Monday, July 21, 2014


As a fan of both MG literature and Catherine Ryan Hyde's work, I'm anxious to get my hands on her forthcoming MG edition of PAY IT FORWARD.  So anxious, in fact, I asked her to to stop by the blog to talk about the process of turning an adult novel into a book for young readers:

Where did the idea for a young reader version of PAY IT FORWARD originate?  Was it your idea, or were you approached to do a young reader version?

I think the idea grew organically as the book found its audience. It’s a book with a 12-year-old protagonist, yet it was written and published for adults. Younger readers never occurred to me, or to my publisher, until the American Library Association put Pay It Forward on its “Best Books for Young Adults” list (now called Best Fiction for Young Adults). That honor recommends it for kids 12-18. Then the Pay It Forward Foundation, which was originally solely an educational foundation, got going, and that did a great deal to get the Pay It Forward idea into classrooms. But the book could not follow. Too much adult language and material. It became clear after the fact that kids younger than Trevor loved the Pay It Forward concept. It was hard to miss the simple fact that the book would be great for them if it could be made suitable for that age group.

We approached Simon & Schuster with the idea of a book for kids. They didn’t approach us.

What were some of the biggest global changes--to plot, characters, etc.?  What was the reasoning behind making those changes?

Very few changes had to be made to the plot. And this is as good a moment as any to point out my opinion: this would not work with every book. Pay It Forward was already a book with a very simple, universal theme. Definitely simple enough for readers of almost any age. I mean, it was a book about an idea created by a child.

Now, the characters needed some work. One was a homeless drug addict, another was an unscrupulous gangbanger. I didn’t make either of them disappear. But I softened the depictions of their actions quite a bit. I had to do something similar with Gordie, a gay and gender non-conforming character. I didn’t take him out. I wouldn’t have if asked to. Because it may be wrong to lose your life to hard drugs or break the law, but it’s not wrong to be gay, or express your gender differently. Unfortunately, most of the time we spent with Gordie in the adult version depicted his patterns of trying to hook up with men. But he’s still there. Trevor still saves him, and it’s clear that he’s with his boyfriend. So there are still gay characters in the book. But they just had to be written differently, because many of their details were too adult.

The reasoning behind making all of these changes was the same. The goal was a G rating. My editor at Simon & Schuster and I agreed that it would be the same book but with a G rating. So everything that was done was done in service of that goal.

Conversely, what were the smaller changes--pacing of individual scenes, sentence structure?

The pacing seemed almost to take care of itself. Because as we removed the adult material, it got much shorter and tighter. Then it was mostly an issue of spotting when a concept or a word choice was unsuitable for the intended audience. Not inappropriate, necessarily, but wrong for the reading level. I caught the most obvious ones on the first revision, then my editor, who knows more about middle grade fiction than I do, caught a whole other series that I wasn’t sure about. It was really a pretty good example of how an author and editor can put their heads together and get something done.

How did you get into an MG voice?  How difficult was it to take adult material and put it completely in a child's world?

It may sound like a strange answer, but I’m not sure I did either. I don’t think I got into a middle-grade voice and I don’t think I put it completely in a child’s world. Because it was not rewritten from scratch, I think the overall tone may still be more mature. The parts that are the writings of Trevor were always written through a 12-year-old’s perception. The rest is in third person. I guess you could say it’s a grown-up book made suitable for kids. Which might not work in every case. But I think in this case it works, and kids will like it.

What was the biggest surprise?  Did writing and editing this version allow you to uncover any new layers of the story?

I guess the biggest surprise was the ending. I was sure I would leave the ending the same. In fact, my editor and I discussed that I would leave the ending the same. Lots of people question it, but I stand by it. But when all was said and done, I left it a bit more open. I still think, in my mind, that it ended the way the adult edition did. But readers can think otherwise if they choose. It was a compromise.

What's the difference in promoting an MG book, as opposed to adult or YA material?

YA promotion seems to rely heavily on teens having their own blogs and interacting on social networks. Adult… well, I don’t think anybody really knows how adult promotion works. It’s not like adults all hang out at the same watering hole. But middle grade kids go to school, so I think there’s a strong approach to “the gatekeepers”—the teachers and curriculum planners and school librarians—because they’re the ones who can really get these books to kids.

I ran into the difference when I posted a giveaway (on my blog) of some advance reader’s copies. I realized the people who read my blog are adults, so I asked our Pay It Forward Foundation president, Charley Johnson, to RT and share a link to the post. Because he has a line on the “Pay It Forward people.” The people who follow him are the people who have been wanting to get kids involved all along.

The cover's really beautiful.  What can you share about the design process, cover artist, etc.?

The only thing I can really share about it is my surprise and enthusiasm. As with most “Big 5” publishers, there wasn’t a lot of author involvement in developing the new cover. They just ran this by me and said they hoped I liked it. My track record with traditionally published covers has been spotty at best. (My new publisher, Lake Union, which is an Amazon Publishing imprint, has given my books some great covers.) But in this case I think they were spot on.

What are your thoughts about the MG genre--especially about contemporary MG?  (The MG genre as a whole seems so populated by fantasies, fairy tales, etc.)

The only kind of fiction I really like to read is contemporary—which is really just another way of saying realistic—fiction. This is true regardless of the intended age group. In middle grade books, for example, I was never a big fan of Harry Potter, but I loved Freak the Mighty. I like human stories.

I just want to add that I’m not insulting genre fiction or telling other people what they should like. I’m just telling people what I like.

Would you write another--even wholly original--MG?

You know, that’s a good question. No plans at the moment. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you never know where life will take you.

How do you ultimately hope the book will be implemented--in classrooms, by young readers, etc?

The ultimate goal is curriculum inclusion. Because Pay It Forward—the real-life movement—is just perfect for kids. The reason I made Trevor a kid in the adult book is because I think there’s an advantage in catching people with this idea before they’re too jaded. So there’s a delicious excitement in waiting to see if this will be widely read, and—if so—if this next generation will change the world through kindness. It could happen. Kids are a powerful force.


Catherine's next book for adults, TAKE ME WITH YOU, is set to release tomorrow!  I also asked Catherine to tell us how this new read is both like and different from her previous work:

"Take Me With You is like my other books in that it's about human bonds. Unexpected bonds among people who are not related by blood, and who crossed each other's paths in unusual ways. That tends to be a common theme in my work. Although I have done "road trip" stories before, this is the first time I've taken my own style of traveling--RV trips to National Parks to hike and bask in the beauty of nature--and woven it into fiction. Every place August and Seth and Henry go is a place I've been. That gives it an extra dose of my own life passion, I think. And I think that sets it apart from my other novels."

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