When I sit down in front of a blank notebook page or a brand-new document, nothing but the cursor blinking in the top left corner of the screen, I rarely know more than one or two things about what I’m going to write, and never is one of those things the final word count of this yet-to-be-written story. Makes sense, right? To know such a thing would be preposterous. Sometimes a 60,000-word novel comes out, sometimes just a couple thousand-word scenes. Stories have a natural length. Unless you’re actively seeking to artificially extend them, they’ll find their proper word count.
Which leads me to ask the question hanging out up there over this post – where are all the short stories? Go to the bookstore or library and take a look around the Young Adult and Middle Grade sections. It’s pretty much all novels. And yes, sure, the novels vary widely in length. Some of the slimmer ones come in around the 30,000-word mark, while others get up into six-digit figures. But there’s an entire form of story, the short kind, that can be read in a single sitting, or even a single breath, and that is basically absent from these shelves.
Short stories have their own peculiar delights to offer. They are, I’d argue, as different from a novel as a novel is from a poem. Also – and this is a factor of especial importance for younger readers – they are, well, short. This is good not only for the reluctant readers out there, who may be too daunted or preemptively bored to pick up a novel that’s thicker than their wrist, but also for the budding writers. Considering a big, finished, printed and bound novel – or, perhaps, sitting down to try and write their own – even a particularly ambitious boy or girl is likely to feel frustrated or even defeated, and perhaps permanently so. If they stick with it, they’ll come to see that this is an essential part of the process, but to be confronted so early on by the absurd, paradoxical fact that you must fail, and then fail a little better, and then fail a little better still, in order to one day succeed – it’s not so healthy for a kid’s creativity. (There’s a reason why they don’t read Beckett in grade school.)
But give a kid a book of short stories – or, better still, print one out on the same blank or lined paper that they themselves use to get down their thoughts and build their own sentences – and their much more likely to think, “Hey. Maybe I could do this.”
I know this firsthand. Before I’d even considered being a writer, before I’d even really understood that a writer was something you could grow up and be, I wrote short stories. (My mom still has a folder full of my earliest efforts, from the spooky – “Séance” – to the slices of life – “Sleepover at Bobby’s.”) I shiver to think how I might’ve ended up had my fourth-grade teacher not given us a bundle of short stories and, when asked what we were supposed to do once we’d finished reading them, casually shrugged and said, “Write your own.” I might’ve become an accountant. Or a lawyer. (Talk about spooky.)
I’m confident that most, if not all, Middle Grade and Young Adult authors have a handful of short stories in them. It’s even possible that these stories are being written – and then, unfortunately for their readers, just sitting around collecting figurative dust on their hard drives. Now and again, if you’re really keeping an eye out for them, you’ll see a book of short stories pop up. But they’re a rarity, and when they appear, such books usually have to justify their existence otherwise – as a group of loosely linked stories or as an anthology focused on a particular issue or theme. (I wrote about one of these rare birds for last week’s Passage of the Week.)
For all I know, there are some solid reasons why short stories so rarely make their way into our libraries’ and bookstores’ children’s sections. Maybe a team of experts in childhood literacy looked into it, and wrote up a report advising against such bite-sized narratives. Or maybe the marketing departments of the major publishers have come to the conclusion that the things just don’t sell. But for the sake of the younger generations’ reluctant readers and nascent writers, and for the sake of all of our having as rich a literary landscape as possible, I certainly hope they change their minds.