How aware are you of the market you’re writing for? Despite the MG label being reserved for readers aged 8-12, Middle Grade literature is fluid. Many young gifted readers will move out of picture books and onto Middle Grade fiction before aged 8. Other readers aged 12 or older still happily peruse Middle Grade books.
This is no ‘one size fits all’ age group (just as for adults, there’s no ‘correct’ genre, only different tastes). Books are being tested, tried out, at Middle Grade. This post outlines some things worth remembering if you’d like to write for the loose label of this age range.
1: Read all the Middle Grade fiction you can – and make sure it’s relevant
Read the popular fiction you know is being read now by this age group.
Perhaps you’ve heard of L.M. Montgomery or Lewis Carroll, Anne of Green Gables or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but have you heard of Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Katherine Rundell, author of Rooftoppers, or R.J. Palacio, author of Wonder?
If not, and you want to write for MG readers, start learning these popular authors writing in the market today. Begin reading their books, especially, the sorts of books you’d like to be writing yourself.
Children aren’t hypocrites, and they won’t wait for pace to pick up or give a book a chance if they’re not gripped immediately. Agents, publishers, librarians – the curators and ‘gatekeepers’ of children’s’ fiction – will be thinking along these lines.
You’ll need to know what books prospective readers are reading, so understand these titles to understand your audience. Popular books are reflective of tastes. What common themes are there? Which characters seem to appeal, and which common elements do you sense are enjoyed, and which could you emulate yourself?
You’ll need your novel similar enough and yet entirely original. You must create a book that fits into the market, but is different enough to pique readers’ curiosities.
There are many books published about animals, for instance, like The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, or The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse.
There are many books about dragons, like Eragon by Christopher Paolini, Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, or The Dragons of Kilve Court by Beth Webb, to name a few more.
If you are writing a book about dragons, animals, or anything else, how will you differentiate your story and make it authentic, whilst still similarly appealing to all these books readers enjoy?
It’s a difficult balance to find, but reading currently popular Middle Grade titles will help.
2: Engage with complexity
Certain tropes – animal stories, fairy stories – will likely hold appeal always and be revisited by authors and publishers time and again. All the same, don’t take this to feel that anything will do, or that writing for children is easier than writing for adults. It isn’t.
As Joan Aiken, author of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has said, a good children’s book ‘should not be perfunctory, meaningless, flat.’ Again, reading and developing your awareness of the market is key. Look for richness.
Whilst some children will always be more sensitive than others, most can handle the thrills and scares of MG fiction. Yours aren’t picture book readers, where any darker elements need to be sillier, funnier for very small children to read about.
The success of books like Lauren Oliver’s Liesl and Po, or Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book shows that MG readers are often braver than adults may credit. In Liesl and Po, Liesl is held captive in her attic room, whilst The Graveyard Book’s macabre premise is set chiefly in a cemetery and about an orphan raised by ghosts, yet is still moving and punctured with hilarity.
You’ll need to (gently) indicate to these children the world isn’t simplistic. Your readers are flexing and growing their imaginations.
Jacqueline Wilson is just one writer exploring children’s issues sensitively through the eyes of her characters; like Andy facing parents’ divorce in The Suitcase Kid, Mandy facing bullies in Bad Girls, or Tracey facing foster care in The Story of Tracey Beaker. The voices of her protagonists are authentic, her stories never condescending.
‘If I write about a problem, I’d like to find some solutions,’ Wilson has said of her fiction. She shares hope.
There’s no need to worry you’ll be dampening moods by engaging with complexity, either. You might be writing the book someone needs. Children look for literature tying in with their experiences, as well as exploring new experiences outside their own. A book could just help change a life.
Alternatively, engage in pure, unbridled imagination to enhance and help build children’s imaginative faculties, like Haroun leaving this world on the back of a mechanical bird in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, or Colin Meloy’s Prue and Curtis discovering Wildwood.
Whatever you write, you should always find means to convey that the world is a sprawling, dark and complex place. Children are growing, but they’re tough, sharper than some adults allow, and this audience mustn’t be underestimated.
3: Leave room for diversity
Whilst there are topics which might not be appropriate for younger children, there’s no need to render books didactic, and many things are writable for younger audiences if they’re written with grace and deftness.
Again, to have an idea of what this deftness may look like, you’ll have to read around.
Read David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress, Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin, or The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman. Children needn’t grow up with adult prejudices, biases that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t occur to them. Another means of handling issues, of course, is to dress them up in fantasy.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets are the only clear Middle Grade titles of J.K. Rowling’s series. The series, from an early point, has helped increase tolerance in young readers, dealing frequently with the stigmas attached unfairly to groups (i.e. to Muggles, and to house-elves in the case of Dobby and the Malfoys).
These themes are implicit early on, unpacked later; but at the close of the second book, Harry has compassion on Dobby, rescuing him with ‘clothes’.
Stories can therefore lay the foundations of empathy and acceptance in the real world – and this is a big thought.
You have some responsibility as a writer. Beware overt morals, beware didacticism, and write a story with implicit themes that explores, questions, shines a light and encourages contemplation. (Yes, they’re young. They can handle it.)
4: Remember what children are reading for
Know your audience. You can’t write about living in a child’s shoes unless you know or can remember well. If you can’t remember or don’t care, find someone else to write for.
Middle Grade readers are reading to explore, to flex imagination, and to discover the world. They’ll be open to new worlds and dynamic characters, to hilarity and thrills, adventure and enchantment. Write to appease these traits and to open minds (as opposed to informing them, unless you’re writing non-fiction, which is very different).
Need more advice on your novel? A manuscript assessment can give you invaluable feedback with insights into commercial perspective driving Middle Grade publishing. It’ll help you harness your own voice in a way that sounds both raw and compelling in Middle Grade fiction.
For more encouragement and inspiration, take a look at our online advice.