By Max Elliot Anderson
Eleven years ago, I set out to write action adventure & mystery books for readers 8 to 12. At the time, I didn’t know the term middle grade fiction, but came to understand this was the age that had been targeted. The age group was chosen because of many previous years spent in dramatic film productions for the same ages. That experience made it more comfortable to begin writing books for a familiar audience.
In the beginning, middle grade had its distinctives over material written for even younger readers, and the books written for high school ages known as young adult, or YA. Today, according to research and statistics, middle grade fiction books have become the largest, most popular category in children’s books.
At the time I began writing; middle grade fiction followed certain guidelines. Interests for this age group center around family and friends. A part of them wants to stay a little kid while the other strains to grow up. It’s extremely important for these children to fit in while, at the same time, discovering who they are as individuals. And most of them have their eyes on the goal of simply surviving to high school.
When I began writing for kids, the lines were more clearly drawn. But now, certain elements of YA have begun to creep in. The middle grade ages were clearly 8 – 12 or even 13. As a rule, they like to read and will enjoy adventures, mysteries, historical, action, fantasy, humor, and sci-fi. These readers like to read up, so the ages of main characters tend to be in the upper range, too. The characters need to face the same hopes and and fears of the readers.
It’s also important, in middle grade fiction, to get the adults into the background, and let the plot, problem solving, and solutions come from the kids. The main character will also grow and change during the story. Strong language, or profanity, should not be used. Parents and teachers are still protective of their young readers at this age.
Middle grade lengths will range from 20,000 to 40,000 words. In some cases, publishers are requesting substantially longer manuscripts based on some of the previously popular books with much higher word counts. My middle grade adventures and mysteries range from about 23,000 to 43,000 words. Longer middle grade books came about as a result of titles including Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Percy Jackson, Eragon, and others. But shorter books tend to be the norm for most middle grade fiction. Vocabulary can be a little deeper for these readers. However, graphic novels have also crept into the mix. These books incorporate more comic-type images, or pictures, and depend on fewer words.
It used to be that the edgy, darker, and horror material was reserved for YA and adult books. However, I receive several books throughout the year which publishers send to me for possible review on my blog. A couple of recent batches were disturbing. I checked the accompanying paperwork to make sure these were actually intended for middle grade readers. They were. Subjects included stronger boy-girl relationships, zombies, vampires, witches, and the list goes on. Several of the books were quite dark and the humor was gutter. Some have even lamented that middle grade fiction today went, almost overnight, from PG to PG-13 and even R.
It is evident, from these new books, that those of us who write for middle grade readers need to continue producing material that is uplifting. Middle grade readers are impressionable, sensitive, and still forming who they’re going to be as adults. And even though they may feel invincible, they still fear things like death, strangers, accidents, a house burning down, or some other personal tragedy.
Middle grade is such a pivotal time for readers. These readers are still focused inward and what they look for in books will reflect that. Themes can range from friendships, to school, to relationships and responsibilities within the family, circle of friends, and their neighborhoods. This is the age when they will decide to become a reader or not. Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to fill the void with uplifting material for them to read?