I thought I’d continue Dawn’s discussion of what makes middle grade by focusing on writing middle grade dialogue. I have some writer friends who are querying stories and have been told the voice in their stories is YA instead of middle grade and vice versa. That got me thinking about what exactly that means in terms of dialogue.
The most glaring way to make something not middle grade is to have too many snarky characters. Certain television shows may make it seem like 11-year-olds are the most incredibly sophisticated, world-weary, witty mini-adults, but middle grade writers who have actually been around children know 11-year-olds don’t have the speech patterns of Jon Stewart wannabes.
As brave teachers know, in a group of thirty middle-graders, there will probably be one or two precocious ones who can outsnark most adults, but the rest of them talk like kids. That means there will be lots of teasing, random thoughts popping up that have nothing to do with the current conversation, some one-upmanship, and general silliness. There is absolutely not going to be deep discussions about feelings, nor much talk about life beyond the next few weeks, except when it involves birthday party or Halloween costume planning, all of which are discussed months in advance.
There is also an amazing difference in the way most kids talk among themselves and how they talk (or don’t) when a non-family adult or close friend of the family is present. By middle-grade age, most kids don’t let their whole personalities show around unfamiliar adults. They become much more quiet, except for the few very confident ones.
I get tired of the articles I read that claim you can hook middle grade boys with stories containing jokes about body functions. By the time boys are middle-grade age, those jokes are no longer so funny to most of them and they don't tell so many of them. A first grader will laugh, but most fifth grader have moved way beyond that. When they are together, they are much more interested in talking about their current obsessions, whether it be games, sports, books, movies, tv shows, or anything that fascinates them. And a fascination for one kid will lead him to talk about it whether or not anyone else is interested. There are books that describe toddlers doing ‘parallel play’, where they are playing next to each other, but not interacting. I think middle-graders have a lot of parallel conversations. It can be very funny to listen to three kids discussing three different subjects all at the same time. Sometimes one will listen to another, but often they just keep talking.
I have loved my years of being a mom chauffeur and eavesdropping in on middle-grader conversation. Kids at that age are so funny, it is one of the reasons I chose to write for this age group. I'd love to hear more tips and thoughts from any of you as writers, parents, teachers or librarians ~Dee