Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Secrets of KidLit: Get To Know Your Audience

I find middle graders fascinating.

Perhaps this is why I volunteer to chaperone (stalk) my kids' field trips, why I jump at the chance to drive (stalk) my kids and their friends to the movies, and why I often help out (stalk) in my kids' classrooms.

Middle school is a time of great discovery… and great dichotomy. Kids are learning how to fit in as part of a group, while also trying desperately to stand out. Your daughter refuses to acknowledge your existence when she’s with her friends, yet clings to you when you’re snuggling at bedtime. Your son can’t remember to throw his dirty socks in the wash, yet he has no problem bathing in his favorite cologne. They get nostalgic for when they were “little,” yet they can’t wait to grow up.

Yes, middle school is quite possibly the most emotionally and physically confusing time in our lives. Which makes it such rich grounds for writers to grow something meaningful.

My favorite middle-grade novels subtly acknowledge the chaos and confusion happening in the brains and bodies of its characters. When I write middle-grade, I dig deep into the archives of my own mind and remember what that time period felt like. Admittedly, I cringe during these exercises. A lot. I picture an insecure, frizzy-haired girl with braces and glasses who just moved to a new town, where, remarkably, all the kids have smooth hair, straight teeth, and perfect eyesight.

As most main characters do in middle grade novels, I grew up during my middle-school years. I discovered conditioner. I got contact lenses. The braces came off. Slowly, I gained confidence, thanks in part to my parents, as well as a few select teachers who were convinced I just needed a little push to find my way in the world… or at least to find my way through middle school.

Of course, it’s been lots (and lots and lots) of years since I’ve been in middle school. The clothes are different (I still miss leg warmers), the music is different (Rick Springfield still rocks), and even the method of communication is different (notes folded into mini paper footballs are still more fun than texts).

But the basics haven’t changed. Kids today, just like kids back in the day, are still trying to find out where they fit in, who their true friends are, and what makes them special.

So how do we, as writers, connect with the kids who are actually reading our books?
  1. Spend time with the age group you write for. Volunteer at your local teen center. Offer to drive your kids around. If you don’t have kids that age or can’t actually get an invite to the middle-school cafeteria, then sit just close enough at your local Starbucks or basketball game so you can listen. How do they speak to each other? How do they speak of themselves? Do boys sit on one side of the room and girls on the other, or are they starting to co-mingle? There’s a lot to be said about (non-creepy) observation.
  2. Read what your readers are reading (books, magazines, websites, etc.). Chances are, the books you love to read will be the kind of books you like to write, so read everything you can get your hands on.
  3. Don’t forget about social media. Most middle-schoolers aren’t spilling all on Facebook, and unfortunately we adults don’t usually have access to their Snapchat accounts. But there are things we can research. What are kids interested in on Instagram? YouTube?
  4. Remember your own childhood. With all the changes that the world has gone through in the last twenty years, today’s kids still experience the sweaty-palmed excitement of a first crush, the thank-god-I’m-not-alone comfort of a BFF, and the heart-pounding thrill of making the soccer team. They also know the blow of your crush not like-liking you back, the punch-in-the-gut pain of being dissed by your friends, and the stomach-sinking feeling of seeing a bad grade on a test.
These issues are what will resonate with middle-schoolers, regardless of if their school pictures have them in bell bottoms or skinny jeans. It’s a universal truth throughout the ages… the middle school years are just weird.

But, just like 80’s fashion, there is beauty in that weirdness. And if we, as writers, can recall those mostly-weird-but-sometimes-wonderful feelings, we will create an authentic voice. We will speak for the middle-graders who, sometimes, are still too confused to speak for themselves.


  1. Leg warmers are coming back! thanks for the post and reminders of reconnecting every time I put pen to paper or fingers to keys.

  2. Ronni. Yes, you hit the mark.!


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