Gary Schmidt is a two-time Newbery award-winning author and professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He received both a Newbery Honor and a Printz Honor for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and a Newbery Honor for The Wednesday Wars. He lives with his family on a 150-year-old farm in Alto, Michigan, where he splits wood, plants gardens, writes, and feeds the wild cats that drop by. He’s trading the Michigan cold for warm L.A. as faculty for this year’s SCBWI-L.A. Writers Day. Today, he’s sharing his experience and advice on writing emotionally heavy subject matter for kids, balancing multiple projects, and the historical fiction we all should be reading.
SARAH PARKER-LEE: You’ve shared that you weren’t a big reader as a kid until one particular teacher not only taught you to read, but taught you that you were capable of reading and understanding, that you weren’t “stupid.” How do you try to impart this same encouragement to your young readers?
GARY SCHMIDT: A good question. I think I come to the writing with the assumption that I’m going to ask the reader to do some work — and trust that they will be willing to do that. In Okay for Now, I have a character so emotionally hurt that he won’t articulate what he would like to say — and so many of his sentences end before he gets to the point — and often, he tells the reader that his story is none of their business. Or in What Came from the Stars, the reader is confronted with an alien language and has to figure out meanings — just like the characters. In Orbiting Jupiter the narrator is a naïve twelve-year-old kiddo, but the story he wants to tell is that of a very much older fourteen-year-old kiddo. In all those cases, the reader has a lot of work to do to figure out what is going on, and so has to become invested in doing part of the work of the novel. Succeeding at that involves a kind of competence that is, it seems to me, an article of trust between the reader and the writer that involves encouragement.
SPL: Many of your books aren’t as lighthearted or full of the typical middle-grade humor we often come to expect for that age group. Any tips on writing about heavier subjects for a middle-grade audience? Continue reading