Where’s the Delorean? Or Traveling Back to Middle-Grade

In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Back to the Future, let’s travel back to the days before we were buried by adult responsibilities and unearth the child that was. Need practice tapping into those lost memories? Check out the book examples or try the exercises. No Delorean required.

1. Look at things from a different perspective: While driving down the road the other day, I spotted a small group of middle- grade kids sitting on top of a wall at the entrance to a nearby subdivision. Now you won’t very often find a group of adults sitting anywhere but Starbucks in the afternoon, but middle grade students love to look at life from unusual perches. From atop the monkey bars to under a bridge, middle-graders never forget to examine life from all angles.

Book Example: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead 

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Exercise: Each day for a week, take a different route to or from work or school. Or pretend you are new in town and play tourist in your own city.

2. Remember how it feels to try something new: Now that I’ve been a fully immersed adult for a couple of decades (or more, shhh!), I can go through good portion of some days on autopilot. But even the mundane is fresh when you are a middle- grader. Travel can be a great way to relive the excitement of trying something new. But simpler things, such as tasting a different type of food can remind an adult autobot what it’s like to do something new, like giving a speech in front of the class, going on an overnight school trip or moving away from all that’s familiar.

Book Example: Mamba Point by Kurtis Scaletta 

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Exercise: Stop in at an international grocery store. Look at the colors, smell the spices and take in the unusual names of the foods. Ask someone how to cook a vegetable you’ve never seen before. Then do it. Better yet, eat it!  Or go to an ethnic restaurant that features foods you aren’t familiar with and try something completely outside of your comfort zone. Extra points if the location is also vastly different than your normal hangouts.

3. Make a big deal about small things: In spite of sometimes demonstrating a complete lack of safety awareness and forethought (Can you say “Don’t text and skateboard?”), middle-graders often sweat the small stuff. That’s because there is no such thing as small stuff in the middle grades. It is the time when test anxiety develops and relationships change as often as some kids change their socks. Or not. But that’s a different topic.

Book Example: The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies 

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Exercise: Do something small that makes you a bit uncomfortable—like wearing a different shade of lipstick, combing your hair to the other side, painting your nails an unusual color or wearing an outfit you don’t like. Remember how it feels to focus on something that really isn’t that big of a deal and how it contributes to making every other little thing feel much bigger than it really is.

4. Take off the rose colored glasses: Think back. Way back. Way, way back. Remember the innocence and freedom of childhood. Now remember what it was really like. Childhood then and now is way more complicated than a Hallmark card. By the time kids reach the upper end of middle-grade, they are often able to handle topics that are a little more challenging. Each child is different, but many have compassionate hearts that are motivated to action by stories of life’s challenges. For some inspiring examples of kids who aren’t afraid to face a less-than-perfect reality and are doing something about it, check out this spot.

Book Example:  Escaping the Tiger by Laura Manivong 

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Exercise: When I was in sixth grade, a huge fire made an indelible impact on our community. Thirty years later, we are still linked by that memory. Think of an event that happened in your town or the world when you were a child that influenced your perspective.  If you can, talk to others who shared a similar experience. Write a journal entry about it.

5. Laugh a lot: It doesn’t matter whether you like funny middle-grade books or not (I do!), humor is a huge part of the middle-grade experience. Puns, word play, funny observations, bathroom humor . . . middle-graders use their ability to think more abstractly to find the humor in unexpected places and to cope with the challenges of life in the middle-grades. That is a skill we should never outgrow.

Book Example: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger 

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Exercise: Make an Origami Yoda and talk to it. Out loud. At the mall. In December. Funny you’ll be.

Joanne Prushing Johnson writes boy-friendly books with humor and heart. She is also an occupational therapist and mom of four boys. Until she finds a modified Delorean, she’s making do by squeezing twenty-five hours of activity into a twenty-four hour day. Visit www.joanneprushingjohnson.com for more about what she’s writing. Joanne is represented by Quinlan Lee of Adams Literary.

  1. Other great reads for middle grade: The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes, by Kelly Easton; Ellen Potter’s Olivia Kidney series and Slob; Kimberly Newton Fusco’s The Wonder of Charlie Anne. All have great messages for kids.

  2. This is absolutely fantastic. I’m off to do these exercises for my homework. My mind’s ticking over even reading through this.

  3. Thanks everyone for the great comments. @ Sheela, I’m not sure if I’m laid back or a little like a deer in the headlights! Writer’s angst is a curse! Thanks again to all for the boost.

  4. I love the voice in your posts, Joanne: funny and laid-back, and always, wise.

    Sometimes I find myself accidentally doing these things when I’m with my children, like #1, and well, laughing. I don’t think I’d laugh nearly enough w/o them.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. You pose such great challenges. Things I forgot I used to do as a middle grader. Thank you! This post was a pleasure to read.

  6. Yes! You captured both of my kids, the 6th and the 9th grader…and thanks for reminding me to climb the monkey bars.

  7. Great post. When You Reach Me is terrific, and I’ve been meaning to read Scaletta for a while. Thanks for the reminder about kids observing the world from various perches. So true.

    I’m reading One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-garcia. Terrific transportation to the 60’s and the days of revolution. Also, the voice is so authentic.

  8. It’s evident you respect children a lot, something that is so key in writing for a mid-grade audience.

    I’ve just started ORIGAMI YODA on my son’s recommendation. In fact, he informs me I’m not reading it fast enough! It is utterly original. Love it.