Let’s Talk About Middle Grade! Content, Voice, Issues, and More

If you’re a middle grade author, you’re in luck! Lots of agents and editors are on the hunt for middle grade in this YA-dominated writing world, myself included. Anytime I get a middle grade query I’m excited to take a peek. It really is a wonderful age to write for, and there’s a reason that we remember all the books we read at that age so fondly.

With that I wanted to talk a bit about this age range, which is an age range not a genre (a mistake I see often), and the common challenges that come along with writing for it. While there is a bit of a higher demand for middle grade projects from agents right now, you still hear many saying that they just aren’t seeing the kinds of projects they want to see. In my opinion MG is one of the toughest areas to nail. If you can do it, agents will be after you. Promise!

P.S. All of the books pictured in this posts are great choices to make yourself a little MG reading list, if you’re looking to read more in this range and learn about writing in it. They are all amazing books that do fantastically different things, so reading a few (or more) would be a great way to see the range of what a MG book can be. Also ask your librarian or bookseller to hook you up!

mg counting   mg mixed   summer serafina

Age Range
So first, let’s talk about what middle grade is. Middle grade is the step between chapter books and YA, for ages roughly 8-12. Within that you’ll have lower middle grade (for the younger end of the spectrum – think things like THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX or FRINDLE) and upper middle grade (more mature, complex books for the older kids – think THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE or HOOT). Of course, there can be some variation, but generally lower means shorter and less complex, suitable for a kid in 2nd – 4th grade. Upper is for older kids as they bridge to YA and allows for more serious subject matter, more sophisticated writing and humor, etc. That’s not to say that lower MG books (or books in lower age ranges) are not sophisticated (because, lord, they can be), so think of the difference as both reading level and emotional accessibility.

A good rule of thumb is to take a look at what age the protagonist of the story is and remember that it’s normal for kids to read about kids who are either their age or a little older than them. The cutoff for a MG protagonist is generally 12 – any older and we’re getting into YA territory. Writing difficulty plays a part as well. If you’re writing middle grade, it’s important to think about how your manuscript fits for readers. The leap from 2nd grade to 5th or 6th grade is pretty big! Which kids do you imagine picking your book off the shelf?

mg coraline   mg jelly.jpg   mg bamarre

Content pt. 1 – Stories to Tell

Bearing in mind that MG is not a genre unto itself, remember that you can basically write anything here. I, for example, want to see all kinds of genres in MG – mystery, fantasy, contemporary, historical, and more. MG is an area where agents and editors are loving to see some outside-the-box thinking at the moment. Your story doesn’t have to be about school, doesn’t have to have dragons, doesn’t have to have anything you might think of when you think “kids book.” It certainly can, of course! But there is so much more room for different kinds of stories than ever before. Explore them all!

One note of course is that while there may be adult characters in your story, your story should definitely focus on your children characters and be told from their perspective. For example, don’t write a chapter from mom’s perspective about getting your character ready for school, lamenting about kids misbehaving, etc. If you’re telling a father-daughter story (side note: can someone please tell a father-daughter story), we want the daughter’s perspective, not dad’s. Know your audience!

As long as your story is oriented around your kid characters, one of the beautiful things about MG is that it’s significantly less trend-driven than YA. For example, it’s really really hard to sell a dystopian YA novel right now, because we just had the whole HUNGER GAMES thing. MG doesn’t quite operate this way, with huge trends that rise and fall so dramatically. There are some, and you should definitely know what’s out there, what’s working in the market, what will stand out, etc. But there is much more freedom in this age range. I most commonly hear editors say they will jump at any MG that has a good story and really nails the MG voice. That’s a very broad window to shoot for, and it gives you a lot of opportunity to tell the kind of story you want to tell. That said, you’ve gotta know what kind of stories are flourishing in the market as well as what readers are connecting to.  This involves reading what’s been published. Consider this your official excuse to go read a ton of kids’ books. For *research.*

mg stall   mg circus   mg summer

Content pt. 2 – How Much Is Too Much? 

No matter what kind of story you wind up writing, you want to do it justice, of course. Here is the biggest mistake I see in MG queries that I pass on – underestimating the reader. Kids are so smart and perceptive. They have a wide, complex range of emotions. They can understand a lot more than you think if you just gently guide them to the water. I see many submissions that lack subtlety and depth because the author is afraid that kids won’t get what they’re saying. Show them the story.  Kids will get it. Let them make the leap.

Middle grade books have dealt with all sorts of serious topics – war, death, illness, divorce, friendship, first love, class issues, peer pressure, politics, loss – the list goes on and on. You may worry about whether or not these things are MG-friendly as you’re writing. My rule of thumb is that what is more important is a mindful presentation of these elements rather than the thing itself. Death is a part of life. Violence can be scary. Illness is sad. Sometimes your friends turn out to be not so friendly. Sometimes your parents don’t get along. Kids really do get all this stuff. You can definitely present it to them (if that’s the kind of story you’re writing). Just be mindful of the presentation – don’t be overly detailed, gory, or gruesome. Use common sense and trust your readers to handle the story. They will do so beautifully.

Two exceptions here are sex and swearing. Those typically age a story up into the YA range. If there’s an f-bomb in your book, it’s definitely not MG. Otherwise, though, don’t shy away from the hard stuff, if you’re writing a hard story. (You can also write a fun, light story with none of this, that’s okay, too!). Just remember that all kids deal with hard stuff and fun stuff. It might be nice for them to have a book alongside them to know they’re not alone.

mg moon   mg holes   mg fairyland

 

Voice and Characters
On that note, apply the same logic to your writing and characters. MG writing should not be dumbed down (another sadly common issue I see). Don’t be afraid to use big words! In fact, many published MG books have writing that is just as complex as a YA novel. The only difference is presentation, like I said above.

Here is 100% serious advice, to nail both voice and characters in MG: if you’re writing for kids and have kids in your life, use them as a resource. Talk to them. If you’re basing your writing on what you imagine kids at the MG reading age to think or be, or what you remember from many moons ago, it will not feel genuine, and will likely do this gross but often well-intentioned thing of turning your kid characters into flat, one-dimensional beings that say things like “Gee whiz!” or complain all the time. Seriously! I honestly don’t know exactly how this happens, because I don’t think anyone knows kids like this in real life. But for whatever reason when writing for this age group, many authors struggle to make reality appear on the page.

The reality is that kids are people, which we sometimes forget as adults who generally have to do a lot of things to keep them alive. If in your real life you take care of kids as a parent or otherwise, it might be even harder to separate yourself from that role and see kids as characters with the autonomy and agency that will drive your story forward. But you have to, or the story won’t work! It’s honestly one of the hardest things about working in this age range. However you overcome that obstacle, it’s one of the most important things to get right. (Hint: if you aren’t sure if you have this problem, have a kid read your work.)

Writing for middle grade when you’re an adult involves taking a step outside yourself and seeing the world, a challenge, a relationship, again through the eyes of a child, remembering that “young” is not a personality trait or a worldview. Every kid in your story should have their own. So, talk to some kids in your life. If you don’t have any children in your life to chat with, time to go to your local independent bookseller and pick up that big stack of middle grade books.

mg george   mg liesel   mg witches

I wanted to write this post to address some of the issues I see with new authors who are writing MG, and I hope it helped! Like any writing, MG comes with practice and research – it being for kids doesn’t get you off the hook. I, for one, am very excited for this time in MG – there are many talented folks out there writing it and it’s a great time for it in publishing. I’m looking forward to seeing many fabulous MG queries in my inbox!

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6 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Middle Grade! Content, Voice, Issues, and More

  1. I’m working on a couple of MG projects right now and have been doing my reading research as well. I’ve read multiple books that don’t specify the age of the MC. If you see that in a query, is it considered a cop out?

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    1. I don’t see why it would be, but as the author you should definitely know the age of your MC. If the number isn’t explicitly stated in the story, other clues will help the reader infer – whether the MC is in school, their voice and motivations, etc. As long as it’s easy to visualize your character and it’s not confusing, I don’t consider the exact number a big deal.

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  2. Loved this blog! On a side note, I have been looking for a MG reading list, and I’m so excited to find this! You just gave me my wish. 😉 I’ll be reading every title I haven’t yet very soon– I’m always on the hunt for MG recommendations!

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      1. I’d say no MG list is complete without A Wrinkle in Time, and the good old Lightning Thief. (Percy Jackson has forever stolen my heart as one of the best examples of character driven narration out there. I laugh out loud every other page. :D)

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