Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 27, 2020

What Makes Middle Grade and Chapter Books Magical?

What Makes Middle Grade and Chapter Books Magical? And a Peek at Harry Potter Twists
by Mira Reisberg and Gus Glasheen

Hullo FOKs (Friends of Kathy’s). It’s so much fun to write these special guest posts. Thank you for having me. I am delighted to say that this one is a bit of a collaboration with my assistant’s 17-year-old son Gus who is a massive Harry Potter fan with a wonderfully analytical mind. But first, I want to talk about what makes Middle Grade and Chapter Books so magical. One of the main things for me is that this age is the age when kids decide whether to be readers or not, and these books are the books that will inspire them for the rest of their lives. Chapter books are written for kids ages 6 to 9 and can vary anywhere from 1500 to 20,000 words. On the other hand, Middle Grade novels are written for kids ages 8 to 12 and can go anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 words. There are so many kinds of stories in this genre, friendship stories, immigration stories, horror sendups, mashups, historical fiction, westerns, humor, and mysteries.

These books are also the ones that movie studios love to read and make films or series from – like, a Series of Unfortunate Events, Coraline, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, and of course the Harry Potter series. Because the Harry Potter books were such game-changers, opening the doors for many more chapter books and middle grade novels, we’d like to narrow our focus and look at them.

So what is it that makes the Harry Potter books so successful?

Well it boils down to three things –  Character, Plot and Voice. In our fabulous FREE webinar happening June 6th, award-winning author Hillary Homzie, Penguin/RH/Dial Asst. Editor Rosie Ahmed and I will be going into depth about these 3 things for writing Chapter Books and Middle Grade novels. Register here for that: bit.ly/CBA-MG-FREE But for now I want to just explore one area of the craft of writing plots with you – Twists with a focus on the Harry Potter Series.

Essentially, JK Rowling’s books are fantasy mysteries. And the core of any mystery is suspense. When it comes to the climax of a narrative, nothing harnesses suspense better than a plot twist. A good plot twist makes the reader completely rethink everything they think they knew about the characters they have developed an intimate relationship with. In a best-case scenario, a plot twist encourages the reader to invest more time into returning to the book with a new perception of the character’s actions and motivations, all the while scouring the pages for any hints of what they may have missed leading to the big reveal. Harry Potter, one of, if not the, most popular mystery series of all time, utilizes the plot twist for some of the largest reveals.

Gus’s favorite plot twist comes at the end of the third novel, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (PoA for short). For those who don’t know, Harry’s parents were killed before the series starts, and it’s later revealed, in PoA, that the only reason they were killed was because Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, revealed the location of Harry’s parents to Voldemort. At the start of PoA, Harry is informed that Sirius has escaped from prison, and the rest of the novel details the hurdles Harry and his friends go through to avoid the escaped killer. At the climax, after Sirius’ guilt is corroborated for the entire book, it is revealed that he actually was not the murderer, but rather a man who was thought killed by Sirius, Peter Pettigrew. This is a powerful twist  because it incorporates two key features: crushing expectations and predictability. It crushes expectations because we never meet Sirius, so all our preconceived notions of him are only from anecdotal accounts. These notions are shattered for us, the reader, and Harry at the same time. The other tenet is predictability, and there are so many clues that could have informed us of the untruth in Sirius’ crime. The largest of these was that Peter Pettigrew was supposedly murdered by Sirius as he was fleeing the Potter’s house. But about halfway through the novel, a magical map, called the Marauder’s Map, revealed that Peter Pettigrew was alive and well, walking around in Hogwarts castle. That moment casts doubt on the story so far, but it doesn’t make sense why, until this big reveal at the end.

Most plot twists are based in a narrative or event, but in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, there’s a twist that doesn’t affect the story, but rather shakes the foundations of an important character in Harry’s life. Raised as an orphan, and excluding his abhorrent aunt and uncle, Harry has always been told great things about his father. From his Quidditch accomplishments to his friends reinforcing his strength, James Potter was painted as a great person in Harry’s mind. Snape, Harry’s potions teacher, and everyone’s teacher to hate, has never liked Harry and constantly sends him to detention. Harry has no way to rationalize the hatred Snape has for him other than as jealousy of him or his father. But then, about halfway through PoA, Harry is thrust into “The Pensive,” a magical device that lets someone delve into the memories of a willing subject. Here he relives the memories of a young Severus Snape attending Hogwarts. In these memories he sees his father bullying Snape by hexing him and making fun of his large nose. Finally, 5 books in, Harry and the reader gets an understanding for Snape’s malicious motivations towards Harry, and we can now relate to this character who has belittled and tormented Harry for the past five years at Hogwarts. Harry now feels guilty about what his father did, and we, as the readers, start to feel bad for rooting against Snape for so long. Once again, this could be seen coming, all the information we have about James Potter comes from his friends or teachers who enjoyed him, and because we never get to meet Harry’s late father, we aren’t able to form our own opinions of him, and instead take the stories at face value.

So here’s the genius of JK Rowling that can be applied to any mystery type chapter book or middle grade novel:
Inventing characters that connect with mythological and popular culture archetypes with their  hopes, dreams, fears, quirks, and complexities

Building suspense where we don’t know what’s coming next but are desperate to find out. Plotting with red herrings that take us down diverging or misleading paths, helping set up unexpected twists and turns for later

Creating twists that end with great reveals challenging the reader to rethink what they previously thought they knew

Casting breadcrumbs beforehand, so that when the reveal happens it all makes sense

Creating great chapter cliffhangers that compel the reader to keep reading until the end and leave them caring and still wanting more.

We hope you enjoyed this little journey into JK Rowling’s twists in Harry Potter and why chapter book and middle grade novels are wonderful to both read and write. We hope that you’ll join us in our fab free webinar here:bit.ly/CBA-MG-FREE

Or the course here: bit.ly/2020MGM

BIOS:

About Gus


Gus Glasheen is a junior at Cleveland High School in Portland, Oregon, where he is a fierce competitor in soccer, track, debate and math. Chemistry, and physics are his best subjects.  He has over 300 wins on iMessage 8ball, and he’s been told he carries on entire conversations in his sleep.  Gus’s favorite novel is The Giver by Lois Lowry

 

About Mira

Mira Reisberg’s life is all about children’s books helping others write, illustrate and publish kid’s books through the Children’s Book Academy. Mira has worn just about every hat in the children’s book industry including award-winning illustrator, author, editor, art director, kid lit professor and children’s literary agent. Her students have published over 380 books and won every major North American award. Mira also acquires, edits and art directs for small press Clearfork Publishing/Spork. Find out more about her here: https://www.childrensbookacademy.com/about-us.html

Connect here: @ChildrensBookAc and https://www.facebook.com/groups/ChildrensBookCommunity/

Thank you Mira and Guss. Interesting article.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. This is a fascinating post. Thanks for sharing your insight Mira and Gus.

    Like


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