Our Guest Writer is Danika Dinsmore. Danika writes and teaches children’s literature. Her middle grade fantasy series Faerie Tales from the White Forest is published by Hydra House and is geared toward ages 9+. Visit the series website at thewhiteforest.com  Visit her blog for writing exercises and industry adventure stories at theaccidentalnovelist.com. Danika is an advocate of timed writing which she uses to spur on the readers of her blogs. This is her first Guest Writer appearance on our blog.

Tropes and Tips for Middle Grade Fiction Writers
© 2012 By Danika Dinsmore. All Rights Reserved.

Although the term “middle grade” has become more common in the literary market, there is still a lot of confusion around this term. This probably stems from the fact that this same demographic is also called “juvenile” in many libraries and bookstores. It also sounds too much like “middle school,” which generally pertains to grades 6-8, depending upon your district.

I attended a round table event where I met dozens of librarians and half of them didn’t know what middle grade fiction was, so there you go. Who came up with this term? I’m betting the publishers as a way to distinguish this audience. It’s really a marketing issue, but I’ll get more into that further on.

Middle Grade Literature has loosely been defined as geared toward the 8-12 year old reader. That means Middle Grade readers span 3rd through 7th grade. That’s a pretty large reading discrepancy and many authors, including myself, refer to their books as either “lower middle grade” or “upper middle grade.”

Reading levels begin with picture books, move on to chapter books (also called “early readers”), and then middle grade. I think of this as the time when we became independent readers. We were also loyal readers, so series are great for this market. I remember, at that age, staying up far past my bedtime to read a book I’d already read 3 times before. I remember reading all the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and WIZARD OF OZ books over and over again.

TROPES of MG Fiction

Middle Grade Fiction is not a genre; it’s a market that contains numerous genres. From historical fiction and science fiction to fantasy and mystery. Even horror—remember the very popular Goosebumps series? This is not about genre; it’s about reading and age level appropriateness. The only genre not represented in this market is romance and any subgenre of romance. Why? Mostly because that age level isn’t interested in romance.

The first thing to think about is that generally in children’s lit (there are exceptions, just know the rules) the protagonist is a few years older than the intended audience. This makes sense. As a 10 year old, what 12 year olds are doing is extremely interesting. As is what a 16- year old is up to when you’re 14.

A publisher at the Los Angeles  SCBWI conference said that Middle Grade lit is about the protagonist “fitting into” the world at large as opposed to YA literature where the protagonist becomes an individual from the world. I see this as the difference between a character finding her place in the world and a character making a name for herself in the world.

In lower middle grade literature, there is less grey area between right and wrong, time and distance can be truncated to move the story, and characters can be less complex, even cartoonish. I put THE NIGHT FAIRY into this category. Slightly more sophisticated would be PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS or THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY, which occupy more time and space and have more sophisticated casts of characters, but still have a more cartoonish feel to them than HARRIET THE SPY or MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF N.I.M.H.

And speaking of The Rats of N.I.M.H. – if you’re working on a talking animal story, you’ve most likely got a middle grade book on your hands. The WARRIORS and SEEKERS series (by four different authors under one pseudonym) have done really well in the middle grade market. You’ll find talking animal stories tough to pitch and sell to an older market. By the time they reach that age, they tend to want to read about human beings as protagonists (or human being type folks with special powers or fey tendencies).

Personally, I prefer upper middle grade literature because I like moral grey area. Plus, I generally like my stories, even speculative fiction, to be believable. There is a difference between a story being “realistic” and a story being “believable.” HARRY POTTER, which basically set fire to the middle grade market, is totally unrealistic, but because the characters and their relationships are so complex, the story is believable.

And, hey, what about Harry Potter . . . some of those rules I just mentioned don’t apply, do they? No, they don’t. It’s an interesting case where a middle grade series turns into a YA series.

In book one, Harry is 11 years old. That’s 6th grade. I remember the first book carried a lot of humour. It was whimsical. Little Harry is more interested in magical candy than snogging a girl.

But by the time we get to the end, it’s a dark bloodfest with some serious snogging. This makes complete sense to me. What matters to a 6th grader is much different than what matters to a 12th grader. If you recall what it’s like going through high school, there were probably some dark and scary times. I know I experienced a lot of emotional turmoil.

For those kids who read along as the series was published, this was a very personal journey. Harry grew as his fans grew and they all lost their innocence together. What a magical experience that must have been for them.

But now all the books are out in the world. On Amazon, Harry Potter is listed in the description as “for ages 9 and up” for ALL the books in the series. Really? If you were taking the 7th book as a stand alone, would you give it to your 9-year-old? (as a side note, this is an interesting description because rarely are books listed for “X and up.” They are usually very specific about age groups for children’s books)

I asked an editor at a large publisher about this phenomenon. If one is writing a middle grade series, “is it all right” or “what happens if” the characters grow older and suddenly they’ve stopped playing hide-and-seek and are now into young adult shenanigans. (Okay, so I didn’t use the word “shenanigans”) All she said was, “Yeah, that happens.” She didn’t say it was wrong to do, but she did imply that it was a bit of an issue for publishers. I’m telling you, it comes down to marketing.

TIPS When Writing for Middle Grade:

READ work for this demographic. Pay attention to the language, sentence structure, storyline (usually not much subplotting goes on), character arcs (or lack thereof), word count (use the first in a series as reference. As we have learned, books can grow longer if they have an audience). Don’t know where to find great middle grade fiction? Start HERE on author Shannon Messenger’s site where she posts a list of MG reviews every Monday.

Watch your use of vocabulary and sentence structure, but don’t condescend to your readership. Challenge them with your language, but not enough to confuse or bore them. If you’re using Microsoft Word, you can actually calculate the reading level of your material. There is also a formula. To learn how to do either, GO HERE. Or, for more information on reading levels, go HERE.

Watch your language in terms of vulgarity. Case in point, it was suggested that I take the word “Chrysalis!” out as a faerie swear word because it sounded too much like “Christ!” They don’t like swear words much in MG lit. A few damns and hells seem to be okay in upper grade.  I think TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY had some.

Stay away from sexual situations. In middle grade literature, if there is a romance, it is about friendship and loyalty and trust. Budding romance can be done for upper middle grade fiction, and a great example of this is Scott Westerfeld’s fabulous Leviathan series. If you want to know how to handle MG romance, read that series. There’s a whole lot of lead up to the girl’s “first kiss.”

Now, I got into a heated discussion with someone around this once because she was calling it censorship. It’s not censorship, it’s addressing the interests of that age level and helping bookstores and libraries shelve books in a way that parents will understand what they’re getting. If your 10 year old is ready for Lolita, by all means, you know where to find it in the bookstore. By having a MG market, we’re not telling parents what they can and can’t buy for their kids, rather informing them as to what kind of material they are likely to find in that section. Both Crank and Hunger Games are in the YA shelves if you think your child is ready for either.

Is violence more tolerated in North American children’s literature (and entertainment) than sex? Most definitely. Does this annoy me? For sure. But I’m just the messenger here. And, honestly, when I think about my brothers at that age, they were far more interested in setting their plastic army men on fire than kissing girls.

And speaking of boys at that age. Here’s something refreshing: boys still read at that age and there are a lot of great books out there for them. Unfortunately, we tend to lose boy readers in the YA market. So you tend to find less out there for boys. It may be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some fun facts:

At the SCBWI conference we were told by agents and publishers that it is the fastest growing market. “Tween” is the latest market to pop up, serving that gap between MG and YA, but I doubt you’ll see that label on bookshelves for a while.

At the Bologna Children’s Book Fair we learned that this market has more “buying power” and influence than ever before. They are also a faster growing market for ereaders than teens.

Want to write for boys? Agents and publishers are always looking for books that appeal to middle grade boys. There’s absolutely a market for them and what’s out there already skews toward girl readers.

Stellar Middle Grade Reads

There is NO WAY of listing all the great MG reads out there, so I’m letting Good Reads do that for you. There are almost 20,000 books on this list, so I’m sure you’ll find something you like and you’ll never run out. A few of my personal favourites that I haven’t mentioned above include The Phantom Tollbooth, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Last but not least, if you want to write for this age group and are feeling overwhelmed, I suggest joining your local SCBWI chapter. Then attend your regional conference. If you can swing it, attend one of the international conferences in Los Angeles or New York.

Questions? Ask in the comment section and I’ll return to assist you.


Faerie Tales from the White Forest is published by Hydra House and is geared toward ages 9+. Visit the series website at thewhiteforest.com. For writing exercises and industry adventure stories geared for Middle Grade writing, go to theaccidentalnovelist.com

Any book clubs or school activists interested in scheduling a reading or talk can also contact Danika at theaccidentalnovelist.com

 © 2012 By Danika Dinsmore. All Rights Reserved.