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.
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?
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 This is how words like “golly” and “gosh” find their way into manuscripts alongside outdated slang terms.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.
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.
Any middle-grade book author will tell you that writing an effective book is more challenging than reading one! Take this online workshop and learn the essential elements of writing for kids and how to break into children's publishing.