I admit I’m not a big TV viewer, but watching Stranger Things on Netflix lit up the middle grade parts of my brain like a string of Christmas lights.
The eight-episode show, set in the 1980s in a small Indiana town, is a mystery/horror/drama that pays tribute to such movie classics as Stand By Me and E.T.
Kids are the stars of this show, and middle grade writers can draw much inspiration from it. Here are four ways that the creators of Stranger Things totally nail middle grade:
The kid characters are active. They are DOING things all the time: playing Dungeons and Dragons, hopping on their bikes and tearing off into rough terrain, arguing, taking matters into their own hands. These kids have agency. If your characters suffer from talking head syndrome, or a bad case of letting the world happen to them, watch how these four tweens make things happen. Even in the face of fear, in the face of uncertainty, they have the wonderful early-adolescent belief in their own invincibility, that they will survive, that good will triumph over bad.
At the same time, the characters show moments of vulnerability that draw us closer to them. They deal with adults who underestimate or doubt them. They face up to bullies and quake. Two are growing up in the shadow of stronger older siblings, a near-universal experience. They argue amongst themselves and battle doubts about their friendship. The “stranger in a strange land” character, El, has the haunted vulnerability of a refugee, someone who has experienced trauma and yet still holds out hope for something better. Her facial expressions are worth paragraphs. None of the kids collapse into hopelessness or ennui in the face of their vulnerabilities—they keep going, keep trying, keep taking risks. As a middle grade writer, I took note of this, over and over.
Seeing the adult as “other”
Stranger Things flirts with the “all adults are clueless” trope. Some of the adults are comically unaware of the shenanigans going on under their roof—like hiding a runaway child for days on end in the basement rec room. There are the classic scenes of teens sneaking in and out of the house, the scenes in which tweens are lost in games or bike-riding adventures for hours on end, away from the gaze of adults. At the same time, the adults in the series are not cardboard cut-outs—they care, they cry, they try. But they don’t eclipse the quest of the kids as they try to find their missing friend, protect the strange newcomer, and crack the mystery. As far as these middle-graders are concerned, adults exist in a parallel universe. This allows the kid characters to shine.
It toys with gender roles
El, the otherworldly runaway character, is the classic “stranger in town.” With her shorn hair and angular face, she presents as a “tomboy” type, entering into a well-established friendship group of boys. She possesses vulnerability as well as supernatural powers that vanquish adults and blow the boys away. She is by turns fragile, fierce, and protective. She is a study in contrasts, in girl power, in gender-bending attributes, in character magnetism.
These characters will stay with you long after you’ve clicked off the television. They provide nail-biting entertainment as well as lots of food for thought for the middle grade writer. Take note, be inspired, and enjoy!