Writing for the Middle by Laurel Snyder
When I was in the sixth grade, there was this girl—we’ll call her Liv—who “developed” earlier than I did. Liv was the sort of girl grownups refer to as “fast.” She wore skimpy clothes. She was loud and sometimes rude. She was also my friend.
One night, during a sleepover at Liv’s house, we were playing My Little Ponies—making pony-houses from throw pillows and silk scarves, combing all that endless purple and pink pony-hair, talking in pony voices, and flying them through the air—when the phone rang. Liv picked up—it was a boy she knew from the grade above us. I had never gotten a call from a boy before, and I felt blushy and nervous at the very thought. I remember how it felt to sit there on Liv’s ruffled bedspread, holding my plastic pony in the air, mid-flight, as if I myself were on pause. Arrested and listening.
The boy wanted Liv to meet him on the corner. I set my pony down when I heard Liv say, “Okay, I’ll come out. But we can’t do THAT because I have my period.” Huh? In the end, Liv went out, and I stayed with the ponies, wondering what was happening down the street. Not quite sure what THAT was. Curious, bewildered, concerned.
This is the story I think about when I think about middle school. Not because middle school means sex (though it sometimes does). And not because it means playing with plastic ponies (though that also happens). But because middle school means both. Middle school is uneven, awkward. Middle school is where you pretend to understand things you don’t really grasp, while simultaneously pretending not to know the things that might get you teased or in trouble.
For over a decade now, I’ve written middle grade books. I love middle grade. It’s the literature that meant the most to me as a young reader, and it’s the age I seem unable to outgrow entirely as a person. But recently, I noticed that with each book I write, my characters age a little. Each book feels slightly more mature than the last one. As if I’m trying to recall the upper reaches of adolescence, the days just before I crossed over. Searching for the ceiling of middle-grade.
It’s a funny thing, middle-grade. Middle-grade books are theoretically for ages 8-12, but increasingly, kids read them as early as first grade. What that means is that we see a lot of middle-grade titles that are about middle-school students, but actually for younger readers. Without the bewildering situations thirteen-year-olds encounter, the complex mix of opinions, hormones, and experiences that influence how they think, act, and feel.
This is fine, of course. I love lower middle-grade books, and have written them myself. The trouble is that kids often make the leap from these stories to young adult novels, books that primarily address the concerns of high school students. And that’s a big leap! By the time I graduated middle school, I’d snuck out of the house at night (and gotten caught). I’d lost loved ones. I’d overheard my parents’ therapy sessions and read my way through Our Bodies, Ourselves. But I also still believed in fairies. I needed to be tucked-in at night. And I was thinking about all of that, daily.
I’m intentionally not telling you what Jasper and Leah, the two main characters in My Jasper June, are dealing with (though it’s not sex, as in the real-life example I gave above), because I don’t want to spoil anything. What I do want to share is that I set out to write a book in which two middle-school girls experience serious hardship, but still manage to lean forward into life, to grow and struggle and process and puzzle out the world as middle-school kids do, with maturity. But I also set out to write about two girls in search of magic, two kids who just want to have fun. Leah and Jasper are dreaming of an invitation to Hogwarts, running to the corner for ice cream, splashing in the pool. Being kids.
If you look at a website like Common Sense Media, you’ll find that the “maturity” of a book is sometimes evaluated in terms of the existence of adult subject matter. Drugs, maybe, or mental illness. “Language.” The mere presence of such things. But to my mind, that isn’t what maturity really is. Because even the youngest child lives in a world filled with hard truths. Maturity is about engaging with these subjects independently—acknowledging them, trying to understand them, and maybe even addressing them, with the emotional sophistication that magically (if awkwardly) develops around age thirteen.
In writing My Jasper June, I set out to acknowledge the messy fullness of what it means to be an adolescent. I wanted to write a book for those in the middle. For the complex, thoughtful, “mature” readers who defy our categories. And often our expectations.
But who also sometimes play with My Little Ponies. Even if they don’t want you to know…
Laurel Snyder is the author of picture books and novels for children, including National Book Award nominee Orphan Islandand the Theodore Seuss Geisel Award winner Charlie & Mouse. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she currently teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for children and Young Adults program. She lives in Atlanta with her family and can be found online at www.laurelsnyder.com
Jacket art © Ramona Kauliezki (check) Jacket design by Sarah Nichole Kaufman
On Sale 9/03/2019
ABOUT THE BOOK
The school year is over, and it is summer in Atlanta. The sky is blue, the sun is blazing, and the days brim with possibility. But Leah feels…lost. She ahs been this way since one terrible afternoon a year ago, when everything changed. Since that day, her parents have become distant, her friends have fallen away, and Leah’s been adrift and alone.
Then she meets Jasper, a girl unlike anyone else she has ever known. There’s something mysterious about Jasper, almost magical. And Jasper, Leah discovers, is also lost. Together, the two girls carve out a space for themselves, a hideaway in the overgrown spaces of Atlanta, away from their parents and their hardships, a place only they can find, where no one besides them exists.
But as they days of this magical June start to draw to a close, and the darker realities of their lives intrude once more, Leah and Jasper have to decide how real their friendship is, and whether it can be enough to save them both.
Laurel Snyder, author of Orphan Island, returns with another unforgettable story of the moments in which we find out who we are, and the life-altering friendships that show us what we can be.
THAT COVER! Beautiful!! Congrats Laurel!
Thanks so much to the Nerdy Book Club, for creating this space, and making me welcome! I’m so excited to share this book with you all.
Let me just say that you have captured the nature of middle school beautifully. Having spent twenty-seven years teaching middle schoolers, I know first hand how they can love reading Elephant and Piggy and The Book Thief simultaneously. I loved your story of Liv and the context of My Little Ponies because it reminds me of the Liv that I knew as a child. Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to read My Jasper June!
Another middle school reading teacher and mom to a 6th and an 8th grader chiming in with YES YES YES. There’s such a range of maturity levels within my classroom, but also within each kid.