Give respect to get it, especially to the middle grade reader.
Middle grade kids can have the traits of pack hunters. When you see them in their natural environment, they follow trends collectively and in large groups. They dab, until they find a bottle to flip. The half-filled bottles crash, until the fidgets spin. And the fidgets will stop spinning when the next easily attainable trend hits the masses.
Walk into any middle school classroom and see for yourself. They laugh together, like the same movies, and decide which authors the group will follow.
That’s what they want you to think.
For anyone who has spent time with a middle grade reader, you already know…a funny thing happens when the middle grade child is away from the pack. They stop being older children and become little adults. That’s also how they want to be treated, like adults.
In groups, middle schoolers can be intimidating, overwhelming and mildly obnoxious. Individually, they are diverse, curious, and brilliant. And they want nothing more than to be respected for those traits. As middle grader writers our job is to respect our clients, for these traits make them unique.
I've spent the last 17 years as an educator in middle schools and it's been the greatest gift for my writing career. Besides truly enjoying my profession and students, it’s a happy accident that I get to learn from the kids.
Like any genre of children’s literature, different schools of thought exist in regard to what middle grade readers should be exposed to, and how much is too much for them. The difference between an incoming 6th grader and an 8th grader in May is tremendous, both physically and developmentally. Some MG writers steer toward one end of this spectrum, others can find a balance for the ages. I tend to write toward upper middle grade (12-13) largely because I don’t feel that age is as widely represented in MG fiction.
Regardless of where the writer falls, I’m also a big believer in challenging the middle grade reader. If you walk into a middle school English class, it wouldn’t be crazy to see the a 6th grader reading Tom Sawyer, a 7th grader reading Lord of the Flies, or an 8th grader reading, To Kill a Mockingbird. If middle grade teachers expose them to high level works like this, then we as middle grade writers owe it to the reader to challenge them as well.
At the same time, are there some topics that a 10-year-old shouldn’t read about? Should some topics have a more appropriate place in YA? Absolutely. But are there life experiences that middle grade readers deal with, even if they aren’t emotionally ready?
You better believe it.
Have you ever attended a fundraiser to help someone pay the financial debt of cancer? Ever been to a wake for someone who was buried by their parents? I don’t think I’m alone in saying that when I’ve attended events such as these, I’ve seen plenty of middle grade kids showing support. For many of them, it’s their first time at something like this. Life didn’t say “It’s cool. I’ll just hang back until you’re at an emotionally prepared stage.” The eb and flow of reality doesn’t rely on good timing, and middle grade kids are no exception. Life happens. When it does, they will have questions. Questions they didn’t have when they were younger.
Think about this example... Let’s say Grandpa Gramps is very sick and in the hospital. The family goes to see him (a fairly common experience for many kids).
An elementary child will typically see this very black and white. Grandpa Gramps is sick and the family is sad: pretty clear cut. A middle grade child will see this, but also observe more. They’ll pick up on nuances of the family dynamic, like why a certain uncle is never there or how an aunt does a side eye when talking to mom. Then their curiosity kicks in. They not only pick up on these subtleties, but will want to know why they exist. They may not ask, but be assured they are thinking about these connections.
Middle grade readers are incredibly observant and curious. They are starting to notice the world has different perspectives, and they are trying hard to make sense of them.
Earlier readers tend to accept more of what's in front of them. That’s just where they are developmentally. If a school field trip is cancelled because of rain, they accept it. They may not be happy about it, but they accept it. Middle grade readers question it. They don’t necessarily rebel with pitchforks and torches, but they will ask, “Why does rain mean we have to cancel? Is it too dangerous? Is the school just worried about being sued?” They don’t know the answer, but know enough to ask the questions.
Our job as Middle Grade writers isn’t to provide a road map of all the answers. It isn’t to tell them exactly what to expect.
Our job is to let the middle grade reader know they are not alone when these questions arrive.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fantasy for upper grades, contemporary for earlier ages, or anything in between…as long as your middle grade reader has a sense of connection with the piece, you’re doing something right.