Writing for Tweens Suzanne LaFleur ’05 keeps it real for her young readers.
More than one fan has told Suzanne LaFleur ’05 that they’ve read and re-read one of her books, cover to cover, a very specific 11 times. “That seems to be the magic number,” LaFleur said.
Middle-grade readers — the industry’s label for children 8 to 12 — have a voracious appetite for books, LaFleur explained.
LaFleur, who published her sixth book, “Counting to Perfect,” was 9 when she announced that she was going to be an author for kids her age when she grew up. “Well, honey, your age will change,” LaFleur’s father replied diplomatically.
But her mind was made up. As a high school student in her native Massachusetts, LaFleur felt personally attacked when English teachers pooh-poohed books outside the literary canon. “They said, ‘There’s no merit in children’s books.’ That offended me because that’s how we create readers for life, right?”
At W&L, LaFleur took creative writing classes, where students orally critiqued one another’s work. During the review, the author wasn’t allowed to interject any clarifications. “I found it to be an amazing tool,” LaFleur said. “You got a true understanding of what people were taking away from your work. When your readers read your books, you don’t get to be present to explain what you meant. Your writing has to speak for itself.”
LaFleur, who double majored in English and European history, doesn’t begin her creative process rigidly defining her characters. Instead, they come to her as “impulses,” and she’ll step into their skins and listen to their dialogue. “I think of myself as a witness to the scenes and conversations,” she explained. While playing video games (her favorite is “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”) or cleaning her New York City apartment, she’ll let those creations percolate in her subconscious and will follow the most compelling scenarios and characters to see where they lead her.
Her books don’t sanitize childhood. In her début novel, “Love, Aubrey,” an 11-year-old’s father and sister die in a car crash. LaFleur’s 2017 book, “Beautiful Blue World,” and its sequel, “Threads of Blue,” describe a world where children are recruited for war. “Middle-grade readers really like stuff about justice and stories about finding your courage, finding your voice,” she said.
Writers have to be able to tap into what it was like — really like — to be a kid. “You have to remember what it was like to explore friendship for the first time or to lose a loved one for the first time,” said LaFleur. “We love people. We lose them. We have moments where we need to be brave and stand up for things.”
She added, “Kids need people like them in books. People who talk like them, who might look like them. Something that mirrors their world. That’s how you create lifelong readers.”