So you’ve got a great book idea and a plan for making it happen. You know all about hooking the reader early, building your plot, and including character transformation. But still the story tanks. Or maybe your peers love it, but agents aren’t picking it up. Or even worse, beta readers in your target age group don’t even finish the book. And yes, if you’re writing middle grade, you should find a few middle grade readers to give your book a whirl—assuming that’s not a whirl down the toilet. Of course, if that’s where the novel ends up, that’s a pretty clear sign you’ve got some work to do.
As much as we like to weave adventure and meaning into our stories, it only matters if we connect with our intended audience. So how do we do that with middle grade readers? Most of us are years (or decades!) away from that age group, so it can be tough to remember how we thought and what we felt back then. Even if we could, the modern issues and modern voice of that age group has changed to some degree.
Here are three proven ways to connect with your middle grade readers, write fiction that means something to them, and keep them up at night with a flashlight, reading under the covers.
1. Know the Issues
What sorts of challenges do middle grade readers face on a day to day basis? It is vital to recognize and understand these issues in order to write something they can identify with (note that middle grade is not the same as middle school. Instead, it is children ranging from 7-12 years old). These issues can vary widely depending on the age of the child.
Younger middle grade readers are learning how to interact and form social bonds. They are starting to understand and experiment with social power, which, at this age, can lead to intentional meanness. Michelle Anthony, Ph.D. writes on scholastic.com that most children do this at some time or other as they try to exert social power in inappropriate ways. Most children are also on the receiving end at some point as well. This is not the same as targeted, systematic bullying, but it can lead to that without proper intervention and instruction from parents, friends, teachers, and books.
At this age, children want to be seen as intelligent. They often start arguing their viewpoint. They need to feel empowered and able to make choices. They are also learning to recognize and appropriately express their feelings.
According to Jennifer O'Donnell at Verywell.com, some common challenges upper middle grade readers face include depression and anxiety, substance abuse, risky behavior (taking chances with their safety), obesity, low self-esteem, and too much unsupervised free time.
Many issues span all ages of childhood. Some of these include living in a single parent home, coping with divorce, sibling rivalry, educational disparity, abuse, neglect, living in poverty, difficulty relating to peers, and dealing with bullying. Be sure to keep your content at a level appropriate for middle grade readers as you deal with some of these painful issues.
2. Discover your MG Voice
Now that we’re armed with a clear idea of the issues facing middle grade readers, it’s time to witness those issues in action. The best way, of course, is observing them in real life. Be aware of the interactions between children in this age group, whether in your own home, at school, among relatives, at church, a movie theater, the park, or the pool. The possibilities are endless. Just don’t be a creeper and freak anyone out.
If real-life observation is not an option, talk with parents or teachers of middle grade kids. They can offer great insights into the culture and thought processes of children in this age group.
When you read books that target this age group, pay close attention to the attitudes, conflicts, and voice of the characters. Some great places to start: the Percy Jackson books, Wonder, the Septimus Heap series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and, of course, Harry Potter.
Do the same thing when you watch middle grade movies. Great movies that give insight into the voice and issues of MG readers: Bridge to Terabithia, Pete’s Dragon, The BFG, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Anne of Green Gables.
As you research, experiment with your writing. Try out different voices and attitudes. Although middle grade readers may share some of the same developmental and social challenges, they are unique individuals with distinct ways of viewing themselves and the world. Practice capturing a different voice for each of your middle grade characters, revealing their unique interests and thought patterns.
A word of caution - be sure not to “talk down” to middle grade readers. Although they are young, they are savvy readers and can spot a false voice in seconds. Their problems are as complex as ours and should be treated with respect, taking care to avoid simplistic answers.
If you struggle with this, just keep at it. Keep studying and practicing. You will end up with better stories that capture your readers’ attention and can make a difference in their lives.
3. Dig Deep
To further enrich your writing, dig deeper into middle graders' voice and their challenges. Here's some useful websites and articles to get you started.
kid lit.com (Mary Kole's book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, is an indispensable resource!)
What are some of the issues you address in your middle grade writing?
How do you nail middle grade voice?
How do you nail middle grade voice?