Writing Tough Topics for Middle Grade with Marie Miranda Cruz

Mindy:             Today's guest is Marie Miranda Cruz, author of Everlasting Nora, an uplifting young reader debut about perseverance against all odds. Marie joined me today to talk about the difficulty of querying a middle grade novel with complicated and heavy themes.

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Mindy:             A lot of my listeners are aspiring authors and many are in the query trenches trying to get an agent. So can you talk a little bit about your experience at landing an agent?

Marie:              It took me about four years to land my agent. My agent is Paula Munier of Talcott Notch. Basically my query journey probably began in 2009. I started out querying my debut, actually Everlasting Nora back then it was, it had a different title and it was called Nora's Grave. I started out with that. I received a lot of requests to read, but at the time agents just weren't willing to take a chance. I think they thought it was a bit of a conundrum in a way. First of all, how to categorize the story. They weren't sure if it was middle-grade or young adult. And then also because they thought it was a little scary too. The elements I had in the book, they just didn't know whether or not they could sell it. I did that for a couple of years. From 2009 to 2010 I queried that book and in the meantime I thought, well I, I really wanted to write a YA.

Marie:              So I wrote a YA book and this one was a story set in San Francisco this time. Because my first book, the one that came out in October is set in the Philippines. So I wrote one that was set in San Francisco about a teenage girl who has psychic powers. I queried that book for a of years, well, maybe more like a year and a half from between 2011 and 2012. And I was basically still actually querying both books at the same time. Although the first book I decided to shelve, towards later of 2011. And that's how I found my agent. In 2012 I queried Paula Munier who was new to agenting. Publishing was cutting back on staff and there was a lot of layoffs and she had been an editor. She decided to go into agenting lucky for me and she offered representation. That's how my journey began basically.

Mindy:             So you mentioned that your first book Everlasting Nora is a middle-grade. It has a very specific voice and that it was a struggle actually in the beginning to land an agent because of the fact that it does have some darker themes yet is middle grade. So people that were reading it were struggling with categorizing it. How did you come to the decision to write middle grade in the first place and when you are writing middle grade, knowing that you intend to make it a middle grade book, do you ever look at what you're working on and think that it's leaning too young or too old?

Marie:              I don't know that I approached this project necessarily thinking about whether or not this book was one thing or another. All I wanted to do was tell a story that was very honest to the character and to the situation she finds herself in. As I was writing it though, talking with my critique group, they felt the voice was definitely middle-grade, but considering the content they felt, it was more YA. And one of the, one of the comp books I had used when I was querying was Sold by Patricia McCormick, the character in that book at 12 year old girl, her father I think sold her into prostitution. And so that was my conflict initially. And I think when, when I started querying, I felt that my book was, was young adult, despite the fact that my character is only 12. It Was a little bit difficult. And when I had to decide how to pitch it to some of the agents that did come back to me at that time did make that comment that, oh, you know, if your character, she's a kid, you know, and the voice is very middle grade. But I said, yeah, so what do I do?

Marie:              Like I said, I never really intended to write one way or the other. I just really wanted to tell this kid's story.

Mindy:             It is a kind of a tough age range right there and they're capable of looking at those darker themes. But you also don't want to be impacting them in ways that are negative. Everlasting Nora is set in a shanty town in the Philippines, in a graveyard. And you deal with a lot of the harder topics in this book. So can you talk about the issues that you address in the book, some of those harder themes and the difficult topics and how you decided to frame them for Middle Grade.

Marie:              Poverty, addiction, and violence and crime. When my agent was um, pitching the book, we had a conversation and she was the one that actually said to me, you know, we need to work out the tone of this book. And she felt that the first part of my book had a different tone that was, that was more about just the poverty and about the family and about the community. And the, the second half of the book was different in tone, more violent, it focused a lot more on the crime aspect and the addiction. She said to me that I needed to do something to balance that and to make it a little bit more focused. And so there were some elements that I had in there, in that version of the story, the mom in the story didn't have a gambling addiction. She did something totally different to make money.

Marie:              One of the things that I really wanted to talk about in the story was the the black market in the Philippines. People were selling their kidneys basically. This was actually based on an article I read of someone's experience. Some of the poor people in the Philippines were being taken advantage of, offered lots of money through a middleman to donate a kidney basically, and then getting cheated out of the money. I decided to mellow that out a little bit more. Gambling addiction is not something to be treated lightly. But I thought that might be a little bit easier to understand. I had to kind of steer the story more towards the relationship of mom and daughter when the book was finally acquired and I was working with my editor. My editor is the fantastic Diana Pho of Tor Books. When I was working with her, we made the focus a little bit more family-centric at that point,.

Marie:              The issue of poverty. That was something I really wanted to sort of illustrate to show the American audience how some children in the Philippines live. It'll make them feel sad, that's for sure. I wanted it to be an experience for them just to see, to share in what, what it is to live and how to live that way. The issue of poverty, I definitely wanted to illustrate it for them to share in that experience and see what that's like as far as the addiction and some of the violence, because there is a part in the book where Nora's friend is attacked. There's theft in the novel and a certain kidnapping. I wanted to show those issues because those are some of the real dangers for children and for families that live in squatter communities. I wanted it to be as honest as possible, but in a, way that wouldn't cause trauma and I hope it didn't. Some book bloggers in the Philippines when they reviewed my book, they did offer trigger warnings, you know, to warn people to say that, you know, there is some violence in the book to be warned if you were going to buy this for a young reader. American librarians and the book bloggers abroad did recommend this for upper middle grade, more than lower middle grade readers.

Mindy:             There's some things that a 12 year old obviously is going to be able to process and handle that an eight year old is not, and so middle grade has always been that way. It's always been a tough area. Tough to write for. Tough to target, tough to market to. There's always been, I think, I mean I wouldn't want to write middle grade. I don't think I could do it. I think it's way more difficult. It's probably the most difficult in my mind,

Mindy:             Coming up, writing about tough topics for middle graders as a way to build empathy and where to find Marie online.

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Mindy:             I'm curious, the agent that did finally pick you up, was she thinking we're going to try to reframe this as YA or was she thinking middle-grade all along and what really sold it for her?


Marie:              She really felt it was middle grade. The strength of the novel was the Middle Grade Voice. What she found, I think the most compelling, and I believe that's how she pitched the book, was the idea of the community and the story is so strong that Nora lived among people who were there to support her. I mean an absentee mom for the most part, her eventual disappearance. And then her mother's eventual illness, she found that she had friends among the people there. And so that was what uh, my agent thought was the most compelling of a story and that would make it definitely more middle grade so that it would be more appealing to a middle grade audience. It is difficult because I've been reading a lot of middle grade books lately and they do tend to skew from stories that that would definitely appeal to very young kids. Simpler stories that centered just around the family and on um, little adventures and mysteries. And then you go to the upper middle grade where it does deal with other issues. One parent who is in prison and how a child deals with that. An older sibling who went away because they got pregnant. So those definitely are for older kids.

Mindy:             Do you have any concerns when you're writing about these tough topics for the younger age range or do you think that your audience is equipped to handle it if you're giving it to them appropriately?

Marie:              I think definitely the audience would be able to handle it. Kids tend to observe and understand more than people give them credit for. Life itself is a difficult journey and there are lots and lots of kids, probably more kids than we can say who are in situations that are difficult and I think books that deal with tough issues and difficult situations could be good for them to read so they can see how the kids in the story deal with it to sympathize and connect with that, with that character and feel like they're not alone. There's a good number of kids who you know are in really good family and situations and probably have no idea what these things are like and in a way it's also good for them to read these stories with kids who are experiencing tough situations. It could generate empathy as well. In kids who don't live those lives, they may know a classmate or a friend who is experiencing those things. Reading those stories helps build empathy I think as well. Of course you have to be very judicious in how you handle it and how you tell a story, imagery you want to use, send a message, but without frightening them.

Mindy:             Very good. I agree. I think empathy is always the goal, especially when you're writing fiction and when you're writing for younger ages. I think even more so.

Marie:              I was a kid in the what in the late seventies early eighties I was living in the Philippines and so my access to books was totally different and the kind of books that we had, my household weren't children's books. So I imagine that that must be the experience of a lot of kids. I think, you know, and they're rummaging around for something to read, at least back then. And you know, they ended up reading adult books. The fact that the, there's so much available now is wonderful. You know, every, anything from the scope of realistic fiction and contemporary fiction to fantasy. Even in fantasy books, there's a lot of things to learn and a lot of things for a child to connect with. Anything that they could be dealing with or anything that their friends can be dealing with in their lives.

Mindy:             Definitely. Definitely. Last question. What are you working on right now and where can listeners find you online?

Marie:              I'm working on my next middle grade novel. I think I mentioned when I signed with my agent, I wrote a YA, so I actually have a couple of YA books. The one YA book unfortunately didn't sell. So young adults was really my passion. I'm really loving writing middle grade right now. And so I'm writing my next book. It's about a girl who finds it hard to say she's sorry and, and later figures out that sometimes the words, the things that we keep inside and the words that we hold back could hurt other people and ourselves even more. And that's, that's basically the essence of my next project. And uh, people can find me on www.cruzwrites.com