Let’s Discuss Middle Grade (part one)

Middle grade, according to the Writers’ & Artists’ Guide to Writing for Children and YA, is term that relates to books “for more confident and indepenent readers.” It is an age category for readers between the ages of seven and twelve, as thirteen year olds are usually reading younger YA titles. Remember, most children read up. So while you target your work for seven to twelve year olds, there is always a chance that readers younger (and older) than your age category will be reading your work.

In middle grade works, the characters are usually ten to thirteen years old, existing at the upper end of the age category. Again, this is because kids read up. They want to know what the older kids are doing. The main differene between upper and lower middle grade and upper and lower young adult literature is mostly content and the readers’ ability to read the work.

There are also differences in length and style, but the most significant thing to consider when you begin writing a middle grade piece is the emotional range of your target audience. While middle grade books can cover a huge breadth of content but they stop short of more mature topics like sexual relationships, self-harm, drug use and addiction, and suicide. Although, in more recent years, there have been many upper middle grade stories that do broach these subjects by way of showcasing these issues in secondary characters. Although there are sexual assault victims within the age range of readers in middle grade, you would not be able to show this graphically on the page. It’s simply not appropriate.

Middle grade is a great age category for more quirky ideas. Adventure stories, fantastical worlds and characters are very popular but so are complex themes, especially in the upper range.

As with all children’s literature, voice is incredibly important. It must reflect the voice of the target audiences and draw them in with every chapter.

Early middle grade is aimed tightly at seven to nine year olds, but you should aim your writing and characters at the nine years olds.

Why? Because kids read up.

Stories in early or lower middle grade books are anywhere between 5,000 and 25,000+ words, depending on your target audience and genre. If you are writing lower middle grade in the cross over between chapter books and middle grade literature, you’ll want to be closer to 5,000 words. But if you are aiming at the full age range, you should be closer to 25,000. Genre fiction, such as fantasy or science fiction, are often longer books to make space for detailed world building, which might not be interesting to the younger members of a middle grade audience.

Whether they’re reading a series or stand-alone book, something humorous or more series, children deserve believable characters, and exciting and entertaining plots.

writers’ & aritists’ guide to writing for children and ya

Using appropriate, not censored but appropriate, voice, dialogue, and plot, you can create strong narratives that keep your readers wanting more, regardless of your words count. And while the word count can fluctuate, remember that extremes will not be published. You wrote a 100,000 word middle grade story about bullying? They aren’t going to read that and chances are agents and editors alike will reject it based on the word count alone, because it screams you don’t know much about the age category.

Upper middle grade has a larger amount of space and its upper reaches overlap with lower young adult. The word counts are often 30,000 words, for the lower end of the spectrum, to 50,000 words for older readers. And again, for genre fiction, you can go higher because you will need space for world building.

It’s important to get yourself back into the mind of your audience. The middle grade audience might have crushes here and there but they aren’t looking for stories about relationships. They want adventures, dragons, faeries, sports, and humor. They are reading to be entertained, not to feel big feelings.

As a writer, particularly a children’s writer, it is incredibly important for you to write about things that excite and interest you. If you don’t love fantasy and magic, don’t write fantasy. If you don’t love space and aliens and big inexplicable technology, don’t write science fiction. If you’ve never read a book set in the here and now, because ew, how boring, don’t write contemporary or realistic fiction.

Because it will show.

And your audience will tune you out.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you begin your middle grade journey:

Will the opening draw the reader in immediately?

Yes. Immediately. You want a hook right from the first line, at max the first page. Middle grade readers are picky. They want things that excite them. They want things that keep them reading. Your first lines need to draw your audience in.

Is there enough dialogue and action?

The action must keep the plot moving. There’s no time to dwell on things in middle grade. Feelings and analysis of the situation make the plot sag. Just ask any kid why they didn’t like a book. “It’s boring.” And if you can push them a little more on that topic they’ll tell you “Nothing happened.” That’s usually kid speak for “They say there talking about their feelings instead of going after the dragon.”

Is it inclusive?

All children need to recognize themselves somewhere in the world around them.

Penny Dolan

Inclusive means showcasing characters from multiple backgrounds, sexualities, genders, and abilities.

Inclusive does not mean writing stories that are not your own. You are not the Great Hope and it is not your job to describe experiences that you have never experienced.

Is it overly complicated? Or squeezed to fit the age level or word count?

Make sure your story fits the age category. Just because you are writing for children doesn’t mean you need to water down your words, but it also means that you need to have serious thoughts about what to include on the page. Every word and scene is important, you cannot have a scene that doesn’t push the plot forward or provide insight to the overall story.

There are no bildungsromans in middle grade. That growth comes through plot and action.

Is there too much detailed description–or not enough?

This comes back to voice. Are you describing things the way your audience would or are you describing them like an adult trying to sound like a child? Your readers need to know enough to see the setting and characters so they can feel like they are there, but long winded passages with grandeliquent words will put them off.

It is important to gradually reveal these things through the plot, rather than in one lump sum of information on the page. Don’t bother describing every single detail of every single character. Your readers won’t bother with it and they won’t remember it. Focus on the important characters and let them fill in the blanks on their own, unless the character’s appearance is important to the story.

Children tend to remember personalities overlooks.

Is there enough happening? And is the solution to the story satifying?

Sagging middle syndrome has made me DNF (Did Not Finish) more than one book in my lifetime. It’s hard for readers, especially young and picky readers, to push themselves through incredibly boring and length prose.

And there is nothing worse than forcing your way through a boring book, just to be let down at the end. Whether your story ends poorly or in the best way possible it will stick with your audience long after they’ve closed the book. Make sure to tie up loose ends along the way, and not in one fireworks display at the end.

Originally posted on October 14, 2021 @ 12:00 pm

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Published by J. M. Tuckerman

J.M.Tuckerman is a neurodivergent writer with a big education. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, an MA in Writing, and a BA in Writing Arts (specializing in Creative Writing, New Media Writing, and Publication; concentrating in New Media Production), which she somehow managed to earn despite her three very loud and large dogs. Jessica was lucky enough to intern at Quirk Books and Picador, USA while earning her master’s degrees. Her service dog, Ringo, is very proud of all that she has accomplished and hopes to be on a back cover of a published book with her very soon. An avid reader, writer, and lover of young adult and middle-grade literature, Jessica’s bookshelf is overflowing with hardbacks, paperbacks, and a million half-filled notebooks. She is a proud fur-mommy to two lab/st-bernard littermates, a retriever-mix service dog, and one orange little hobgoblin cat, all of whom have made very audible appearances on the Booked All Night podcast.

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