6 Golden Rules of Writing Middle Grade

Ah, the tween years—a hodgepodge of awkward exchanges, sweaty hands, nervous crushes, and insurmountable self-consciousness built on an indecipherable foundation of social hierarchy.

There’s a reason why you rarely hear anyone talk about their wonderful years in middle school. But that’s also the reason why middle-grade is such a tour de force in children’s literature. When done well, all that angst makes for compelling material that can send an important, powerful message to your misfit readers: You are not alone.

But how can you—a grown-up (gasp!)—effectively write the middle-grade voice? Here’s how. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!]

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Erin_Entrada_Kelly_featuredFinalfrontCVR CC15 KellyThis guest post is by Erin Entrada Kelly. Kelly is the author of the upcoming book, Hello, Universe, as well as The Land of Forgotten Girls (HarperCollins), which was recently named one of the Best Multicultural Books of 2016 by Booklist, and Blackbird Fly, which earned an Asian/Pacific American Honor Award for Literature, a Golden Kite Honor Award, and was included on several best-of lists for 2015, including Kirkus, School Library Journal, and the Center for the Study of Multicultural Literature. Blackbird Fly is also currently long-listed for the SIBA Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize. Find her online at erinentradakelly.com, on Twitter (@erinkellytweets), and Facebook (www.Facebook.com/ErinEntradaKelly).

1. See through their eyes—not yours.

Yes, you know what it’s like to be 12. But do you know what it’s like to be 12 in 2016? No. There are universal truths, certainly. In general, middle school has been an excruciating and painful experience for everyone in every era since the beginning of time. But being 12 in 2016 isn’t the same as being 12 in 1986. Don’t think about what life was like when you were 12. Think about what life felt like when you were 12. Use the emotional anguish of 1986 to inform your writing, but don’t forget to include the realities of today—social media, smart phones, Internet.

2. Remember: Kids are real people.

As adults, we have a tendency to view kids as one-dimensional creatures with no idea how things really work. Small people, small problems, right? This is why we like to lecture them about the “real world.” But their world is very real to them. It was real to you when you were 12, too. Young characters can and should be just as complex as any adult character. In life, we don’t become three-dimensional with age. We’re born that way. The only thing that changes is our priorities. Ask yourself: What are my characters’ greatest flaws? In what ways are they imperfect? What do they want in life?

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3. Don’t turn your characters into a Cleaver.

Middle-grade authors often struggle with how to make their characters “sound young,” so they fall back on their own days of yore and reminisce about what youth sounded like—or what they think it sounded like—back then. This is how words like “golly” and “gosh” find their way into manuscripts alongside outdated slang terms. A general rule of thumb in fiction: If you’re trying to do something, it shows. Don’t ask yourself how you can sound like a 12-year-old. Ask yourself what 12-year-olds sound like.

4. Don’t be a parent to your characters.

Your readers hear enough from adults. They hear them at home. They hear them at school. They hear them in the grocery store. They hear them on the playground. As your story moves forward, make sure your characters are making discoveries on their own, with little help from adults. Kids don’t want to read about adults helping them solve their problems. Grown-ups aren’t that fun. Think about The Goonies. Great movie, right? Now think about The Goonies if Mom and Dad had tagged along.

[The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them)]

5. Don’t underestimate them.

Are you still thinking about the Goonies? Good. This group of kids snatched a treasure map, evaded a criminal family, tunneled into the ground, solved a series of complicated riddles, nearly died, and discovered a pirate ship full of riches—all while Mom and Dad were off doing something lame, like working. Kids aren’t miniature adults filling their brains with intelligence with each passing day. They’re already smart. They’re also sophisticated readers, so don’t try any shortcuts in your plotting. If you know it’s a shortcut, they’ll know it’s a shortcut.

6. Know what they know.

There’s an easy way to do this: Read lots of middle-grade.

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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.

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18 thoughts on “6 Golden Rules of Writing Middle Grade

  1. sheepwriter

    The most memorable part of my middle years is the principal saying (more than once) “you may not see it now, but one day you’ll look back and realize these are the best days of your life.” Um, no. Sorry Mr. Orr, definitely not the case. LOVE middle grade fiction – working on one now 🙂

  2. mikemcgregorjr

    To this day, I still read many of the books that I found and fell in love with so long ago. The heroes on the page and the stories of their journeys continue to speak to me today. I know a lot of my favorite characters back then were much older than me, and it was because of that fact that I looked up to them. They were the kind of person I wanted to be, even with their flaws, and some of them inspired me to become the man I am today. I find it really difficult to put myself back into those shoes after all this time, and to see the world from that point of view. I’ve never really considered writing for that audience, but your wonderful advice has got my mind spinning in new directions. I will try some of your tips and see where it leads me. Thanks.

    1. erinentradakelly

      That sounds great, Mike! What you said about favorite characters is interesting … middle-grade readers definitely tend to “read up.”

      Best of luck on your writing journey.

  3. gpcolo

    Great points especially number six. There are so many superb middle grade books both this year and any other. I’ve read more than 100 of them in the last 12 months and I learn from each one – about writing for this age group and how to write for them. Thanks for the spot on thoughts, Erin.

  4. David Emanuel

    Some great points.

    I would also add that writers should hangout with middle graders.

    One of the reasons that I found myself writing middle grade was because I kept driving them around. My girl’s friends would talk or text in the backseat. I took them to movies. Had friends come along on camping trips. I chaperoned school trips.

    I was intrigued by the way they talked, what was important to them, and how they solved problems. Then I starting thinking about how they would react to various situations. From there, it only seemed natural to try and pen a middle grade story.

  5. chrisgo

    I agree that the best stories find ways to keep the parents somehow removed. That is why there are so many orphans in literature.

    You definitely followed rule 2 and 5 in “The Land of Forgotten Girls” — the shoes dropped fast for the sisters in that book. Each sentence showed that their lives were not sheltered, and that they had found ways to survive.

    I’m working diligently on number 6. There are so many great middle grade books out right now. I often find myself lost in a book to where I stay up late to see how it ends.

    1. erinentradakelly

      Thanks so much @chrisgo! I agree, there are SO many great MG books out right now. It’s hard to choose. I have stacks and stacks and I’ll never make it through all the ones I want to read. Some of my recent favorites were THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH and GOODBYE STRANGER. I also just picked up a science fiction MG novel called THE BOY AT THE END OF THE WORLD. Looks good so far!


  6. JayGee2711

    Thank you for this article. It reminds me to write about what really matters; the way a character thinks and feels. I remember what it felt like to be 12, to not fit in anywhere. I wanted to be grown up more than anything in the world. Reading was my escape. Now as an adult, I’m motivated to write stories that will make at least one child in the world not feel so alone…

    1. erinentradakelly

      Yes, 12 was awful. Someone told me once that we all have pivotal years in our lives. A time when we can say: “That was the year everything changed.” And sometimes we find the heart of our stories in those years. For me, it was 12. There have been others, of course, but that’s the first year I can pinpoint and say there was a before and after. Life before 12, and life after. Life after was tough.

  7. smmorris

    I read a lot of middle grade and have actually groaned at some of the words and phrases I’ve read. I have also read a tremendous amount of wonderful MG, especially the past two years. I’ve always wondered how these writers understand middle graders. I went to a K-8 school and never experienced all the angst middle graders feel. To me this all feels like high school. As a reviewer, I appreciate these “rules.” The one thing I hate to read is an adult figuring out all the kids’ problems. If I hate it, I imagine middle grade readers do too.

    1. erinentradakelly

      My middle grade years were so full of angst, it practically dripped from my pores! You were fortunate to have escaped it. 🙂 I’ve read so much wonderful middle grade in the past couple years too. It’s so exciting to know that young readers today have so many options. I don’t remember having many books to choose from once I grew out of Judy Blume. But today? Today, great books are everywhere! For people of all ages.

  8. atwhatcost

    A child in 1986? Ha! I was a child in 1966, so knew there was no way to fake being a child in this century. I solved the problem by causing an unusual dystopia — the rest of the world goes on like usual, but my characters were kicked out to fend for themselves.

    I have to admit it though, because my story is MG, I really have been enjoying MG as a genre the last several years. I love the diversity of an emerging market for novels. (If you were a child in the 60’s, anything that has come along in the last 30 years really is “emerging” to you.)

    Great advice. I so hate it when I’m talked down to, even as I’m reading MG’s. Thank you.


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