Monday, January 20, 2014

Middle grade books: to understand, escape, or both?

With the publication of my middle grade fantasy novel, Whispers from Forbidden Earth (Helping Hands Press, October 2013), I’ve actually thought quite a bit about what makes a good story for that special age group, children 8 years old and up. Yeah, you’d think I would have had this all worked out already as I wrote the novel.  I guess I’m always looking over my shoulder even as I charge ahead with the sequel and other projects, always hoping to improve my craft.

Authors are encouraged to write what they want to read. I found this great quote from Austin Kleon: “Draw the art you want to see, make the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read. That’s where the problem is for me. There’s the rub when it comes to middle grade books, my books. Am I writing what I want to read as an adult or am I writing what children want to read? Can there be room for both?

So, what make a good middle grade story? An interesting post on the Dystel & Goderich Literary Management website talked about this.

The authors of the post contend that, instead of asking what "middle grade" is, it’s easier to think about what the middle grade reader is looking for in a book. Broadly, a middle grade reader is reading for one of two reasons: to understand, or to escape. Many times, it is a combination of both.  

I surprised myself and found this was true as I considered my two favorite middle grade novels:

The Graveyard Book is a fun, imaginative romp as only Neil Gaiman can write. In The Giver, Lois Lowry paints a disturbing, thought-provoking glimpse into a dystopian future. Both novels are best sellers, both have a huge following of readers, young and older alike. Both are totally different. The Dystel & Goderich post mentions two big mistakes that authors make: “writing down” to the reader and writing message-driven novels (books written only to teach a lesson).

For me, Gaiman and Lowry present great ideas wrapped in interesting, well-written stories that both children AND adults can relate to. There is no preaching, no wagging of fingers, no talking down to the reader. There is only an interesting story told well, a story that stuck with me. I'll leave you with this quote from the Dystel & Goderich post:

"I think about middle grade being the time when a lot of readers discover “that book”—the one that turns them into a lifelong reader, or explodes their world open with new ideas, or shares exactly the right truth at exactly the right moment in a way they’ll never forget."

That, right there, is my heart. That's what I'm working towards. That's what I want for my books.     


  1. Very interesting. I especially like the caution about "writing down" to a person. You don't think about those mistakes until someone else points them out.

  2. Its funny on reading this I started thinking about Calvin and Hobbes. I started reading them when I was six and loved every bit. There was purity of emotion and slapstick humor. The big words I didn't understand didn't matter. As an adult, I understand those strips with my adult mind and don't laugh the way I did as a kid at some of them. Though the content hasn't changed, I have, and I love it all just the same. I think we can all think like a child when we want to and that happens best when we loose ourselves to a moment loving what we are doing. Pure passion; its the one thing we can all experience, no matter the age.