One morning last week I was walking into school when something caught my attention. It was a moment that provided a window into the world where middle grade stories come from that was too perfect for me to overlook.
There was one big googly eye lying on the sidewalk, looking up at me.
Someone had likely dropped it during dismissal the day before, which itself wouldn’t be noteworthy since a large percentage of elementary kids tend to leave a trail of belongings behind them everywhere they go. But this solitary googly eye caught my sense of humor at the right angle, and in that moment it seemed absolutely hilarious. My writer brain immediately started asking questions about it, as well as the kid who could have left it behind: Why was it at school in the first place? What was it once attached to, if anything? Why wasn't it securely zipped inside a school bag where it would have been safe from being dropped? What happened to its counterpart? How would the owner react once they realized their personal googly eye inventory was now one short?
By the time I reached the front door, I was playing with the idea of making a character in my current work in progress into someone who collects googly eyes just to randomly stick them on things. Soon I was brainstorming how I could work that idea into a plot point, where the kids in the story would develop a secret code based around googly eyes that the adults in their community wouldn’t understand.
Having taught in an elementary school for as many years as I have means I can say with some authority that silly is a big part of the real-life middle grade world. The conversations I overhear every day range from the innocently mundane to the profoundly goofy. These are the moments I try to capture when writing middle grade dialogue: the proclamations about favorite books, TV shows, or video games kids use to define themselves; the multi-directional ping-ponging banter between five people all struggling to be the funniest in the group; the way one kid can say or do something completely absurd while another will react to it as if nothing about it is out of the ordinary.
One of the biggest points of differentiation I have between what works in a middle grade book and what doesn’t is authenticity. Even if the story is based on some level of fantasy or set in an exaggerated comic universe, the world still needs to be grounded in enough reality for the readers to find their way in. Characters need to speak and think and behave in ways that not only serve the story, but will also ring true from the perspective of a middle grade reader. A kid who collects googly eyes might seem foolish to adults, but a middle grade reader could encounter that bit of characterization in a story and think, “Oh yeah, I know a kid who does that kind of thing.”
None of this is to say the only way to reach authenticity is to make your population of characters into over-the-top goofballs. Not every kid gets to live a life of carefree abandon where building an impressive collection of googly eyes would be a priority. However, one of the things that lets kids relate to each other so readily is a need to smile. For some, it’s the biggest part of who they are. For others, it might only be a momentary escape from a life almost too challenging to bear.
As you’re thinking about how to construct those believable characters, remember how much more they’ll stay with your readers if you give them well-rounded personalities. There’s a reason why the description “one-dimensional” isn’t usually seen as a compliment. We need to have multifaceted characters populating our stories if we want the kids out there to read them. Make sure yours do what’s required to play the roles you’re assigning them, but also remember they need to be more than that. They need their motivations and quirks and anxieties. They need to have consistent behavior patterns, except for the times when they’re called on to be inconsistent. They need to learn about the world around them and the people they’re becoming.
Sometimes, they’ll also need an occasional laugh. Even if it comes from googly eyes.