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Sue Whiting: Tackling the Tough Stuff in Middle Grade Fiction

March 23, 2018

Words || Sue Whiting

I’m not one to take much notice of publishing trends, but it seems I may have accidentally jumped on board a current trend of sorts with middle-grade fiction, or at the very least added to a growing list of middle-grade novels tackling tough topics.

Over the past few years, middle grade authors – especially those writing for the upper end of the category – have been exploring increasingly difficult emotional themes and content: RJ Palacio’s Wonder (facial disfigurement), Alex Gino’s George (transgender child), Nova Weetman’s, The Secrets We Keep (mental illness) to name but a few. Australia’s newly crowned Children’s Laureate, Morris Gleitzman – an author who is also known for tackling some particularly tough topics, including the Holocaust – touched on the importance of these stories in his opening addresses as laureate, stating that now more than ever there is a need for “stories that will equip young readers to embrace an often dark and uncertain world…”

My new middle-grade novel Missing tells the story of twelve-year-old Mackenzie da Luca’s quest to discover the truth about the disappearance of her mother in Panama. It deals with weighty themes of loss and grief, family dysfunction, coping with tragedy and the need for closure. It delves realistically into complex emotional situations. And for a very long time, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to find a way to tell this story, or even if I should.

I suppose one of the qualms I had to reconcile was whether or not I should preserve and protect the childhood innocence of my readers. But the fact of the matter is that being young doesn’t make one immune to tragedy or adversity. Kids do have to deal with the tough stuff. Right now, there are kids embroiled in difficult situations, trying to navigate a path through challenging and sometimes tragic circumstances. Tackling tough topics through story allows these kids to know that they are not alone and, importantly, can provide them with a glimmer of hope and sometimes show them the possibility of a pathway through to better times.

In order to navigate the emotional themes in Missing, I resolved firstly to tell the truth. I believe I owe this to my readers. I couldn’t sugar-coat or gloss over the sad realities of the tragic situation Mackenzie finds herself in when she has to deal with what it means to have a mother declared missing. But I also had to find a way to make the sad truth of the situation not too overwhelming, to be sensitive to the emotional maturity of my middle-grade readers and I absolutely had to find some hope for them. So the story is not just one about grief and loss, but also about human endurance and resilience. For me, this was absolutely essential.

The other challenge I faced was to find the “child” story within the context of the adult world where the tragedy was unfolding. I knew I had to remember my readership and ensure that I told Mackenzie’s story, first and foremost, and this proved more difficult than I expected. I took many wrong turns and came up with many ideas that just didn’t work, before finally settling on Mackenzie’s story. To this end, I framed the tragedy within a suspenseful mystery, switching the story back and forth between then and now, and Sydney and Panama to ensure that readers were continually piecing together snippets of information and coming up with their own theories of what happened to Mackenzie’s mum. And as I plunged Mackenzie into this tragic circumstance and set her on a quest to find answers, I was in awe of how resilient she was, how warm, capable, intuitive, caring and determined. And that taught me a lot, truth be told.

Missing was a tough story to write and it is a sad one to read. It evokes deep feelings and takes the reader on an emotional journey. As I wrote the story, I had to learn to trust my readers – to trust that within the safety of the pages of a book, they would be up to the task of exploring the messy and confounding nature of grief and loss and tragedy. I now feel secure in the knowledge that at the end of it all, readers will come to realise that while the world may never be the same after such a tragedy, you can come out the other side and eventually find some joy in the world again.

And I am certainly proud to see Missing take its place among the growing list of middle-grade books tackling the tough stuff.

About Missing:

What do you hope for, when there’s no hope?

In search of this answer, award-winning Australian author Sue Whiting delivers a confronting mystery for younger readers.

Mackenzie da Luca’s mother is missing – she’s vanished without a trace in the jungles of Panama. Now, 116 days later Mackenzie and her dad are in those same jungles. Her dad is desperate to find out what’s happened to his wife. And Mackenzie is desperate to make sure he doesn’t …

You can purchase your copy of Missing here.

About the Author:

Sue Whiting lives and works in a small coastal village south of Sydney. She has written numerous books in a variety of genres: fiction and nonfiction, picture books through to YA, including the best-selling The Firefighters, and the award-winning A Swim in the Sea. Her latest book, Missing, is a middle grade mystery/suspense novel for readers 10+.

Sue was Publishing Manager and Senior Commissioning Editor at Walker Books Australia for ten years, before leaving in 2016 to concentrate on her writing and to work from her home as a freelance editor, writing coach and mentor.

A former primary school teacher with a special interest in literacy education and children’s literature, Sue is a highly experienced speaker who loves sharing her passion for story and storytelling, reading and writing with people of all ages.


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