Are you ready to write a middle grade novel? In this article we will learn how to write middle grade fiction and why this children’s book format is flourishing today. We will learn which age groups to target, what narrative styles work best and why, and what kind of word count you need in order to craft a strong middle grade book. We will also explore themes and how to approach difficult or ‘big’ ideas for middle grade readers. You can walk away feeling confident you have the tools to take your ideas to paper and draft your middle grade manuscript.
Defining the Middle Grade Novel
Middle grade novels are books written for readers in upper elementary school through middle school. They are the in-between-books for readers who have outgrown chapter books like the Magic Tree House series, or popular books like the I Survived series, and are too young to emotionally handle or enjoy themes and ideas found in young adult books.
- readership : 8 – 13 years
- word count : approximately 30,000 – 55,000 words
- characters’ ages : 9 – 14 years
The Golden Age of Reading
Often times middle grade is called the Golden Age of Reading because the format has the largest readership of any other, including adults. Kids this age read, and they read a lot.
Remember, you’re spanning a diverse age group here. What may work for an 8-year-old likely won’t work for a 12-year-old. So although we bundle it all into middle grade, the genre actually has two sub groups. This is important to understand in order to know your audience when writing, and thus appropriately adjust your themes and word count.
- Lower Middle Grade
Lower middle grade novels tend to be read by kids aged 8 to 10 years old. There may be a sub plot or two, but the main plot will dominate the focus, and all themes will certainly be G or PG rated.
- Upper Middle Grade
Upper middle grade novels can have a higher word count, and will be read by children aged 10 to 13 years old. There will likely be a subplot or two that help to carry the story in a substantial way. Themes may be a bit more complex, or PG or PG-13 rated.
Why is Middle Grade so Popular
Middle grade novels are still flourishing after many years in the spotlight — everyone loves them. Publishers and agents are on the prowl for the next great middle grade book, and if you’ve got series potential, even better. Let’s look at why.
Spans a diverse age group
Middle grade readers are going from an egocentric existence to an altruistic one, so there is a huge leap from free play and imagination to an overwhelmingly rapid sense of self-awareness — you are catching these readers just as this change begins. Because of these changes, middle grade readers tend to be thirsty for knowledge and hungry for adventure. We as authors end up with a diverse group of individuals ready to read our books. They appreciate the familiar and will also choose books by the same author again and again.
Readership and word count
Because of the diverse audience, you have some leeway when it comes to your length and themes. You can target the older readers, those creeping into puberty, or the younger readers, those who are no longer into baby things but not ready to play grown up quite yet. You can work your themes into the age group that is most appropriate, and develop your story from there.
Series work well
Series work really well for the middle grade genre because the readership is so voracious at this age. Often, once readers are hooked on a character or world, they want more and more. Not only is this great for your audience, but publishers love it too. They have the opportunity to get more than one book from any given author for a dedicated readership. Think the Warrior series, which first came out in 2003 and is still being published today, or the Mr Lemoncellos Library series. Other series, like the Serafina series started as standalone books, and because of their popularity, bloomed into series. Then we have companion books, like The One and Only Bob, which was acquired after The One and Only Ivan was so successful. But keep in mind, if you are writing your first book or are an unpublished author, your first middle grade novel needs to stand alone, and could have series potential.
You might be wondering what stand alone with series potential means? It is the idea that an agent can sign you for one book and one alone with the potential for a series if your first book is a success. We as authors must remember that when an agent agrees to work with us, they are taking a risk. They are saying, “hey, I believe in you and your little book,” and they are hoping their gamble pays off. Signing a first-time author for one book is a low risk investment. If your first book cannot stand alone then you’ll be hard-pressed to get your first book deal. However, if your query offers a strong stand-alone manuscript then you are a lower risk first time author.
Themes and What to Write About in your Middle Grade Novel
For a long time, the consensus was that themes in middle grade books should be fairly innocent and not overly controversial. But today, and especially seen in some of the best middle grade releases of 2021, we are seeing fantastic, relevant middle grade books that explore complicated themes and big ideas. I’ve got some great examples. Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin shows us life with a diagnosed schizophrenic parent through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl as she comes to terms with her mother’s illness. Until now, mental illness has been on the whole ignored in middle grade novels (so thank you Cindy!). The Night Diary touches on violence (among other themes like religious separatism and oppression) while exploring the 1947 Partition of India.
More recently, in Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D Williams our main character suffers and survives an explosively abusive home life, internalized racism, and her own struggles with self-loathing. Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga is a heartfelt story about immigration, family, and finding home. What makes these books so successful is their approach. Through the main characters’ points of view readers navigate difficult themes, thus making these big ideas approachable for young readers. Touching on difficult themes through honestly-represented characters is a great way to explore complex ideas with young readers. Do not set out to teach your readers a lesson, but don’t hold back if you are talking about mental health, violence, sex, politics or any other previously-taboo topic as long as you take an educated approach and explore the theme in an age-appropriate manner.
Middle grade novels span the compass when it comes to genre. Contemporary fiction (From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks), which may include magical elements (When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller). For Adventure check out A Wolf Called Wander by Rosanne Parry. Middle Grade Mystery holds up well, like Just South of Home by Karen Strong or Greenglass House by Kate Milford. Some of my favorite Historical Fiction is by Deborah Hopkinson, most recently A Bandits Tale The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket. Then there are retellings of classic tales. A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat is a retelling of Les Misérables while Rajani LaRocca captures the enchanted spirit of A Midsummer’s Night Dream in her Middle Grade Novel, Midsummers Mayhem. Middle Grade is even publishing Horror, a great throwback to my youth — who remembers Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. For more recent middle grade horror, check out Doll Bones by Holly Black, or this list of my favorite other favorite Middle Grade Horror Novels. You’ve got so much to work with!
Make us laugh! Kids love to laugh (heck, so do adults). But this age group, in particular, really connects to humor. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid Books are a classic example, where every single page has readers laughing out loud. More recently we are seeing heartfelt stories loaded with humor like Betsy Bird’s novel Long Road to the Circus or The Great Treehouse War by Lisa Graff. Age-appropriate humor may be hard for us as adults to grasp, so be sure to run your jokes by your kid audience. Think over-the-top wackiness, slapstick silliness, and obvious irony while you’re developing your laugh sequence.
You’re not going to find any hot and heavy romance in any middle grade novels. Instead, you’ll see buddy relationships and strong friendships that perhaps rather innocently touch on the fringes of romance. If there is a budding romance, it will almost certainly be exploratory. Oftentimes the ‘romance’ will be a means to explore the middle grade coming of age: the shift from child to teen. For example, your main character may have confusing feelings about someone who is a pal, but typically relationships are not defined or labeled beyond friendship. Hurricane Child, which features a young girl on the search for her mother in a Caribbean setting, is a shining example of innocent and exploratory romance in a buddy-relationship.
Growing up, puberty, first crushes, independence, generally coming of age — it’s all about finding one’s identity, and I might argue that every middle grade novel is in some way about identity. Let’s take a look at some shining examples. The Night Diary comes to mind where we see 12-year-old Nisha struggling with her own identity: her father is Hindu but her deceased mother was Muslim… where will Nisha find a place in new India while maintaining her dual identity? Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff, the main character, Bug, is not only growing up, but growing into a new gender identity. Summer of Brave by Amy Noelle Parks Lilla struggles to find a way to keep her friends and her divorced but amiable parents happy, but in doing so, will she be able find a way to make herself happy as well?
Middle grade is all about finding identity, about finding a little independence. This is an on-point theme to explore in any middle grade novel for any young reader
You may find occasionally violence in some lower middle grade novels, but these aren’t The Hunger Games. (Low key) violence may happen, but don’t dwell on it. You’ll be more likely to come across violence in upper middle grade and though it likely won’t be the driving force of your plot, it may play a deeper role. Let’s turn to The Night Diary again where a scene on the train from old India to new recounts the harsh and sometimes fatal trip families endured during the partition. (If you haven’t already, now is probably the time to read this literary gem by Veera Hiranandani.)
Be ironic, if you must, but never cynical. More and more middle grade books are exploring big issues like politics, socio-economics, animal rights, the environment, human rights, and more, but they are meant to explore these topics in well-rounded, approachable ways. Breakout by Kate Messner is a fantastic recent example. Through letters, news articles, text messages, and voice recordings, Nora Tucker reflects on the chaos that has taken over her sleepy town of Wolf Creek — two inmates have escaped the local high-security prison (where Nora’s father is superintendent). The town is in lockdown, and while navigating the contemporary complications and complexities of today’s criminal justice system, Nora’s world is turned upside down.
As exemplified in Breakout, these ‘big issues’ do play a role in the human experience, and by default arise in middle grade novels. And it is absolutely important to explore all of these big idea issues with little readers. Organically exploring these ideas is another avenue for talking about big issues for parents, teachers, librarians, and it’s a way for adults to bridge the gap between themselves and the young readers in their lives.
1st Person vs 3rd Person, Point of View
Generally speaking, middle grade novels follow the point of view of one main character. Sometimes in first person and sometimes in third, depending on how close the author wants the reader to be to the protagonist.
There are few shining examples of middle grade books that break these rules and follow adult and/or other points of view, or employ different narrative styles such as 3rd person omniscient.
Newberry winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, breaks all the rules by opening with adult perspectives that we follow for the first eight chapters of the novel before catching up with the protagonist’s point of view. In flashbacks, author Kelly Barnhill also employs first person narrative while third person omniscient is used throughout the bulk of the book.
Ruby Holler is another great example. The point of view shifts between two adult characters, Tiller and Sairy, and the Trepid twins, Dallas and Florida, who have come to live with the elderly couple for the summer. We understand through sincere narrative as only delivered by Sharon Creech that in order to fully grasp the story we must follow both the adults and the children.
More recently, A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow is a genuine story about grief and responsibility, which follows the point of view of Kela, a spirited, if somewhat broken-hearted, girl living on St. Rita, and Ophidia, a mermaid with a long, mysterious past. Magic and family and community connections are at the heart of this book, and the multiple points of view allow the parallel stories of Kela and Ophidia to unfold in a way that keeps readers turning the pages.
Other examples include Scary Stories for Young Foxes, Look Both Ways A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, The Greystone Secrets series, Pax, and The Beatryce Prophecy. If you plan on breaking any point of view or narrative standards in your manuscript, read some of these books first to see how different authors naviagate the different points of view.
The Golden Rule
These industry-based format standards and guidelines are worth understanding, but they are not ‘must haves’ and ‘do nots’. Don’t give up because your fantasy upper middle grade novel happens to be 60,000 words or your lower middle grade novel explores a complicated issue. (Check out The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast.) The Golden Rule: Make sure your themes are on point. You may be able to trim word count in editing or even round out a character, but if your themes are not appropriate for the age group you’ll have a major rewrite on your hands. Focus on developing a strong plot and well-rounded characters — and see where your story takes you!
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