Are you ready to write a middle grade novel? In this article we will explore 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 Big Nate 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 the new rage — 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 Percy Jackson or the Serafina series. 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 with 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 have to 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 with series potential (and you’ve already begun work or finished some of the additional books) then you are a lower risk (with potential for high return) 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 2018, we are finally getting 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. Runaway Twin, published in 2009, shows raw disappointment while exploring the often harsh realities of children trapped in foster care systems.
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 subjects, themes and genres. Fantasy, Adventure, Girls’ or Boys’ Books, Mystery, Magic Realism, even Sci-Fi (check out Bill Nye’s Jack and the Geniuses series) –– 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 perfect examples, where every single page has readers laughing out loud. Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom is another hilarious read. 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.
Good vs Evil
Readers on the younger side of middle grade are not too keen on ambiguity. You don’t need to have flat characters, but clear lines can be drawn between doing what’s right and wrong. Plot lines that explore good and evil work well, as do good guys vs bad guys. Think of the Series of Unfortunate Events where the Baudelaire children are certainly the good guys, harassed time and again by the evil Count Olaf. Now let’s look at some of the upper middle grade books where the lines between good and bad might not be so clear. 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?
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 again, it won’t be the driving force of your plot. 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. Middle grade books are not meant to push big issues like politics, socio-economics, animal rights, the environment 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 in middle grade novels. Two shining examples are found in Scott O’Dell’s classic, Island of the Blue Dolphins or more recently in Wonder.
1st Person vs 3rd Person, Single 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.
If you plan on breaking any point of view or narrative standards in your manuscript, read these two books first.
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 80,000 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!