A few years ago an interviewer asked me a question that startled me: “You come from a large family, yet in nearly all of your books, the main character is an only child. Why is that? Have you ever thought about writing about a large family?”
I answered by saying something about how it was difficult to negotiate a large number of characters, and how I wanted the focus of my stories to be on the protagonist. But the truth was, I had never thought about it.
I thought about it a lot after that.
I grew up the oldest of seven kids in a safe, loving, chaotic environment. Each child who came into our family had to figure out how to live, how to be an individual, and how to be noticed.
For me it was pretty straightforward. I was the first-born, and I would always be the first. All I had to do was show up for meals and stay out of serious trouble, and when I failed at either of those things (as I often did), I knew I would be forgiven and given another chance.
My youngest sibling, Jim, was born when I was twelve. As the “baby” of the family, he had a relatively easy gig too. Everything he did was cute, our parents’ disciplinary teeth had been worn smooth, and his older siblings provided a surplus of examples on how to behave—and misbehave.
My five middle siblings traveled a more intricate path, but they all found their way. Each of them discovered ways in which they were special, whether it be academically, artistically, socially, athletically, or in other areas. There was more to it, of course. The point is, every one of them learned how to stand out, how get their strokes.
I’ve read a lot about birth order, and how it shapes children. Everything from intelligence to sexual orientation to criminality is supposedly influenced by birth order. Most of the literature is highly speculative or downright bogus, and the numbers are inconclusive, but the idea that birth order matters has a gut level appeal. Is “middle child syndrome” a real thing? Maybe, maybe not—but it seems like it should be.
I decided to write an “upper-middle-grade” (10-14) book about a middle child. At first I intended to create a large family similar to the one I grew up in, but the logistics frightened me. I didn’t want to write an enormous book, so I scaled back my ambition, and set out to write about the smallest number of siblings possible that could include a “middle child.” That would be three.
That book is Slider. Fourteen-year-old David Miller is sandwiched between an academically overachieving older sister, and a severely autistic younger brother.
…I label myself the beef in a Sooperslider. You know what a Sooperslider is, right? It’s like a White Castle. We don’t have White Castles in Iowa, but it’s the same thing: a greasy wafer of pulverized cow in a squishy bun half the size of your palm—a two- or maybe three-bite hamburger. Being the middle kid of three is like being the beef in a Sooperslider—you’re just there to weld the bun together.
Most people don’t think about what’s inside the bun. They’d rather not know. But it’s important. It’s what puts the slide in slider.
Slider will be published this September.