As a seventh grade teacher, one of my all-time favorite moments is when a student gets a somewhat sly look in his or her eye, then raises a hand and says, “But Mr. Reynolds, I mean, really, what do you think?”
I love these moments because—whether they are about standardized testing or the protagonist of one of our novels—it shows me the heart of my students: that they have a deep desire for authenticity. They want to know the real deal, the whole scoop, the full story, the big picture.
This guest post is by Luke Reynolds. Reynolds currently teaches 7th grade English in the public school system in Harvard, Massachusetts. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two young boys and a young dog who is intent on waking up those young boys as often as possible. Luke is a lover of writing, running, pancakes, hiking, and all things goofy. Visit him at lukewreynolds.com and his blog reynoldsluke.blogspot.com.
And middle grade readers are no different from middle school students. They, too, want authenticity. They don’t want to read a version of the world skewed towards pretense for their eyes. They want to deal with real issues, real difficulty, and real love. In my middle grade novel, The Looney Experiment, I tried to give them a story with all the raw pain, humor, and love I could manage to translate from my own heart of experiences to reach theirs.
Here are three ways to avoid dumbing down our stories, our messages, our language when writing for middle grade audiences.
1. Deal with Real Pain
I wrote my first draft of The Looney Experiment because the middle school where I was teaching ran out of books. In our book room, we had tattered copies of old books with covers torn off and pages missing. But we had a grant from the state that allowed us to make as many photocopies as we wanted. So, I wrote a novel for my students so we’d have something we could all read. I tried to imbue the novel with what I saw in my own life and my students but, to be blunt: it was too easy. On my first draft, I just wanted to, essentially, show my students that the protagonist, Atticus, was okay. He was safe! He was happy! He was a middle school student! Just like them. But I knew and my students knew (and my eventual agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, knew too) that it was all too easy for Atticus. He needed to deal with real pain, as that is the only way to reveal real growth, real love.
So on subsequent drafts, I made the life of Atticus more painful. Simply put, his obstacles grew, his problems grew, his despair grew. He became real around draft number 4, and by draft 11, he felt positively alive to me. Dealing with real pain in our novels does not mean that our protagonists must live lives of doom and gloom, but it does mean that we can’t give them the easy way out all the time. Like ourselves, they must struggle. Because it is the struggle which makes the love tangible.
2. Use Words Readers Won’t Know
What!? That’s crazy! If readers won’t know what a word means, how will they—how will they—
Every day in my seventh grade classes, I share a new word with my students. It could be my favorite word, perspicacious (which means clear-sighted), or just a fabulously fun word, like lugubrious (dark and gloomy). Students love these words, and when we talk about them and roll them around on our tongues and across the oxygen in the room, students know they’re plugging in to language that cause synapses to connect and brain cells to wake up. Our writing, it’s the very same process. We need to be sure we’re not writing ever word to be so mundane or normal that we never make our readers stop and think, WHAT THE HECK DOES THAT MEAN!?
Now, we don’t want to go overboard and create middle grade novels that look like William Faulkner combined with an astrophysicist could have written them. But if we have words in our vocabularies that we love and adore and like using, then use them in the writing! Let those words linger in the text because they are probably the best and most accurate words, after all, and because readers often rise to the occasion to meet a new word when they find it.
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3. Let Dialogue Happen Naturally and Without Censorship
As writers for middle grade readers, we sometimes hear bells that go off in our heads when we find ourselves writing dialogue that seems too adult. We might think, Kids aren’t going to get that or Kids shouldn’t listen to that. But when we think about our middle school readers, they already hear so much. They hear their parents fighting. They hear the conversations teachers have (which teachers think they do not hear). They hear their own friends talk about them and betray them and hurt them.
In our novels, we need to honor the fat that our readers are aware that people say mean things, hard things, things which they shouldn’t have said at all.
But art—and life—are not about sanitizing our conversations. Instead, they are about dealing with them—facing them with grace and redemption and, hopefully, healing. Novels which allow readers to see adults speak in authentic ways not only help middle grade readers to see real life, but they also teach these readers that they are not alone. And—while always imperfect—can still be beautiful. It can still bring healing and hope. This is what dignifies their own experience.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.