Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What Every Middle Grade Writer Should Know About Middle Graders - Part 2 by Lee Wardlaw

Secrets! Slammed doors! Silent treatments! S-E-X!

The jacket blurb for a 1950’s pulp novel?

Nope. There’s just an older middle grader in the house. And, in between the Four S’s noted above, he/she is probably reading.

Sales of books for adolescents continue to rise even as other genres falter. The reason? Young teens “connect in the text,” says Joanne O’Neil of Tomorrow Museum. “At this age, it’s a revelation [for them] to see an author has the same dreams and insecurities” as they do. Good middle grade novels entertain; they can also inspire, reassure and help guide readers through those early turbulent teen years -- if the author (that’s you!) has a solid knowledge of what this stage entails and why it resembles the Disneyland attraction Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. 

OLDER MIDDLE GRADE (ages 12-15/6th-9th grade)

FAVORITE QUESTION: “How do I fit in?”
Older middle graders are Humanistic Explorers. They’re creating their social selves, trying on different group dynamics (Jock or Goth? Gamer or Gangster? Class Clown or Class President?) to see which ones best fit who they are and who they want to be – in school, society, and in life.
FAVORITE QUOTATION: “Don’t tell me what to do!”
This age teeters between being fiercely independent and painfully self-doubting. So if they sniff even a whiff of criticism in a mild suggestion, they’ll rebel with fury. 

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS:  Growing pains are not a myth. The speed and magnitude of an adolescent’s physical growth is comparable to what an infant experiences in the first three years of life. Only this time, muscles ache.  Bones moan. The immune system crashes, leading to numerous viruses. The sudden onset of gangly knees, knobby elbows, and dizzying heights a la Alice when she nibbled the ‘Eat Me’ cake in Wonderland, cause older middle graders to slip and trip, bump and bash. 

And they’re changing so fast they might not recognize themselves in the morning mirror – if they can get up, that is. Lethargy rules, so adolescents often become one with their beds. They are exhausted.

Oh, and let’s not forget the brain, which is awash – nay, fermenting – in sexual hormones.  This leads to a whole ‘nother litany of physical changes and (ahem) urges that aren't regulated well. The brain’s frontal lobes don’t fully connect until age 26. This is bad news for adolescents – who lack insight, judgment, self-control – but good news for authors – who can use those attributes (or lack thereof) in creating characters and plot twists.

INTELLECTUAL CHARACTERISTICS:  Teens are smart, but their actions suggest a decrease in intellectual capacity. (Studies show that the teen I.Q. literally drops several points.) Once lively, engaged, inquisitive young middle graders now morph into monosyllabic morons. They’re oblivious. Forgetful. They sleepwalk through life. Their favorite quote is interchangeable with “Huh?” or “Duh.” 

Why?  Duh!  Adolescents are simply too absorbed with the physical changes of their bodies (and those of the hotties sitting next to them in History class) to care much about learning, studying or Mom's 200th desperate plea to 'Please take out the garbage!'

PSYCHOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS:  Older middle graders have fragile, volatile, often paradoxical emotions. These ‘kids’ suffer. One minute they’re sweetly opening a door for you – next moment slamming it in your face. If challenged, they’ll rebel – or pull inward. They feel as if they’re constantly being watched, examined, evaluated, so a tiny zit becomes a volcano; an off-hand comment a crushing criticism. Self-doubts create a craving to belong, to fit in, to search for heroes to emulate, ideals and values to call their own. 

Older middle graders also have a strong urge to understand their place in society – and history. And they want to play an important role in that society.  The more the middle grade ‘child’ learns and understands about himself, the more he’ll understand what that role can be.  This means he’ll be seeking to read about and identify with characters – fact or fiction – who are ready, as he is, to search, explore, challenge, and understand life – and make a memorable impact upon it. 


Lee Wardlaw is the author of close to 30 award-winning books 
for children, tweens and teens, including 101 Ways to Bug Your Parents   
(younger middle grade), an IRA/CBC Children's Choice Book, 
and 101 Ways to Bug Your Friends and Enemies (older middle grade), 
which recently won the Forward National Literature Award for Humor. 
Lee has a B.A. in Education and will earn her M.Ed. in Child Development 
from Loyola University Maryland in 2014.



  1. Excellent. Yes, I recall living through this stage with my own kids and the kids I work with!

  2. Wow this is really interesting. I have a niece entering this stage and I feel bad for her because I remember it all too well! Good thing it doesn't last forever, phew!

  3. As the father of a 17-year-old, AND an 11-going-on-21-year-old, I can confirm all of this.

  4. Great insight. Pictures made me laugh!

    1. Yes, Steven - - the one with the cat still makes me laugh so hard I almost spit!

  5. My son is 9 and he wants to be the big cool guy, but every once in a while he wants his mommy. :)

  6. Great post! :)

    I have seven children. I have been through this stage three times over with them so far, and I have four to go. *sigh* The growth-spurt thing may be more accurate for males of this age group though as a lot of girls go through their physical changes by 12. (For some of us, it was even earlier.) Once a girl hits a certain tell-tale stage of puberty, she has a limited amount of time left for growing.

  7. Great list of attributes of the middle grade novel. thanks!

  8. Excellent post.
    I have a 13 year old son and I found myself nodding my head to your post. Thankfully he is pretty respectful to us, but he also is embarrassed by us sometimes. :) And oh the growth spurts. Just in the last six months he went from 5'7 to 5'11" and he did get some growing pains.
    I really like this rundown. So true to life!!

  9. This is SO good, Lee and the pictures are all hilarious!!!!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!