Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Makes Middle Grade?

Some time ago, I participated in a writing exercise. Now, I’m not too fond of writing exercises in general—I write much better by instinct, not on command—but this one was actually pretty easy and very interesting to boot. To help me better understand the genre, I was suppose to describe what I thought defined middle grade. Now we all know the technical definition of middle grade—stories for 8- to 12-year-old readers (or 9- to 12-year-old readers, or 9- to 13-year-old readers, depending on who you ask)—but this exercise went a little deeper than that. What qualities and characteristics, we were asked, make up this fun and fantastic genre? This turned out to be a very useful exercise—I still take my list into consideration when I need a reminder about exactly who my audience is and what I think they’re looking for in a middle-grade read. Obviously, this is very subjective, but here’s what I came up with:

1) Age of the protagonist – young readers like characters they can relate to, that they can perhaps see something of themselves in. For this reason, I think it’s most effective for kid lit novels to have a protagonist close in age to the target audience of the book, give or take a few years. Diary of a Wimpy Retired Accountant just wouldn’t have the same appeal as Diary of a Wimpy Kid (not to a middle-grade audience, anyway). Some kid books work with an adult main character (anybody else love Amelia Bedelia as a child?) but I think keeping your protagonist about the age of your target audience is generally a good rule of thumb.

2) External versus internal – my personal opinion is that most middle-grade books, unless you’re going for something very deep or literary, should probably focus more on external action and events than the internal thoughts/conflicts of the characters. Not that thoughts and conflicts are bad—they’re not, and they should be there—but personally I think most middle-grade readers will find the external more interesting and entertaining. (And again, it all depends what you’re going for. A more serious, emotional novel might have more of an internal focus, obviously.)

3) Pace – again, it’s my personal opinion that middle-grade novels should move a little faster than your average adult or YA. Remember, you’re dealing with an audience that may not have the same attention span as older individuals, and you might be dealing with some reluctant readers who aren’t particularly invested in your book, so you might lose them if things move too slowly.

4) Familiar, relatable situations – moving to a new town, wanting to fit in, dealing with pesky siblings. Middle-graders like to see themselves in books they read, to see characters dealing with the same challenges and struggles they often face in their own lives. This is true even for books that don’t have a real-world setting. My novel, Ivy’s Ever After, is about a princess locked in a tower guarded by a dragon; the prince who slays the dragon will win her hand in marriage. She hates the prince, she doesn’t want to be there, and she actually spends most of the novel trying to figure a way out of this terrible situation that her father, his court, and centuries of royal tradition decree must be. Can most middle-graders relate to being locked in a tower guarded by a dragon? Probably not. But can they empathize with the powerlessness of being young, of being at the mercy of the adult authority figures in their lives, even if it means being forced to do something they’d rather not or something that they actually think is unfair? You bet’cha.

5) Appropriate reading level – okay, this one is pretty self-explanatory. You’re writing for middle grade. Leave the SAT vocab words at home.

Any other thoughts? What do you think makes middle grade?

-Dawn Lairamore

12 comments:

  1. I think you nailed it. I would also say to play it safe when it comes to content, no sex, drugs, not a whole lot of violence.

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  2. I like your list and descriptions. My current WIP is right on the line between upper MG and lower YA. Thanks!

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  3. All makes good sense to me!

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  4. Great descriptions. Especially the bit about the pacing. I think a middle grade book needs to move.

    Shelley

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  5. Glad the list makes sense to other middle-grade aficionados. And yes--good point about content. Age appropriate content, very important!

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  6. Thanks for the advice. I'm thinking about delving into MG and I needed some extra clarification. :-D

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  7. Great list! I agree about the pacing, and how that relates to attention span. It's funny to watch some middle graders read, because many of them don't sit still for long periods of time, so while they're reading they are moving around, resituating themselves, turning over and flopping around. They manage to burn calories even while reading.

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  8. I think you're exactly right. I also think any hint of romance smacks of YA and above. Most 8-12 year olds I know still prefer to think the opposite sex has cooties.

    And they do! :-D

    Great post!

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  9. Maybe it says something about my OWN attention span that I like reading MG so much. Long, meditative passages are a snooze for me.

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  10. Great post, Dawn! Maybe it's the schoolteacher inside me, but I do like to toss in a few more advanced vocabulary words - I learned so many words via the context of stories when I was younger.

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  11. I like a few vocab challenges in MG stories as well, Marissa! :)

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  12. Bit belated, but I loved this post. Very insightful, great descriptions! :D

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!