Summary of this month’s movie:
We start with a little prologue. On October 31, 1693, in Salem, Massachusetts, the Sanderson sisters–three witches named Winifred, Sarah, and Mary–kidnap Emily Binx and drain her life force then turn her brother Thackery into an immortal black cat. The townsfolk sentence the sisters to be hanged for murder, but Winifred casts a curse that will resurrect them during a full moon on All Hallows' Eve if a virgin lights the Black Flame Candle in their cottage.
Three centuries later, Max Dennison, his younger sister Dani, and his crush Allison visit the former Sanderson cottage, now a museum, where Max inadvertently resurrects the witches. The Sanderson sisters promptly try to take Dani's soul, but the kids escape. The immortal cat Binx tells Max to take Winifred's spellbook and then takes the group to an old cemetery where they will be safe since it is hallowed ground. The witches eventually catch up to them there, and Winnifred raises Billy Butcherson from the grave and sends them after the children.
The witches pursue the children across town. Winifred reveals to her sisters that the spell that brought them back only works on Halloween and unless they can suck the life out of at least one child, they will turn to dust when the sun rises. After luring them to the high school--where there's a musical number because you can't have the Divine Miss M in a movie and not let her sing--the children trap the witches in a pottery kiln and burn them alive. Max and Allison open the spell book, hoping to reverse the spell on Binx and not realizing the curse revived the witches and the open spell book acts like a beacon to Winifred.
Back at the cemetery, Billy joins the fight against the witches as they attack from the air and snatch Dani. Winifred attempts to use the last vial of potion to suck the soul from Dani, but Binx knocks the potion out of her hand. Max promptly drinks it, forcing the witches to take him instead. But then the sun rises and turns all the witches to dust. Their deaths break Thackery's curse, freeing his soul and reuniting him with Emily as they both head off into the afterlife and Billy returns to his grave to sleep. As the movie closes, Winifred's spellbook opens its eye once more, which means the witches could possibly return again someday. Carly, what’d you think about the movie?
Carly: I really enjoy this movie. It was one of those that I felt like was too much of a cult favorite, that I didn’t totally get as a kid. I liked it more this time actually. But I think as a kid I couldn’t ignore the 90s teen boy cringe. I just don’t really care about Max at all and find him completely annoying. But the rest of the movie is just so so fun. Although I am sad that Dani doesn’t get an immortal cat as a pet. But I get that Binx wouldn’t enjoy that. But it is the dream. And I love Billy’s contribution. The Sanderson sisters are really campy and fun and so extra. They nail their parts in the best way. As usual, I’m choosing to ignore the 90s cringey stuff that I would normally tear apart. Because sometimes it is good to just enjoy a thing for what it is.
Jeni: This movie is 100% pure cheese in the best possible way. If you’re looking for something unexpected, this is not the movie. It’s all tropes used exactly the way you think they will be. But the Sanderson sisters are so over-the-top and campy, and the whole thing is just a lot of fun. That scene in the high school where Winifred basically glamours all the adults in town is so perfect from a kids’ perspective. Like, adults are so weird, who knows why they do anything they do? I do feel like I have to mention that the feminist side of me definitely struggles with any portrayal of witches like this, and something about it being set in Salem makes that worse because I know so much about the actual historical witch trials and how sad that actually was. But in general, I feel like that’s something I have to take up with society at large. So, setting that aside, what’s something this movie does well that authors can use in their writing?
Carly: Age category - this movie is rated PG, which means it may not be appropriate for young children. The book age category equivalent would probably be lower middle grade. We haven’t really gotten into age category much, although we’ve mentioned it quite a few times. It is one of those things that feels obvious and easy to understand, but a lot more goes into it than you might initially think. So if this movie would be the equivalent of a lower middle grade book, how does it fit that? Well to start it revolves around Halloween and trick or treating. It focuses on kids. It has a lot of silly young jokes. The movie focuses on what would scare children and what they would relate to. It’s terrifying that all the adults would be away and hypnotized to not listen. But also, kids always feel like adults don’t listen to them. That they are on their own and have to figure it out themselves. Also it gives us more conflict and the freedom for the kids to run around and fix the problems themselves. Even the inciting incident, daring each other to break into a place they aren’t supposed to be, and doing something small like lighting a candle, those are things kids would totally do. But also feeling like the smallest act can lead to big consequences that you couldn’t have predicted, that’s a very middle grade sensibility. The whole movie is about kids trying to get people to listen to them, feeling left out or other, and grappling with the unknown. It perfectly fits in the middle grade genre. I could go on and on about what it is like to be 11, but I think we all remember those feelings and all that uncertainty. A middle grade book will really focus on those issues, letting the reader feel “seen” and making it relatable.
Jeni: It’s really important to know and understand your intended age category and how that fits into the publishing industry as a whole because this is one of the most important factors in how you will sell your book. You’ll hear the advice a lot to imagine where your book would sit on a shelf in the bookstore or library, and that’s totally applicable here. Generally those divisions are by age category first and then by genre. Depending on the store, there may be separate sections for adults, teens, and children. Within the children’s section, that will be divided even further into picture books, young reader books, and books for older readers. For each of those age categories, there’s a set of conventions, standards, and expectations about what’s appropriate and interesting to those readers. It’s so important as a writer to know which of these areas your book fits into because that impacts which agents you’ll query if you’re going the traditional publication route or which categories and places you’ll market your book if you’re self-publishing. So, Hocus Pocus was marketed toward families, which means that it needs to be appropriate for all but the youngest children and also have elements that will appeal to their parents. The relationships between the main characters and everything they go through is familiar to children’s experiences and also the tropes (like the big brother thinking he’s too cool for trick-or-treating and the little sister teasing him about his crush) are common in media for kids. And then there are some elements that will go over younger kids’ heads. I’m thinking of the tongue-in-cheek dirty jokes like when Winifred says, “We desire children,” and the bus driver says, “It may take me a couple of tries, but I don’t think that’ll be a problem.” Beyond that, you know we are always talking on this podcast about reader expectations. Your readers will have an idea about these conventions and standards, even if it’s not something they’re consciously aware of, and you don’t want to give them something that feels so far outside of that that they’ll be disappointed. It would be like biting into a chocolate chip cookie only to find it’s actually raisins. That’s not to say people can’t like both. But if you’re expecting one and get the other, it’s going to be an unpleasant surprise, and chances are, you’re going to put that cookie down and look for the one you wanted. And maybe even give that cookie a bad review on Goodreads.
Carly: The factor that most people think of first when it comes to age category is the age of the main character, which makes a lot of sense but also isn’t always 100% reliable. Age category is a lot more complex than that and relies on a lot more elements. So here is a breakdown of elements you have to consider when it comes to writing for specific age categories: voice, content, themes, references (are there things they won’t understand that will take them out of the story), tropes, the main characters’ ages, POV (aka no adult POVs in kidlit), level of interiority, focus of that interiority, vocabulary, and word count. So let’s break some of these down further. Voice influences a lot of these elements and is probably one of the most important elements. How your characters sounds, what they are interested in, who they are, what concerns them, all of these elements tie into voice and who the person is. And all of these elements tie into age and level of maturity. A twelve year old will sound completely different from a 16 year old and a 30 year old. This then gets into content. Are you focusing on work? On school? On romance? On sex? On violence? Different content belongs to different age categories. Then you get into themes and interiority. What does a person that age care about and worry about? What types of problems do they encounter? And how would they respond to those problems? Would they look for someone older to help them or would they try to ignore the problem until they can’t anymore? A younger kid is much more likely to worry about getting into trouble or disappointing their parents. Teens might be worried about messing up their future or not being taken seriously. Then you get into things like references, vocabulary, and word count. These elements tend to have clear delineations. The older the reader is the longer the book can be (outside of genre conventions). The older the reader is the more advanced the vocabulary can be. And the older the reader is the older the references can be. Don’t write a book for middle grade kids that is 500 pages, uses words like hyperbole, and references the Manson cult. It just won’t connect. So take all these elements into consideration and make sure they align well with your chosen age category.
Jeni: Adult fiction is probably the least restrictive when it comes to market conventions. To put this back in terms of movies for a minute, movies for adults can be R-rated, but they are often only PG or PG13. For example, Hidden Figures is rated PG, but it doesn’t mean the movie is childish. You can write an adult book with main characters who are kids or teens or have multiple POVs with a mix of ages. The content can be anything from cozy and lighthearted like romcoms and cozy mysteries all the way through very dark, violent, and sexy like a lot of thrillers or grimdark fantasy. What keeps a story from feeling childish even when the main characters are children is the narrative voice, content, themes, references, tropes, level of interiority, focus of that interiority. For example, in Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok the main character Kimberly is eleven until about halfway through the book, and then it only goes through her high school years. But the first-person narrator is clearly adult Kimberly looking back at her experiences, and so she frames the story through her adult mind and gives appropriate interiority and focus because of that. In other words, the adult narrator shows things the child version of herself may not have. These wouldn’t be interesting or even fully understandable for a child reader, and there are also elements of the plot content that wouldn’t be appropriate. Themes in adult fiction can also run the gamut, but the focus is often more on the human condition or a larger community and less on one individual.
Carly: YA fiction is extremely popular among readers of all ages. I certainly still read it, I mean, I should for my job, but I do it anyway. A great Young Adult book transcends a lot of age groups because adults still remember what it is to be that age, some of the themes are fitting for adults, and honestly, YA pushes the envelope on diversity and representation better than the adult books. And you tend to know what you’re getting with a YA book. In general, you won’t have extremely kinky sex (although more and more sex has become acceptable in YA), you won’t have the main character dealing with their marital problems, dealing with kids, or having a ton of responsibilities and complex work relationships. YA focuses on coming of age, figuring out who you are, finding your voice, finding your people. And even adults need to remember how to do this and struggle with this. So it can be very relatable to older readers while not having the same level of responsibilities as adult books. But mostly what defines YA is the coming of age theme. Whether it is a fantasy where they have to fight the darkness or it is a contemporary dealing with a mysterious new kid at school, the main character will come to know themselves better than they did in the beginning. They’ll be more of their authentic selves. To me that is what defines the genre, though there are certainly a lot more elements that go into it. Like worrying about school, people not taking you seriously or treating you like a kid, being annoyed with your parents, struggling to control your own life, and extremely high emotions. A crush is an epic love and someone they don’t like is an arch enemy. YA books lean into the high emotions of being a teenager and feeling like everything is the biggest thing in the world. YA very much relies on themes, interiority, and voice to set it apart from adult books. Especially as YA gets into darker stories and content. So while the age of the MC is important, it is very important to make sure they sound like a teenager and that they deal with themes and interiority that reflects how hard it is to be a teenager.
Jeni: So, Carly mentioned that Hocus Pocus would probably be middle grade. I was reading about this movie in preparation for the podcast, and apparently it was originally written with all the characters being twelve, which is perfect for middle grade. Middle grade is a fun age category because it’s halfway between kids’ books and teen books and so draws some from both of them. And because there’s been a lot of growth here recently, some of the boundaries are getting pushed a little in terms of word count and a lot more diversity in terms of characters and topics (although honestly, this age group has always been better at that than some others are). What that translates to is that authors writing middle grade stories can play with some elements like romance but have to keep it within the realm of what’s appropriate for their readers’ age. Twelve is really the upper limit for a middle-grade character, and the readership is usually considered ages eight to twelve because there’s a general rule in kidlit that kids “read up,” meaning they want to read about kids who are a little older than they are. So, for example, if you have romance in a middle grade story, it has to be appropriate for the average eight-year-old, which means keeping it limited to the level of, like, first crushes a la Max and Allison, who are honestly a little too old to be middle grade protagonists but 1) this isn’t squarely the same as middle grade books and 2) it was also made in the 90s and the rules about kidlit were different then. It’s also important to note that there’s a smaller divide within middle grade. The 8-10 range is usually chapter books, meaning lower word counts and simpler stories, and the 11-12 range has higher word counts and deeper interiority. But even then, kids this age aren’t quite as reflective as teenagers so you have to limit how much angst goes into the story. Theme-wise, middle grade stories are usually more focused on family, friends, and local community than the self.
Carly: And finally we get into young kids, aka picture books and early readers. I’m going to start this section with a huge disclaimer: I do not edit books for this age category, neither does Jeni. Therefore this won’t be as in depth as the others. So early reader books and picture books have a huge focus on vocabulary and word count. Obviously, the word count is very low here as these young readers can’t read very well or the book is meant to be read to them out loud. And the vocabulary needs to be extremely simple and easy to understand for the age of the child. Another really interesting thing that young reader books get into is rhyme and meter. Usually picture books have a consistent meter to them to make reading it out loud easier and it is easier for kids to follow along. It makes it feel like a song. It helps them to understand the content and learn to read better. I mean, think of Dr. Seuss books and how they rhyme and have a consistent meter or pattern to them. Obviously, the next thing would be imagery and how those pair with the words. But we’re not going to get into all that because we are definitely not experts. Basically: young reader books need to focus on simple stories and themes that aren’t too complex. They are single adventures that can be read in one sitting and have a flow to them to make them memorable. Okay I’m going to stop there! So this month our query is a middle grade fantasy. Jeni, what are your thoughts on this query?
Jeni: Overall, I think this is pretty strong. I love the premise of this story, and I especially love that it focuses on the relationship between sisters. See? Focus on family, like I said haha I love the comp titles. Percy Jackson is timely again with the Disney Plus series coming up, and the Rick Riordan presents series is a great comp, given the Jewish mythology in a modern-day setting. The only thing you might want to consider is that these are both related to Rick Riordan so maybe use a comp that isn’t. The first one that comes to mind is The Serpent’s Secret. What’d you think, Carly? Carly: I love this query! And I love the sound of this story. It gets into Jewish mythology which I really love, but is focused on a sister relationship, like you said. My only other suggestion would be to focus a little bit more on why the sisters don’t get along. The last line about stakes claims that one sister needs to forgive the other, but what does she need to forgive her for? It seemed like they just had a problem of jealousy, not that anything actually happened. Other than that, I love it!