The Write Genre by Donna

This week’s blog will be all about genre -why we write what we write and what we love to read. I’m the odd ball in our group because I write in multiple genres. I write picture books and I also write books that are targeted for upper “middle grade” to younger “young adult.” Some people are calling this the “tween” market or for ages 10-14.

The truth is I don’t think much about genre before I actually write. The story itself seems to dictate the form. I read hundreds, maybe thousands, of picture books in my former life as a kindergarten teacher. When Halloween candy was coursing through their tiny veins, or the firemen had just brought the huge red truck with sirens to the school that morning, or when no classroom management strategy worked, I could always count on a picture book to calm the savage beasts (otherwise known as cute little five year olds). In only a couple of pages of a classic picture book like p.d. eastman’s Are You My Mother? or Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, or Bill Martin’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, I’d have all thirty three sitting, listening and reciting along. All it took was the magic of a picture book. I loved picture books. No really. They saved me. As a 20 year old teacher teaching all alone in the basement of a 100 year old school, I LOVED picture books. I loved them all (and I have the insurance rider on my picture book collection to prove it), but I especially loved the repetitive, patterned text that had my five year old audience chiming in at every page turn. So that’s exactly the kind of book I wrote.

When I came back to writing for children after several years out of the game, I was facing a life event that was incomprehensible. My beloved mother had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. There was no stage five. I spent a great deal of time in hospitals and doctor’s offices trying not to think of the unthinkable, that my mother could actually die. I saw family after family torn apart by the diagnosis that someone-child, mother, father, grandparent- was facing cancer, and slowly I started to write about it.

People are eating and talking and trying to be as normal as possible. Even though there are wheelchairs and IV poles and lots of hats covering bald heads. And that I think is the tidal wave – it’s the cancer –coming toward the big sunny windows outside. Every family in this cafeteria will be washed away, turned upside down, torn apart by this huge, random tidal wave and there is nothing any of us can do to predict when it will hit. They can’t stop it either. So they eat their Jello cups and drink juice with plastic straws and ignore that huge looming wave right outside the window. (from Boob Blogs by Donna Cooner)

Boob Blogs is about a girl developing breasts at the same time her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer. The age group for the book was defined by the subject, so I classified it as a middle grade novel, but it definitely fit the “tween” age group. Unlike picture books, however, I hadn’t read as many children’s novels. I knew if this was now what I wanted to write, I needed to read. And so I read wonderful books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, 13 Reasons Why by Jay Archer and If I Stay by Gayle Forman. Some were outside the age group I was writing for, but they dealt with important, life changing topics and I feel in love with them just as I had with picture books.

After Boob Blogs it was time to write something new and I had just finished reading The Underneath, by my good friend, Kathi Appelt. The amazing sense of place in her book made me miss my homeland of Texas, something I’d wanted to write about ever since moving to Colorado almost fifteen years ago. I had also recently read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, a mystery for middle graders, and, as a long time mystery buff, was completely blown away by the intricate plotting needed for such a book. I knew I wanted to write about Texas, and I also wanted to write a mystery, so Gone Missing was born.

When I moved to Texas, I swore I would never wear cowboy boots and say, “Ya’ll.” It’s been two months (and thirteen days) and ya’ll have a way of getting to a girl. (from Gone Missing by Donna Cooner)

Now I’m on to something new, but I’m sticking with the “tween” age group for now. I’m reading lots of wonderful young adult books like Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver and The Duff by Kody Keplinger to help with this new story which deals with a fifteen year old girl going through gastric bypass surgery.

For me, the secret to genre is simple. I write the kinds of books I want to read and I read the kinds of books I want to write.

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