craft review by Jen Jobart
When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was A Wrinkle in Time. I’m sure many of you can relate–how many of us were inspired to write children’s books by Madeleine L’Engle? And do any of you remember the magic of the movie The NeverEnding Story? I still get tingles up my spine when I hear the closing song. Even the grainy, 1980s graphics don’t detract from my fascination with the beauty of that story and its characters.
Even today, my favorite children’s novels are the ones that marry fantasy with reality. I devour the stories that sweep me out of my everyday, mundane life and let me escape to a world where magic can happen. That’s the reason I loved Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley.
Fantastical world, meet everyday life
Kids inhabit a world that’s part reality, part imagination, so it’s no surprise that many middle grade books skirt this line. But it’s hard to do it right. For writers, injecting fantasy into a story takes us into the daunting realm of worldbuilding and portals. How does one build a believable make-believe world?
In Circus Mirandus, the magical circus exists as a part of the real world that can only be perceived by children and the very rare adults who genuinely believe in magic. Even disbelieving children are excluded from it. It’s there if you see it, but not if you don’t. Cassie Beasley delicately navigates the intricacies of its existence in a way that feels natural and believable. She makes the reader truly want to believe in magic, if only as a way to be open to all that the world has to offer.
Action: When you’re writing, remember that for kids, the line between fantasy and reality is very blurred. Sprinkle a little magic into your story. It just might inspire real magic in your reader’s life.
Kids can handle tough themes
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about themes in middle grade stories. When I asked my eight-year-old son what he thought the theme of Circus Mirandus might be, he said, “Oh, that you can’t stop someone from dying?” He understood without ever having discussed the book with me.
Indeed, while on the surface Circus Mirandus is a magical adventure story, it is also a story about a boy’s journey to thwart, and then ultimately accept, his grandfather’s death. It is heartbreaking, but also a reassuring story that the circle of life is meant to be, and that things will be okay.
As Madeleine L’Engle said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” On a daily basis, kids experience things that challenge and change them. They have to be brave, and open minded, and optimistic, just to get through their lives. In many ways, they are much stronger than adults.
Action: Don’t shy away from broaching tough themes in middle grade fiction. Showing that we trust them them to handle difficult topics sends a well-deserved message of honor and respect.
Backstory–it’s a headscratcher
Backstory. It’s the embarrassing relative no one talks about. Almost all writers have wondered, at some point, how to handle backstory. How much of it is really needed? And what’s the best way to present it without overloading the reader with pages of overwhelming and forgettable details? On one hand, the reader often needs some of it in order to understand the story. On the other hand, if not done correctly, backstory can be boring and can detract from the pace of the story.
Sometimes, writers include a preface in their book that gives the backstory. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve heard agents say that they don’t like prefaces. I’ve also seen published books that have prefaces, so obviously this isn’t a hard rule.
Backstory can be presented in other ways too. Sometimes it’s presented through dialogue. This has to be done carefully or the dialogue sounds stilted and unnatural. Sometimes it’s presented through reflections, or dreams. Sometimes these tools work, sometimes not.
In children’s books, the backstory dilemma can be even more complex, because sometimes the backstory focuses on an adult who is not the child main character. That is the case in Circus Mirandus. The backstory really belongs to Grandpa Ephraim, but the real story is about Micah, the main character.
Cassie Beasley skillfully doles out backstory in the first chapter. The opening sentences instantly hook the reader:
“Four small words. That was all it took to set things in motion.”
The first chapter goes on to set up the story in a brief, yet compelling, way that gives us just enough information to understand what’s going on and draw us into the story.
Action: It’s fine, and even commendable, to have a thorough understanding of your story’s history and future. But the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know all of it. Pare down your backstory to just what the reader needs to know to understand the story. Then incorporate the backstory without interrupting the flow.
Jen Jobart writes middle grade fiction and is always sending characters she loves on dangerous adventures. She is an active member of the SCBWI and has studied writing for children through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. When Jen’s not writing, she’s outside gardening and raising chickens at her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her at www.jenjobart.com.