As promised, editor Molly O’Neill and I are going to have a dialogue about middle grade. After a lot of thought, we decided to have a conversation via email that we’d transcribe (minus our distracting tangents). Your questions as we go will help shape the discussion, just as your questions are getting us started, so let us know what you think!
MB: It seems only natural to start with this question (plus, you told me to): What is middle grade? It seems a much simpler question at first glance. If we’re looking at bookstore sections, it’s the 9 – 12 part of B&N. These aren’t chapter books or early readers, which are usually quite short, often in series, usually contain education content, and are aimed at a slightly younger audience, 6 – 8 year olds. But they’re also not teen novels, which are usually categorized as 12 and up (though can be 14 and up when there’s more “content”). YA novels often deal with more “controversial” subject matter, and often involve romantic story lines. But that brings us back to the question, what is middle grade? We can define it by age group, but I’d argue that classifying by content is more difficult.
MO: As you know, I have a marketing background, which means that whether or not I intend it, one of the first things my brain starts thinking about for a book is its readership: who is a book FOR? What kind of reader is it going to reach, and how? Maybe instead of asking “What is middle grade?” it’s easier to think about “Who is the middle grade reader, and what is he/she looking for in a book?”
I think that a middle grade reader is often (and note, I’m speaking BROADLY, here) reading for one of two reasons: to understand, or to escape. Middle grade readers who read to understand look for stories that help them piece together the truths that seem to be opening up all around them, about the world and their place in it, and the connections between themselves and their family, their community, their friends, etc. Or they’re reading to understand about a different time/ place and what it was/would be like to be a kid then. Or they’re reading to just understand how stuff works, period—from the everyday mundane stuff to big concepts like justice and honesty and friendship and happiness and love.
The middle grade reader who reads to escape is the kid who is commonly BORED—like middle-of-summer-vacation-bored!—with his/her ordinary life, yet has no means for alleviating that boredom, or even escaping his/her house or classroom. Or maybe he/she is craving excitement or adventure or entertainment or a sense of power and autonomy that family and school simply don’t offer. So that reader dives into an epic story, or something quirky or witty or fantastical or humorous, in order to escape and live in someone else’s world for a while.
The trick is, most middle grade readers are BOTH of those readers at various points, one who wants to understand AND to escape (I certainly was, anyway). So there’s not just one kind of story that appeals to them, which means that middle grade books can be ABOUT anything. So maybe the line between middle grade and YA maybe has more to do with perspective than content?
MB: As publishing professionals, we’re always asking ourselves the question Molly posed above (paraphrasing): Who is the reader for this book? On the one hand, I sometimes wish writers wouldn’t ask themselves that question, at least not at the outset. Too many times, I get a submission and it’s clear that the writer is writing to a specific market or reader. A symptom of this problem that I see very often in middle grade submissions is “writing down” to the reader. This is can take the form of trying-too-hard dialogue (“Zoinks, bud! We need to skedaddle out of here before our ‘rents come biz-ack.”), narrator-as-character (think Lemony Snicket done badly), or message-driven novels (books written only to teach a lesson). On the other hand, it’s important to think about your reader, especially during revision. I always encourage my clients to be as creative and rule-breaking as they want when conceiving of ideas or writing initial drafts, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t then rein things in based on market expectations. For instance, one of the mistakes I see all too often is a mismatch between the age of the protagonist and the intended reader. A 12 year old doesn’t want to read about a protagonist who’s 8 or 80–they want to read about someone in the same general age group.
How to figure out what the audience wants? Do what I always recommend: read. Go to the bookstore and buy some of the recently-published* middle grade. This will give you a good idea of what the audience is looking for, and just how broad the category is.
*Please, please, please: don’t reference books published decades ago as comparisons for your books. What worked years ago probably doesn’t work now–trends and tastes change. “But The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe still sells!” you say. Classic books sell because they are classics, and I would argue that many of them would not find an audience today.
MO: Oh, I heartily second the need to read recently-published books, even if you’re a great appreciator of the classics! Unless you have a time-travel machine to go back to a different era in publishing to sell your book, it’s today’s market and audience a new book you’re trying to sell it to. Someone asked in the comments about whether there’s a middle grade canon and I think there’s a canon in every genre of literature, even if its an informal one—that’s why it’s so important to read widely, to have a sense of where your book fits and be able to articulate the things that both make it a natural fit within the genre AND a stand-out addition to the genre.
Speaking of problems you often see, I think one of the most common ones I run across in middle grade is “low stakes.” I think this can happen as a result of writers wanting to make a story feel familiar, but when I was a kid, other people’s lives always felt more interesting than my own, so why would I want to read about everyday, average things like homework and piano lessons and third-period math class all over again? I guess I’m trying to say that there can be a fine line between stories that feel familiar and those that feel, well, dull. This is a big reason I often encourage my authors to push past their initial ideas and explore the unknown creative wilds beyond the very first idea/solution/problem/mystery/story point/etc that they think of – because often the really fresh ideas live deep in writer’s minds, not at the very forefront. Like you said, Michael, you can always rein an idea in later, but too much of the middle grade that crosses my desk in submission feels like it never got a chance to be as creative as it maybe could have been.
Of course, sometimes it’s not always the idea that is the magical part of the story—an incredible voice or character can make even the most average story-moments feel vivid and memorable. But that’s just it—memorable is important. I think about middle grade being the time when a lot of readers discover “that book”—the one that turns them into a lifelong reader, or explodes their world open with new ideas, or shares exactly the right truth at exactly the right moment in a way they’ll never forget. You know, any time I tell people at a social event like a wedding or a party what I do for a living, there’s an odd compulsion—people simply HAVE to tell me what their favorite book was as a kid. And as an editor, those are the kind of books I want to publish—the ones that a reader of today will recall decades from now as being “that book.”
MB: I think it’s great that you bring up the issue of stakes, which can be an issue in any sort of novel. What’s on the line for the protagonist? What makes this story important enough to tell? To be clear, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be writing wonderful, contemporary, realistic middle grade. One question we got (perhaps from a client of mine) was, is there room for a “quiet” middle grade novel? I’d argue that the best books, even when they’re not deal with the end of the world or magic, aren’t really “quiet.” They may be a smaller story, with very real, relatable stakes. But if the story is constructed well, and the voice is strong, the writer can make us care very much what happens in these more everyday struggles. While not contemporary, The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt comes to mind.
As an agent, I too have spent my my career looking for those kinds of books. Books that have a lasting impact on readers, that stick with them long after they’ve turned the final page. It’s why I keep hunting for great middle grade.
MO: And as a matter of fact, I think it’s why we’re doing this blog conversation. And it’s getting good! But now we have to get back to work. Check back late next week for a second installment, on Molly’s blog.