For Teachers

Worldbuilding for MG Writers

It’s back-to-school time for ELA classrooms soon! While we as teachers, parents, homeschooling families, and librarians might hear occasional moans and groans from students reaching the end of summer break, the advent of the new school term also brings so much eagerness and anticipation for new and different activities. This can be an especially exciting time with middle graders, who have learned some autonomy with their studies, are capable of more decision-making and logical thinking, and who love a creative challenge. Kicking off the school year by providing middle grade writers with some imaginative and unusual writing assignments will inspire them to pursue other reading and writing ventures throughout the year.

As writers, we recognize the importance of establishing a setting and developing it through details. This kind of worldbuilding not only immerses the reader in the time and place of the narrative but also allows the writer to carefully control what the reader sees and hears regarding the story’s location. For the young writer, worldbuilding employs the imagination, promotes pride of authorship, and provides an opportunity for critical thinking and the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. From a curriculum perspective, worldbuilding as an assignment provides the instructor with a chance to fulfill standards by reviewing or introducing connected literary devices and techniques such as:

  • Description
  • Sensory imagery
  • Metaphor and Simile
  • Personification
  • Atmosphere and Mood
  • Tone and Voice
  • Point of View

Having students review these literary devices and focus on each or on a combination of elements in a piece of their own authored writing makes for a richer, more personalized learning experience. Here are some ideas, prompts, and examples for exploring the worldbuilding concept as an assignment with your MG writers.


Worldbuilding Components for Middle Grade Writers

In reviewing story elements during a short story or novel unit, you might go beyond the typical definitions and examples for setting and instead allow writers to create their own setting. Try a graphic organizer for these and other components (and lots of space for details, brainstorming, and descriptions). Or use poster-sized paper for visual images or maps, and offer this list to inspire connected labels or captions:

Living on the Land: Geography, landscape, weather, climate, ecosystems

Living with Others: People, animals, and creatures; homes, habitats, and shelters; societies, neighborhoods, and cities

Getting Along: Communication; government; laws; technology; social institutions like education; relationships like family and marriage; economy and money systems; transportation and infrastructure (roads, bridges)

Surviving: Food and agriculture, tasks and working, earning wages or trading, keeping healthy, protection

Dangers and Threats (i.e., Conflicts): Enemies, nature, wildlife, discord, war or battle, illness

Don’t Forget the Place Name: Borrowed or original; symbolic meaning, allusion

Once students have had a chance to think through these and other elements of worldbuilding, writing projects on the topic might expand to include prompts and activities.


Prompts for Worldbuilding with MG Writers

Three Characters in Search of a Setting:  Provide students with three character identities, including for each traits, goals, motivations, conflicts, and relationships. The writer’s job is to determine a world that would serve the characters well in terms of suspense, tension, and continued potential for conflict. Student writers can add maps with labels, bulleted descriptions, brief histories, and artwork to convey the setting more fully.

Time Travel: Students choose a real place for the setting for a simple, conflict-rich storyline and detail its basic concerns; then they choose whether to move the time period up (into the future) or push it back (into the past). Pushing a setting back at least 60 years, for example, offers a chance to investigate the history of a place and incorporate its time-period specific details (what were computers like in 1960, anyway?). Moving the time period into the future allows for more speculation based on the location’s current characteristics and needs.

Genre Swapping:  Take a familiar setting from a favorite book or class novel study and re-imagine the time and place by changing the book’s genre. For example, what if a modern comedy like Gordon Korman’s Unplugged was actually a high fantasy? Or if Lauren Wolk’s historical Wolf Hollow was contemporary? Build this “reset” world, keeping premise details in mind.

No Swapping Allowed: Choose a story for which the setting and worldbuilding is inherent to the narrative, and detail the ways in which the plot relies on the setting to hold together.

Narrative Nonfiction Worldbuilding: Apply worldbuilding analysis to a work of narrative nonfiction as a way to glean factual detail and comprehend the setting’s full impact on the tale, especially one in which the setting seems distant or almost otherworldly, like Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica by Rebecca E.F. Barone.

I hope an idea or two here suits your classroom goals, and that you find the notion of worldbuilding to be an interesting and useful writing workshop activity! Good luck to everyone this school year.

The Magic of Writing Middle Grade: It’s All About Remembering the Child’s Perspective

Middle grade is without a doubt magical.

And by magical, I don’t mean that it’s all witches, elixirs, and pixies. But there’s certainly plenty of that. You’ll find gobs of delicious magic in lauded books such as The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill and The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton.

However, middle grade encompasses so many kinds of books, from contemporary realistic fiction to science fantasy from biography to adventure.

What I mean by magic—is the magic of childhood itself. After all, middle grade focuses on kids ages 8 until twelve—the very center of childhood. This is when you’re old enough to have hours of independent time away from your parents and yet not ready for the individuation shuffle away from parents and caregivers. At this age, while friendships and peers rule the day, children seek the guidance of kind and wise mentors. This might be parents, teachers, coaches, club advisors or yes, a witch, wizard or conjurer.

However, you don’t need to write about mystical creatures like, say, unicorns in order to find magic. You just need to remember what it is like to be a child.

When I was writing one of my middle grades, Queen of Likes, I momentarily forget what it was like to be a kid. In that book, 12-year-old Karma Cooper gets her phone taken away. At first, I got right to this punishment and had Karma communicating her regret.

Wrong! I had forgotten what it felt like to be a seventh grader. Instead, I was writing the text like—gulp–a mom. At the time, I hated how my kids and their friends were on the phone in the car and didn’t talk to each other. I didn’t allow phones at the kitchen table. I constantly made them put their phones away. But a kid might feel different. She might feel as though Mom is patently unfair. In revision, I had to remember how Karma felt about her phone, not me, the Mom. When I had Karma name her phone Floyd, I got back into a child head space.

One of my favorite authors is Beverly Clearly because she remembered what it was like to be a child.

For example, Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8, focuses on tension over a beloved eraser. As an adult, it is too easy to forget the attachment that children have to small inanimate objects. Sometimes as grown-ups, we see things merely as tools whereas to a child an eraser is an entire sensory experience and imbued with magic. When Ramona first receives her eraser, this is how her new treasure is described: “smooth, pearly pink, smelling softly of rubber, and just right for erasing pencil lines.”

Unfortunately, this treasure is taken away from her on the bus by some boys. To an adult, losing an eraser may seem trivial, but to Ramona, it’s a catastrophe. From an eight-year-old perspective, it is not just a common school supply, but a “beautiful pink eraser.”

It’s so easy to forget what it’s like to be truly young. In order not to forget, my kids’ preschool teacher, Mz. Lori, would have us adults do this exercise.

  1. Lift up your hands over your head.
  2. Hold them there for 3-5 minutes (it’s not easy) and march in place.

That is what is feels like to be a young child out on a walk and holding an adult’s hand.

What do you do to get back into the child mindset?

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). And her nonfiction picture book, If You Were a Princess: True Stories of Brave Leaders From Around the World is a look at historical and current princesses from many diverse lands who have made their mark (Simon & Schuster, August 2022). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University. In the summer, she teaches in the graduate program in children’s literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy.

She can be found at and on Instagram, her Facebook page as well as on Twitter

Middle Grade Writing Opportunities for the End of School

Merry and marvelous, the month of May! Congratulations to teachers, librarians, and parents of middle graders on the completion of another year of school. To everyone involved with education, amid the final projects, end-of-year grading, and graduation to whatever is next, the end of school brings a chance to reflect and draw conclusions about the year’s accomplishments. For middle graders, May might bring the end of a year spent with a beloved teacher or the end of their stint in a particular school building. These kinds of upcoming endings can prime students emotionally for reflection, journaling, and other writing activities in the classroom as the days wind down toward summer. Consider celebrating the end of the school year with some MG writing activities geared toward endings.

The End of the Story

Plenty of creative writing assignments allow students to work up a great first line…but since it’s the end of the year, challenge your MG writers to compose nothing but the last line of a piece of original fiction. They might start by filling in a simple activity sheet that lays out the story’s premise (genre, setting, protagonist, conflict, point of view, major themes, atmosphere). Notes in the form of brief phrases or bullet points might help them to fully envision this story they haven’t actually written. Students then compose the last line(s) in a way that both demonstrates the thematic undertones of the tale and brings a sense of closure.

You might encourage your middle graders by reviewing the great books you’ve covered over the year – read the last line aloud, take guesses the title, and have small groups recall the components of the book’s premise so that they are more confident in creating their own. (What a great opportunity to review the works your class has read and run through associated literary devices they will need the next year!) Once they recall the premise, point out that last lines often encapsulate characterization, theme, tone, and genre elements. Some good examples:

  • I’m Lanesha. Born with a caul. Interpreter of symbols and signs. Future engineer. Shining love. I’m Lanesha. I’m Mama Ya-Ya’s girl.    (Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes)
  • That’s what a real Florida boy would do. (Hoot, Carl Hiaasen)
  • …but always,/to know that/the world is not/meant to be feared,/and that water,/beautiful water,/will always mean/play.  (Odder, Katherine Applegate)
  • “Until then,” Annemarie told him, “I will wear it myself.”  (Number the Stars, Lois Lowry)


Great Endings of Long Ago

For the creative nonfiction writers in your group, a short writing project that explores significant historical endings might be of interest. Consider establishing research and investigation time into these and other history topics, then set writers to the task of composing brief paragraphs that sum up individual events leading to the end. Each student might contribute 1 or more paragraphs, each on a separate 5×8 index card; then students can work together to order and display their events timeline-style. Paragraphs could take on the style of a journalistic headliner or a fiction back cover blurb for practice in modeling specific writing approaches.

Some possibilities:

  • The end of the prehistoric period
  • The “Fall” of the Roman Empire
  • The end of the Revolutionary War
  • The surrender of Lee at Appomattox
  • The eradication of smallpox


Endings Mean New Beginnings

With sensitivity in mind for individual circumstances, consider allowing middle grade writers to brainstorm and journal about a local organization, business, or event that met its end in their lifetimes—for example, a favorite town diner that might have closed, or the dissolution of a town gathering during the pandemic—and accompanying fresh starts, such as a new popular restaurant or a reboot of a local festival. Writers also might brainstorm school groups or activities that shifted or changed over the course of their time in the building.

In another interesting angle, students write about the end of particular technologies that have grown obsolete just in their lifetimes and the resulting new tech. Expand this topic to a prediction exercise in which the MG imagination can speculate on current advances that may end within 1-3 years and the consequential new inventions that will take the place of the old.

Some ideas for technologies whose popularity and widespread use came to an end in the last ten years:

  • AOL Instant Messenger
  • Plasma TVs
  • Microsoft Kinect
  • Google Plus
  • Windows phone

No matter how you choose to reflect upon and celebrate the school year’s end, I hope your MG students find fun and fulfillment in their last writing projects, and I hope everyone’s summer is soon off to a safe, happy start!