I've been thinking about middle school students and why they like to read what they do. Since I write middle grade fantasy, I've been thinking about that genre specifically, but I think this applies to nearly any MG genre. I should make it clear that I don't claim that these thoughts are unique. Still, they've been in my mind a great deal lately as I watch my students struggle through the vicissitudes of day-to-day adolescent life.
After teaching for over twenty years, I have noticed some patterns that I think are useful when writing for middle grade readers.
I can't count the number of times I've heard a student say, "Mr. So-and-So hates me." If you trace that back, and talk to Mr. So-and-So, his version is usually something like, "Today Taylor was talking in class and I gave her a demerit." But to Taylor, Mr. So-and-So is a monster with tremendous destructive power, lurking in the darkness, ready to jump out and torment her at any moment.
It's no secret that adolescents experience the world in heightened emotional terms. Instead of having good friends, they have Best Friends for Life. Instead of having people they don't like, they have mortal enemies (and, I would note the people in these roles can switch over night). Teachers don't simply discipline them--teachers cherish unyielding, and irrational grudges and hate them.
From an adolescent's perspective, every day can be a battle, fraught with terrible pitfalls and dangers. For the most part, these are social, not physical dangers, but to a young teen, social problems can seem equal to, or even worse, than physical danger.
It's easy for adults to minimize, even idealize, the trials that adolescents face. But in the moment, these challenges appear very daunting.
I think this is part of the appeal of middle grade books. Whatever the genre, they show adolescents facing and surmounting tremendous challenges, winning battles, and vanquishing foes. Those fictional foes might represent real-life bullies, or strict teachers or any number of other people. Fictional battles and difficulties might represent the sometimes-overwhelming nature of adolescence.
In addition to all the other benefits that come with reading, I think that this is one of the great values of middle grade literature.