Q&A – Middle Grade Explained
Remember when you just went into a bookstore and picked something that looked interesting…. I miss that.
In my quest to navigate my kiddo’s twelve-page Scholastic Book Club form, I found a panic-attack-worthy maze of options and suggestions. Does one look for a new favorite series by grade? Guided Reading Level? Lexile? Age Group? Word count? And how does one know when their reader is going to be happy with Early Leveled Readers, First Chapter books, Middle Grade books or beyond into Young Adult? And how much do the lines between each overlap? Seriously, at what point is a child ready to evolve their social and reading skills above Henry and Mudge?
I knew I needed help if I was going to be able to keep make super mom picks, so I went to the source – the authors. And I started with the incredibly elusive Middle Grade category.
My team of Middle Grade authors were excited to jump aboard and help me demystify where chapter books end and a Middle Grade world begins. Below are just a few of the responses I got on my quest from Vijaya Bodach, Connie Kingrey, Marcia Strykowski, Debbie Vilardi, Melody Delgado, Vicky Alvear Shecter, and Jan Coates.
Q- Has anyone ever described the Middle Grade bracket to you in a way that stuck or was easily relatable?
VB -Yes, the library shelves. MG books are those meant for 8-12 year-olds. MG is truly referring to the middle years, encompassing the time between when children first become independent readers until their teen years. It has the most diversity in the type of books from family and school stories to stories about saving the world. The main characters needn’t even be human!
MS– I work in a public library where we label all MG as J (for juvenile) which lies between chapter books and young adult. The reading level is above chapter books and the situations are younger than YA.
MD – When someone described MG as the middle grades in elementary school, so 3rd and 4th graders, it made sense to me. I use writing lexiles to make sure I am staying on the reading level for that age group. The challenge is to not use a huge vocabulary, but not to speak down to readers either.
I wanted to get some perspective on how the book sets out to connect with the kid so I knew how the kid would connect with the book. How does the author learn ‘what’s the what’ in that age bracket to make the book not only cool and relevant but to expand their reading skills as well?
Q- When you set out to create an MG novel – what goes into diving into that mindset? Do you have a real-life person you draw from or situation you place yourself in to reach that pre-teen audience?
VAS – I once had a middle-grader come up to me after a school presentation and say, “You know what I love about your book? It sounds you’re talking to me!”
Middle-grade fiction and nonfiction, in my view, should be full of personality and voice in a way that reflects this age-group’s exuberance. Anubis Speaks! straddles the genre, which is sometimes referred to as creative or narrative nonfiction, because while all the facts about ancient Egyptian beliefs, rites, and practices are true and established (I had the work vetted by an Egyptologist), Anubis’s personality as narrator is pure fiction.
I try to make the copy feel like I’ve pulled a kid aside, and whispered, “OMG, you won’t believe how they took the brains out of a body they were mummifying!” or “Pssst, I swear, I’m not making this up–King Tut engraved images of Egypt’s enemies on the bottom of his golden sandals so he could grind them into the ground all day long!”
In giving school presentations over the years, I’ve learned that by the time kids enter middle school (usually by 7th grade), they feel they have to hide their passion for learning because it’s considered “uncool.” I think they fear being labeled nerds for getting excited about a subject.
But 3rd, 4th, 5th (and sometimes 6th, depending on the kid) graders go ALL-OUT with their enthusiasm about learning. I try to mirror that energy before it get subsumed by encroaching hormones.
CKA – When I dive into a middle grade novel, I think first about the main character as if he’s onstage. Does he bounce when he walks? Does he have raised eyebrows and an expectant grin as if he’s always ready to hear the punch line of a joke?
Since my background is theatre, I think of all the ways I can acquaint the audience (reader) with my middle grade character in the most active way possible. What does he look like? How does he move? What does he say? What do other characters say about him?
Then I try to make him, his world, and his problem so intriguing that my reader won’t change the channel for the next 200 pages.
Q- The term “Middle Grade” or (MG) can be tricky to understand as parents and even to explain as authors. How do create your own guidelines for writing style, voice, content moderation, and/or vocabulary?
VB– I write a lot of nonfiction for MG readers and one of the things I love about this age is that kids are reading independently so I don’t have to control the vocabulary. Also, as the world is opening up for them, they enjoy learning about new and fascinating things apart from their own experiences. I keep in mind that kids are natural scientists and strive to bring clarity and wonder in my writing.
MS – For some reason, my main characters often end up to be 13-years-old, which is fine since kids usually like to read about children a bit older them themselves. I keep the characters on the young side of 13 (no teenage angst or romance beyond a kiss on the cheek) and I make sure their hopes, desires, and situations are relatable to the middle grade range of 8 to 12. Vocabulary is clean but certainly not dumbed down at all.
DV – I think the easiest for me was just to know it wasn’t the same as middle school. It comes before. Ages 8 (fluent readers) through 12. My writing guidelines are to stick with the voice of the character or age group. If the main character sounds authentic, the rest will follow, especially when using a firs person or close third person POV.
JC – What I love about being a middle grade author is that kids that age are on the brink; they’re still kids, although in today’s crazy always-with-you world, there’s a lot of pressure for them to grow up too quickly. I find I’m always channeling my 11-year-old self while writing, and it seems first person, present tense works best for me in MG. When I visit schools, I always come away thinking that kids are still kids, with the same feelings, worries, silliness they’ve always had, which I love!
Q – What do you find the hardest about sticking to that narrow 8-10ish age group?
VB– I write the gamut from preK to YA and the hardest stories are the ones that fall in-between MG and YA. If I even find myself in that spot, I skew the content so it fits firmly in one category or the other so that there’s no confusion where it should be shelved.
MS – I don’t find it difficult to stick to that age group. I enjoy writing for various age groups and don’t find it difficult at all to stick to the middle grade level once I have my character and storyline plotted out.
I also needed suggestions! Who better to answer that than a bunch of folks who have spent some serious time in the field sifting through what makes a successful book from a snore? For my final question, I asked my authors…
Q – So… aside from your own books, which MG authors would you suggest?
VB– In alphabetical order: Kate di Camillo, Karen Cushman, Eoin Colfer, Linda Sue Park, Katherine Paterson, Richard Peck, Rick Riordan, JK Rowling, Louis Sachar, Laura Amy Schlitz, EB White, Jacqueline Woodson and so many more!
MS – I adore Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life, as well as its sequel.
MD – Kate DiCamillo is an author I admire.
Some helpful explanations for the terms mentioned above:
Guided Reading Level – Also called the Fountas and Pinnell Levels after its founders and is used by schools to track learning levels from “A” (kindergarten) through “Z” (Grade 6).
Lexile – A reading comprehension level measurement from 5L (Beginning Reader) to 2000L.
Early Leveled Readers – Usually seen in a collection, you’ll see Level 1 through Level 3 or sometimes higher. Sets of books sold as leveled readers are helpful for parents because once the child has mastered Level 1 in a series, it’s a no-brainer to pick up Level 2.
First Chapter Books – Generally large fonts, lots of illustrations and under 150 pages.
Young Adult – Think heavy protagonist driven tales steeped in friendship, relationships and identity designed for ages 12- 18.
My Middle Grade author team:
Connie Kingrey Anderson is the author of the Creepers Mysteries series. Kids read the book in the front, then act out the story using the script in the back. She wrote and produced the Haunted Cattle Drive Movie for the Ear which won the Audie Award from the Audio Publishers Association. Kirkus Reviews said: “Kingrey Anderson does a masterful job of providing an engaging, age-appropriate ghost story for elementary school kids that offers creepy, but not terrifying elements…Overall, the story translates beautifully into a creative opportunity for kids.” For more information, go to www.creepersmysteries.com
Vicky Alvear Shecter is the award-winning author of Young Adult Fiction, Middle Grade Biographies and Mythologies, and Adult Historical Fiction vickyalvearshecter.com
Jan Coates is the Canadian author of over 25 books for young readers, including middle grade novels, picture books and leveled readers. She lives and writes in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. www.jancoates.ca
Marcia Strykowski works at a public library and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her middle grade titles have been chosen for Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books and shortlisted for the Crystal Kite Award. Find out more about Marcia and her books at www.marciastrykowski.com
Melody Delgado loves writing humor for children. OOPS-A-DAISY is loosely based on her own experiences in the world of the performing arts when she had to dress up as a clown and hop across the stage while tooting a toy bugle. Find out more about her books at : http://www.melodydelgado.com
Debbie Vilardi is a freelance author and editor. Her published works include poems and leveled readers for children from preschool through sixth grade. She is active in SCBWI as the copy editor and a columnist for the Long Island chapter newsletter an as a global moderator of the Blueboard. To learn more about her, please visit her website at https://www.debbievilardi.com/.