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  • Susan Stoderl

Writing Middle-Grade Fiction | Handling Tragic Subjects

For marketing reasons, I wrote a prequel to Mission 1: All in a Day’s Work, the first book in my Sophia of the Bright Read Sneakers series. It soon became much more. Developing my podcast on literacy has alerted me to the need to teach critical thinking to children. What is the best way to handle a situation? Why is this person mistreating me? It made me aware I could write an interesting story that would help develop one of the most valuable skills we can have as human beings.

In the prequel, I could supply background information about the first book in the series. It answers how Sophia meets Pedro, how they get advanced several grades in school and became close friends through shared grief. When Mission 1 opens, Sophia and Pedro have just come back from her grandmother’s memorial service.

In the Prequel to Mission One: All in a Day’s Work | Sophia Meets Pedro, they meet at a special test given by the James Samuel Calder Academy for advanced placement. JSCA invites Sophia to take the test because she acts out a lot, but is more intellectually advanced than her peers. Also, as an orphan, she has not dealt with her grandmother’s death.

Pedro is taking the test the same day because his parents’ wealthy employers are on the board of the posh school and secure him a place because of his high academic achievement in a local public school. Both kids test at the Eighth Grade Honors level at ten, almost eleven years old. They meet at the test, and find they have a lot in common, such as they live in buildings next to each other. They decide to spend their summer improving their already fine academic skills.

Sophia and Pedro, who both love history and a challenge, decide to investigate the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909 by the Triangle Waist Co. Within a couple of months, over twenty thousand shirtwaist workers are on strike, which lasts for several months. They do their research in Jefferson Memorial Library, which once housed the Night Court where many strikers were tried, fined, and incarcerated. Night Court took place in what is now the Children’s Reading Room on the first floor. Through their research, they end up examining the 1911 Triangle Waist Co. fire, which brought a horrible death to one hundred forty-seven people. The victims were mostly young women and girls who spoke little English. They were underpaid, mistreated, and worked in dangerous, unsanitary conditions so that the company owners could make the most profit.

As a writer, I struggled with how to portray such a dark story. Yes, it is horrible. But so is seeing your classmates and teachers shot by an AK-47. It does not just go into the cosmic pressure cooker and disappear. A child and their families will never get over an event like that. It will affect those involved for life. Just like I am affected by living through 9/11 in New York City. Although I did not lose anyone, I walked by the firehouses where there were no firefighters left alive. I worked one block from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where day after day there were police funerals for months on end. However, the abject hatred and lunacy it brought out and fostered were equally horrible.

So, in telling the Triangle story, I focused on what led to this horrific event. Sophia and Pedro virtually investigate all the various components that led to the horror. While doing the research, they can draw certain parallels to their own life, albeit on a much smaller scale. The upset and grief they feel by empathizing with the historical events help them deal with their own. Children often have no recourse to address the horrible things that happen in their lives. They need to see justice, just as adults do. Often, less-than-caring adults with their own agendas take it out of their hands. Sophia and Pedro hold their trial of the corrupt owners of the factory and the political system of the time. They learn that for them, justice means being able to think events through and keeping them from repeating.


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