While writing my first book, Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens, I had a conversation with a student about a middle grade book she had just read. She commented that she liked the book, but didn’t feel the author had much idea what it was like to be a middle school student these days. The characters didn’t sound real to her. As adult authors writing about children and teens, it can be tricky to understand their world and accurately reflect it. It’s been a long time since most of us walked the halls of middle and high school. How do we know if we’re capturing the essence of the age we’re writing for?

One way is to listen. At the time I wrote my first novel, my daughters were fifteen and thirteen years old. I listened in as they talked to their friends. I honed my dialogue to reflect the way they and their friends spoke. I also tried to capture some of their sharp, funny humor in Kate, my main character, and her outlook on the world.

It’s also wise to avoid oversimplifying characters, like the nice protagonist whose only flaw is being too generous, or the mean kid who only exists to torment your main character. Kids aren’t always nice in middle and high school; in fact, sometimes they’re mean. While most people understand this, as adults it makes us uncomfortable. We want our children, and our main characters, to always be kind and compassionate. The problem is, it doesn’t reflect reality.

I wanted Kate to sound and act real, so she’s not always nice. She makes mistakes. She does grow and learn, but she doesn’t turn into an angel. Based on words of wisdom from a young reader, I tried to keep it real.


Julie Mata is the author of two middle grade novels, “Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens,” published by Disney Hyperion in 2014, and the sequel, “Kate Walden Directs: Bride of Slug Man,” published in 2015. She received a B.A. from Oberlin College in English Literature, with a minor in Creative Writing, and a master’s degree from Northwestern University in Broadcast Journalism. She worked for many years as a news reporter in Iowa, Illinois and South Dakota, and as a freelance writer for ad agencies in Arizona. In 2012, Julie acquired a literary agent with Inkell Management. Her agent also successfully sold her books to CBT, a German publisher in the Random House publishing group. Julie’s first book, “Night of the Zombie Chickens,” won an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Library Association, and was published in Germany (her second book, “Bride of Slug Man,” is currently under translation,)

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