Skip to main content

Lost Boys: Writing Middle-Grade Fiction for the Next Generation of Men

Author Tom Phillips shares his thoughts on combatting toxic masculinity through better modeling in middle-grade fiction, while still telling a compelling story that boys will want to read.

All children grow up, except one. I think about the opening of Peter Pan every time I hear about another tragedy that has plagued our country. It feels like some angry male causes mass violence every other week and terrorizes our communities. Just a couple of weeks ago, the lives of 19 children were taken from us, and all we were left with was sadness and questions.

(7 Tips for Developing a Compelling Middle-Grade Premise.)

Instantly news pundits and talking heads began the tiresome debate on what to blame and who to pray for. As my friends mourned and my family cried, all I felt was anger. Anger is and has always been my go-to emotion. I think that is the problem.

We have all heard the phrases, “Boys don’t cry,” or “Man up.” When you are about to go out on the football field, the coaches yell, “Get Angry.” We even have superheroes whose powers come from their anger. Anger has become the only emotion boys are allowed to have. We breed this frustration into our boys and then wonder why when they act out in anger.

Lost Boys: Writing Middle-Grade Fiction for the Next Generation of Men

So how do we combat this? How do we teach the next generation of men to express their emotions? It’s easy to blame parents or criticize teachers, but we are writers, so I think it is safe to say we don’t know how to take the easy path in life.

I want you to take a moment and think about where you learned the harsh lessons in life? If you were like me, you learned a lot from books. Yes, we learn how to love our significant other from how our parents treat each other, but movies, television, and books play a huge part in a child’s development.

It falls on us as creators to give children a different perspective of what they are learning at home. Books are a way to introduce them to a world they would never experience, so why not also teach them to self-regulate their emotions.

Recently we have begun doing a great job of empowering girls and breaking stereotypes. The Barbie doll has evolved from an unrealistic caricature of a woman into depicting a wide range of different sizes, colors, and even disabilities. Meanwhile, He-Man has just grown bigger muscles.

Even the actors who play superheroes are given steroids to achieve this standard of what it is to be a man and a hero. We need to teach our young men how to be empathetic to people who don’t look like them and include them in this fight for equality.

It is easy to tell white men to shut up and step aside, but there is also a danger in it. Yes, for the history of mankind, they have taken up all the seats at the table. And yes, it is time for more spaces for minorities and women at this table. I will fight for that every day, but if we push the young men away, others will pull them into their ideals. If we don’t teach our sons how to treat others, someone else will. If we don’t teach our sons about consent and sexuality, someone else will, and if we don’t teach our sons about regulating their emotions, someone else will. Unfortunately, an exuberant number of anger-driven groups are popping up who are standing arms wide open to turn our children to their cause.

These groups use buzzwords and internet memes purposely designed to enrage, discourage, and ultimately radicalize our young men. Until we step up, we will continue to have these horrific events. We spend so much time teaching our young women how not to be attacked, but we don’t spend much time teaching our young men not to attack. In my opinion, it isn’t enough to just legislate; we have to educate. We have to catch these kids early on. We have to write better books for boys.

That brings me to my middle-grade novel, The Curious League of Detectives and Thieves. I set out to write a book geared toward reluctant readers and combat toxic masculinity. It’s about a boy who lives in a museum. He is framed for stealing a priceless ruby and is forced to team up with a zany detective as they try to clear his name and catch the real thief.

Check out The Curious League of Detectives and Thieves, by Tom Phillips

The Curious League of Detectives and Thieves, by Tom Phillips

IndieBound | Amazon

(Writer's Digest uses affiliate links.)

Our hero, John, learns the 37 Rules of being a great detective in the book. The rules are cleverly written to teach children how to be better adults. It has life lessons that are hidden in quirky rules. Middle-grade boys want adventure and comedy and not to be preached at. It’s hard enough to get kids to read.

When writing for boys, I like to remember to keep it light but give them characters they can model. If they look up to toxic men, they will become toxic. Don’t confuse toxic masculinity with masculinity. Boys should be able to love things like sports and cars. The danger becomes when they define themselves off of these traits. Normalize characters liking whatever makes them happy.

Don’t push an agenda. You don’t need to have the character learn about racism or define their sexuality in the book. Instead, try having diverse characters that happen to be there. You can have a gay couple and not have to explain what it is to be gay. I have gay characters in my books, not because it’s trendy, but because they exist. Normalize diversity, break stereotypes, and give your kids the room to ask questions if they have them. Honestly, our children have a better grasp of diversity than we do.


Writing the Middle-Grade Book

Any middle-grade book author will tell you that writing an effective book is more challenging than reading one! Take this online course and learn the essential elements of writing for kids and how to break into children’s publishing.

Click to continue.


Above all, push communication. When you set up a problem for your boy characters, use actual coping mechanisms and communication to have them win the day. Fight scenes are fun, but they are better if your character outsmarts their enemy versus outmuscles them. We should be teaching our boys to speak up about what they are feeling. Punishing them for their feelings causes them to bottle things up until it explodes.

Violence breeds violence, and middle-grade books are a great way to break the chain, guide their minds, and help them navigate the hormones they have begun to feel.

If we teach our boys to feel, we will lead them to heal. It’s as simple as that. J. M. Barrie once wrote: All Children grow up, except one. The boys of today will be the adults in the future. When they grow up, the question for us is, what type of men they will be?

6 Habits Writers Can Learn From Athletes

6 Habits Writers Can Learn From Athletes

Author and athlete Henriette Lazaridis shares six tips and habits that writers can learn from athletes.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Last Chance to Nominate Your Favorite Writing Websites, Our Historical Fiction Virtual Conference, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce the deadline to nominate your favorite writing websites, our Historical Fiction Virtual Conference, and more!

4 Tips for Writing a Modern Retelling

4 Tips for Writing a Modern Retelling

From having reverence for the original to making it your own, author Nikki Payne shares four tips for writing a modern retelling.

Faint vs. Feint (Grammar Rules)

Faint vs. Feint (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use faint vs. feint in your writing with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples. Plus, we answer whether it's "faint of heart" or "feint of heart."

6 Books to Cozy Up With This Winter | Book Recommendations

6 Books to Cozy Up With This Winter

Here are 6 book recommendation perfect for winter reading.

12 Things to Consider When Writing Fight Scenes in Fiction (FightWrite™)

12 Things to Consider When Writing Fight Scenes in Fiction (FightWrite™)

Trained fighter and author Carla Hoch shares 12 things all writers should consider when attempting to write effective fight scenes in fiction.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unreal Character

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unreal Character

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character turn out to be less than they seem.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Next Steps

Here are the final steps for the 15th annual November PAD Chapbook Challenge! Use December and the beginning of January to revise and collect your poems into a chapbook manuscript. Here are some tips and guidelines.

Valeria Ruelas: On Teaching Tarot, Brujeria, and Witchcraft

Valeria Ruelas: On Teaching Tarot, Brujeria, and Witchcraft

Author Valeria Ruelas discusses the process of writing her new book, The Mexican Witch Lifestyle.