“Handling Conflict in Middle Grade Novels”
On a school visit I did for The Eye of Ra (my middle grade time travel adventure novel), part of the reading included an argument between the two sibling main characters. In that reading, there was also reference to a first kiss (that elicited giggles) and the reveal of the tomb robber’s identity (that elicited gasps). Afterward, the students all wrote down on index cards something they enjoyed about the book and something they wondered about. Their feedback was awesome, but one of the cards stuck out to me in a unique way. A child had written that she really liked the scene where the two siblings have a fight. Of all the cards, and of all the important events that happened in that particular chunk of the book, this card made me contemplate where that child might have been in her mind’s eye in that moment during the reading. Had she had a fight with her brother that morning? Or her best friend? For whatever reason, that particular tiff struck a chord for that kid.
I love that index card and have it in my office because it reminds me that the emotional impact of our stories, the bond that can be established with a young reader (or any reader!), is such an important responsibility. How we handle and portray conflict must be realistic, but the most effective tension is nuanced. I try to avoid the over-the-top name-calling or blatant meanness for the sake of meanness. I give my kids the benefit of the doubt. Kids are smart; readers are smart.
Similarly, I recently received a comment from a reviewer who said he loved that The Eye of Ra “doesn’t have any objectionable content” (among other nicer things, ha!). And while I definitely appreciate and agree with this sentiment, it got me thinking about what that actually means. Objectionable content. There is danger, there is conflict, there is tension and frustration, but I try to handle those situations in a way that gets to the heart of the emotional matter without settling for “easy” triggering content such as bad words or name-calling. I mean, the world is full of conflict, there’s no denying that. And I’m not proposing we hide difficult topics from our children.
Let me give an example: I don’t claim to be a perfect parent or human, but in our house words like “stupid” and “shut up” are not a part of our typical vernacular. They’re disrespectful and they reflect more poorly on the person who mutters them than the person at whom they’re directed as an insult (again, I’m not innocent and careful to throw rocks in my glass house). Both of those words appear in The Eye of Ra, only a couple times, but they’re presented in a way that, at least for my family, is realistic in the context of the scene and the hot emotions, not just randomly for the sake of eliciting a response from the reader. They’re not flippantly lobbed around as casual words used every day and instead are treated as the stop words they are. Here are a couple of excerpts to demonstrate the point:
How could he have been so—so—stupid! Yes, he used that word.
“Shut up, Sarah!” As soon as he said it, he knew it was bad.
The latter demonstrates John showing empathy toward his sister. Upper elementary is when children first start to really develop a sense of empathy. This goes hand-in-hand with when they start to develop better skills at conflict resolution. Conflict happens. Kids fight. People fight. When we do, we might say things we don’t mean and we can become less mature and less respectful than we normally conduct ourselves. We need not hide that reality from children. Humans make mistakes. But those mistakes should be seen as opportunities for learning. And presenting conflict in a middle grade novel is a beautiful opportunity to showcase empathy and model effective conflict resolution techniques. Of course, I try to do so in a subtle way so the readers don’t feel they’re getting a lecture. I wrap it up in a “show not tell” approach where the character’s actions demonstrate the important human qualities of empathy and our ability to resolve conflicts.
In my book, John and Sarah argue and they do fight. They’re frustrated at their situation and they blow up and take it out on each other and say things they don’t mean. But it’s more of a reveal about their own emotional states than it is them trying to do harm to the other. When these characters lash out, there’s something going on under the surface that they don’t yet know how to express that is boiling over, and that drives the plot forward. Without declaring it loudly, our MG readers are capable of understanding that, along with tough topics like fighting and abstract concepts like empathy. And some exciting action and adventure certainly helps in getting the reader to step into the skin of, and empathize with, the characters!
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Published February 1st, 2020 by Crescent Vista Press
About the Book: Exploring a mysterious cave in the mountains behind their house, John and his sister Sarah are shocked to discover they’ve time traveled to ancient Egypt!
Now they must work together to find a way back home from an ancient civilization of golden desert sand and a towering new pyramid, without parents to save them. The adventures abound—cobras, scorpions, a tomb robber, and more! The two kids have to trust each other, make friends who can help, and survive the challenges thrown at them . . . or be stuck in ancient Egypt forever.
For readers graduating from the Magic Treehouse series and ready for intense action, dive into this middle grade novel rich with meticulous historical detail.
Thank you, Ben! This book will be an awesome ladder between Magic Treehouse and Percy Jackson!