The Story Only You Can Write: Big Questions in Middle-Grade Literature
I found one of my old journals the other day.
It’s a journal that I kept when I was 11, the same age as the main character in my middle-grade
debut The Miraculous. The journal is purple-striped with a picture of Beatrix Potter’s Tom
Kitten on the front. On the back inside cover, there are doodles of stick figures swinging on a
swing set and peeking out of the curtained windows of a square house with a triangle roof.
It is the journal of a child.
But within the pages, here and there in that story I was writing about myself and world around me, there are passages that stand out as being distinctly un-childlike. Passages like this one: “I don’t want you to think I’m sad all the time, although sometimes I am. It’s just that I’ve had some losses recently. And I’m trying to make sense of them.”
The back cover of the journal has smiling stick figures, but the front cover has an inscription, dedicating the pages to a family friend who had passed away that year—a young woman who had lived in a bright, window-lined apartment and who had given me fantasy books. That same year, one of my older brother’s friends was diagnosed with terminal cancer and, in spite of my fervent, almost frantic participation in fund raising and letter writing and nightly prayers, she passed away. A year before, a best friend’s father had died.
The story that I was writing had been interrupted by loss and questions. The losses were not extraordinary by any means. Instead, they were the kind of losses that all children experience at some point, and in response, I was asking the kinds of questions that children begin to ask during those middle-grade years. Questions about death, questions about meaning, questions about how to live in a world that can be so sad and lonely and dark.
Big questions. Big questions for a child. Big questions for an adult.
How did I answer those questions? How does any child?
I think there are many ways, and many of them are right and good. Here is one that is close to my heart, however, and probably close to yours if you are reading this:
I am a therapist, and I think often of one of my first clients. A 12-year-old girl with a history of trauma, she brought her journal, a story she was writing, and a book she was reading to our first session. “I don’t know how to say what I want to say,” she told me, pushing these items into my hands, “but these will help you understand me.” Her story had been interrupted by great losses and her questions were heart-breaking and raw, but she was doing, bravely and boldly, what I had done in my journal and with the many books I was constantly read: using stories to make sense of her own story.
This is why I love writing so much, specifically for middle-grade readers. Those years are a time of exploration and discovery, of looking out and beyond for the first time, and stories can provide the language and the framework to facilitate that that growth of self. Stories can teach readers how to express feelings, how to face fears, how to ask for help, how to love others, and how to love themselves. Reading provides hundreds and thousands of possible answers to hundreds and thousands of possible questions.
I had not found my journal when I wrote The Miraculous over two years ago, but I knew, even without written proof, that eleven-year-old me had struggled with loss. And when the idea for a story about a miracle-collecting boy who goes on a sometimes-magical journey of healing came to me, I was working through those big questions again, this time in response to a difficult pregnancy and fears about the future that kept me up night after night.
In The Miraculous, Wunder’s story has been interrupted by loss, and he is overwhelmed by the questions that he is now asking. In fact, The Miraculous is divided into seven parts, and the sixth part is called Questions. At the end of Questions, Wunder goes to the mysterious DoorWay House in the woods to finally ask the old woman who lives there to give him the answers he has been seeking:
And now here he was, climbing the splintered, spiraled stairs of the DoorWay House in the dead of night. Here he was, with the stone of his heart cracking and splintering, then stilling and hardening. Here he was, having buried a sister and spoken with a witch. Here he was, having stolen and lied and spent hour after hour in a cemetery where the dead seemed gone, gone forever. Here he was, having learned the pure loves and deep sorrows of Branch Hill, having questioned the truths of life and death, having connected the dots of hundreds of souls
And what did he believe now?
He didn’t know, he didn’t know.
But here he was.
Wunder doesn’t find the one answer he’s seeking in this chapter or the next or the next. But he finds answers, none the less. He finds out that what his cape-wearing friend Faye told him is true: “Sometimes the brightest miracles are hidden in the darkest moments…but you have to search for them. You can’t be afraid of the dark.”
The Miraculous is my answer to some of the big questions I was asking myself, both at age 11 and now. It is an answer rooted in my belief in the powers of love and hope and community and imagination. I hope that Wunder’s journey can help readers whose stories have been interrupted by loss, readers with big questions and big feelings. I hope The Miraculous can do for readers what all good stories do: take them by the hand and say,
Here are some questions your heart is asking.
Here are some answers to consider.
Now go and keep searching.
This is the story only you can write.
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Jess Redman is a therapist and an adjunct professor of psychology. She currently lives in Florida with her husband, two young children, and an old cat named Soul Pie. The Miraculous is her debut novel.
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