By Lela Nargi
Having just released her latest book, an action-packed mystery for kids age 7-10 called Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, kid novelist Linda Urban took time out of her busy author schedule to chat with us about the importance of reading, writing, and building worlds on a page to allow kids to explore who they really are.
There’s a lot of talk about why picture books are so important for kids. But what’s so special about middle grade? When we’re in kindergarten, people say, What do you want to be when you grow up? And we can say, I want to be a fire fighter, or a doctor. And people say, That’s so great! In the middle grade years, when people say, What do you want to be and you say, I want to be a doctor, they say, Well you better start studying! Suddenly, the future has this weight that before was all play, but we want that play to persist. Middle grade novels let us figure out who we are and where we fit; they let us hold on to that childish imaginative past while also recognizing that the decisions we make might have an impact on the future.
My son, Jack, is about to turn 11. He reads adult-level physics books, but he also believes it’s possible that he’s going to get his Hogwarts letter. He both knows and doesn’t know, believes and is skeptical. That’s what so perfect about writing for that age and being that age. My daughter, Claire, is 13 and it’s harder and harder for her to hold on to that magic.
Many kids still love to be read to in the middle grade years. Are you hoping that will happen with Milo? Milo is written with a rhythm and I hope it will be read aloud with a parent or in a classroom. It also has a relationship between a father and son, and I hope a parent reading it aloud will get a connection with his kids as he’s reading to them.
Did anyone read to you as a kid? I have a memory of being read Charlotte’s Web in the 2nd grade by a teacher who was otherwise terrifying. She had a bad temper and was nearing retirement and could see it waiting for her outside the classroom door. But at read-aloud, it got very quiet and we all sat in what we now call criss-cross-applesauce on the green carpet in front of her chair. And her voice changed and her demeanor changed, and it was this magical bubble where we were all safe. At the time, I identified with Fern and Wilbur, but years later when I read the book aloud to my kids, suddenly I was Charlotte—I had never identified with her before. By the end of the book I was bawling and my kids were like, Mom she’s a spider and Wilbur’s fine!
What was the importance of books in your childhood? I grew up outside Detroit, a suburban existence in a subdivision—kind of a Judy Blume childhood. Although, I always felt uncomfortable reading her. I was such a late bloomer I would think, Is that going to happen to me? Am I supposed to be thinking or feeling that? Because I don’t!
But the books that made the biggest difference to me when I was young were all the Beverly Cleary books. I loved Ramona; she was so not like me. I was very well behaved and wanted to please. The audacity of Ramona was just so appealing to experience on the page. I loved the Little House books, too, and I was Laura Ingalls for many a Halloween. I also was child of the bicentennial year, which was so formative. I read every revolutionary biography that there was. I begged to stay up late to see the Bicentennial Minutes on CBS. It made me wish I was an East Coast person, so I could be truly a patriot.
But after 4th grade, I went to a Catholic school where the library was locked all the times unless there was a volunteer, and most of the books were 30 or 40 years old. So when you did get to take a book out, it was about a girl who was deciding whether to become a nurse or just get married. I kind of stopped reading then. But when I did read, I liked a book that saw me in one way or another, and that’s what I want to do for kids—write about small things that matter in a big way to them. Milo Speck is an exception, because it’s an action adventure, but even then, Milo is a small boy in a big world who’s in over his head. That is how I felt often.
We’re sitting today in BookCourt, a great independent bookstore in Brooklyn. Do you think it’s important to bring kids to places like this? Very early on, kids learn by watching us what things are important to us. I lived with my parents near Detroit during a recession and there wasn’t a lot of disposal income around. But when my parents had the money, we got a book. That said to us, This is a valuable thing, and we value you enough to give you this thing. It can be hard at the picture book age to spend $17.95 on a book that has 32 pages that may or may not become that favorite book the kids reads over and over. But when you get one of those for your kids, you’re telling them, This is where our priorities lie. My own kids know I never say “no” to books and art supplies.
Your son is about Milo’s age. Does he identify with him? Milo was actually written for Jack. My first three books are very introspective and, even though I don’t believe in girl books or boy books, they have girl protagonists and they’re quieter. But my son came to me and said, Your books are pretty good but I want you to write something for me. I said, What’s that? And he said, I want HAM. I said, Like lunchmeat? No, like Hero, Action, Mystery.
As I was writing, Jack was reading and he would tell me when he didn’t understand something and he’d laugh at the good jokes and squint at the not-so-good jokes. He was incredibly valuable to me. As far as identifying with Milo, Jack is not as mechanical as Milo is, but he liked that Milo could look at the internal workings of a dryer and figure out how that would work and how you could ruin it, and foil the plot. For Jack, that whole idea of “even a kid can make a difference” was really, really appealing.
Everyone has their own answer to the question, Why is reading important? What’s yours? On a hard day, my daughter can go to the stairs to the attic, where we keep our picture books, and she’ll take down some of her favorites from when we were little, like Miss Rumphius, and some that I didn’t even know meant something to her. She’ll grab those and will be in her bed with them for the evening. It’s a total comfort.
But I think one of the best things that books do is they allow you to say, What would I do in that situation? What would I do for my friends? What skills do I have, abilities, weaknesses? Am I strong enough to say “no” in a terrible situation? Both my kids are really good at “what if.” They don’t always make the right decisions, but they’ve practiced through stories to think outside what everyone else is doing. And that gives them power.