Brigit Young is one of my favorite middle grade authors. I loved her latest novel, Bright about a girl who learns that there’s more to life than book-smarts — but also that she’s smarter than she gives herself credit for. I chatted with Brigit about intelligence, her inspiration for Bright, and how writing this book was a different process than her previous two novels.
Hi Brigit! It’s so great to have you on Reading Middle Grade! I’ve never shared this, but Worth a Thousand Words was one of the first middle grade books I read–one of the few that really drew me into reading these stories. I don’t remember all the details, but I remember the warmth of discovering a new kind of poignant storytelling. Thank you for that.
Thank you so much! I really appreciate that. You’ve done such good for readers and writers with your platform.
Congratulations on Bright! Could you tell us a bit about this book and your inspiration for writing it?
Bright tells the story of Marianne Blume, a girl who decided she was “stupid” long ago and who gave up on trying because failing was too painful. Up until eighth grade she’s managed to slide by due to her well-practiced deflection skills and charm, but then she finds out that her math teacher, Mr. Garcia, won’t smudge any points for her and she may not make it to high school. Her best friend, Skyla, is already starting to drift away, and if Marianne doesn’t make it to high school she worries she may lose her friend forever.
When she finds out the Quiz Quest team (a group made up of kids who don’t seem to have any friends) can provide her with extra credit from Mr. Garcia, the team’s leader, Marianne joins the team on their journey to regionals. There’s no deflecting anymore… Marianne has to face her fears.
When I was in middle school, I was thoroughly convinced that I was not smart. Despite the pep talks from a few teachers and my parents, I knew the pain and humiliation of not understanding a math problem again and again, and it caused a huge blow to my self-esteem. No one could convince me that if I tried hard enough I’d figure it out. I mentally bailed on school.
Back then, the word “ditz” was thrown around a lot. And when it came to academics, I embraced that moniker. In a way, it kept me safe. I wanted to write Bright for the kids who don’t believe in themselves, and who haven’t yet figured out how they learn or how to push through classes that feel impossible. There are a lot of those kids out there!
Bright is your third middle grade book so far. How did the writing process differ from that of your previous two books?
In the drafting process, I stuck to the outline with Bright much more closely than with Worth a Thousand Words or The Prettiest. As I’ve written more and more, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of the beats in my outlines. I have learned to depend on them when I’m lost. In fact, sometimes the outline takes me longer than the writing process itself because I know it will have to be there to hold me up. I really stew over it!
With Bright, I kept returning to the next scene and finding my way into it. In the revision process, some of that changed, of course. But in the first draft, I felt more confident in following my outline and more confident as a writer. Additionally, Marianne felt closer to my own personality as a kid than any other character I’ve written thus far, and that was a blessing but also a challenge because I had to delve into a painful place sometimes!
I LOVED Marianne. And I also loved the kids on her Quiz Quest team. How do you create such lovable, realistic characters?
Thank you! I try (and don’t always succeed!) to balance each character out with their own set of natural strengths, inner battles, and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes in the editing process, I notice that a character is too much of one thing, and I try to find other qualities in them and let those bubble to the surface.
I used to be an actor, and I think that really helped me as a writer in terms of characterization. In acting, you have to find a piece of yourself that connects with every character you play, whether that’s Juliet or Iago. So when I’m writing, I call upon even the tiniest parts of my personality or life experiences and tap into them for every character.
Marianne’s family is also loving and realistic, as is her sister. I loved that her family played such a prominent role in the story. Would you say family is an important element of your storytelling?
For me, exploring the family dynamic is crucial to understanding the character. Sometimes the scenes between the family don’t end up furthering the plot or the theme, and they need to get cut from the final book. That often happened in the editing process for The Prettiest because there were so many characters, and the parents didn’t play as large of a role in furthering the plot. But for me as a writer, I need to understand those relationships and write them out. I can’t begin a book without knowing how the family interacts at the dinner table.
While I never played the “ditz,” I gave up a lot on things that felt “too hard.” I loved the scene where Mr. Garcia deconstructs that fallacy of things needing to be easy. I was wondering whether that was inspired by an epiphany you had?
Absolutely. Unfortunately for little Brigit, that epiphany didn’t come until adulthood. Marianne and her new friends have to learn that when something comes easily to you it doesn’t necessarily make you better at that thing than someone else. And if you think it does, then when something is hard you’re bound to feel a bit like, “What’s the point? I’ll just ace the easy stuff and ignore the hard stuff.”
When I was a kid, theater was easy in a certain sense — I “got it” pretty quickly. So I dove in. And I missed out on a lot of the scholarly opportunities in my young life because the work was hard. As an adult, I went to college in my mid-20s after a short career in show biz, and it was only then that I think I truly internalized both what I’d missed out on and how to work hard to get some of it back.
I have to add, though, that math still feels nearly impossible to me! But if one day the world depends on a middle grade author having to solve a math problem, I know now that I can push through to get there, even if it takes sweat and tears.
You’ve written two “upper middle grade” books so far–your sophomore novel The Prettiest was about female objectification and sexual harassment in middle school. What do you love about writing for kids that age? Would you ever consider writing for the young adult age group?
For me, these are just the stories that bubble up to the surface of my brain. In many ways, I was a very lucky kid. But I also had my own share of pain back in middle and high school. I think I grew up a little too fast. When I think about what stories I want to tell, there’s often a serious emotional element to them that I feel deeply attached to, while also knowing that I need to scale back some of the intensity so that readers at different stages in their lives aren’t left feeling unmoored by the world of my story.
While YA would allow me to write about topics close to my personal experience in a more uncensored manner, I simply love the pacing, structure, and heart of middle grade books. The combination of all those factors puts my style right in the upper middle grade zone, and I’m thrilled about that.
Which amazing middle grade books have you read recently?
Here are a few!
- Flip Turns by Catherine Arguelles
- Coming Up Short by Laurie Morrison
- Maizy Chen’s Last Chance by Lisa Yee
- When Winter Robeson Came by Brenda Woods
- Secret of the Shadow Beasts by Diane Magras
I’m currently reading Christina Collins’s next work, The Town with No Mirrors, which is one to look out for next year. I’m loving it!
Are you currently working on anything you can share with us?
I’m not quite at the point where I’m able to share anything, but I will say that I’m exploring the concept of “good girl” vs “bad girl” and how we frame kids (and ourselves) in that way. I’m interested in the concept of sheltered vs unsheltered and what value judgments we place on those states of being.
What do you hope readers gain from Bright and Marianne’s story?
I hope that kids read Bright and walk away questioning how they think about intelligence and that they start to reassess the pressure they put on themselves. I hope kids who are getting Ds and Cs understand that shooting for a B minus is great.
We all have our own markers of success that shouldn’t be defined by others. I hope high achievers see that getting an A-minus does not determine their worth. I want kids to begin to understand how great they are!
Thanks so much for being here, Brigit! I can’t wait for readers to meet Marianne and her crew.
Buy This Book
Psst! Bright was a 2022 Summer Reading Guide pick! See the full guide here.
Meet Brigit Young
Brigit was raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan and now lives in the lovely (and underrated!) land of New Jersey. Her first story, written at age six, told the tale of a monster who wanted a human friend. It ended on a cliffhanger. In elementary school, her mom introduced her to Shakespeare, and she fell down the rabbit hole into the addictive land of stories. Since then, she has published poetry and short fiction in dozens of literary journals, and taught creative writing through Writopia Lab in settings ranging from a pediatric hospital to daycare classes.
Brigit loves poetry, going overboard for holidays, yoga when it’s convenient, forcing her husband to do impressions, attempting to paint, and singing at the top of her lungs when no one else is around. She is the author of Worth a Thousand Words, The Prettiest, and the forthcoming Bright. You can connect with Brigit Young through her Website, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.