Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Secrets of Kidlit: What is Middle Grade?

If you're a middle grade author, you're familiar with the awkward pause that ensues after someone asks: What do you write?

The term "middle grade" doesn't mean much to the average bear. In the publishing world, we know that middle grade means books aimed at readers aged 8 to 12 years old. No, that doesn't mean chapter books. Or YA. Middle grade speaks to a specific slice of literature that's accessible to young readers who are seeking to learn about the world around them, or alternately, to escape from it.

These days, when someone asks me what I write, I tell them that I write modern day stories for young readers, aged 8-12 (or middle schoolers, if I'm talking to a parent). I find that it helps people understand what you are writing if you tell them WHO you are writing for, rather than where your book will be shelved at the bookstore.

But beyond age group, what defines middle grade? Why does a particular book fit on that Young Reader shelf at Barnes & Noble?

What are middle grade books about?

Because young readers are discovering the world around them, middle grade books can be about ANYTHING.

You'll find contemporary titles like ABSOLUTELY ALMOST by Lisa Graff, which deal with realistic issues in modern settings, in this case, Albie's struggles to read and find his place in school. You'll also find books set in fantasy worlds, like A SNICKER OF MAGIC by Natalie Lloyd, where twelve-year-old Felicity collects words and searches for a way to restore magic to her town, Midnight Gulch.

There are plenty of series to choose from, too, which is perfect for the middle school age, when kids often become collectors of the things they love most. The BIG NATE books are popular on the younger end of the spectrum, whereas the FABLEHAVEN series appeals to readers looking for bigger adventures in a mystical world.

What kind of stories do middle grade readers want?

For those of us who write, this is a very important question! And for those of us who are buying books for middle grade readers, the question stands: what do kids want to read these days?

No matter what genre the book, middle grade readers want a MEMORABLE story. This applies to both young and old readers of middle grade. Many middle grade novels cross over to older readers, who read not only to be entertained, but to remember the special magic of that age.

A story can be memorable in any genre, whether it be a realistic contemporary story or a science fiction adventure. Readers want real, relatable stakes in the story, as well as a central story question that begs to be answered. Sometimes the smallest moments can have a lasting impact on readers, and even the most average of characters can make us care through their honest voices and heartfelt struggles.

One of the titles I'm most looking forward to in 2015 is MONSTROUS by MarcyKate Connolly, the story of Kymera, a girl unlike any other, a new, classic tale reminiscent of Frankenstein and The Brothers Grimm. While this story is wrapped in magic and mystery, I'm equally excited for Linda Mullaly's Hunt's FISH IN A TREE, the story of Ally, who has been smart enough to fool lots of people, until she lands in a new school and her secrets are revealed.

What makes for a GREAT middle grade read?

Both writers and readers alike are on the lookout for great reads, and in middle grade, that boils down to this: a great middle grade story creates a special moment that has a lasting effect on the reader and the literary landscape. It is a character who lodges in your heart. A place that crowds your mind. A voice that speaks to you long after the book is closed.

No matter what the subject of a book is, a great story will ring true in the reader's heart. That truth comes from characters that show us their complexities and let us in on their secrets. These characters show us their vulnerabilities, and we in turn offer them our hope. There are universal truths in books. You'll find the same struggle to define self in a new setting in the PERCY JACKSON series as in INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, the story of Ha, a Vietnamese immigrant who must adjust to life in 1975 Alabama. Readers relate to both stories in a similar way, combining universal truths with personal taste in subject matter.

In my humble opinion, a great middle grade read offers a point of view that is easily relatable and yet utterly honest. Your narrator cannot pull punches. Middle grade readers young and old alike will sniff out a middle grade character who is holding back, so your story must put all of its cards on the table. My oldest son just finished reading THE ONE & ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate, and his summary feedback was this: "I'm not a gorilla, but I like Ivan. Sometimes I feel all caged up, too."

Isn't that the point of it all? To read a story, and know that somewhere, somehow, someone else has felt those same things that you are feeling, and that if their hopes are answered, maybe yours will be, too.

That, to me, is the heart of middle grade.

What does middle grade mean to you? Tell me below in the comments!


  1. When people ask, I just say I write novels for children. It's usually good enough. Or novels for kids 8-12 years old. I used to think everyone knew what middle grade meant, but now I realize even authors sometimes have no clue what that is.

  2. Wonderful post and reminder for what great MG reads are!

  3. I love the idea that we readers offer hope to the characters we love and root for! It's easy to view reading as more passive than writing, but for those of us who truly live the books we read, this is far from true! (Just a funny aside: when I work at the library and am trying to interest a reluctant middle grade reader in a book, I say it's for tweens. This seems to make it much more cool.)


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