One of the things I love about writing middle grade novels and stories is finding the unique voices for middle grade characters.
Children’s books often have a very straight-forward point of view and use more simplistic language. In contrast, young adult novels feature darker themes, complex subplots, and more introspective characters. Middle grade falls… well, somewhere in the middle, and getting into the mindset of a middle grade reader or character is not always easy.
As a publisher with 50/50 Press, I receive a lot of middle grade queries and manuscripts, and I find that many writers seeking to publish for this age group make the same mistakes over and over again. So, I wanted to share some tips I’ve learned as both an author and a publisher about writing for that gap between childhood and adolescence.
1. Understand some basic rules
Before getting started, there are a few things you need to know. Middle grade books often run from 15,000 to 40,000 words. If you have an upper-middle grade book (more on this later) or a fantasy novel with rich world building, you can get away with a bit more, but writing 100,000 words isn’t a middle grade novel. It’s more like a trilogy.
Middle grade books are primarily purchased by librarians, teachers, and parents. Because of this and the ages of your tween readers, you need to keep the material clean. I know librarians who flag and dismiss books because there is swearing, sex, graphic violence, and other age-inappropriate material.
Your book can deal with subjects like divorce, conflict at home, drug use (by an older character), etc. But you should keep a lot of the rougher material off page. For example, maybe the protagonist’s parents are divorcing, but he doesn’t know why. Or perhaps a violent event occurs, but the narrator does not describe it in gross detail.
2. Know your audience
Are you writing for upper middle grade readers in grades 6-8 or are you writing for a younger middle grade audience in grades 3-5?
I think it’s best to know this upfront before you begin writing, but sometimes characters take you in a different direction than you first imagined. If that’s the case, at least know what audience you want before you edit the manuscript and before you query agents or publishers.
Why? Because a third grader has different vocabulary, needs, wants, and interests than an eighth grader. Think of how much you changed in that period of time. At the age of eight, I was still playing with Barbie dolls and playing dress-up to put on plays for my parents. By fourteen, I was babysitting, wearing makeup, and going out on dates.
3. Understand developmental stages.
Some of this goes back to the first two points because reading needs change as children grow. Similarly, the needs of an eight or nine-year-old protagonist will be quite different from that of a thirteen-year-old.
Developmentally, kids ages 8-11 still think in concrete terms. They are interested in school, they are closer to their parents, and they have either one best friend or a small group of three to four very good friends. In terms of communication, they are more self-focused and their emotions may be strong, but bouts of anger, frustration, and worry rarely last long.
In comparison, tweens ages 11-14 begin to focus outward. They have larger groups of friends. Peer-pressure and peer influence become more important. Their reliance on parents diminishes, and their feelings become more complex. They may become moody or angry without understanding why. You should reflect these developmental stages and changes in the characters you create.
4. Realize that kids often “read up”
Kids are often drawn to a slightly older character. So, while readers in middle school may not want to read about a third grader, a third grader may want to read about kids in middle school. I used this principle in my upcoming middle grade novel The Misadventures of Marvin Miller.
Marvin is written for grades 4-6, but the main character, Marvin, has just finished seventh grade. If you read the book, you’ll see that Marvin often acts and sounds more like a kid going into sixth grade than a young teenager going into eighth grade. I did this deliberately so that the material is age-appropriate for the reader I had in mind.
5. Read, watch, and observe
Reading and observation are key factors to being an author or storyteller. This is one reason I think that some of the best middle grade books are written by teachers. They’re around these kids every day, so they know exactly what they sound like!
If you’re not a teacher or a parent, you can still find ways to observe middle grade voices. The first is to read before you write. Have your local librarian or bookstore owner help you. Look at the middle grade section. Pick up some books that are best-selling and some that are not. Figure out what your comps (comparable titles) are. Read books that are well-written and pick up a few that aren’t so great. Analyze each book’s point of view. Listen to how the characters sound. Audio books are great for this, by the way!
You can also check on Amazon or Barnes and Noble for specialty categories like Juvenile Literature ▬ Social Issues ▬ Bullying or Juvenile Literature ▬ Fantasy ▬ Dragons.
These can help you find specific titles with themes similar to your manuscript.
The most important thing to keep in mind is the date when the books were written. If you’re reading only books from the 1950s like the Betsy-Tacy books or Charlotte’s Web, you’re reading amazing classics, but you’re not going to get a good idea of what kids today sound like.
And if you’re burnt out on reading, watch some TV. Find television shows featuring kids in your target age range. Watch comedies and dramas and maybe even a cartoon or two. YouTube is also great for this, by the way. Lots of tweens are YouTubers with videos talking about all the things they love and hate.
Many people who aren’t authors say things to me like, “It’s so easy to write for kids. I think I could write a book for a third-grader over the weekend!” I almost always laugh and try to explain to them why it’s not as easy as it sounds. Middle grade readers are unique and they need stories that reflect their voices and experiences. This is not always an easy task, but it is a rewarding one.
Megan Cassidy is an English professor and the author of books for middle grade, young adult, and adult readers.
Coming out this June, Megan's second book, The Misadventures of Marvin Miller, is a middle grade novel recounting one boy's hilarious summer as he tries to impress the girl he likes. Megan's first novel, Always, Jessie is a YA novel charting one girl's recovery from an eating disorder and exercise addiction in a diverse recovery community. She also writes for adults under the name M.C. Hall. Smothered, Megan's adult epistolary mystery, will be published in the Fall of 2017.
Megan's other work has been featured in Silver Blade Magazine, Pilcrow & Dagger, Bette Noire, Fiction on the Web, Flash Fiction Press, Dying Dahlia Review, Citron Review, and the Centum Press One Hundred Voices Anthology.
My website: http://www.megancassidyauthor.com/
50/50 Press: www.5050press.com
My Twitter: @MeganEileenC
50/50 Press Twitter: @fiftyfiftypress