MIDDLE GRADE KNOWHOW Reimagining genres

In the last of our latest middle grade strand, Huw Powell looks at the pleasures and pitfalls of mixing up genre. 

When writing middle-grade stories, I like to mash-up genres and timelines to create exciting new combinations, such as space and pirates for Spacejackers. This is something that many authors have successfully applied, for example, mixing Greek mythology with the modern world for the Percy Jackson novels. 

Lots of story ideas can be sparked this way, whether they are about werewolf detectives, time-travelling unicorns or mermaid school. But in order to make the stories work, the author needs to reimagine worlds and characters to suit the mash-up. Good examples include the Stormbreaker and Cherub novels, where the world of espionage is neatly woven into the lives of normal children. In a similar way, The Worst Witch cleverly combines magic and boarding school, where science is swapped for potions and stripy school ties are reimagined as hat bands. 

A not so good example is Disney’s Treasure Planet, which fails to successfully integrate space and pirates, leaving spaceships shaped like old fashioned sailing ships and space pirates dressed like old fashioned sea pirates, which is neither realistic nor practical. 

What is the key to reimagining genres? As writers, we must avoid force-fitting traditional genre traits that feel clunky and out of place in their new context (e.g. paper schoolbooks might not be suitable for mermaids). Instead of reproducing what already exists, we should find creative ways to incorporate and embed each genre, so they reflect the new setting while retaining their essence. For example, a futuristic knight might retain their code of honour, but it’s unlikely they would wear a traditional suit of armour in space, or carry a simple sword and shield. The armour can be reimagined as a chunky metal spacesuit, complete with a plasma sword and power shield. Instead of a horse, they can ride a hover-bike featuring their coat of arms, while fighting alien dragons. 

In order to create a truly authentic story, we should consider how every aspect is influenced by the mash-up. Do places need to be renamed? Do objects need to be reinvented? Do clothes need to be redesigned? Think about language, science, architecture, currency, tools, weapons, food, religion, politics, education, because it’s this sort of detail that turns a good idea into a great story.

FEATURE IMAGE CREDIT: Suzanne Dore www.suzannedore.com

Huw Powell is the author of the middle-grade Spacejackers trilogy, published by Bloomsbury and W F Howes. His first novel was Literature Works’ 'Book of the Month' and was shortlisted for the Teach Primary 'New Children's Fiction Award'. Huw is an active supporter of initiatives that encourage children to read. He lives with his wife and two sons in Portishead, North Somerset.

Helen Liston is KnowHow Editor. If you have any ideas for KnowHow topics, get in touch at knowhow@britishscbwi.org.

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