On September 14, 2019, three Arizona novelists converged at Bright Side Bookshop in downtown Flagstaff to hold a reading and talk on their work and experiences in middle-grade literature.
Middle-grade fiction, as contrasted with the more widely known genre young adult literature, is written for an audience mainly of children ages eight to twelve, and, unlike young adult fiction, is relatively constrained in terms of what scenarios can be depicted. In other words, first kisses are fine; anything past first base is off limits. Likewise, curse words are rare, though, as one author pointed out, can be used when the story demands them. However, the only content truly off-limits in middle-grade fiction is that which will be boring or unrelatable to children eight to twelve.
The novelists were Dusti Bowling, the author of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, and its sequel, Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus, which was released within a few days of the event; Paul Mosier, whose work includes Train I Ride and Echo’s Sister; and Jannie Lee Simner, author of the Bones of Faerie trilogy, among other works.
They belong to the same supportive community of middle-grade fiction authors but came to their chosen audience for different reasons. Mosier, for example, read little as a child in his middle-grade years, and began writing for those ages to reach reading-averse children like him. Bowling, on the other hand, was an avid reader as a child, and was drawn to create books that would mean to these young audiences what they meant to her. Simner, a lifelong storyteller, began writing middle-grade fiction because she loves coming-of-age stories, possibly because her own coming of age was suffused with them.
In high school, Simner kept notebooks of stories, mostly hand- or type-written, and has kept them ever since as a memento of her early explorations with storytelling. She showed some of these pages at the talk; yellowed and frayed, they whispered of the long process of her creative growth.
After graduating from college, Simner promised herself she would write one sentence of fiction per day; still daunted by finishing things, she knew she could definitely commit to writing at least that much. She finished her first short story by brute force. After six months of revision, she was happy with it enough to send it out, and for three months afterward, she walked home every day for lunch to check the mailbox.
It sold to the first publisher she sent it to.
This should be easy, she thought after that first taste of success. But then, her second short story was quickly rejected. Disappointed, Simner dug in to learn the craft of storytelling. She joined a creative writing critique group, which offered her the feedback and support she needed to submit (and publish) several more short stories. Encouraged by these accomplishments, she tried to write novels, but she struggled to get through opening scenes. One day, she wrote an opening that knew was different. Eventually, she would turn that opening into the first book of her award-winning Bones of Faerie trilogy.
While Simner may be unique for being a lifelong writer, both the other authors who participated share her passion for storytelling. Paul Mosier’s journey has brought him a comparable degree of acclaim but has been urged onward by a purpose all his own.
Mosier’s philosophy of writing is poetic and evokes a kind of antiquarian nostalgia. In his formulation, “you write because you have to, because the muses are speaking to you.” A corollary of this is that, while it’s an honor to have an audience to write to, what matters is what the universe, or god, or fate, is urging you on to write. Market forces should have no bearing on what you write, so you can really write anything you want.
Now, that’s a philosophy that’s a bit tricky to live by when you’re working alongside major publishers to get your books out to the general public. Mosier, however, has found significant success doing just that. For example, Train I Ride, his first novel published by Harper Collins, is a unique take on Allen Ginsberg’s countercultural poem, “Howl,” not exactly the most widely taught text for students eight to twelve years old. In his retelling, he was absolutely gleeful to have been able to present this material to middle-grade readers, and to have received feedback from these readers that they hoped to read Ginsberg’s poetry.
A second secret to his writing process that Mosier gave the audience was that he doesn’t write about things inspired by his own life. Well, that isn’t always true. Echo’s Sister, his second novel, is based on his daughter, Harmony, who passed away from cancer. The novel, in his words, is about “humanity’s capacity for being beautiful.” From tragedy comes beauty; again, Mosier’s writing philosophy seems to pay homage to ancient aesthetics.
Mosier’s latest novel, Summer and July, will be his third and final book with Harper Collins. It is also, by his account, his favorite book. Depicting the relationship been two girls, one a goth, the other a surfer, who help each other through their difficult lives, Summer and July is expected to hit bookstores in 2020.
If Mosier’s journey has been one of slow and gradual progress, Dusti Bowling’s own path has been characterized by remarkably parabolic success, owing, in no small part, to her positive representations of people not commonly depicted in stories for youth.
Unlike Janni Lee Simner, Bowling started writing relatively late into her life, near the end of her 20s, when she stayed at home with her daughter. It’s now or never, she thought, as she began work on her first book. She’d thought that it was impossible, that nobody would want to publish her. She didn’t have an MFA and she’d had little experience starting and finishing a long piece of writing. But she knew that if she didn’t start now, it would never happen.
Her first book, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, was published in 2017 to critical acclaim. Specifically, it won or was nominated for at least 35 awards according to her website, including the Reading the West Award and one of the Library of Congress’s 52 Great Reads of 2018. Clearly, Bowling’s fears of being unpublishable had been unfounded.
The novel is about the adventure of a young girl named Aven born without arms and her friend Connor to solve a mystery at a desert theme park in rural Arizona. Connor, like Aven, also has a disability, namely Tourette’s Syndrome, a fact that the audience learned that Bowling intentionally decided to do in order to create positive representation of those who have the condition.
She followed up with 24 Hours in Nowhere, a tale set in the tiny town of Nowhere, Arizona, after the model of the classic children’s adventure film, The Goonies. The story, centering around the experiences of children who live in severe poverty in the Arizona desert, again focuses on the experiences of populations not often looked upon positively by literature, including and especially that which is written for children.
Her diligence in depicting members of these communities accurately and lovingly, combined with her strong and entertaining storytelling, has taken Bowling from an unpublished beginning writer with hundreds of rejection letters to an author whom agents scramble over each other to represent.
On September 17, 2019, Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus, the sequel to Insignificant Events…, was released by independent publisher Sterling Children’s Press.
The three middle-grade authors who attended the panel have achieved prominence in a genre relatively few readers know exists. Young-adult fiction is, after all, the better known market for works tailored toward younger audiences. However, the authors demonstrated through their readings that middle-grade fiction can hold equal sophistication to young-adult literature. Their life stories, too, show that a career writing for this younger audience can truly be a rewarding choice. As Paul Mosier put it, “In middle-grade fiction, you have a community of writers who support you and want you to succeed.” As much was clear as the panel ended, and the panelists mingled with each other and the audience, celebrating one another’s work.
Zach Bartell is a Masters candidate at NAU, where he studies Secondary English Education. He writes speculative poetry and nonfiction essays for his classes at NAU, and is a current staff editor and fundraising intern at Thin Air magazine.