Upper middle grade is part of the journey to young adult literature. Your audience’s reading skills and comprehension are more developed now. You can be subtle in your narrative and tell more complicated storylines.
The key difference between upper middle grade and lower young adult books, is the content. Upper middle grade is meant for ages eight to twelve, which you’ll notice over laps with lower middle grade’s seven to nine.
With each age category it’s best to place an -ish around the ages, because kids read up and develop at different rates.
In upper middle grade, readers are ready for full length books. Your upper middle grade works are around 50,000 to 70,000 words, although shorter books work better for more reluctant and less confident readers. And if you write genre fiction that requires world building you may find that you go over the 70,000 word mark.
The upper middle grade audience can also deal with and understand more mature, young adult topics, but that still doesn’t mean that the writer can go into graphic detail. Your audience is still young.
The problem here is not necessarily the lack of understanding from readers, but the protectiveness of gatekeepers. If you write a middle grade novel featuring a sexually active protagonist, it will never get past agents and editors, let alone librarians, teachers, and parents.
Even with these restrictions, middle grade can still cover grief, loss, bullying, problems with adults, eating disorders, disability, and mental health issues, but everything has to be resolved by the last page. And most importantly, as with all children’s literature, the problems must be solved by the child protagonist.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll are for an older audience.
Books that are planned as part of series can get away with a few open ended subplots to be picked up in the next book. This doesn’t mean to leave the main plot hanging. Your sequel may never be published, for any reason. Readers of every age want closure.
It is important to read as many recently published middle grade books as you can, so that you can get a sense of their voice, the pacing, and appropriate subject matter. I highly recommend reading books outside of your genre as well, to see how a wide breadth of topics can be covered in this age category.
Characters in middle grade need to address the same problems as your readers. They aren’t paying taxes, but they might be aware of money issues at home. They have bullies, they deal with racism, sexism, and homophobia. They even deal with loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
The situations you put these characters in must allow them to make mistakes and learn from them, discover new ways of addressing problems, learn to make new friends and leave old ones behind, and ultimately grow.
Never underestimate middle grade readers. They are sophisticated but still have that childhood wonder and curiosity. Your audience needs to care about the characters you create, so it’s important that you care about them too.
It’s not enough to simply “write a children’s book.” It’s not that simple. When you believe writing for a younger audience is easy, you automatically assume less of your audience and it shows in your writing and it is an immediate turn-off. Children have enough people telling them they’re too inexperienced or stupid to understand what’s going on, they don’t need it to happen in their literature as well.
Originally published on October 19, 2021 @ 12:00 pm