Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Why Write Middle Grade?

Since the holiday season is the perfect time for reflection, I thought I’d use my December post to reflect upon why I write middle grade. I get asked this question from time to time. Most people are genuinely curious, although sometimes the question comes, unfortunately, with a hint of condescension. (Why would you want to write something like middle grade when you could be writing more substantive and important works like adult literature?)

For me, the decision to write middle grade was an especially easy one. My middle-grade years were when I first fell in love with reading, and when I first learned to appreciate everything a good book had to offer. I was a military brat, and when I look back on my middle-grade years, I have to confess, they were kind of lonely. My family moved every two years or so. I was always the new kid at school, and I was never able to have lasting friendships. It didn’t help that I was painfully shy, so it wasn’t exactly easy for me to make friends in the first place. Usually, just about the time I started to feel settled some place, just about the time it started to feel like home, it was time to move again.

I didn’t have any siblings at home, so after school and on weekends, I often found I had to find ways to entertain myself. I quickly learned what wonderful company books could be. I had an affinity for the classics. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, and Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain swept me away with their magic and made me love fantasy and adventure.  My copies of all these favorites followed me wherever I went, whether my family moved to the other side of the country or the other side of the world. I still have them today, a little worse for wear but still much loved. They’re actually gazing down on me from the top shelf of my bookshelf as I type this now.

And then there was the feeling I got every time I walked into the local library. A great sense of excitement always washed over me—all those wonderful stories right at my fingertips!

If, as a writer of middle grade, I can give young readers that same sense of excitement, offer them stories and adventures they can get lost in, that can make them feel a little less lonely or help them forget their real-world worries for an hour or two, I consider that a worthwhile endeavor indeed.

Please share. Why do you write middle grade?


  1. I think middle grade fiction is fundamentally important. This is the age when kids can get really absorbed in reading...or not, depending on whether they get hooked. I remember wonderful books too and the feelings of safety and curiosity that went along with them. Great post!

  2. Have we ever discussed Prydain?? LOVED those books and would like to re-read sometime soon.

    I think of middle grade as the books of firsts. I know YA is often described in this way, but truly it starts with MG: these are the first books kids explore on their own. They're filled with those first questions, emotions, and experiences we have as human beings. So, so instrumental.

  3. When I first started writing, I didn't know YA and MG existed. I thought there were adult books, and children's books. I simply wrote about teenagers because that was when the most interesting things happened in my own life.

    Since then, I've realized a similar, but equally important magic exists about younger adolescence too, so that is why I also write MG.

  4. I completely agree with this post, Dawn! I love to read everything so I write in all kinds of genres and for all audiences, but I have a special place in my heart for reading and writing middle-grade. It was when I first started reading as a little kid that made me want to write because I just loved books so much. I hope to instill that same love and passion for books in another child.

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

  5. Great post topic, Dawn, and thanks for sharing your personal story.

    Since a recent #kidlitchat on Twitter about "Gender Bias in Publishing" I've been thinking a lot about this. I write middle grade because it's where I've always naturally come to.

    Even before I knew what middle grade was (Echoing Michael MacNish above) I knew I wasn't writing YA and all that entails, but it certainly wasn't picture books/early readers that require skills I certainly didn't have when I started 10 years ago, and it's only THIS YEAR that I've taken significant baby steps in those areas.

    I started as a novelist.

    Which seems to be rarity amongst other authors I know (Personally or as an adoring reader) who write across the Children's and YA book spectrum. They often started with poetry, short stories, and picture books, and I still find these forms confining to me, but I certainly respect and read them in general.

    But for me, as a writer, middle grade is my primary home, and proud of it.

    Also (Referencing my participation in a previous #kidlitchat) there are FEW MEN writing middle grade, and I want to be among that slow growing number of male authors writing middle grade, and I mean no disrespect to women, it's just there's just not yet the same level of diversity of characters (I don't just mean ethnicity, either!) in books written by male authors that I've seen by female authors for the same age group, regardless if they specifically target one gender over the other.

    Along those lines, as I've said in past comments on Project Mayhem and elsewhere I came to pleasure reading when I was 16, and I say this not to brag or start panic attacks, but to gently remind those of you who are parents and/or educators that it's NEVER too late to learn the love of reading.

    Sometimes it just takes longer.

    We tell kids and teens ALL THE TIME to be patient about various things (Going on vacation, to the movies, their first REAL cell phone, dating, did I mention their first REAL cell phone that wasn't made by Playskool?) but we can get a bit paranoid about reading, whether we talk about it from an developmental/educational standpoint or in terms of entertainment (The latter I feel gets overlooked FAR too often, especially for teens! But this is a middle grade blog so I won't elaborate on that here)

    I'm not a parent or teacher, but I am worried that we can sometimes focus so much on academic milestones (Important as they are) we forget that reading isn't just about mechanics and college readiness.

    It's also FUN, relatable, and HEALING.

    I heard an NPR piece about libraries and video games-

    Kids and teens who may have challenges reading at grade level break through that reading barrier with video games (Not counting shooters, which despite being male I've never liked, except for Ratchet and Clank, but that's another story...) and what Constance Steinkuehler, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, who did an in-depth study about game-based learning says applies to middle grade readers as much as teens and adults for that matter-

    "When you care, you actually persist in the face of challenges."

    That also describes EVERY AUTHOR who's been a part of Project Mayhem since day one of this blog, and of all the authors (Pre and post published) who comment regularly. Including myself.

    As long as they're not too far behind technically, it really just takes the right book to hook someone, and it just took me longer, but I hope the stories I write and publish will help young readers find what they love far sooner than me.

    But I also hope my personal experience will let older readers know that it's NO LESS SPECIAL to learn to enjoy reading when you're not a child anymore!

    I write the books I didn't have growing up that I know are just as needed to kids now as when I was a kid myself.

  6. Some people also think YA is a waste of time. Ignore the MG haters, a lot of them are likely not even writers anyway (though there are writers who snub YA and MG as well). While I write mostly YA, I started working on my first MG novel this year and I love writing in this genre. At first I feared some of the limits I'd face but I realized that there was so much more to MG than hat I couldn't do. Also I write in the perspective of a boy which is very different for me.

    Books are a wonderful adventure and escape. You found the magic of reading and decided to share it with others by writing stories of your own. I love the book Christmas tree as well.

  7. I write MG because I don't want to have "hawt boy" syndrome in my writing. Kids in the middle years want adventure, fantasy, excitement, but generally say "ewwww" if they see somebody kissing. Girls in this age group don't say "ewwww" but they're satisfied with a relatively distant BF/GF relationship.

    Am I wrong? Probably. Kids are getting way TMI for their age these days. I'm the fogie who thinks talking to an orca or an eagle should be far more exciting then lip-locking with anybody.

    1. Marva, I had mini-Twitter chat about a similar thing. But I really think we need look at it on a book by book basis.

      I can't speak to the girl side of it, but just like all girls bypass the "Ew!" stage regarding boys (Whether in general by having male friends she's not "Into" or "Puppy Love" crushes)
      not all boys have to be a "Flaming Testosterone" psycho perv to have a crush on a girl PRE-13, they just don't "chat" about it in the same ways girls do.

      Besides, many of us (Boy or Girl) had at least ONE pre-13 crush, including myself, and I think that's okay, sure it can be overkill, but so can other tropes in MG or YA. I don't mind it as long it's right for that character and the story.

      That said, Marva, as someone who's trying to advocate for animal fantasy not just being "Baby Stuff" I see your side of it, too!

      I'm personally a romantic (Even as a child), but I knew the difference between daydream and in this specific respect. I don't write romance because, and while I know there are exceptions, YA forces you to explore that in some way, and aside from not having first-hand experience (Imagination only takes you so far, just ask ANY serious historical fiction writer!) it's not my strength.

      That said, I'm probably the ONLY male of my generation who wasn't watching MTV (In its "Glory Days") or snuck into an R-rated movie (I actually waited until I was legally old enough. Surprise! LOL. I've still never seen one in theaters though)

  8. It was great to get to know a little about your upbringing, Dawn.

    I wrote adult fiction for a number of years--and then I had kids. Reading to them, I realized that the happiest time of my reading life had been when I was what is now classified as "middle grade." The next thing I knew, I was writing for that age group as well.

  9. Lovely post, Dawn! I did have siblings--lots of them--and so I liked to go disappear and read to get away :) It's funny we came to the same place from precisely different ends of the continuum!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!