I'd like to say right off that I think one of the hardest things for writers to write good children characters. It's the kind of thing that everyone assumes is the easy, but the fact is, it's really hard to put ourselves back into that mindset and to remember that outlook and how we prioritized our lives way back in the day.
Often, writers make the mistake of putting children into their stories that, for all practical purposes, are really just miniaturized adults. They speak just as intelligently, are just as rational, they act the same way, do the same things, they're just shorter. Often, you will end up with what I refer to as the "Juno syndrome" where, while it can be amusing, you have a kid who always manages to come up with the perfect, most succinct zingers every time and always has some kind of witty cultural reference and never seems to stumble over themselves. It's an idealized version of what we see in reality and again, while it can be entertaining, it can also get tiresome.
The other direction authors often mistakenly go in is to make the children overly-simplistic, the kids have no substantive contributions to the story, they barely seem able to form a complete sentence other than to beg for the adults to save them. They are there to create problems for the big people.
As a writer, I think you can tell when an author loves their characters, is invested in them as if they were hovering over them, peeking over their creator's shoulder while they write. In my opinion, McHugh has reached a sort of freaky, upper level connection with the characters in her story to the point where I can imagine her office packed with any number of fictionalized kids and adults, screaming at her for attention. She breathes life into this story in a way that is rare to find and always a treat to read, regardless of whatever your genre preferences might be.
In Darla, McHugh has created a character that is dynamic and interesting and while I don't pretend in any way to really know the mindset of a young, pre-teen girl, I read the prose and I feel like I am hearing the voice of a child. Not the perfected cartoonized version of a child, not as simple fodder for the story, but as a genuine, three dimensional, real child. It brought me back to a lot of the young adult books I would read in grade school, living along with the day-to-day exploits of the protagonist as she deals with the dramas of her life and underneath everything, the ultimate and slow transition into adulthood.
The switch from grade school into middle school or junior high (whichever it was for you) is an understandably awkward time for everyone. It's the tipping point where your childhood really starts to end and you take your first steps onto the road towards adulthood. Friends, long present start to fade into the background and for the first time, you find yourself lost in a really big pond with a bunch of other fish that you can't help but see as predatory. McHugh brings to life the difficult social hierarchies of childhood, trying to be genuinely good for your parents while at the same time trying to fit in and make friends however you can. She nails the inherent conflict on sibling rivalry, growing up with the person you see as one of your greatest adversaries that you can't help but love anyway. You can't help but laugh at the fumbling, awkward attempts at intimacy and I love watching the imagination of the younger mind at work, seeing mundane objects of the universe of the book being molded into exotic, spooky props to fill the coffers of local legends and ghost stories.
Why should you read Darla Decker Hates To Wait? The real question is, why shouldn't you? It's a great, perfectly paced book that reminds you of what it was like to read books because they were fun, because they were entertainment. According to the author, this is her first attempt at this genre but I think you would be hard pressed to know that unless you were told. I will look forward to future books in this series as well as checking out some of the rest of McHugh's body of work.
Click here for the Kindle version of Darla Decker Hates To Wait. For more information on the author, click here to check out her Amazon author page.