Middle Grade: Not a Narrow Designation

judy moodyYesterday I posted about writing age appropriate middle grade fiction.  Not only is it made difficult because what one person thinks is age appropriate is completely inappropriate in someone else’s estimation, but “middle grade” covers a really wide audience.

Characters in younger middle grade books are 8 to 10 or 2nd through 4th grade.  An eight year-old is involved in home life but also involved with their friends.  They don’t hang out yet.  They play.

A nine-year old is more likely to seek approval.  They work toward being liked.  Hanging out with friends is a big deal and this is where many of them start to split off – boys with boys and girls with girls.

greenglass houseCharacters in older middle grade books are 10 to 12 years old or 4th through 6th grade.  Ten years-old is where some girls start to have growth spurts.  But not all of them do.  They are also understanding how their behavior affects others.

By twelve?  The girls have “blossomed” and totally left the boys behind.  This may mean treating the boys like little kids.  Skin is also going haywire and many kids start to get self-conscious about their appearance.

Look at my description of a twelve year-old.  Now look at the one for an eight year-old.  There’s a world of difference.  And that’s why middle grade books are so hard to categorize.

Younger middle grade books include the Stink and Judy Moody books as well as Cornelia Funke’s books.  Think fantasy.  Think adventure.  T

Older middle grade titles include Raymie Nightingale by Kate diCamillo, Wonder by R. J. Palacio, Greenglass House by Kate Milford, and The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty.  These characters deal with illness and death.  One or more of them may be in danger.  Remember, these kids are young teens.

This diversity is why it is so important to pin point your audience.  You aren’t going to write a book that appeals to the full range so you need to know who your target reader is.  What’s right, and acceptable, for one won’t be for another.  And that’s okay.  Twelve year-olds and eight year-olds each need their own books.



Age Appropriate Fiction: How Much Is Too Much?

I have to admit that I almost never look at reviews of my own books, but I do read reviews of other author’s books that I enjoyed.  Today I popped over to Amazon to check out the reviews of Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale.  This is the summary from the library web site.

“Hoping that if she wins a local beauty pageant her father will come home, Raymie practices twirling a baton and performing good deeds as she is drawn into an unlikely friendship with a drama queen and a saboteur.”

If you know Kate DiCamillo’s work, you know that it is going to be quirky.  Really quirky.  But this isn’t one of her Mercy Watson books so it will probably deal with some heart-felt moments.  And you’ll laugh, really hard.

Unfortunately a number of people who bought the book on Amazon don’t have a clue about DiCamillo.  They objected to the “mature content.”

Now if you haven’t read the book and you are going to have a fit about spoilers, do not read any more.  Seriously.  Go Back!  Here there be spoilers!

If you are still reading, I am going to assume that you read my warning.  If not?  Ah, well.  I tried.

I don’t know exactly what the worrisome content was.  Oddly enough, there was a lot of fussing but few specifics.

That said, a lot of adults get fussy when fictional parents behave badly.  In this book Raymie’s dad run’s off with a dental hygienist.  Beverly gets smacked by her mother.

Why don’t I think these things are age inappropriate?  First of all, this is a middle grade novel.  The readers are 5th and 6th graders.  They’ve seen things.  We may not be happy with all of those things but they still happen.  Second is how DiCamillo deals with these things.  We don’t see what happens between Beverly and her mom.  The reader only sees the bruise.  We are kept a distant from this harsh reality. We also hear about Raymie’s dad after the fact.

We are not kept at a distance when Louisiana nearly drowns.  Don’t panic.  Raymie saves her.  But it is a tough section to read.

But I think that part of the reason that DiCamillo is so popular is that she trusts her readers with these kinds of truths. Life is tough. Scary things happen.  She gives her readers a change to experience these realities in print vs cinematically which is even harder.  And she also trusts them to be able to handle it.

In addition, DiCamillo’s sense of humor makes it all easier to take.  Her characters are quirky and they sometimes do truly bizarre things.

A bit of distance and humor can make a lot of things less scary.  Not every reader is going to love this book but that’s okay.  For those who need this type of book, DiCamillo has created something that will pull them in even when they are on the edge of their seats.


Don’t Dumb It Down

Do NOT dumb it down.

I spent a lot of time pool side this weekend and ended up talking to fellow swim team parents that I don’t see very often. I compared work stories with one of the dads who asked what I had been writing.  He nodded sagely as I explained the Dakota Access Pipeline book and the media literacy book.  Then I mentioned the Electoral College.

He said, “That must have been really hard to dumb down.”

“No.” Inhale four, exhale six.  Stall for time. Frame your response.  “That’s what you do if you want the editor to bounce it back.  You just have to figure out how to explain it so that the reader can relate.  And you have to do it without blowing your reading level.”

If you writing for children, please, please, please do not dumb things down.  Do. Not.

Kids are smart.  They are set on “maximum learning.”  If you write children’s nonfiction, it is your job to give it to your reader in managable bites.

Dumb it down and you make it clear that you don’t respect them.  You aren’t sure they can handle it.  Bad.  Just bad.  Don’t do that.

Does this mean that you can write about absolutely anything for young readers.  No.  Just . . . no.

Some things aren’t age appropriate.  Other things just won’t interest them.

Astronomy for a preschooler?  Day and night.  The earth moving around the sun.

Astronomy for an early grade schooler?  Planets and moons. The different characteristiccs of different planets.

By the time you get to high schoolers you can write about the chemistry involved.  Physics, biology and systems all play a part.

Come up with a topic that matches your readers interests and age level and you won’t have to dumb down a thing. In fact you might find yourself hurrying to catch up.



Conflict: Age matters

age appropriate conflictI recently read a post by agent Scott Eagan on the differences between Conflict and Complications.  The problem is that many of the manuscripts Eagan recieves are full of complications for the characters but not true conflict.  Yes, hitting traffic or having to change clothes before you leave the house can be a hastle but they are complications.  Your character can get around these things fairly easily.  You reader isn’t on the edge of her seat wondering “Is this it?

This got me to thinking.  Things don’t work quite like this in children’s books.  Complications vs true conflict depend completely on the age of the reader and, thus, the character.

What do I mean?  Having your main character take a wrong turn on the way home from school is no big whoop-de-doo for a highschooler.  All the reader’s going to think is “get your head together and turn around, dumby.”

But if your character and reader are picture book aged, its a completely different situation.  In Kevin Henkes picture book Sheila Rae, The Brave, Sheila Rae gets lost.  Her little sister comes to her rescue and the two become closer for it.  That wouldn’t work if your character was a typical high schooler, but it works quite well for a preschooler who has never walked home alone.

In children’s books, your conflict has to be age appropriate.  Make it to old for the character and reader and you  may find your five year-old character trying to save the world from an evil wizard who is killing those who won’t join his cause (hello, Harry Potter).

Whoa! That’s way too much for this audience.  But a highschooler who is overwhelmed by her new backpack, purse or boots is going to make a pretty boring story even if Kevin Henkes made this also fly in picture book form.

Conflict vs. Complication.  To make it work, you have to make it age appropriate.