One of my goals this summer was to read all of the books on the Texas Bluebonnet list. These books are chosen by the Texas Library Association and geared toward Grades 3-6. At the end of the school year, the kids are encouraged to vote for their favorite book from the list.
I’ve always felt like the range from Grade 3 - Grade 6 was pretty significant in terms of reading material. For example, what an 8-year-old wants to read versus a 12-year-old can really vary, especially when it comes to reading level and comprehension. The list usually tries to include something for all ages within that range, from older picture books to longer novels.
As I discovered with my 2 X 2 challenge, taste is subjective when it comes to Bluebonnet books. While I eagerly read some of the books, others really were a struggle for me to finish. It definitely made me sympathetic to kids who have to read all the Bluebonnet books at school to earn a prize or reward. It is really an accomplishment!
As a writer, I realized I was learning just as much (if not more) from the books that I didn’t like as the books that I liked. I started to ask myself, “Why isn’t this book holding my interest?”
For me, I realized the answer had to do with character. In some of the books, I really didn’t care for the main character of the story. The reasons varied as to why I didn’t like them: sometimes it was an annoying personality quirk, other times the character seemed bland, sometimes it seemed the author was trying too hard to make the character unique and they turned out unrealistic, other times I just found the character mean-spirited and had a hard time rooting for them. In several of the novels, I found the minor characters much more engaging than the main one. What I discovered was that if I didn’t like the main character, I didn’t really care what happened in the book. Not to sound harsh, but in order to justify spending time reading the story, I wanted to be engaged in the characters and anxious to find out what happens next. I didn’t want to simply be turning the pages and skimming the chapters just so I could check the book off my list.
I realize, of course, that I am not the target audience for these books. So perhaps these characters may not appeal to me, but would appeal to children. I’m hoping to get some feedback from kids who’ve read these books to see how they enjoyed them. But as an author, the experiment reiterated an important lesson - you’ve got to make the reader really care about your characters. They may not always agree with the characters or like everything they do, but the reader does need to be invested and curious about what happens to them. Then that translates to caring about the twists and turns of the plot, and how that in turn affects the characters.
As I look on my own middle grade novel (which I’d love to see on a Bluebonnet list someday!), it has helped me take a look at each of my characters from a different perspective. Obviously, I, as the author, think each of my characters are unique and wonderful. But is that translating on the page? Will my readers be as invested in the story as I am? Have I made my readers care? It’s definitely something to keep working on, and it’s another example of why reading is so informative and important to writing. So read and write on!