Middle grade is a very robust area of the market and an exciting place to be as an author. Middle grade readers (usually ages 8 to 12) are enthusiastic and passionate about books and the writers they love. On the older end of the spectrum, they are on the cusp of puberty and young adulthood, and yet they still have one foot in childhood with a thirst for imagination and adventure. It is a stage in life that lends itself to a wide range of stories and and life experiences and, therefore, it is a very rich and exciting space to write in. There is a lot of room for experimentation and risk-taking in terms of plot and genre. That said, it is also a tricky category to get right.
I read a lot of queries for middle grade: it is a category I truly love and am actively looking to represent. Because of that, I’m going to share the most common pitfalls I see in the middle grade manuscripts I consider, along with some tips for sidestepping those issues in your own writing.
1. Sounding like an adult pretending to be a child instead of using an authentic middle grade voice. This is, by far, the primary issue I see in the middle grade manuscripts in my inbox. It is so important for you to see through the eyes of a middle schooler while you write rather than the eyes of an adult. An authentic voice is vital in middle grade novels and, hard though it may be, you can’t let your grownup perspective seep in. It is immediately apparent when an author isn’t quite attuned to the age group they are writing for. Most often when this happens, authors waver in and out of the character, sounding very young and overly precocious in turns, leading to an uneven tone. Here are some ways to address this problem:
- Read recent published middle grade in your genre (contemporary, fantasy, humor, historical, etc). By reading similar novels that have successfully found their footing in the market, you can analyze how the authors of those books utilize language and how they portray the age group.
- Know your audience. The best way to sound like a middle schooler is to spend time with the age group. Listen to the way they talk and the things they talk about. What do they care about? What books are they loving? What is the latest trend? What are they struggling with?
- Channel the feelings you felt in middle school. The truest thing you can do as an author is capture feelings on the page. The life of a middle schooler in 2018 is very different than the life of a middle schooler was in your childhood, but the feelings are universal. Tap into those feelings as you write and it will lead to a story that is true.
2. Focusing on a moral message. Middle grade readers want to read a story that captures them and brings them on a journey. They don’t want to be preached at. Sure, your characters will learn something along the way, but if you approach your story with an agenda, a middle grade reader will immediately sniff that out and run the other way. Instead:
- Focus on plot and character development. Make sure that the main character has problems, both external and internal, to overcome throughout the story. If there’s a theme you’d like to explore, don’t think of it from the perspective of teaching your readers a lesson, think of it as discovering a truth that allows your character to grow.
- Show don’t tell. If you want your readers to walk away with a new understanding of the topic you’re writing about, let them discover it between the lines instead of hitting it home with moments of adult characters lecturing or having your protagonist pause in the story to reflect on a Big Moral Point.
3. Condescending to the reader. Trust that your readers are intelligent and have their own lives, complete with their own obstacles, conflicts, and emotions. Your readers live in the real world and are capable of being challenged and trusted with nuance. (Although sometimes a good fart joke is also called for.)
- Don’t shy away from challenging topics.
- Don’t hesitate to use the occasional sophisticated word.
- Make sure your plot is just as developed and layered as it would be if you were writing for adults. Kids can identify plot holes and inconsistencies just as easily as adults can!
4. Writing from the author’s childhood rather than a contemporary setting. Too often, I see queries that make it clear the author has gone back to their own childhood to tell a story rather than contemporized an emotional truth from their childhood for a modern reader. Kids are looking for stories that resonate with them today–not stories that take them back to their parents’ or grandparents’ childhoods. If you are writing realistic middle grade, put it in a contemporary setting, unless there is a very compelling reason to set the story in a different time.
5. Adults? Keep Out! Make sure your adult characters don’t take over the story. It is completely normal for there to be grownups in a middle grade novel, but those characters should be side characters, not central characters. If you find your adults imparting important life lessons or making choices that help resolve the plot, or if you find that your young characters spend a lot of time observing and thinking about what the adults are doing in the story, then take a step back and look at your arc again. It is vital in middle grade that the protagonist is the character with the central conflict and that your protagonist is also the one to resolve that conflict. If you find your adults taking over, gently put them back in their place on the sidelines. Middle grade is a preteen’s world. No grownups allowed.
Creative Commons Picture Credit: State Library of Ohio