Tips on Writing Middle Grade: What Kids Love

Once a month, I write a page-long adventure for my youngest daughter’s class that features the kids, a feisty teacher, a goofy principal, a silly dragon and a resurrected lizard. I read my story, then the kids come up with their own ending. If you want to sharpen your storytelling skills, I discovered there’s no better laboratory than a live reading in a fourth grade class. Here are some things I’ve learned about effective storytelling from fourth graders.

Jewel Allen divides her time between being
a wife, mom, a freelance journalist, a musician,
and a novelist aspiring to be published someday
soon. She runs the Pink Ink blog.

Use a familiar setting
with a fantastic twist. The new student turns out to be a ghost, a rainstorm sucks the class into the bottom of the sea, or Santa Claus gets stranded outside their class portable.

Introduce a mystery. How did a dead lizard get out of its aquarium? Who threw an eraser at the next-door teacher?

Add a dragon, if at all possible. Dragons come in handy when a fourth grade class needs to fly somewhere quickly. And kids always perk up at the word “dragon.”

Feature memorable, quirky characters. Denny the dragon usually gets in trouble. Mr. Brunsdale, the principal, reluctantly grants them permission to go on outlandish field trips. Mrs. Walker, the teacher, isn’t scared of bopping sharks on the nose. These characters stick out to kids and are easily remembered.

Get the characters in lots of trouble. Sensory details—like how dragon wings feel and look—are important, but nothing engages a fourth grader quicker than a problem that turns from bad to worse. The rain storm turns into a flood … the class gets washed out of their portable … they get sucked into a hole in the soccer field.

Slapstick comedy works. The kids have laughed loudest over an octopus plastered over a teacher’s head, the principal swimming the backstroke in a flood, and the new dragon-student’s wings whopping his seatmate on the head. (This probably explains why, as a fourth grader, I laughed like crazy over The Three Stooges.)

Don’t kill off a sweet character or you won’t hear the end of it. The kids really, really didn’t like the plot twist about the class lizard dying. I had to bring her back to life somehow!


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12 thoughts on “Tips on Writing Middle Grade: What Kids Love

  1. Cathy

    Interesting post, but what I gather from it is that middle reader kids aren’t interested in anything but fantasy.
    Where does that put Judy Blume and Melody Carlson?

  2. Lyle Ven

    Big Question: The main character of my finished novel is 8 but his story line is quite dark and mature despite being a fantasy novel. I am currently pitching it as a Young Adult Fantasy (at 85,000 words) yet people have noted that it should be Middle Grade. My main problem with this is the word count and the fact that it contains a lot of violent and mature themes more suited for YA.

    Can anyone suggest an appropriate genre for my novel (on top of the ‘fantasy’ label)?


  3. Great post

    The same thing happened to me, it’s a freaky cool thing, you have to try it. I was a sportswriter for decades, and for six years the school had been asking me to come in and talk to the classes about the publishing life. Last year my youngest d’s teacher asked me to write a short story using the same prompt the kids had used, and then, read it. Didn’t want to let my girl down, but also didn’t want to embarrass her. I had no idea what would happen, my first short, non-guy audience…

    The kids were rolling in the aisles. Still, a year later, they’re coming up to me and saying how funny certain parts were, they can quote it – crazy event – it led to me and my girls sitting down and doing an entire book. What a blast.

  4. Jewel

    Angela: Exactly! *the whackier the better* And the kids are masters at that. Sometimes, I just lean back and I can’t help but marvel at how they are putting their own flair on the story.

    Steve: Nice to see you here. Thank you! I appreciate your kind words.

  5. Jewel

    Thanks Chuck for letting me guest post!

    Lisa: Thanks!

    Kay: It’s great to have a chance to revisit the same characters every month. The idea kind of grows on itself.

    Michael: Yeah, I always look forward to what the kids will come up with. They are fearless and funny.

    Diana: You’re right! I love sneaking a peek at what my kids are reading in bed to see what I can learn from authors. Reading a story aloud reminds me of how magical stories can be.

    Natalie: The kids love it. Although I do have to say, one girl always cracks me up by groaning when I stop with a cliffhanger. She says, "I hate it when you do that. I want to just listen to the rest of the story!" But then she jumps in and usually has the longest "ending".

  6. angela

    Great post! I agree the best way to get the kids involved is to give them some of the creativity load. There’s nothing more fun (and unusual!) than the crazy stories kids can brainstorm up in class. The wackier, the better! And it’s always a hit when the story is about them or kids in a similar setting (classroom)etc.

  7. Diana Jenkins

    When I was a teacher, I often read aloud to my students and I learned so much about writing! It’s a great way to find out what moves them, what makes them laugh, what excites them, etc. You really have a great idea there!


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