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Never Underestimate a Young Reader

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When I wrote my debut novel, The Hundred, I wasn’t thinking of children in a specific age range who might read and enjoy the book. I just wanted to tell a story. When it was finally edited and complete at a whomping 500+ pages, I realized that I had a dilemma on my hands.

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People (and agents, in particular) think that long books for kids are a death knell. Everyone advises against them, unless you are big A+ author whose editors have been cowed into submission and won’t delete nary a word. So much so that one agent wrote to me in a peevish tone, asking was I not aware that middle-grade books are best at 35,000 words? I should trim my book down, he advised, and then think about resubmitting.

I believe that’s nonsense. Publishers are thinking of their profit margins rather than the abilities of kids to devour long books. If you’re enjoying a book and its imaginative world, do you want it to be flimsy and thin? Done before you have the chance to say, “Aww! I was just getting into it!” Personally, I like a book with a bit of heft. Better for wielding at one’s enemies.

I had a choice here. I could gut my book, producing a “for dummies” truncated version that would completely obliterate its original purpose for being. I could resubmit it to the cranky agents who expected me to color inside the lines, and hope for a break. Or I could believe in breaking the rules. I chose the latter road. My book would best appeal to kids 10 and older, and most likely those who were advanced in their reading level. So be it.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised when a local third-grade teacher invited me in to speak to her class because a few of the kids were “into the book” and others wanted to know a local author. Third graders? Surely they would struggle over a 500+ page book. Surely they would be bored. This book was best for, I would say, eighth graders! Fifth graders at least. The vocabulary alone would flummox the average 8-year-old. How would  I master this situation?

I had barely sat in my seat when the children started to ask me questions, among them the kids who had started the book and wanted answers. I described the characters. The kids all shouted out their visions of what they thought those characters looked like. “This is why there are no pictures in my book,” I said. “And why you must always read the book before seeing the movie.”

I read an excerpt. Hands shot up. Questions were asked. Among them:

“How much money do you make and how much does Amazon make when you sell a book?” (Oofh.)

“When did you start writing?” (Around your age.)

“Are there many-mes in your book? “(What?!) “Are there enemies in your book?” (Oh, YES, there are.) One kid who has read the book starts to shout out and I shut him down…”No spoilers!”

“Do the Shrikes have electric spiky feathers and look like big flying rats and have purple feet?” (Why yes, if you see them that way! That’s why we don’t use pictures in this sort of book.)

“What is Aarvord?” (He is a Fantastic Grout. He can make all sorts of tools from his body, including a globe of glowing light from his forehead.)

“I heard an author, Dan Greenberg, speak at our school andI wanted to buy his books because he excited me. Now I want to buy your books for the same reason!” (You, Phoebe, are my hero. And yeah, the Zack Files are on my son’s Christmas list.)

“I see your characters in my head, like they are real.” (So do I. And you have now made my day. No, maybe my year.)

When I was done I signed a copy of a book one girl had bought for her cousin. Everyone gathered around, wanting to touch the book. In fact, some of them touched me. I barely got out of the place with my coat intact. The book was probably mangled in the fray. Sorry, cousin Jake.

Some of these third-graders are not ready to read my book, not yet. But if I have ignited in them a love of literature, we all win. And for those 8-year-old and 9-year-olds who can master a 500+ page book? Never underestimate a child. Never.

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