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
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.”
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.