Gary D. Schmidt is not only a lauded children’s author, but also one laden with some of the most coveted medals awarded in children’s literature. Having published more than 20 books, he is a professor of English at Calvin College in Michigan as well as a faculty member at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., for those seeking an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
Asked for a tip he could share about writing middle grade novels, he answered: “I think my tip would be this: write with honesty. There is nothing so false as a conventionally happy ending after a time of real hardship …. Middle school kids don’t just get over pain; they carry it. We all do.”
In his latest middle grade novel, “Pay Attention, Carter Jones” (Clarion, 2019, $16.99, ages 10 to 12), Schmidt’s young protagonist, Carter Jones, carries a lot of pain.
However, Schmidt doles out this pain slowly after first establishing the chaotic household that Carter exists in as the oldest child of four with a dad who has been absent for far too long overseas. His frazzled mother is on the cusp of insanity when the doorbell rings. Carter opens the door to find a dapper British gent wearing a bowled hat. Little does he know that this stranger is about to change Carter’s life. This man — their new butler — upends Carter’s life while, at the same time, organizes it, offers instruction on how to become a gentleman and, most important of all, helps him cope with the very deep hardships of loss and grief of both a sibling and his father’s abandonment.
Much of the humor — and life lessons — come from the butler bringing the civilized gentleman’s game of Cricket into Carter and his friends’ lives.
Kelly Yang’s debut middle grade novel, “Front Desk” (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018, $16.99, ages 8 to 12), is set in 1993 and follows 10-year-old Mia and her immigrant Chinese parents who came to America to follow their dream of “owning a house and a dog and eating lots of hamburgers.”
In all that time, though, Mia has only gotten one hamburger. After constant heartbreak and financial struggle in their new land she often asks her mother why they came to America (the answer: “It’s more free here. Someday you will understand.”). Things start to look up when her parents find a job as managers of the Calivista Hotel.
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It sounds so perfect. Earnings of $150 a day with no living expenses, and there is even a glistening swimming pool. The owner, Mr. Yao, also an immigrant from Thailand, explains that if anything breaks down, it will come out of their earnings and thrusts a six-page contract in front of them. Mia’s parents eagerly sign. A weekly renter warns to Mia about Mr. Yao having “coal for a heart.” Things get progressively worse for Mia and her parents. Yet, with the friendship of a girl at her new school, the love of her parents, and the inherited family of the “weeklies” at the hotel like Hank and others, Mia forges a new life for herself in America, finding her own American dream.
Yang hopes her book will help readers understand the importance of diversity, tolerance and empathy.
• Wendy Henrichs is a children’s author living in Iowa City.