Writers often speak about capturing and sustaining “voice” in a story. What do the sentences sound and look like as the mind hears and sees the images the story presents? Do the characters sound original? Would this character speak that way in real life? In young adult and middle grade novels, capturing and sustaining that authentic voice is often a challenge — there’s nothing more irritating than a supposed ten year old sounding like your smart aleck cousin in his senior year at college.

It takes practice, skill, and a lot of eavesdropping to nourish a young voice in a middle-grade or YA Novel. This coming fall, why not hone those writing skills and learn how to seize the young narrator’s voice in Writing the Middle-grade Novel with our new instructor Kelly Barson?!

The author of 45 Pounds (More or Less) (Penguin) and Charlotte Cuts it Out (Penguin), Kelly joins our very talented roster of instructors here at the Writers’ Program, and she cannot wait to share her expertise in writing the middle-grade story!

Writers’ Program: Hi, Kelly. You write for the middle-grade audience. Who inspired you to write and what moved you to write for this particular demographic?

Kelly Barson: Judy Blume and Stephen King influenced my love of story and of writing. I read everything I could get my hands on from these authors, sometimes earlier than I should have, which is funny now despite the emotional scars.

I write for children and young adults because young people are just discovering their world and their place in it. They care and are eager to solve problems, and their emotions are as complex and deep, if not more so, than a grown-up’s.

WP: Stephen King for the middle-grade audience! I’ve heard of stranger things . . . I guess. Kelly, could you tell us where you look for inspiration? Also, how do you put yourself in your young characters’ shoes and sustain that narrative throughout your story?

KB: I find inspiration everywhere! I eavesdrop a lot, and I paid extra close attention when my kids, their friends, and my students were younger. My memories, especially emotional memories, are very vivid from that time in my life. Circumstances, particularly technology, have changed since then, but core emotions and desires haven’t. We all want acceptance and love, no matter when we were born or how old we are. We all feel pain from rejection and injustice. Every emotion provides rich compost for our stories, even if the exact circumstances are not our own.

WP: They say that the child narrator is one of the most challenging to take on. What are the challenges that you face writing for children? And how do you tackle those challenges as a writer?

KB: My biggest challenge is staying current. Language and technology are constantly evolving. I try to avoid too much slang and trends because they’ll be out of style by the time a book is released, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid it altogether. I try to balance the current with the timeless and create my own slang whenever I can, so that it feels real, but isn’t too dated.

WP: That’s a fascinating point you make about language and technology. Those two are very intertwined especially in today’s world! Anyways, you’ll be teaching Writing the Middle Grade Novel this fall. What advice would you give to your prospective students?

KB: Jump in without fear. As writers, we all feel like frauds on some level–like other writers are real, and we’re just wannabes. That’s not true. Writers are simply people who write. We are all learning and evolving in our craft and can learn from each other. Don’t be afraid to try something new, experiment, and share rough, raw work, because that’s where we discover our best work, our true selves.

WP: What are you looking forward to here at the Writers’ Program?

KB: I’m looking forward to connecting with other writers, sharing what I know, listening to what they offer, and ultimately, allowing the experience to feed my own writing. I hope that my contribution to “the conversation” that is writing–both in the classes I teach and in those I take–will benefit the community overall.

WP: Last question (and this is the most important one): if you were stuck on an island, which three characters from children/young adult books would you like to be with?

KB: This is tough! I’d choose: Fern from Charlotte’s Web, Sam from The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon, and Stanley Yelnats from Holes. All three of them aren’t afraid to take action and stand up for what’s right. We could have some amazing conversations. However, if I were being smart, I’d choose characters from Gary Paulsen’s books because they have survival skills. We’re stuck on an island after all.

WP: Ha! Excellent companions, Kelly.

If you’re interested in taking Writing the Middle Grade Novel, click here to register for the course.

Ani Cooney is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing (Online) and Events. If you have any questions, contact him at 310-825-0107 or acooney@unex.ucla.edu.

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