In my last WU post, I wrote about the building blocks of great YA fiction, and in the post before that, I wrote about writing picture books for the youngest readers. This time, I’m looking at an in-between age range: what’s known as ‘middle-grade’.
First of all, a definition: what exactly is meant by ‘middle-grade’? At its most basic, it means books for readers aged 8-12, or 9-13. These are the books you read after you become a fluent reader, and before you start to tackle YA fiction. It’s what you might call the golden age of reading, where you find the most readers—I would say the most readers of any age, including adults. But what works for an 8 or 9 year old might not work so well for a 12 or 13 year old—and vice versa–so within that broad category of middle grade, there are sub-categories of lower and upper middle-grade (sometimes the upper end is also referred to as ‘tweens’).
The age of the readership however is only a guide. There are other things involved in knowing whether your manuscript is ‘middle grade’ or should shift upwards into ‘YA.’ I’ve written a lot of middle grade fiction as well as YA—and in all kinds of genres, from fantasy to historical to mystery to contemporary to humor—and can personally testify to the fact that it’s certainly not genre that separates middle-grade books from books aimed at young adult readers. It’s an alchemy of elements that in any genre of middle grade makes you know that a story is for readers of that age, rather than their older siblings–or indeed their younger ones—what’s known, at least in my home country of Australia, as ‘junior fiction’, is for kids aged 5-8, new readers who are ready to venture into short ‘chapter books’.
So how can you tell if your manuscript is for middle grade?
- Age of characters—middle grade readers like to read slightly ‘up’, so a book aimed at 8-9 year olds might have main characters of 10 or 11; one aimed at 12 and 13 year olds, could have characters in a range from 14-16. Younger characters may also be found but they usually function as an annoyance or a source of humor.
- Careful! Even when characters in your middle-grade fiction are teenagers, don’t saddle them with teenage angst and issues better suited to YA.
- No over-emphasis of issues generally: which is not to say you can’t approach issues as such—it just means you need to do it carefully, within character and story, rather than as a message.
- A good plot: everyone likes that of course but middle-grade readers will turn away from a book if it doesn’t go at a good pace. They take no notice of awards for nice prose styles—which is not to say that good writing isn’t necessary, it just means that too much visible craft at the expense of story is a turn-off for readers of that age.
- Length: Middle-grade fiction tends to be shorter than YA though this is not a hard and fast rule—and middle grade fantasy regularly disproves it! What really matters, in a long or short middle-grade book, is whether your story is interesting enough to hold the road as it were!
- Outwardness rather than inwardness: even with the very popular diary form in middle grade fiction, the character’s musings are often directed outwards. Don’t spend too long in inward reflections by characters; this can bore your readers. This does not mean it should be all action and no thought—you just need to strike the right balance, and maybe err on the side of action!
- Inventive, sparkling language and concepts—despite their impatience with ‘too many words’ as it were, readers of this age do appreciate a bright, fresh voice and clever ideas.
- Humor—even in a more ‘serious’ novel, a touch of humor goes a long way with this age group! Gloom or too much solemnity is not something they appreciate.
- A touch of romance is fine, but only of the most innocent sort. No sex!
- Violence is certainly found in middle grade fiction, especially in fantasy and historical novels: but it is not dwelled upon and there are no graphic descriptions.
- The triumph of good over evil: middle-grade readers are not big on ambiguity. They want baddies to be punished and goodies to get their just rewards.
- Leave cynicism at the door—but irony, subtly used, will certainly be appreciated by middle grade readers!
Over to you: both as readers and writers, what do you think makes good ‘middle-grade’ fiction and distinguishes it from YA?