What Every Middle Grade Writer
Should Know About Middle Graders
by Lee Wardlaw
“I’ve got a great idea for a middle grade book. So why can’t I just sit down and write it? Why do I hafta read this post first? It’s. Not. Fair!”
You sound exactly like a fourth-through-sixth grader. But do you know why?
If YES, then you’re excused. Scram. Get outta here and write that book.
If NO, you’d better stick around; because to write successfully for this age group, you’ve gotta know this age group, inside and out.
From that first breath at birth to quasi-maturity at age 24 (okay, for some folks, 42), children go through four main stages of physical, emotional and intellectual development. Knowing what these changes are, and when and how they appear, can help you choose age-appropriate plots/themes, construct believable characters, and hook kid-readers from the first sentence – and beyond.
Middle graders are tricky to write for, though, because they straddle two of the four stages: Childhood (ages 6-12) and Adolescence (12-15). So today, Part 1 of this blog will focus on younger MGs; Part 2, to be posted in February, will feature older MG's.
YOUNG MIDDLE GRADE (ages 9-12; 4th-6th grade)
Favorite Question: "Why?”
During infancy (ages 0-6), children learn innumerable whats about the world: skies are blue…grass is green…ice cubes, cold…and when you pinch a toasted marshmallow off the end of a stick, it’s – ow! – finger-lickin’ H.O.T. But for young middle graders, what is no longer enough. This age group demands to know why the sky is blue, why water freezes at 32°F., and why is it always my marshmallow that oozes into the campfire, charring into a lump of Christmas coal?
That’s because these children have transformed from concrete learners – who absorb and accept everything around them at face value – to reasoning explorers – who learn about the world from a logical, scientific point of view. (More about that, below.)
Favorite Quotation: "It’s not fair!”
Hey, just because they know the ‘why’, doesn’t mean they have to like it! Young middle graders have a strong sense of moral justice, hence their indignation when bedtime for them is 9:00 p.m. and older siblings get to stay up till 10:00.
Physical Characteristics: Hair thickens. Legs lengthen. The remaining baby teeth leap to their deaths, revealing, in some cases, crooked chompers that require braces. Once small compact bodies grow leaner, stronger, longer. (And they start to, uh, smell, too!) These children need to run, dance, swing, climb; they move with the urgency and speed of a flea. Oh, and sports rule!
Middle graders are abstract thinkers. They’ve already grasped what is and are ready to explore what could be. They can imagine a past and a future – and beyond. So the time is ripe for historical, sci-fi and fantasy fiction. Non-fiction, too. Their thirst for knowledge is unquenchable; their capacity for learning at its peak. (Hence, their passion for trivia.) The world has expanded from the safe-and-known of home and classroom to the vastness of the universe – and the interconnections between it all. Oh, and this is the Reading Age. Never again will they have the time nor the inclination (with some exceptions, of course) to read as much as Right Now, Right Here. They are loyal to favorite authors, too, and devour series like movie popcorn.
This phase could be nicknamed the Age of Rudeness. Young middle graders can be unthinkingly ungracious. Messy, too. Intellectual learning is their top priority, not please and thank-you, or clean clothes and combed hair. As for baths? Ha! Who has time for trivialities when you’re contemplating Good vs. Evil? Besides, there are friends to make! Clubs to join! Rules to enforce!
Young middle graders seek collective activities (sports, movies) with same-sex friends (4th grade girls still have cooties, don’t ya know). And they create small societies (like No Girls Allowed clubs or gossip fests) with specific limitations and consequences. (There’s that moral justice again!) As age 12 draws closer, girls may swoon in the emotional swirl of a first crush (despite towering over most boys their age). All of this translates to a need for greater independence from family and school.
So when turning that great idea into a book, remember to keep parents and teachers in the background – and allow your young middle grade characters the space and time to think about and solve their own problems.
Next time: Older Middle Grade (ages 12-15/grades 6th-9th)
Lee Wardlaw is the author of close to 30 award-winning books for children, tweens and teens, including 101 Ways to Bug Your Parents (younger middle grade), an IRA/CBC Children's Choice Book, and 101 Ways to Bug Your Friends and Enemies (older middle grade), which recently won the Forward National Literature Award for Humor. She has a B.A. in Education and will earn her M.Ed. in Child Development from Loyola University, Maryland, next year.