Much Ado About Middle Grade Books

A really helpful blog post by my good friend Sharon Van Zandt—“Hemingway’s Way”—and my recent review of several manuscripts for a venue I cannot name at this time prompted this post. You can get to Sharon’s post by clicking on the post’s title. Sharon mentions a tool I used to check my WIP. But I’ll talk more about that later.

First, let me ask you this: When you think of the primary audience of a middle grade book, what age group comes to mind? (If you’re an adult like me who reads middle grade books, maybe you think of yourself. Ha ha! If so, you and I should have ice cream together someday.) Do you think of middle graders—sixth through eighth grade? Makes sense, right? Middle graders—middle grade books.

ice_cream

Here’s where life throws a curve. Middle grade books are for kids in third through sixth grade—kids 8-12. Yes, some middle graders read middle grade books. But young adult books are geared toward middle grade to high school-aged kids—a wide range of readers.

Remember the books you loved as a kid? Middle grade books are typically shorter than young adult books—around 30,000—50,000 words (longer for fantasy books). There are some exceptions, as you’ll quickly note if you’ve read the books in the following list.

Some Middle Grade Books
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

1fae3aa84a72f451c0cb431b0ee9d6c6
Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
• The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
• The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

28187   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Holes by Louis Sachar
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth

KindaLikeBrothers

Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera
Under the Mermaid Angel by Martha Moore

1335816

And many, many others. There are some exceptions to the rules. The Harry Potter series is an exception, because it evolved over time. Its audience spans from children to adults. But this series started off middle grade.

I’m writing a middle grade book with an eleven-year-old protagonist who is about to turn twelve. I don’t pretend to be an expert on middle grade books, so I seek help whenever I can. The tool Sharon’s post mentioned provided one kind of help. It assesses the grade level when you copy into the tool an excerpt from your work.

When I copied several of my paragraphs into the tool, they were assessed at the third and fourth grade levels, which is fitting for a middle grade book. (Whew!)

Another help: the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests, which gauge the ease or difficulty of a passage read in English. Because of these tests, many periodicals and books have been assessed at a sixth grade level. Many middle grade books have a lower readability level than that. Again, there are some exceptions. Classic stories, crossover stories, some fantasy stories, and other stories meant for family reading might score higher.

Recently I read a few middle grade manuscripts with a high vocabulary (around the eighth grade level) that included F-bombs and other profanity, romantic relationships (including the desire for sex), and long passages of introspection. The inclusion of these items shows a lack of understanding about what’s considered appropriate for a middle grade book.

I don’t make the rules. But I’m tasked with enforcing them. And what became apparent to me very quickly was that these authors probably had not read many (or any) books geared toward the age level for which they claimed to write.

Do you know any musicians who never or only seldom listen to the music of others? Sounds ludicrous, right? Yet writing is a discipline that some feel they’ve mastered simply because they’ve written a story, all the while claiming they “don’t have time” to read books. (Or they don’t need to read, since “everyone” can write.)

Want to write a middle grade book? You might start by reading middle grade books—as many as you can get your hands on. Study the pacing, characterization, rhythms of dialogue, and the plots. Check online for the requirements for middle grade books, particularly word count and subject matter. Just because your favorite author could get away with a 90,000-word middle grade book that doesn’t mean you automatically can! And don’t forget that kids like to read about kids older than them, but still close in age. So though your protagonist might be 11 or 12, your core reader might be 8 or 9.

Click here for an excellent post by Marie Lamba on the difference between middle grade books and young adult books. Another good post is by Malinda Lo (click here for it) and this one by Judith Rosen. The latter mentions a bookstore that delineates middle grade fiction books as books for middle graders. 🙂

Click here for a great reading analysis post by Shane Snow.

What are some of your favorite middle grade books?

Book covers from Goodreads and Pinterest. Ice cream from smartcanucks.ca.

Advertisements

34 thoughts on “Much Ado About Middle Grade Books

  1. The age/grade categories always confuse me because they seem to be so fluid at times. Also I hear people changing what the standards are all of the time. Way back, I said Legends of Windemere was Young Adult. I stopped when I realized how heavy some of the later subject matter was. Yet, I still have people calling it because of the tone or something. This causes others to say the ‘sex’ (there’s no actual sex in the book) makes it a terrible Young Adult book. So I’ve got no idea how these things work since it seems the sex/violence parts of a story leave everything open for interpretation. Sometimes I wonder if people who claim to write for a certain age group and go with a lot of adult stuff are doing it for the controversy. The whole ‘any attention is good attention’ mentality.

    A beloved Middle Grade Book? Percy Jackson was fun, but I’m going to add Spiderwick Chronicles to the list.

    • Good choices. 🙂

      I know what you mean. They are confusing. And as I mentioned in another comment, some YA books have sex. Rather than an actual scene, sex is understood to have taken place. And I’ve read some really, really violent YA books. So yeah, things are changing. As for your series, it seems to be YA/Crossover since teens and adults would read it.

    • Good choices. 🙂

      I know what you mean. They are confusing. And as I mentioned in another comment, some YA books have sex. Rather than an actual scene, sex is understood to have taken place. And I’ve read some really, really violent YA books. So yeah, things are changing. As for your series, it seems to be YA/Crossover since teens and adults would read it.

      • I’ve done the ‘taken place’ and ‘talked about openly’ thing in my books. Making out is the limit because everything else feels too gratuitous. Yet some readers seem to have inserted the off camera stuff into their experience.

  2. I agree with Charles here. It’s confusing. And remember we are talking about publishers here. The glorious gatekeepers. My most recent manuscript is aimed at middle-grade – what I call in the UK, sproglets. They’re tadpoles with only two legs. I recently went into school and read the first three chapters to the top end of the middle grade (11-12yr olds). They were also the bottom end of the educational barrel – kids like me, from a poor neighbourhood. I felt, after the reading, that some of my sentences were too long. The ones that amused me, mainly! So, I’ve started to cut back! But these sproglets sat for 45 minutes, laughed in the right places and drew me some wonderful pictures afterwards. Now, I know, if I send this manuscript in as it is, it’ll probably be rejected on the grounds that it perches between middle-grade/young adult.
    So, after one more revision, I’m thinking of going from school to school, building an audience and adding collected school data to the submission! Seems like a long way round, but sometimes you have to do these things to convince people. Any thoughts?

    • You have a good plan, John. And I understand your frustration. I had an entire series put out of print though many kids asked me about it. The bottom line was how fast can we sell this book without paying for marketing? I came out the loser on that one. So any data you can provide a publisher about your market is helpful.

      I grew up in a rough, lower class neighborhood. I quickly realized that the language I heard on a daily basis would be considered unacceptable in a middle grade book. I wrote a hybrid novel with characters too old for middle grade and language too clean for YA. I’m still trying to decide what to do with it.

      • It’s a conundrum. As writer’s we reflect life as we see and experience, no matter how dressed up the end product may be. The publishers have a very narrow view of their audiences, (and therefore of their capacity?). What I quickly realised about the film business is that that they always say they want an ‘original voice’, but what that means in reality is ‘someone marketable who writes like the last person that made us money’. I think that’s why we have to be one hundred percent behind our own ‘product’ and set out with the attitude that we are going to find an audience for this, no matter what. Self publishing is a whole different conversation, but as long as you’re prepared to be the sales and marketing team, the agent, the distributor AND the writer, it’s just as much of a slog as the more established routes.
        As a published author and scriptwriter/comic book writer, I’ve been there and done that. The only thing I’ve self-published is my novel Thugs Like Us, which was highly experimental and a complete left turn form me. It has sold in the low hundreds, but I am adapting it into a film script as the book has attracted the interest of a producer. So it’s too early to say whether it was worth it or not. But it has been an interesting experiment. At least by self-publishing I wrote it the way I wanted to – as a fifteen year old boy,with limited means of expression. (the way I felt at fifteen!) In the follow up, I want to give the main character a wider vocabulary and more eloquence to explain what he sees as ‘the bigger forces’ at work in his life. It’s a gamble to write this way. But at least it’s a very honest piece of work. That always helps me sleep better at night.
        And finally, you know that as soon as you master the format that is selling well and submit your manuscript, they’ll have moved on to the next ‘original voice’ that has made them millions and your work will be ‘so last publishing phenomena’.
        What option have left? Be stubbornly independent and fiercely respectful of our own hard work!!!

      • I get frustrated with the cry of “be original,” especially when I see the same type of book trotted out. 😦 It’s like you said about wanting a high-concept but marketable product.

  3. I can’t remember the last middle-grade book I read. I don’t read much young adult either, and I often wonder what gives a book these types of designations. For example, my 15-year-old son bought a book yesterday (with his own money) and was excited to read it. He assured me it was young adult. I looked it over anyway and was surprised by the language and sexual content. Guess I thought YA wouldn’t have so much. I ended up letting him read it because he was so excited to and I love seeing his joy of reading, but I’m still wondering about its appropriateness.

    • Some YA books have sex, though not explicit scenes. They also have language. For middle grade books, adults are still pretty much the gatekeepers who pass on books to kids. Teens might hear about books from their peers or advertisements. But I know plenty of parents who still want to know what their teens are reading. I think that’s great!

      Books have evolved so much over the years. There was no YA designation many years ago. Now YA is huge.

    • Good point, Nancy. I wonder though if some authors really want to write for the age level they think their story is for. This might account for a reluctance to read books for that audience. A character of a certain age does not trap an author to a certain age level. Alan Bradley, Leif Enger, and Harper Lee proved that a child protagonist can be welcome in an adult book.

  4. Great post! I’ve been working at a literary agency this summer and reading so so much middle grade (both in published form and from people querying). Some favorites have been Zoo at the Edge of the World, by Eric Khan Gale and Firstborn by Tor Seidler.

  5. When I’m writing, I often pause and ask myself, “Is this appropriate to my audience?” While I’m not writing middle grade, I’m trying to write books that adults feel comfortable reading with their children, so certain plots and side stories have been adapted to what I think parents would feel comfortable with. I think it’s a careful check to really think what your audience is looking for.

    • I don’t think it is. It has an audience that spans from children to adults. But the first was acquired as a middle grade book and was shelved in that section.
      Would love to have ice cream with you!

  6. Great advice, Linda. To paraphrase Stephen King, “if you don’t take the time to read, you don’t have the tools to write.” Interestingly enough, I popped some of my WitD story into that Hemingway tool and it’s coming out at a 3rd grade level. May be that I need to read some middle grade books to get a feel for it if that’s a viable option for publishing.

  7. Loved this.
    I love children’s literature, any age designation, and I’m usually pretty careful with what I might read to my grandchildren (or read to my own children) and my favorite college/teacher education classes were children’s literature (aka kiddie lit 🙂 )

    My favorites include many of the ones you include, especially Charlotte’s Web. I read The Wind in the Willows, over and over again, and the Little House books are well worn. I think those are a bit like the Harry Potter series. Little House in the Big Woods is on the younger end of middle grade books. As Laura ages, I think the books grow a little more difficult in skill.

    To me, it is really the young adult books that cause the most confusion and I’ve seen them including up to 18 years of age. Huge difference in subject matter. The Hunger Games series comes to mind an Code Name Verity. We read The Hunger Games for our book discussion book. Most of the group disliked the book, but, the main reason was their discomfort that it was a young adult book.

    • Yay! I also thought about The Little House books, Penny. I meant to add them as classic family books (and the Anne of Green Gables/Avonlea books). I should have put The Wind in the Willows on the list, because I just reread it last month. It’s one of my favorites.

      I agree that YA books cause confusion sometimes. The rules for them keep changing. There is such a wide range of approaches to subjects. Today’s books are very different from the Tobey Heydon books by Rosamond du Jardin. Remember those?

      • The Tobey Heydon books came after “my time”, but, I think my older daughter read them. I’ll try to remember to ask her. What I do remember her reading, over and over again, was The Hunky Dorey Dairy. We both want to go to Prince Edward Island to see all that is Anne! Maybe next summer. 🙂

      • When I first read the Anne series, I totally wanted to go to Prince Edward Island. I wonder if tourism increased because of it.

  8. Ack! Your post didn’t show up in my reader yesterday, L. Marie. I found this on Twitter.
    F-bombs and sex in middle grade books? That’s sad to hear. I’m all for reading heavily in the genre in which we write. Have a great weekend! 🙂

    • Has that happened before, Jill? I think you mentioned you weren’t getting some other posts. That’s really annoying!!!
      Hope you have a good one. I made a Minion hat for a little girl’s Minion-themed birthday party this weekend. 🙂

  9. I’m not that familiar with MG and YA fiction but agree that writers of that genre should read other MC and YA books. And I know enough that swearing and sex don’t belong in those books. I’ve read the Harry Potter series and thought that some of them were a little dark for young readers but, again, what do I know? Thanks for the informative post L. Marie.

    • You’re welcome! The HP book grew darker as the series went along. The core audience grew so exponentially.
      People try to push the envelope with books nowadays. But parents, teachers, and librarians are still gatekeepers.

  10. Pingback: About a Boy: Crossing the Gender and Morality Line | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

Your Turn to Talk

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s