A few years back, my husband and I went to a Boston Ballet performance of The Nutcracker. Behind us sat a mother and her five-year-old son, who was deeply psyched to be there, wriggling and fidgeting with glee. As soon as the curtain rose and the first dancer appeared, the boy hissed, “Mom, is that the nutcracker?” No, she explained, that’s just the lamplighter. Then another dancer. “Mom, is that the nutcracker?” Nope, not that one either. Or the next one. Or the next one.
Now, anyone who has seen the Tchaikovsky ballet knows that the poor boy had to wait an awfully long time to see his much-anticipated nutcracker. As more and more characters appeared, and each failed to be the nutcracker, he got more and more agitated. He had to endure a never-ending party scene, complete with a procession of guests. He had to wait for Clara to open present after present and for all the guests to depart. Only after a pack of giant mice popped on the scene did the much-awaited cracker of nuts finally materialize. But the boy didn’t even notice. He had given up on this so-called nutcracker. His mother had to point out, “Look! It’s the nutcracker!” To which the boy let out a deeply satisfied “Yesssssssss!” That’s all he wanted. He just wanted to see the damn nutcracker. Was it so much to ask?
Lesson learned for me and other children’s writers: get to the point. If you’re going to call a piece of work “The Nutcracker,” you better hurry up and show the nutcracker. I can’t judge Tchaikovsky too harshly, though, because I myself struggle mightily with pacing. My natural inclination is to bog down the opening of my fiction with endless backstory and exposition. If I followed my instincts, my middle grade readers would have to learn about the intricate history of the town, a long-running feud between neighbors, and every flower in the garden before they even got to the main conflict. But no young reader—or, for that matter, no reader—has that kind of patience, nor should they. The poor little guy in the theater was nearly exhausted from unfulfilled anticipation, and by the time the nutcracker finally appeared, he had lost interest.
So, get to the point. Give your young readers what they want. Open the portal. Find the dead body. Give the cat wings. Show them the damn nutcracker.