Friday, February 11, 2011

Love Is in the Air—Or Is It? Should There Be Romance in Middle Grade?

As Valentine’s Day approaches, our minds turn to romance, and mine is no exception. Okay, most people aren’t contemplating the role of romance in middle grade, but we all know middle-grade writers are just a little odd :) Recently I was remembering the Children’s Lit class I took my last semester in college. The professor, while very fond of Charlotte’s Web, hated how romantically-minded little Fern became by the book’s end. In the last chapters, it’s clear that Fern has lost interest in Wilbur, her once-beloved pet pig. When Wilbur wins first prize at the County Fair, her mind is instead on the new objection of her affection, one hunky Henry Fussy. She even runs off to ride the Ferris wheel with Henry instead of staying to see Wilbur presented with his special award, completely missing Wilbur’s long-awaited “Hour of Triumph.” Weeks after the fair, riding the Ferris wheel with Henry is still on Fern’s mind: “The most fun there is,” she tells brother Avery, “is when the Ferris wheel stops and Henry and I are in the top car and Henry makes the car swing and we can see everything for miles and miles and miles . . . . I think about it all the time.” Lovesick much, little Fern? Many of you may remember, little Fern is all of eight years old.

My prof, who had daughters near that age, found it completely unrealistic that an eight-year-old girl would choose a boy over the pet pig she had saved from death and lovingly raised. His girls still thought boys had cooties—they’d be more interested in an adorable animal any day. He further commented that he would never let his eight-year-old daughter ride a Ferris wheel with a boy and would wallop any Henry Fussy who came near her.

All of which brings up a good point—what role should romance play in middle grade? Are middle graders simply too young to have (or to should have) any real interest in matters of the heart?

I personally think romance has a lot to offer any story, even a middle-grade one: tension, conflict, emotional investment, the possibility of an emotionally satisfying ending for your reader (or a really bittersweet one). Come on, you know part of the reason you eagerly devoured every new Harry Potter book was to see if Ron and Hermione finally got their stuff together and confessed their feelings for one another. And even as an eight-year-old, I got an immense amount of satisfaction when Laura Ingalls won the heart of Almanzo Wilder over that awful Nellie Oleson.

However, I don’t think romance should be the main focus of a middle-grade novel. Or, if a love story is at the core, then there needs to be plenty of other enticements (humor, adventure, colorful secondary characters, a fantastic setting, etc.) to hold a young audience’s interest. (Many animated movies based on classic love stories/fairy tales go this route.)

Many middle graders simply don’t have an interest in romance yet—and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Middle graders will have their teen years to go hormonal, and the rest of their lives to ponder and experience the trials and tribulations and mysteries and wonders of love. I like to think of middle grade as a time when kids should just enjoy being kids.

And I certainly think any romance in middle-grade novels should be suitable to the age of the characters. I always wondered at books that portrayed the very young falling head over heels.

Charlotte's Web may have put Noodle to sleep, but I'm a fan!

I do love Charlotte’s Web, but I must confess—I, too, was a little heartbroken when Fern abandoned Wilbur for Henry Fussy. Wilbur was “Some Pig”—surely he deserved a little better.

-Dawn Lairamore


  1. I'm with you in that romance offers something to any story. I'd keep in more innocent rather than sexual...think The Wonder Years. Eight years old is a little young, though....ten, eleven, or twelve, however, is prime romance age...just keep it light and funny.

  2. I agree, gtrine--romance provides a great opportunity for humor in middle grade! The awkwardness, the uncertainty of how to act, etc. Good stuff!

  3. It may be a little over-the-top for someone that is eight to be so taken with a boy. I don't know though because I'm not a parent. My friend Meg has a 10-year-old girl that still hasn't expressed interest in boys yet but that may be changing soon...dunno. As far as the character in Charlotte's Web goes, it may have been done that way to increase the drama between the pig and the spider. I know when Charlotte died at the end, I was extremely moved by that. It's one of the moments in fiction that I've never forgotten.

  4. Hi Michael! I definitely think E.B. White was making the ending more emotional. (It worked, too!) Not only does Wilbur lose Charlotte, but he, in essence, loses Fern, as well, now that she's become too "grown up" for him.

  5. This is a really interesting topic. I think as long as romance in middle-grade stays "middle-grade" it's great. Not every MG book calls for romance, but most of the MG novels I've read that have it, have kept it sweet and innocent. I think kids are pushed so hard to grow up fast these days. As a mom and writer, I don't want to push them in my books.

    Awesome post, Dawn!!

  6. As a mother of a 7 year old girl, (who has expressed an interest in boys since she was in preschool!) I must say that middle grade books that talk about romance in a realist way are absolutely necessary. Too many sitcoms geared toward kids are so unrealistic in portraying relationships and problems solving, it's rather unnerving. But then, I would say that a book that portrays Any of life's great experiences in a "true" way is valuable, not just romance.

  7. I agree with gtrine. A little light, age appropriate romance can further tension and the story, but I don't think it should be the plot. Especially if your story is suited to the 10 and younger.

    I had a boyfriend in Kindergarten, nothing too serious, he walked me to school and called me his princess. But even I didn't seek out and read more romantic stories till I was at least 12. Think Sweet Valley High. Man those were terrible.

  8. I agree that the light and sweet or light and funny approaches are best.

    I actually have seen kindergarteners playing that they are going out with boyfriends, I suppose because they see it on TV and in movies (look at all those Disney princess romances), but it gives me a little twinge of sadness that they are growing up so fast. Less innocent than I want them to be!

  9. Lol, bfav, I used to read Sweet Valley High, too.

  10. I think that there might be room for the innocent awkwardness or the first crush type thing in upper middle grade. But I wonder how much we retrofit ideas of romance back on our childhood experiences? I think my elementary school was pretty romance-free. I remember in sixth grade, my friend started "going out" with a boy, and it consisted of passing notes in class. Beyond that, I think the beginnings of crushes or whatever are kind of a blip on the radar, with everything else that interests them taking center stage. Now, middle school? That's a whole 'nother story. Ha!

    As a mom, I would much rather have my boys read about healthy and challenging platonic relationships between the genders. I think that's sometimes harder for kids to negotiate.

  11. Eight is the boys-are-icky stage for a lot of kids, but shortly after, I think romance is on many kids' minds, even if all it amounts to is someone "liking" someone else. The MG trope of platonic cross-gender friendships can be unrealistic -- kids do tend to gender-segregate, and when they mix, someone is going to be crushing on someone else, unrequited or not. It's a hormonal, confusing time when peer relationships are changing, and romantic feelings are part of it.

  12. I know I'm WAY late to this post, but I've just discovered this blog. (Cool!) Three things: Are kids just different in Texas? My son is 8, and he seems to be the only boy in his class not interested in girls (as marriage material). Second, I'm a traditionally published author who just finished a YA book...but my writer-friend thinks it's really a MG book in disguise. It's about family issues, but there is a romance (nothing beyond a kiss). Where can I go to get some professional advice about this kind of genre quandary, and if I should tweak the age of my main character to fit the MG genre. Third, I agree with the author about Fern. But in 6th grade, I also fell in love with Summer of My German Soldier, a middle grade romance! Glad I found you!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!