Writing for Middle Grades IV: Being age appropriate


Parts of this might be considered an extension on my last post about the middle grades voice, but the subject is a little larger than that.

It’s sometimes said that these days nothing is considered off limits in young adult fiction. While there may be some representations of sex, violence, drug use suicide etc. which a mainstream YA will be wary of, for the most part (and with the caveat that YA, like other genres, subdivides according to the nature and grade of its darker or more “mature” content) anything goes.

Not so in middle grades fiction.

I’ve said before that the target demographic is roughly 8-14 but the true MG home is 9-12, a pretty tight market, and one which demarcates the line between childhood proper and adolescence. It goes without saying that children vary developmentally, so I don’t want to make any absolute claims about what kids in that core demographic can, might, could or (most problematically) should read but expectations in this area are pretty specific and you ignore them at your peril.

So much for the legal disclaimer.

Middle grades fiction is different from the chapter books which went before it (think Magic Treehouse and the like) and the true YA that will come next. That’s not to say that a well told MG novel won’t find readers outside its core demographic: Harry Potter took that old myth out and subjected it to all three unforgiveable curses.

But the idea (the hope?) that your MG novel will also be read by teenagers, their parents and grandparents, can’t be allowed to affect the subject matter or sentence level expression unduly unless you want to abandon your MG readership entirely. There are a number of reasons for this, some of them matters of taste (with which we might include matters moral, ethical and those slippery concerns of decorum), while others are matters of logistics.

Let me deal with the latter first. Middle grades books do well when they are promoted by booksellers, teachers, librarians and parents. Their successes in market terms are not, for the most part, driven by reviews or blogs because that’s not where kids of this age tend to learn about books (at the moment: this, of course, may change). Moreover, and unlike teenagers who have their own money and a very separate identity from that of their family, middle graders tend to have books bought for them. This means that the MG fiction market is surrounded by adult gate keepers.

You might not like this, you might object to the manner in which said gatekeepers police standards or expectations, you might think it borders on censorship, but it’s a fact of the business, and you need to get used to it if you want your books to be read in any numbers. If teachers, parents and librarians don’t like your book, word will get around. Libraries won’t promote it and might not even stock it. Schools won’t put it on their summer reading lists or invite you in to talk to their classes. Getting word of mouth between kids without such things is as near to impossible as makes no difference.

One way to get used to the idea of the gatekeepers is that instead of arguing about you think you could have handled as a ten year old you consider what you would like your ten year old son or daughter to read. What do they need? What do they want? What are they ready for and what can they hold off on?

After all, the reason there is an MG category at all, and the reason that people like me write for it, is that we recognize that there should be a space where kids are allowed to be kids, a place where the terrors they are faced with a largely imaginary, containable between the covers of the book, where teh various looming spectres of adolescence can be kept at bay for another year or two. Is this protected and artificial? To an extent, but no more so than it is to wrap your child up before sending them into a blizzard. Kids aren’t miniature adults, and to treat them as if they are or should be as soon as possible is to deny their worth and that of the things which interest them.

While there are always exceptions to hard and fast rules I’d offer the following guidelines if you write MG, all of which are (I think) self-evident.

No sex. If you are writing gritty tales of abuse or coming of age yearnings, you are probably writing YA. Raise the characters’ age to 15 or thereabouts and embrace your destiny. Sex in true MG fiction might not get your book banned but you will quickly learn the full career-killing force of what you might call economic censorship: no one will buy it.

Violence should be handled with extreme care. It shouldn’t be casual or graphic and where you do opt to use it, it should feel essential to the story. Also, and this is a personal preference of mine, make sure it has consequences and weight. I think a lot of adult fiction uses violence in ways that are glib and desensitizing, so that my revulsion is not so much squeamish as it is ethical. If a middle grades novel is patently unrealistic (existing in a fairy story milieu, say) so that the violence feels separate from the world of the reader, that’s a different matter, but in more realist stories (including fantasies) the violence should be kept in check.

Cursing and strong language. I worry least about this personally, and I think that our fears of children hearing “bad language” are largely misplaced, but those gate-keepers feel otherwise. Again, if you want your book to be read, don’t include much or any of the words and phrases that would get your child sent home with a note from the teacher.

So much for that.

This is not to say that MG fiction should be sanitized, that it can’t wrestle with real life problems and ideas. Absolutely it can and the best of it does. But the treatment of those ideas needs careful handling.

On that note, let me add one other thing. Kids don’t like being talked down to. When you write for them, most of the time you should use the word you think of first, not one you think is easier or more “age appropriate.” Kids have dictionaries. I’m not suggesting you baffle them with complex adult language, but I do think you should be clear, and precise in ways which may demand some complex words. Dumbing down your vocabulary to suite the lowest common denominator is also going to reduce the richness and sophistication of story, character and idea.

So say I.


6 comments to Writing for Middle Grades IV: Being age appropriate

  • AJ – Thanks for a great post that particularly resonated with me, as I wrestle with the sequel to my MG that will appear in fall 2012. At the moment, the words that rang the truest were about vocabulary. I know that I learned a lot of my $5 words by reading in middle grades, and I’ve written mine with the same intent for my readers-to-be. One point that was raised by my editor, though: sentence structure. She begged me to break up some of my compound sentences, noting that librarian- and teacher-readers will need a chance to catch their breath sometimes. (I had not thought about he book being read aloud!)

  • Thanks, Mindy.
    Your point about sentence structure and the book’s suitability for reading aloud is a good one. Again, I think it’s good to resist the impulse to be over simple, but reading aloud yourself is a great way to test how the sentence feels. I try to read the whole thing to myself as I edit, and while I tend to do that for everything I write, I think you’re right that it’s especially important for this age group, both because they’re likely to be read to at some point and because it’s a great opportunity to instill a love of how words sound. Thanks for the observation. If it had occurred to me before I might have turned it into an entire post 🙂

  • Great stuff, A.J. And I think that last paragraph is especially pertinent. It certainly is something I’ve wrestled with as I’ve tried to find the right voice and tone for my MG project. Thanks for giving me more to think about.

  • Thanks, David. It sounds very abstract when I put it like that but I hope the gist is clear enough, even if we really need specific instances to see what might work best.

  • I’m pretty keen to try my hand at a MG book, but every time I start plotting beyond the basic overall idea I start introducing themes that may be unsuitable.
    AJ, when you were plotting Darwen, how did you make sure your other world monsters didn’t get too monstrous? I’d be tempted to include horror elements and possibly drug use / alcohol abuse (like one of my urban fantasy stories)?

  • sjohn,
    I don’t worry too much about the monsters being too monstrous. Mine are pretty grotesque. The drug/alcohol stuff is, however, a YA concern and I’d leave it out except maybe as something your MG characters glimpse in parents or other adults. Even so, I’d tread lightly. Consider transmogriphying the core problem: figure out why the adult issue (drugs or whatever) appeals to you, and then give it a fantasy twist or something that keeps the associations but takes it out of a literal realism. This is what Rowling does with race/class in the pure blood controversy or what Robert Paul Weston does with drugs in Dusty City.