Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What is off limits in your MG?

Depending on your viewpoint, I think this can be a very loaded question.

Take, for instance, parents. As one myself, I've become a lot more picky about what I consider 'proper' middle grade. Very little romance. Painful stories ok, but preferably with an uplifting ending, or something that redeems the story. Funny is great, but not at the expense of others tooo much...I want books that could help her question things that others consider pro quo.

Does this directly go against what I write as a MG author? What I'd like to read as an actual middle grader?

You betcha.

I see tons of middle graders in my everyday travels. Holy guacamole let's talk about the BOY craziness. Girls. Obsessions with pop culture, and outfits. Girly stuff. And Twilight? I know 9 year olds who've read it.

But recently I read a mg I never would have picked myself and I loved it. LOVED it. And it made me question why I set those reading rules on myself. My honest short answer is that I fell into my comfort zone and just got stuck. I totally shortchanged myself.

It just goes to show that the Project Mayhem rule definitely applies: "No reading rules are the best reading rules!"

What I'd love to know is ::: what is off limits for you in your MG? Have you read a book lately that pushed your limits, made you question why you have limits in your middle grade at all?


  1. Most MG content is okay by me. I find that, if anything, MG tends to stay on the safe side. I'm finding it harder and harder to find books for the tweens. I teach 6th grade, so my students are at the top of MG and below YA. It's a tough age group to find books for. Most of them have outgrown a lot of MG books, but they're too young to handle YA content, especially the sex and language. I wish YA would soften its content a little. There would be more books to trickle down to mature MG readers. Then you get a book like Moon Over Manifest, which wins the Newbery, but it's too slow (1936 Kansas) to attract these upper MG readers. They look at the cover and scoff. Frustrating as a teacher.

    From a writer's POV, I write older MG characters (6th-7th grade) while hoping to hit that older MG audience with heart and humor, but at the same time making it content appropriate for the mainstream MG audience. Hope that makes sense.

  2. You know, Tracy, this is a very relevant question. What about those upper MGers that can't/won't/maybe ought not to read the YA hard hitters? I haven't found much YA (outside of fantasy, and some kids just don't like it) that isn't dealing with weighty issues.

    What do you recommend to those kids in that age group to read? Any winners in your library?

    And it totally made sense. :-D

  3. As I write my first MG I find myself asking this a lot. Not that I plan to include risque stuff, but content in general and vocabulary, I tend to question.
    Aside from that, absolutely no profanity or sex. I just don't think it's relevant for any MG story and the story should rely on its awesome plot and characters.

  4. I agree, Pk. I do think that the vocab can be as elegant and advanced as you want it to be...I know 8 yr olds that just look it up if they don't know while reading.

    Excellent points!

  5. This is a great post and something I wonder about as both a MG writer and a parent. As a parent, I would love it if there was no romance going on. But is there romance in the mg novel I wrote?

    You betcha :0)

    And you know what? When I was a mg reader I wanted a little girly/romance stuff in my books, even if in reality I wasn't ready for it. I think about Candace Ransom's Kobie Roberts series, which content-wise I think is more mg, even if the characters were in 8th-10th grade. They made me feel like there were others out there that found adolescence just as scary/confusing as I did.

    Just out of curiosity, what book did you read that you were surprised you liked so much?

  6. Profanity is off limits in my MG writing for a couple of reasons. One, for the kind of characters I write, they wouldn't use much, if any. If you listen to 9-12 year olds talk, there is still the heavy weight of teacher/parent opinion hanging over their heads even when adults aren't around.

    The other reason is something I joke about. I don't use profanity myself because I tell people I have the spirits of my grandmothers sitting on my shoulders all the time, one Quaker and one Southern. I don't know if I could actually manage to swear in public even today.

    The only other limits I put on it is what is true to my characters and real kids that age.

  7. I concur with all of you. An agent even told me crude potty talk is off limits for MG.

  8. I agree with everyone, especially on the swearing. But I write upper middle grade fantasy. I like it because the action can be fairly like YA but there isn't much swearing and the romance is toned down.

  9. Jenny, I'll email you. :-D

    Dee, I have to laugh. With two grandmothers riding you like that, no wonder you don't like profanity in your MG! (TBH, I don't like it either. It always used to give me the willies when I said a bad word. Not anymore, tho, *hee*)

    bfav - that is cool to know, but I'm not very surprised.

    Natalie, when you write upper MG, do you find romance plays a heavier role?

  10. Great post, Jen. I've been struggling with this. Is "hell" coming out of an adult's mouth inappropriate? Should there be any romance (I've got a hint of it, but that's all).

    I want to know what book you read that prompted this post!

  11. Jen- I saw you were going to email me. I'm having several tech issues this week, including that my email address on my web site isn't receiving mail (they're floating out in cyberspace somewhere) so try

    Sorry about that!

  12. I like my MG fairly clean. Kids get exposed to profanity, hormones, violence, etc. from so many sources. I like to think there are still family-friendly forms of entertainment out there.

    Alison, I recently wrote a scene in a MG story where a horrible bad-tempered adult used the word "hell." As the rest of the story was squeaky clean, I thought this really made an impact and showed the reader just how awful this character was. The next day, I edited it out. I just couldn't do it, lol. I know it's a relatively mild word by today's standards, but what can I say--I guess I'm not comfortable using even mild curse words in MG. I kept thinking back to the classic MG books I loved as a child--the Little House on the Prairie books, The Secret Garden, etc. As far as I'm concerned, such books prove you can have a captivating story without ever pushing pass a G or PG-rating. Now I suppose a mild curse wouldn't seem too horribly out of place in an older, grittier MG, but, personally, I just didn't want to go there.

  13. Hmmm. Good question! I really had to think about this from both sides of reader/writer.
    No graphic violence. Although there is slight leeway with fantasy and historical fiction, where death is sometimes appropriate to the story, and nasty villains are part of the fun.

    Sex, absolutely no, but love, sure.

  14. I tend to like the no-rules approach simply because rules seem to encourage people to bend them. For example, I prefer no profanity at all, but it is probably worse to have a rough pirate shout "Heck!" than something else.

    Romance is a little different. There is no place for sex, in my opinion, but look at Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. He shows off for her and clearly likes her, but in an age appropriate way.

    The hardest thing for me to quantify is the level of "disturbing" which is acceptable. Some authors do an excellent job, such as Gennifer Choldenko in "No Passengers Beyond This Point" or Lois Lowry with "The Giver", but some drift much too far into territory that most kids don't need or can't handle. Especially tempting and especially risky is the area of parents with serious problems (divorce/drinking/abuse/neglect), which can be very scary for some kids even if it is OK for others.

    In my own writing, I tend to play it a bit too safe, and I am trying to learn how to provide appropriate levels of disturbing.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!