Thursday, 20 February 2020

The tedious 'tecs - A Middle Grade Plague - This Week's #ReadItTorial2020

Couldn't you just ping him on his annoying little nose? 
3 years ago we wrote a thinkpiece about emerging trends, and even back then we talked about how we were getting more than a bit tired of kid detectives.

It's now 2020, and in middle grade fiction, kid detectives are flippin' everywhere - and they're just as annoying and smug as they were back in 2017. 9 times out of ten we crack open a new parcel of middle grade books only to find that most books are based around a nosy over-privileged kid who has nothing better to do with their time than get in the way of grown-up law enforcement agencies, treading all over the evidence in crime scenes while trying to big up their own natural curiosity as some sort of detective insight.

We exaggerate of course - and as usual kid authors usually do a fantastic job of taking a well-worn trope and putting their own spin on it. We've seen kid detectives who carry out their sleuthing in hospitals their mums work at. We've seen kid detectives working their magic in creepy old hotels, and we've seen kid detectives scraping together a crime-solving gang of BFFs to bring miscreant criminals to justice in some of the great examples where the detective storyline plays out in a new and innovative way. So some detective books still make it into our "Book of the Week" slot despite us being pretty grumpy about JAKDBs in general.

But what is behind this trend? Do authors have a fondness for certain books from their own childhoods and certain detective heroes that they want to transpose into their own stories and situations?

One thing we're beginning to notice is that there's a change in the wind. My oldest and bestest genre buddy, Science Fiction, is once again becoming a rich fertile and inspirational ground for middle grade fiction authors looking to break away from "another nosy kid" books into something that - to me at least - offers a more exciting place to daydream in.

The future? Many possible futures in fact, and not all of them bright and rosy.

When I was struggling with the content of a middle grade writing course just over a year ago, I was told in no uncertain terms that science fiction / dystopia was 'a dead duck' in middle grade. No point in writing any, no one will give it a second glance.

Yet here we are in 2020 - when the idea of a dystopic setting has radically changed away from "This will never happen, but what if it did" towards "This is probably going to happen tomorrow, and here's how it'll play out".

This year, in particular, we've seen a whole brace of new science fiction / dystopia books in the middle grade market that are absolutely incredible. So much so in fact that it's becoming very difficult to pick "Chapter Book of the Week" winners each week, trying to balance out a decent set of content from the blog that doesn't go completely overboard and merely favour these books because we both like reading science fiction and dystopic stuff. No, these are great books regardless of their genre, beautifully written with breathtaking scene-setting and characters that feel relatable and believable even when you're talking about books that deal with some pretty far-out subjects, such as the colonization of other planets, or the rise and rise of AI and robotics.

To me, Science Fiction has always been about the impossible made possible, the far-off brought a bit nearer, and the terribly climactic apocalyptic made into a place where you want to spend your reading time. A neat trick if you can pull it off.

Science fiction allows you to get away with almost anything. In middle grade terms, this does not translate to being able to easily pull the wool over kids' eyes though, and your sparkly new sci fi middle grade novel will fall as flat as a well-worn-out detective novel if you treat kids like they're idiots, and don't show your working for the fantasy worlds and characters you're devising.

Now more than ever, kids are switched on to science - so in some ways you have a tougher job of writing middle grade sci fi. Your plot has to be bomb-proof. Your tech can be crazy and unimaginable but still needs to be relatable and feel like something that kids can picture in their own minds as 'working'.

But it's exciting stuff nonetheless. One thing we always try (and fail) to do when it comes to plotting book trends is to wonder what might come next, and I have a sneaky suspicion that kid detectives will still be around when we write a follow-up article to this in 3 years time (if indeed this blog still exists) but I'd love to see the rise and stellar rise of sci fi too, that's for sure.