression, rights) or family issues (friendship, family). More than just a simple story, there is some meat to these novels, something that advanced readers can sink their teeth into. They speak to the larger issues of the world, and spur on question after question, long after the book has retired to the shelf.

Middle graders are especially open to Thinking Books. While their older brothers and sisters are enamored with angsty teen issues, their teen status prevents them from hearing anything that may appear “preachy.” While it’s important to never talk down to smart middle grade minds, and middle graders do not want to be lectured to either, so much of how the world works is still unknown to them. They are like toddlers seeing flowers for the first time: they are intrigued by the feel, captivated by the smell, entranced that there is such a wonder in the world. Oh, to be a toddler again! Ahem.

Middle graders are at that wonder stage of understanding the world on a thought-engaging level. They are seeing governments, family structures, the economy, and social issues like freedom and slavery and war, for the very first time: they are intrigued by the idea that some governments might outlaw third children (Among the Hidden); they are captivated by the thought of children who are slaves but can communicate directly with computers (Softwire); they are fascinated by vision of wars as a game and games as a war (Only You Can Save Mankind).

Come to think of it, I am too.

Because middle graders are being exposed to the concepts for the first time, the Thinking Book that you write has a great potential to mold little minds. For me, this is a tremendously satisfying prospect, one that motivates a lot of my writing. I give a lot of thought to the themes in my books: what is this book saying about the human condition? What is the message it is bringing, directly or indirectly, into children’s minds?

This is a powerful thing, not to be taken lightly.

It is also what makes a book compelling. And compelling stories are the ones that make it to the NY Times Bestseller list, outsell their advances, and generally spread like wildfire through word-of-mouth. There is something about them that speaks to people, children and adults alike (because adults are the ones that buy them).

Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel, talks about themes, and how layering in rich themes in your book can take it to the next level, turning it into a Breakout Novel (Maass has the patent on that one). He doesn’t specifically address children’s books, but I think the idea applies just as well. He talks about the personal stakes and public stakes in a story: what themes apply to my character’s internal lives, and what themes apply to the world at large?

Writing these kinds of Thinking stories, without being overly moralistic or lecturing, is not easy, but then no writing is. But bringing that perspective to your story can enrich and enhance it. It may result in greater sales. It likely will result in a better book. And it will definitely have a profound impact on your Wee Readers, as you open up the world to them.

Bio: I'm an at-home-mom, environmental engineer, rocket scientist, writer and elected official. And I tap dance. Not really that last part—that would be crazy. I’m working on querying my middle grade science fiction novel, and I am eyeing the second draft of a young adult paranormal novel (no vampires!).


Unknown said...

Thanks again for posting, Susan!

Caroline Starr Rose said...

This is fabulous, Susan, and excactly why I write. I want to create (and share with children)the human experience.

It is interesting, isn't it, that so many YAs are classified by vocabluary alone. I know it was frustrating for my social studies students to be told they couldn't test on certain AR novels because they were below level but fit perfectly with my historical novel assignment.

I'm linking this to today's post.

And Beth, nice to meet you!

Rebecca J. Carlson said...

Thought-provoking as ever, Sue. I know the books I read when I was 9-12 years old had the most profound influence on me. Here's to everyone out there working on bringing the world to children through books.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Beth - Thank you for this opportunity! And giving me the excuse to get off my duff and write this post that I've had rattling around in my head for some time!

Caroline - AR is a system that can be frustrating, when it's used in that limiting way. Children should be free to read any (appropriate) material they are interested in. Otherwise, how can we complain that they do not like to read? Awesome for you, writing to bring the human condition to children!

Rebecca - SF writers unite, indeed! The most compelling books I've ever read are SF ones that tackle serious questions (like YOURS!). Thanks for stopping by!