Joyce Magnin

Joyce Magnin is the author of the popular and quirky Bright’s Pond novels. She is a frequent conference speaker and writing instructor. When she’s not writing or reading Joyce enjoys baseball, needle arts, video games and cream soda but not elevators—especially glass ones. She listens to many kinds of music, shamelessly confesses to enjoying American Idol, has never eaten a scallop or sky dived. Joyce has three children, Rebekah, Emily and Adam and three grandsons, Lemuel, Cedar and Soren and one son-in-law, Joshua. Joyce lives in Havertown, Pennsylvania with her son, Adam and their crazy cat, Mango, where she cares for an eighty-year-old onion plant. You can also visit her blog at: joycemagnin.blogspot.com.

Joyce Magnin

So What is Middle Grade Fiction, Anyway?

Here’s the thing, I get asked a lot of questions about writing for the kiddoes. Two of the most complicated questions are, “What exactly is Middle grade fiction?” and “What are age group fits the definition?”

I’m going to try and answer these questions, at least in part because as we all know, writing is not an exact science. It’s not like explaining the difference between a proton and a neutron. Children’s literature is much more complicated than physics. There are a lot of variables in the writing.

Generally speaking, middle grade fiction is for ages 8 to 12. This sometimes throws people because we tend to think of middle grade as middle school and that’s not the case. By the time a child is in the sixth grade he or she is eleven or nearly eleven years old, so yes, middle grade fiction is read in primary school. In fact some of the most voracious readers I’ve ever experienced are third to fifth graders—eight to ten year olds. And they read widely depending on their mood or interest of the day. I have seen kids read fantasy one day and historical fiction the next followed by a book filled with bathroom humor and nerds the next.

Some folks suggest that it’s the age of the main character that defines the book’s place in the library. This is also true in part and can be a good and quick rule to follow. The wisdom is children tend to read up, that is, an eight-year-old student would have no problem reading about a twelve-year-old but a twelve-year-old wouldn’t get caught dead reading about an eight year old. But that’s not always the case, there are plenty of books about young protagonists that get read by older kiddoes and students. Just think of our beloved Harry Potter. He was eleven years old in book one but clearly found an audience much older than middle grade.

But as a general guideline, if your character is a ten-year-old girl then it is probably middle grade. If your main character is fifteen then it is probably a Young Adult novel. However, that being said, there are plenty of exceptions besides Harry Potter. Think about Peggy Parrish’s Amelia Bedalia or the Golly Sisters by Betsy Byers. These protags are adults! But children absolutely love them. So it really is difficult to pin down. What about word count? True, that could be a clue. Middle grade books tend to run from 20,000 to 40,000 words while young adult novels are generally around 35,000 to 80,000 words but that again is just a guideline. There are plenty of exceptions. But if you are writing middle grade fiction and would like a target word count, then 20,000 to 40,000 words is great.

Some people argue that middle grade fiction has a more simplistic vocabulary, shorter sentences, a less demanding construction and plot or a simplistic theme. Not so. The middle grade author does not really concern herself with these things, nor should she. Her first goal is to write an excellent story. Children who are ready for middle grade books are ready for longer words, and more complicated novel structures, longer sentences, writing that challenges them. And no, writing for kids is not necessarily easier than writing for adults. I love what the late, great Madeline L’Engle said: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

So, what really defines a middle grade novel? In my opinion, subject matter. I like what Laura Backus, the editor of The Children’s Book Insider says. “Middle grade novels are characterized by the type of conflict encountered by the main character. Children in primary grades are still focused inward, and the conflicts in their books reflect that.”

The themes of these books therefore vary widely as the main character deals with everything from sibling rivalry, as in the Katherine Patterson’s Newberry winning, Jacob Have I Loved, to school issues as in the Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt and friendship as in Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

Perhaps the best way to define a middle grader reader is to mention what it is NOT. It’s not a picture book or an early chapter book—The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne, is an example of early chapter books. Middle Grade novels are more complex with chapters, subplots, few, if any illustrations and are generally very well-written. They have to be. Kiddoes of this age can see right through poor writing or writing that has been dumbed-down for their benefit.

Children who are reading middle grade fiction are in the throes of their wonder years facing many challenges, physical, emotional and spiritual as they are on the fringes of solidifying their identities and understanding their world. As award winning Tween author, Nancy Rue (Lily and Sophie books) says: they are taking steps to find their authentic self.


Carrying Mason