Editor’s Choice Award September 2021, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Talisman Plant by Bronwyn Venter

was drawn to “The Talisman Plant” this month because of its charming but substantial quest, the nuanced turn it took to its subject matter, and the question in its author’s notes: “Curious to know if the vocab is too difficult for a middle grades/YA audience”. It’s a question which opened a large door, and this month, I’d like to explore how we cut through standard writing advice to find deliberate approaches in our work.

(Yup, this is the meta-Editor’s Choice: the advice about writing advice!)


Vasi’s quest for a hedgehog—to find the raskovnik, to free his father—is terribly sweet, in a Victorian animal drawings kind of way, and then deepens considerably in a way that feels organic as this piece gets into the realities of fairy-tale logic slamming into political worlds. Overall, it’s got a really tidy marriage between that fairy-tale logic and some sophisticated concepts, being tackled in a way that reads fairly clean and uncomplicated.

I think the goal of creating appeal to both younger and adult readers is being met right now: there’s a way to read Vasi’s quest as straight-up adventure for a kid, and an intensely bittersweet last gasp of heartbreak for an adult.

Pacing is something I do want to draw your attention to. There’s a huge section—once Vasi finds out his friend is a fae and before he goes to do something about it—which can easily be condensed down to a few paragraphs or cut. Not much action is moving forward in that space or new information being learned; it’s rather ruminative, and every character introduced is secondary or disposable. I think there’s room to reduce it and keep the story overall on target.

But most of all: The author’s notes ask if the vocabulary here is accessible for a younger audience, which is a good question to ask. Stories that are ostensibly written for kids but have all the structural assumptions of adult readerly knowledge are definitely a thing we can produce as writers.

Here’s the thing, though: My instinct is no, it isn’t. If anything, based on contents, this piece would be middle-grade rather than YA—the concerns of YA are much more relational and identity-related (who am I as an adult, how do I fit into my world as I change?), much less cute or soft-focused, and much emotionally sharper, harder, or more complex. This is definitely not a YA piece in what it’s talking about and how.

But what advice do I give to help realign “The Talisman Plant” into middle-grade conventions? I quickly realized I don’t confidently know: middle-grade has always been a weak spot in my own toolbox, because I was one of those kids never really reading at the age bracket I was supposed to. I can’t backfill that experience or learn it later, because I’ll never be a kid again. I can just try to work the problem for you and admit that answer’s going to be flawed.

But: What I’d like to offer up is modeling the process I used today to try to work that problem for you—and with that, talk about how we can learn to evaluate what works and what we can do as writers in an industry that can frequently drown in ideas about what a book should look like. What approaches can we take to writing advice and applying it when we don’t have good context?

The real question here: What do we do next when we don’t know something about our readership?

Find what the standard advice emphasizes. Fortunately or unfortunately, writing advice is never more than a Google search away; the problem we have is sorting it for relevance and credibility. The standard advice for writing middle-grade is plain, simple, digestible language that focuses on action over theory of mind or description. Active verbs over passive verbs, simple sentence structures, and literalism over metaphor.

In this case, if “The Talisman Plant” wanted to take that approach, there might be a balance to be struck between words that give the slightly historical flavour of a fairytale (“surmised”, “countenance”) and kids’ vocabularies; “went for a piss” might be rougher than a kid that age is used to from fairytales. There’s also something to look at in the sheer amount of information this story keeps in subtext and its accessibility to young audiences; that standard advice emphasizes being direct with your information and not assuming that younger readers will get your inferences.

I’d also extend that to suggesting a little less explanation and more action, especially with the fae’s early actions; kids are, for better or worse, used to a world where adults do arbitrary things without justifying themselves, and they’re used to not understanding things yet.

That’s one approach we can take with “The Talisman Plant”; take that advice as written and use it rigorously to get the story it’s telling within the storytelling conventions that advice describes.

But—there’s probably better work we can do on that front. It would mean not following that advice blindly, but using it as an idea of where to start asking questions.

Find the holes in the standard advice—but intelligently, not reactively. However—we might think—kids read fairy tales, and have for a very long time. It’s worth asking who a standard piece of writing advice is for: American eight-year-olds? British twelve-year-olds? From what background (they might well know about the police brutality, but not what a florin is). Who is this advice thinking of as the normative reader? What ideas does it hold about them—and this is especially important when writing for kids, because adults have all kinds of odd ideas about how kids think and act. The major obstacle, I’ve noticed, in working with young readers is adult projection; adults treat the question of “how childhood is” in an extremely politically loaded way, and that can get between writers and our younger audiences.

Middle-grade is technically 8-12, which is a huge spectrum of life experience, vocabulary, and mindset. It’s a huge spectrum of cultural attitudes toward childhood, regional education systems, ideas about reading, class privilege, and experiences with English. It covers very young children with dyslexia, the kids who have been already reading into the adult section, and everything in between.

I think ultimately, to navigate our question in that stack of complexity, we have to do the usual thing writers do with stories and decide who we are talking to. And then sort out what advice is useful for that choice from what isn’t as we move forward.

There’s a way of thinking about the story, in this context, which asks:

What are we assuming a nine-year-old reader already knows about stories? Do they have the concept of a gamekeeper or bailiff? Do they know what faeries are? Are we assuming too much? Are we assuming too little?
What are we assuming a nine-year-old reader already knows about the world as it is right now? Do they have the concept of police brutality (where does this nine-year-old live? They might well have this one down; they might have been sheltered from it or it might not be part of their experience).
And then: how do we then rewrite this one to fit with what that archetypical reader we made up does know?

Draw on any experience we might have—or can acquire—to get deeper. A third approach—a complementary one!—is to just try to get more information. And that’s always a good one, no matter what we decide to do next.

In trying to tackle this, I thought about my own bookselling experience and how I used to get around the problem of recommending books to kids and parents when I’d never been a middle-grade reader: finding out what else that particular reader liked, and ditching all ideas of what kids as a unit like. The first time I had to review a middle-grade book, I asked friends who had young children how they read and what they enjoyed. Is there a way to get more information about your particular archetypical reader?

Asking a bookseller or librarian what’s currently popular in their store beyond the usual series—with that reader we’re thinking of!—can be a good strategy. Talking to parents of readers who are themselves readers—and can deconstruct a book that way—can really help. Reading a dozen middle-grade books in a row aimed at that reader (they’re quite short!) and finding what they have in common is another.

These are ways to focus down a little more strongly, because we can ask finer-grained questions: what makes an MG book successful commercially? What makes one successful in terms of awards? How are those different? What do MG books that are written to uphold an idea of what kids are like do, and what do the books that want to argue kids are different do differently? What makes a MG book successful now versus ten years ago (whole new generation of kids!).


What I’m outlining here is probably the longest and most complex answer to “Does the language work?” that’s ever been thrown across the proverbial desktop, but what it’s getting into is the foundations of building our own knowledge. It’s learning our industry—and our craft—with our own ears and eyes and fingers.

Ultimately, the problem with writing advice (this advice included!) is it means relying on authority to solve our writing conundrums—and authority is not really a thing in the very personal, very individual universe of what stories people like, why they like them, how children are, what a person knows or wants to know, and whether we’re communicating well with someone else. Authority has to generalize when it answers that question, so authority always misses.

When we start to build our own processes for finding things out about writing and stories, we start to have the information we need to make our own choices. Yeah, we’re going to miss too; but we’re going to miss things as a result of the decisions we’ve made—deliberately setting certain things aside—instead of the information we didn’t have, the person we believed, what they missed, what we didn’t know enough to ask about. Setting certain things aside and choosing others: it’s how we build a style, a voice of our own, and an aesthetic for our lifetime of writing.

So I hope this long detour into how to build a meaningful process to answer that question—how’s the language look?—is a useful one. Not just for answering that simple question, but for all the things that it’s possible to learn about writing and publishing on the way to the answer, and how that knowledge can shape your approach to writing in future.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above {2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

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