This is an updated post from one I wrote on a guest blog six years ago when someone made a comment that anyone not currently raising children couldn’t write children’s books or YA books because they wouldn’t have the right “voice” for it. Of course, I completely disagreed. As I begin writing a Middle Grade book series, I sometimes have people ask me: “Don’t you think you’re too old for that? How do you know what they think or feel?”
My answer is I know because I was a child once. The same goes for YA books. I was a teenager once–and a rather angsty one at that. Yes, that was a long time ago and I recognize that the world has changed drastically. My grandchildren learn more subjects and advanced science at younger ages than I did. They also have different external crises to face that I didn’t have. I feared nuclear war and being bombed. They fear global warming and that the planet may no longer support life as they know it in the future. My teenage and young adult nieces and nephews worry that they will never be able to afford a home or keep a job longer than a few years.
However politics, technology, wars or religion change the trajectory of our world, people remain much the same. How a child comes to maturity is still familiar ground. The questions of identity, innate vs learned ability, love, bullying, evil and good are still very much the same as they were when I was growing up. In fact, now that I am a grandparent, I think I may actually understand those factors better than ever and that makes me more prepared to write those stories.
Stick to Your Writing Strengths and Who You Are
When I first conceived my YA Fantasy series almost a decade ago, I had to look hard at whether I could pull it off. The good news was my roots were in SF and Fantasy—even if my short stories were published 30+ years ago. Though I’d been writing and publishing primarily adult romances and women’s fiction for the past decade before my fantasy series started, I’d also begun reading scores of YA books in 2009 and found I loved the genre. I loved revisiting the complexities of deciding who you are and what you want to do with your life. In many ways, looking toward retirement after a long career in Academia, I was doing that again myself. The question that loomed in my mind was “Is there a YA Voice and, if so, can I capture it?” At that time, there were a lot of first person, snarky, mean girls kinds of novels and first person, snarky, fantasy kick-butt (read mean girls) kinds of novels. Hmmm…I don’t write snark and I don’t write mean girls. Is this really the only YA voice?
I started building my fantasy world anyway. Maybe I could be the first successful non-snark, non-first-person voice, non-mean girls grandmother to debut in YA? I knew I had the ultimate coming-of-age story—a girl who is born a human chameleon. If she looks at you, she completely turns into you. Male, female, young, old—it doesn’t matter. She turns into you. It is frightening both for the protagonist and for those who see it happen. Hence she is raised in isolation. What better foundation for being totally confused about your identity and unaware of the world? Add in a save-the-world aspect and an entire hidden group of forest people with fantasy characteristics and I loved it.
In 2010 I pitched it as Avatar meets Wicked Lovely at a Michael Hauge workshop given by the Rose City chapter. After reading my two-line high concept pitch, the best part of that day was he really liked the idea and encouraged me to move forward. That told me I was on the right track. Now all I had to do was write the darn thing.
When I finished the first book, I knew it was a series. I began pitching it to agents at conferences. Though almost everyone liked the idea and asked for the first three chapters, the first question they asked me was: “Why do you think you can write YA at your age?” I have to admit I stumbled on that. It had never occurred to me there was a perceived age limit for writing YA. One agent tried to be kind when I stumbled, but it didn’t quite work. She offered: “Perhaps you’re a kid at heart?” Well, no, not really. But I do believe the experience of deciding who you are, what you want, and forging your independence is a universal experience that is shared at many stages of life. Of course, I didn’t say that then. I wasn’t confident in my book then and it was easy for me to believe the agents knew something I didn’t.
Grandmothers May Be the MOST Qualified
So, why should grandmothers consider writing YA or Children’s Books? Honestly, I think we are the MOST qualified. We have years of life experience through lots of ups and downs and have often repeated in some fashion that identity seeking experience. As women we seek identity in our teen years, after college (or whenever we choose a career), after marriage, during motherhood, after the children leave the nest, and again when we contemplate and enter retirement. Women, especially, seem to be in a constant search for identity that is separate from all the other people in their lives.
Add to that, as grandmothers we can’t get pregnant, hopefully don’t live with teenagers who might drive us to writing a mean girls novel, and most important we are at the most knowledgeable time of life to be able to rewrite being a teenager or a middle grade child. I don’t think anyone looks back at being a teenager and says “Wow! That was the best, most confident and amazing time of my life.” If you do, please DO NOT contact me! I prefer to believe that everyone else was devastated by their teen years.
What better way to rewrite that experience than to become the teen you wished you had been: confident, kick-butt, learns from mistakes and gets better, has pithy come backs to boys who drive her crazy, always brave, and of course can absolutely save the world! And my middle grade series allows me to recognize my eleven to twelve year old self, and all the cousins and foster children I was surrounded with, and how amazingly resilient we were. Yes, we made mistakes and there was a lot we didn’t understand. But we all found our way. We all survived and, in my opinion, we did a pretty decent job of becoming great adults.
Still not convinced age is no determiner for writing your first YA or Middle Grade novel? Here are just a few of the popular writers who started writing children or YA books later in life.
Inspired by her daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing in her 40s, but she didn’t find great success until some 20 years later, when Little House in the Big Woods was published. The Little House books drew from her life experiences. So waiting gave her extra time to gather material and understand the nuances of what had happened.
Anna Sewell’s only published work is the classic Black Beauty. She began writing it at age 51 while in declining health and dictated much of the novel to her mother. At 57, she sold the book.
Beverly Cleary began writing in her 30’s. However, more than half her books were written and published after her 50’s and she continued to write and publish until she was 89. Ramona Geraldine Quimby is one of the best literary figures of all time. She’s funny, awkward, and so very relatable. But she didn’t just write about Ramona. Cleary wrote over thirty books for kids, including a few YA books and the novelization of the TV show “Leave It to Beaver.”
Christopher Paul Curtis published his first children’s book at age 42. He has been writing award-winning novels for young people focusing on the history of African Americans. His books often take place in his hometown, Flint, Michigan. But his characters are what make his books beloved. He is still writing for children today at age 68.
Kate DiCamillo published her first children’s book at age 36. She writes picture books, chapter books, and novels for children. In each case building, elaborate and fully-immersive worlds in the pages of her stories. This is true whether she’s writing about a girl living in a Florida trailer, a mouse living in a fairytale world, or an adventure-loving pig. With over 26 books in her backlist, nine of them have been produced in her 50’s. She is now 57 and still going strong.
Richard Adams published his now-classic novel Watership Down when he was 52 years old. It has continued to scare (and sadden) children, including Adams’ own children when they were young, ever since.
Mark Twain published his first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, when he was 41. The next one published, Huckleberr Finn at 49, and the rest of those children’s stories after age 50, including many short stories well into his 70s.
Daniel Defoe published his debut novel, Robinson Crusoe, at age 59
And these are just the famous ones!
If you love reading YA or Middle Grade and have been thinking of writing it, but wonder if you are too old. I say “Pshaw! Give it a try.” You are never too old to live your dream. You are never too old to rewrite that teen or middle grade experience and make it everything you wanted it to be and more. More than that, who better than someone with maturity to capture not only the coming-of-age experience, but add some depth to what it means in the longer view.