The Real Life of the Middle-Grade Reader

I love writing for the middle-grade reader.

There’s something very appealing about this audience. They’re old enough to understand humor and even sarcasm (in fact, some eleven-year-olds I know are Kings and Queens of Sarcasm).  By age nine, many children have mastered the mechanics of reading and they’re ready for challenging new vocabulary and themes that stretch their minds.

And best of all, middle-grade readers aren’t ready for all the angst, sexual issues, cussing, and violence that those Young Adult authors have to face head on when writing for teens. Right? I mean, the middle-grade genre is all about best friends and dogs and family vacations and…

STOP.

If you dig, even not too deeply, you’ll probably find an interview in which I’m quoted saying something very similar to the previous paragraph. But I now know that when I had those thoughts, I was thinking about the middle-grade books of my youth, not today’s middle-grade kids.

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My local school district has an “Intermediate” building for 5th and 6th graders. Last time I was there, I was surprised that most of the library books I saw being toted around by these ten- to twelve-year-olds were YA titles. They were devouring “The Hunger Games” and going ga-ga over “The Fault in Our Stars.”  Why weren’t they reading middle-grade books? Why weren’t they reading my books? Aren’t these the very students I (and other middle-grade authors) write for?

To find the answers, I think we have to look more closely at today’s nine- to twelve-year-old.  Here are some interesting facts* about the MG audience. Our MG audience:

In middle childhood, children might:

  • form stronger, more complex friendships and peer relationships
  • feel very emotional about those friendships
  • encounter higher levels of peer pressure
  • notice bodily changes and have unanswered questions about their bodies
  • begin to develop body image issues such as eating disorders
  • feel the pressure of harder classwork and academic challenges
  • begin to see themselves apart from their family unit
  • experience fears such as: fear of disappointing parents or parents finding out about negative behaviors or thoughts
  • experience anxiety over their social standing
  • become more aware of community threats and dangers such as violence

Whoa. That’s a heavy list for kids who haven’t even hit their teens yet. But it’s reality and it’s our audience. These are the children for whom we write.

So, what does this mean? No more dogs and best friends and family vacations? Of course not. But what it does mean is that we shouldn’t shy away from the reality that is life for today’s middle grader. Sometimes parents go to prison. Aunts and uncles can be alcoholics. Preteens think about their sexuality. Gangs and violence don’t suddenly appear after age 13. Nine- to twelve-year-olds sometimes live in homes or communities that are dangerous.

It’s okay to address the tougher side of preteen life. As storytellers, we can choose the right measure of tact, honesty, and humor to soften the blows of middle grade reality.

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What are your current favorite middle grade titles? I’d be willing to guess that beneath the general premise there are some serious issues which today’s middle graders understand all too well.

What do you think? Share your comments below!

*facts listed above come from:

http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/positiveparenting/middle2.html

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/liking-the-child-you-love/201402/the-hiddennot-so-hidden-fears-middle-school-students

Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. She shares The Mark Boney Promise with young people at school and library visits in an effort to bring more kindness to classrooms everywhere.  Find Michelle at www.michellehouts.com. On Twitter and Instagram @mhoutswrites and on Facebook as Michelle Houts.

 

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Michelle Houts
Michelle Houts writes middle-grade, chapter books, and picture books from a restored one-room schoolhouse near her home. She loves reading, mail, farming, and birds. Michelle visits schools and libraries to share writing excitement with future authors. To find out more and to learn about Michelle's 52Letters Challenge, visit www.michellehouts.com
10 Comments
  1. I think that MG spans a wide audience, some not yet ready for the heavy stuff, others more comfortable with what I call YA-lite. I don’t think we should turn MG into YA. My 11-yr-old son loves adventure, mystery, and humor. He tends to avoid “mushy” things and super creepy or scary titles. Some of his peers who have older siblings tend to read up just because the books are sitting around at home.

    • I totally agree, Jilanne! Let’s NEVER turn MG into YA! I still love MG for all that is sweet and innocent about it. And, I agree that exposure to YA is sometimes a matter of birth order and what’s sitting around at home. Thanks for you comments!

  2. My almost 9 year old daughter enjoys adventure and fantasy books that contain danger and intrigue, but realistic fiction with more mature themes are not yet appealing to her and that is fine with me. Michelle, we both were totally captivated by Winterfrost. I read it first and then read it out loud to my daughter. A wonderful, beautifully written tale. Thank you for writing it!

    • Amanda, thank you for the kind words about WINTERFROST. They affirm all the reasons I adore writing for the middle-grader. And, I love that you and your daughter shared it as a read-aloud!

  3. A wonderful post. You’ve pinpointed the balancing act that is MG fiction: respecting all that kids are handling at this age, while never letting the narrative grow too desperate or dark.

  4. Thanks, Michelle, for a very thought-provoking post. Agree with Sally that MG is the real coming-of-age time. It’s a dilemma for those of us writing MG how much we put in and how much we leave out. I wish I had good answers.

    • You’re right, Rosi. It is a dilemma, but I think even within MG, there are different audiences – the 9 year old vs. the 12 year old – the fantasy reader vs. the contemporary fiction reader – and each story will help us feel what goes in and what’s too much. Trust yourself, the writer, to connect with your reader!

  5. Thank you for this beautifully on-target post, and the reminder that middle grade is not simple. In fact, one could argue it is the most fascinating, turbulent, amazing time of the human lifespan,the time when the scales fall off our eyes and we see the world differently. It is simplicity and complexity. Dogs and vacations and sexuality and crises of confidence and identity. Middle Grade IS coming-of-age. It is the beginning of the Becoming.
    So. Much. Writing. Fodder! 🙂

    • Well said, Sally! Thanks for your comments! 🙂