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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

A Place for Everything

A place for everything, everything in its place.
Benjamin Franklin

My bosses at various jobs over the years have made subtle hints about my messy office desks. (For example, “How can you find anything on this desk?”)

Messy desk

This is not my desk.

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This is my desk. Some writers, like Jill Weatherholt, Sharon Van Zandt, and Kate Sparkes have lovely work spaces. Welcome to your worst nightmare, kids.

Yet whenever I worked in-house, every time a boss requested a file or a book, he or she was always surprised when I plucked it instantly from beneath a pile of papers or other books, rather than having to search for it at least an hour. I’m messy, but I have my own weird storage/filing system. If you like, I’ll give you a window into that system via a little quiz. Answers are at the end if you want to skip the quiz and go eat gelato or something. (I would.)

1. You’re in my apartment and want a cup of coffee with sugar. Where would you look for the sugar?
A. In a canister on the counter
B. In the refrigerator
C. That was a trick question. I ran out of sugar.

2. You want to watch the blu-ray of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, because there’s a song in it you’re dying to hear again. Where would you expect to find it?
A. In the DVD/blu-ray case in the living room
B. In the refrigerator
C. In a Christmas box on the floor

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3. For some reason, you need a clean, but mate-less gray sock. Where would you look for it?
A. On top of the dresser
B. In the refrigerator
C. In the garbage where it belongs

4. A freezing wind kicks up (you’re in the Midwest after all) and you want a scarf (or muffler, if you prefer) to wear. Where you would you look for one?
A. In this basket in the living room closet, bearing this label

006B. In the refrigerator
C. On top of some DVDs

There. Welcome to my world. I’m one of those people for whom the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” was coined. For some items, if I can’t see it, I forget I have it (hence the piles of books in my living room at eye level). For others—reference books for example—if I’m working on a project, I need to have them in a pile nearby for immediate access, instead of having to hunt them up in a bookcase.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m glad I don’t live with her. You wouldn’t be the first person to think that. Some people are good at keeping their environments neat and clutter free. I worked with people with pristine desks—desks so clean you could eat off them. But looking at their lovely, clean desks made my head hurt. No books, no strewn papers—not even a single hand puppet for that lived-in look!

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A hand puppet on my computer desk

Or one of these babies:

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The robot doin’ the robot. Work it. Work it.

Who could resist a robot??? But having a clean desk, my coworkers told me, gave them a sense of accomplishment, like marking something off on a checklist. I can respect that. And I tried to live like that, especially when guests were due for a big meeting and all of the cubicles needed to look ship-shape and uniform. But usually that resolve lasted for only a day or so, and then I was back to the strewn papers and hand puppets.

I used to drive my mother absolutely crazy when I was a kid. She’s very neat and organized and greatly despaired at the thought of having to use a machete just to enter my room. My locker in high school was pretty much the same as my room at home. And don’t get me started on my undergraduate dorm rooms. This aspect didn’t change in grad school either. Yet I could always find whatever I needed.

Right now, I need to find a library book that will be overdue unless I turn it in soon. I think I remember where I left it: somewhere near the refrigerator . . . or in it.

Clean or messy—which are you? How does this work for you?

In case you’re wondering about the answers to the quiz, they’re here: 1. B; 2. C; 3. A; 4. C.

If you comment below, I’ll tell you the why behind some of the answers.

Messy desk (first photo) from theguardian.com.

You Know, You Almost Had Me

Indonesia2002Wildlife-LI’m talking to you, Doubt. There you were, lurking about like a bloated but still hungry spider every time I heard, “No” or “I don’t take high fantasy novels.” I fell into your web for a while. But now I want out.

Hold on a minute, Doubt. Someone somewhere is probably asking this question: “What’s high fantasy?” Let’s ask our dear friend, Wikipedia, shall we?

High fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy fiction, defined either by its setting in an imaginary world or by the epic stature of its characters, themes and plot.

Gandalf2Thank you, Wikipedia. Some high fantasy books/series you may have heard of include

• The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien
• Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
• The Riftwar Cycle by Raymond Feist
• A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
• Earthsea (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, etc.) by Ursula LeGuin
The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
• The Abhorsen series (including Sabriel) by Garth Nix

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Go here for others. Writing a good high fantasy novel, let alone a series, takes a ton of effort that includes research. Yes, these worlds are made up, but the laws of physics, biology, and chemistry still apply. You have to research such things as the anatomy and physiology of animals and which types of plants and trees mix well together, even if you’re making up your own animals and plants. But the people who write these books put in the effort, because they love what they do. I don’t have to tell you this. If you love their books, you love them because their authors loved them first.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it, Doubt? I stopped loving my books and valuing the high fantasy genre because of the few who didn’t value them or the genre or because they valued something I’m not currently writing. Shame on me.

And shame on me for thinking that I should switch to another genre in the belief that a story in that genre will sell or at least get noticed. Okay, Doubt. I’ll give you that round. I’m human. I fear writing a book absolutely no one would want to read.

But you know what, Doubt? Remember the times when I’ve written books that paid $500 on a work-for-hire basis? Though the publishers profited greatly and I didn’t get a cent in royalties, I enjoyed the writing ride.

And that’s what I’d lost sight of, Doubt—the fact that I enjoy the ride, regardless of who else does or whether or not I profit by it. I profit by the fact that I get to visit characters I love. And I love even the characters who do ghastly things. They remind me that I’m not perfect—that I sometimes do ghastly things. And one of the ghastliest things I’ve done recently was to stop writing.

Jordie the Jester (my blog mascot, given to me by Lyn Miller-Lachmann) is handing me a tiny notebook (it’s actually a playing card, but I’d like to think of it as a notebook), which I guess is his way of saying, “Get back to work.” Thanks, Jordie. You always know just what to do.

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Thanks especially to my good friends Sharon Van Zandt and Laura Sibson for coaxing me out of my hiding place and telling me to get back in the saddle and continue writing my series. You are the best! Maybe someday, my readers will thank you too. 🙂

As I end this post, I’m reminded of words spoken by Charles Xavier to Charles Xavier in X-Men: Days of Future Past (you have to see the movie to know why and how): “Please Charles . . . we need you to hope again.” Truer words were never spoken.

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Other good posts on the courage to write or writing past doubt:
http://ellaroutloud.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/tattoos-confessions-guilt-continuing/
http://www.lisaakramer.com/2014/11/09/writing-through-the-frustrations/
http://writeatyourownrisk.wordpress.com/2014/11/09/writing-encouragement-and-poetry/

Spider from divydovy.com. Gandalf from lotr.wikia.com. Book covers from Goodreads.