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What’s up with middle grade?

If there’s one refrain I hear from children’s book editors most regularly, it’s, “I’d love a great middle grade novel.” My response?  “Me, too.” But finding good middle grade is hard, which means writing it is even harder. What makes for good middle grade, exactly? And what are agents and editors looking for? I was having this conversation with my editor friend Molly O’Neill the other day, and we decided that we’d take our musings public on our respective blogs. Before we begin that blog conversation next week, we want to hear from you: what do you want to know about middle grade? How can we help you write the great American middle grade novel…so that we can publish it?

Leave me us questions here, or over at Molly’s blog, or send a tweet to me or Molly. We’re looking forward to your questions!

18 Responses to What’s up with middle grade?

  1. C Atkinson says:

    How about a basic, but difficult question — what makes for a great middle-grade novel?

    Another basic, but easier question (I think): Beyond the obvious things (mature content/issues), how do you draw the line between what determines whether a story is upper MG or crosses over into YA?

    I’ve written a story I thought my daughter and I would like to read, but didn’t go into it thinking of categories/age ranges (it began as, if you’ll pardon the schlock, a labor of love for my girl, so there wasn’t much strategy beyond having fun). My guess is that it’s upper middle-grade, but I’m not positive.

    Thanks for asking for questions…and in advance for any thoughts you offer up.

  2. Given the crossover success of books like Harry Potter and The Graveyard Book, do you think much about crossover potential when evaluating middle grade manuscripts?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know if this will be even remotely helpful, but for what it’s worth…
    I am an unpublished author and mainly read (and write) adult material. I have thought about someday attempting middle grade or young adult. I think my biggest challenge in writing middle grade would be in keeping up with what is “in”. As an adult I can pretty much draw a ton of what I write from myself and those around me, but it’s been a long time since I knew what kids were thinking and feeling. I would have difficulty connecting to my characters as deeply ( I think) and that makes me hesitant to try. Do you have any insights or tips for maybe researching or connecting ( re connecting?) with that young world/mindset?

  4. Kaye Draper says:

    Sorry- didn’t mean to be anonymous :)

    I don’t know if this will be even remotely helpful, but for what it’s worth…
    I am an unpublished author and mainly read (and write) adult material. I have thought about someday attempting middle grade or young adult. I think my biggest challenge in writing middle grade would be in keeping up with what is “in”. As an adult I can pretty much draw a ton of what I write from myself and those around me, but it’s been a long time since I knew what kids were thinking and feeling. I would have difficulty connecting to my characters as deeply ( I think) and that makes me hesitant to try. Do you have any insights or tips for maybe researching or connecting ( re connecting?) with that young world/mindset?

  5. Anonymous says:

    I write adult horror, fantasy, and a little sci-fi. I have a horror short published.

    I’ve already written a MG novel. It’s sitting on my desktop awaiting revision. It was a fluke because I had no interest in writing children’s novels, but I fell in love with the idea for it, and have an idea for at least 4 more books in a series for it…lol. I don’t know where it came from. I didnt’ even plan on writing YA, but I have at least three series ideas for that market. My imagination has always been very active and I never run out of ideas–period.

    My MG is unique, but I’d have to find an agent that would represent an author who writes a little of everything and is comfortable with that. I never planned on touching it again–but I will.

    I say all that to ask, what genre are agents, editors, readers, etc., looking for in MG? Fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, etc.? Mine happens to be fantasy.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I write adult horror, fantasy, and a little sci-fi. I have a horror short published.

    I’ve already written a MG novel. It’s sitting on my desktop awaiting revision. It was a fluke because I had no interest in writing children’s novels, but I fell in love with the idea for it, and have an idea for at least 4 more books in a series for it…lol. I don’t know where it came from. I didnt’ even plan on writing YA, but I have at least three series ideas for that market. My imagination has always been very active and I never run out of ideas–period.

    My MG is unique, but I’d have to find an agent that would represent an author who writes a little of everything and is comfortable with that. I never planned on touching it again–but I will.

    I say all that to ask, what genre are agents, editors, readers, etc., looking for in MG? Fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, etc.? Mine happens to be fantasy.

  7. Joelle says:

    I’m contemplating MG. I work with Grade 6&7 students on writing and they seem to want fantasy, fantasy, fantasy. However, when I share things like bits from Jerry Spinelli, or Al Capone Does My Shirts, they are very attentive and interested, often getting the books themselves to read at home.

    My question is: Is there room for Spinelli type stories in today’s market? It seems like the more straightforward books, like his have been squeezed out and replaced with fantasy, but kids still like them. I don’t have MG fantasy in my bones….

  8. ryan field says:

    So many kids who fit the middle grade mold are dealng with so many issues these days. Parents getting divorced, shared custody where they spend two days with dad and the next two with mom, and dealing with mom or dad’s new partner. If it’s Thursday it’s counseling. It used to be meatloaf.

    Focus on a middle grade book that helps these kids deal with their situations.

  9. Gill Avila says:

    At Kristin Nelson’s Friday (02/17) Pubrants blog she has a video defining the meanings of YA and MG. Cleared up my questions.

  10. Sarah Henson says:

    What is played out in MG? What exactly are agents looking for?

    I have a MG adventure/portal novel that, quite frankly, isn’t ready to query yet, but I’ve been hearing from different sources that sort of thing is out. Not that I write toward trends or anything, but I haven’t had the motivation to revise it (I wrote it a few years ago) since it doesn’t seem to be the sort of story agents are looking for.

    Then again, I keep hearing agents looking for MG, so I’m just a big ball of confused. What are your thoughts?

  11. I’m curious about balance in MG, specifically to do with emotional subject matter.

    On the one hand, there’s a need to help “kids deal with their situations,” as one commenter above puts it. That means writing about some of the tough situations children encounter. On the other hand, I was recently talking to the mother of a 10-year-old girl who shies away from books with intense emotional conflict and prefers to read books on the silly side. While the mom wants her daughter to read more emotionally challenging material in time (and the girl already has to do that for school), she feels that there’s also value to reading for entertainment, especially when her kid is still just a kid.

    What’s your take on this as it translates to the actual writing of MG? Should writers aim to help those kids who are growing up at a mile a minute, or to entertain the kids who are going at a more traditional pace? Or does it all just balance out in the market, with different books available for the different kids who need them?

  12. Kim says:

    I’m trying to write strong male characters in my two MGs. I’d like to know if books that give equal weight to a male and a female character are okay or if it’s such common belief that females will read about males that the demand is for females that take a back seat to one dominant male character, so to speak.

  13. IDA says:

    My main character is 12 years old in the first novel so the target reader would be 2 years younger. I think it’s important to be aware that many middle grade books would be considered for school novel studies or in-class reading. Profanity would probably eliminate them from consideration as would graphic violence or any serious boy/girl relationships.

    I knew I would be providing a teacher’s guide and student workbook on-line to accompany the novels so I considered aspects of literature circles and novel studies that could be incorporated into the book. Being a teacher in this middle grade age group helps me be aware of interests.

    I believe this age group likes characters that that they can identify with, that have some flaws but also qualities they value such as loyalty and courage. I do think this category may be getting smaller. As is the case with children’s toys, by the time students are in Grade 7 and 12 years old they consider themselves YA as far as reading material. However, MG is probably not accessible to students younger than Grade 4 because of reading skills. So a genre with a 2 to 3 year age span of potential readers may be problematic, longterm. I hope I’m wrong.

  14. I am very interested in listening in on the conversation. I have a MG novel that has garnered interest from various sources and even came close to landing a contract but hasn’t yet. Even though I have revised it 17,000 times, I am willing to find out if there are other things that will make it better.

  15. Nova says:

    Is there room in the MG market right now for a “quiet” coming-of-age story if the book has a strong voice and compelling characters?

    —This question may or may not be from one of Michael’s clients.

  16. Laurie Gray says:

    As the author of a tween book (Summer Sanctuary/Luminis Books,2010)who is in the process of writing more, I wonder whether you think there are more accelerated younger readers (say 8 & 9 year olds) reading “up” or more challenged readers (15 & 16 year olds) reading “down” and whether this is something an author should consider regarding content. I look forward to the discussion!

  17. Victoria Coe says:

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on age ranges within the overall category of middle grade. For example, I see middle grade books aimed at the lower range (ages 7-10) and others aimed at the upper range (ages 9-12) or somewhere in between. Do these distinctions apply primarily to reading level or subject matter or both?

  18. Liana says:

    Hi! I have one question about MG: I was told that my upper MG novel is too literary or sophisticated for children of that age. I don’t know what to make of it (maybe I should be flattered, or maybe upset). Where would you draw the line in terms of style? My book certainly does not seem as if it was written by Joseph Conrad, but I didn’t want to be too plain either. I can think of examples of children’s books written in a very literary way. Is that something that agents tend to stay away from?

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