Wednesday, July 11, 2012

An Agent and an Editor Riff on Middle Grade

Michael Bourret
Molly O'Neill

A couple of months ago, Molly O'Neill (editor at Harper Collins) and Michael Bourret (an agent at Dystel Goderich Literary Management) hosted a three-part chat about middle grade on their blogs. I enjoyed their insights, and I thought the readers of Project Mayhem might like a summary of what went down.

On Problems:

Michael Bourret: Too many times, I get a submission and it’s clear that the writer is writing to a specific market or reader. A symptom of this problem that I see very often in middle grade submissions is “writing down” to the reader. This is can take the form of trying-too-hard dialogue (“Zoinks, bud! We need to skedaddle out of here before our ‘rents come biz-ack.”), narrator-as-character (think Lemony Snicket done badly), or message-driven novels (books written only to teach a lesson)... One of the mistakes I see all too often is a mismatch between the age of the protagonist and the intended reader. A 12 year old doesn’t want to read about a protagonist who’s 8 or 80–they want to read about someone in the same general age group.
Molly O'Neill: Speaking of problems you often see, I think one of the most common ones I run across in middle grade is “low stakes.” I think this can happen as a result of writers wanting to make a story feel familiar, but when I was a kid, other people’s lives always felt more interesting than my own, so why would I want to read about everyday, average things like homework and piano lessons and third-period math class all over again? I guess I’m trying to say that there can be a fine line between stories that feel familiar and those that feel, well, dull. This is a big reason I often encourage my authors to push past their initial ideas and explore the unknown creative wilds beyond the very first idea/solution/problem/mystery/story point/etc that they think of – because often the really fresh ideas live deep in writer’s minds, not at the very forefront.

On "Quiet" Stories:
Michael Bourret: One question we got (perhaps from a client of mine) was, is there room for a “quiet” middle grade novel? I’d argue that the best books, even when they’re not deal with the end of the world or magic, aren’t really “quiet.” They may be a smaller story, with very real, relatable stakes. But if the story is constructed well, and the voice is strong, the writer can make us care very much what happens in these more everyday struggles.

On Trends:
Michael Bourret: One of the great things about middle grade is that it seems much less susceptible to big trends--you don't have the same sort of vampire, werewolf, dystopian waves that you see on the YA side. Because middle grade typically gets less media attention (more on that in a second), I think there's a lot less groupthink and a greater degree of creativity and, dare I say, effort. To me, middle grade always seems so open and full of possibility; is there anything you can't do? In particular, I'm taken by the many books that combine realistic, relatable stories with the fantastic. Kids are so open to that, and it allows the writer to tell a story about real kids that also has high stakes.

On a "Sense of Wonder":
Molly O'Neill: Middle grade readers are miles away from being English majors, and are rarely interested in the author's bold stylistic choices or the reasons behind them...they just want a story that satisfies them! My own inner middle grade reader is drawn to the sense of wonder that can be found in so many great middle grade books. Sometimes that's the sense of wonder that rich friendship and powers of imagination can bring about, like in the classic Bridge to Terabithia or in the more recent When You Reach Me or Breadcrumbs. Or it’s the awe and wonder of otherworldliness that fantasies like Shannon Hale’s deliver, or it’s the wonder of a kid who gets to experience the utterly fantastical that's also somehow reminiscent of the world they know, like the cat clans of the Warriors books that aren't so very different than the cliques of middle school, or The Mysterious Benedict Society, which gives kids an opportunity to put their ordinary-seeming talents to use in extraordinary situations. And sometimes the wonder comes from a simpler place, like the “ahhhh” of recognition that comes from pitch-perfection depictions and articulations of the universal experiences and emotions of being human, and growing up: like the stories of Deborah Wiles, or Lisa Yee, or Gary Schmidt.

On "Creative Potential":
Molly O'Neill: I think writers rarely get the chance to be as creative as when they’re in the creative stages of developing a new story – so don’t short-circuit your own creative potential by rushing to get to market too fast; in the end you could end up cheating yourself and your potential readers. And the great thing is, especially for middle grade writers, that there will always be new readers emerging, waiting for great stories.

The whole conversation is chock full of these kind of great insights. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. (Links to Part I, Part II, Part III) What resonated with you?


  1. Ouch! That trying-to-be cool dialogue! Even if it did work for kids today (and I think it might only work to make them laugh... and then throw the book away), who wants their work to be dated in a few short years or months. Slang ages quickly.

  2. The Lemony Snicket narrator is something I particularly dislike, and while there seem to be a lot of "quiet" books written, it's hard to sell them. The way middle school students tend to describe those deep novels their teachers like is "nothing HAPPENS"! I think both Ms. O'Neill and Mr. Bourret have a lot of insight into what makes middle grade tick!

  3. Brilliant. Two of my favorite publishing pros, here on PM!

  4. I remember catching one or two of these discussions a few months ago. What I love is the comment on quiet books (one of my least favorite terms around). There is a huge amount of freedom and energy in mid-grade. So happy to claim it as my own!

  5. Love this summary! Most definitely insightful. That sense of "wonder" they talk about -- I love that. It's probably my favourite part of MG. Thanks for sharing, Mike!

  6. I love the trend-immunity they talk about in regards to MG!! :-)

  7. nice Post written by you guys. It is amazing and wonderful to visit your site. Thanks a ton for such a nice post.

  8. Awesome! Thanks for sharing! I love all things MG!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!