Spent yesterday co-teaching a middle grade novel writing workshop with jennifer_j_s for our Arizona SCBWI chapter. Talked about voice, plot, character, and emotion and description; critiqued manuscripts; rescued dolphins from certain death (me); dressed innocent regional advisors up as pirates (Jennifer); and generally had a good time as we talked ourselves hoarse.
Since it’s not quite so easy to rescue dolphins and dress people up as pirates online (although I suppose getting your adventurer name is almost like being dressed up), I thought instead I’d post my “what is a middle grade novel?” list from the workshop instead.
If, by the way, you’re looking for a middle grade novel workshop in your area, jennifer_j_s and I are willing to hit the road, too. 🙂
1. A middle grade novel isn’t a picture book and it isn’t a young adult novel, though it occasionally has pictures and it can deal with serious topics. A middle grade novel is usually aimed at 8-12 year olds, with some give and take on both ends. Most middle grade readers are not yet in middle school.
2. Middle grade novels are about things that are relevant to 8-12 year olds. That covers everything from coping with parents, siblings, and spelling tests to coming to terms with loss and seeking one’s fortune in the wide world. A middle grade novel isn’t the place to write about a mid-life crisis. It’s probably not the place to angst about sex, either, though some hand-holding and a first kiss aren’t off the table.
3. Middle grade novels used to be around 25,000 words long, but now can be longer. And shorter; few people complain Sarah Plain and Tall is too short. For that matter, few people complain Charlotte’s Web is too long, either. Maybe those 25,000 words were always flexible, for books that were good enough.
4. Middle grade novels are among the first books that kids not only read alone, but read alone without their parents looking over their shoulders and saying “look what a good reader you are!” Reading a middle grade novel can be deeply personal and private, with no one to get between the reader and the story. Although middle grade books are still read aloud by families sometimes, too.
5. The first two Harry Potter books are middle grade novels. The fifth and sixth Harry Potter books are young adult. Books three and four are good examples of how the lines between middle grade and young adult can blur sometimes.
6. Middle grade novels are not about teaching lessons. Middle grade readers read for the same reason adults do, because they want to have fun and they want to escape. Well, also sometimes because they have a book report due the next morning, but even then they’d rather have fun if they can. If you must have a lesson, you need to be sneaky and hide it beneath the surface.
7. Middle grade readers love to laugh. They’re also willing to cry, but only if you give them a story that’s worth it.
8. Writing for middle grade readers means remembering what it felt like to be one. If somewhere deep inside, your own inner 8-12 year old still speaks to you, that’s a good start. If not, start listening. Chances are that kid’s down there somewhere.
9. Middle grade novels are many kids’ first favorite books. If a kid loves a middle grade book, they’ll wear it out; they’ll carry its characters into their games and dreams; and they’ll remember that book 50 years later. (If they don’t love it, they’ll just stop reading.)
10. Middle grade novels are not easier than adult books to write. They’re harder. Because the sort of readers who treasure books that highly deserve the very best books we can give them.