Middle Grade Voice: Speaking the Joyous/Painful/Ironic/Perfect Truth


So much more than point of view or perspective, a character’s voice pulls readers in and conveys important meaning.

Happy almost-summer to everyone! I love writing May posts for From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors because it calls to mind the excitement and fulfillment of the end of the school year. For teachers, parents, students, public or school librarians, and MG writers alike, the advent of summer is a time heady with the potential adventure, change, and insights of the coming months. New, thrilling stories are practically a guarantee. Whether you read them, write them, offer them to readers, or watch them inspire your own kids on breezy summer days, middle grade works can add a lot to  your summer season.

We often discuss on this site how various elements of a story impact readers in different ways. For example, a historical setting teaches readers about an era or event. Sci-fi and fantasy genre scenarios engage the imagination in a rigorous workout. A coming-of-age theme offers a hook almost all readers can relate to. Another important, impactful fiction factor is voice.

Voice is an element of fiction that can impact readers in several ways. So much more than point of view or perspective, a character’s voice ticks many boxes: It indirectly characterizes. It engages readers and controls the mood and pace. And it delivers thematic messages about life in ways that connect to our experiences and emotions—in other words, the truth.

Strong voice is particularly effective in MG fiction. There’s this interesting paradox that occurs with MG characters in “voicey” works: Though their world view may be limited by young age and lack of independence and experience, MG characters are often highly effective at revealing the truth. They might comment as an afterthought or make a passing observance… and ironically, that offhand remark is both significant and revelatory. Or, they share a just-learned lesson in their coming-of-age, but as it is communicated by their voice, additional ideas and truths are conveyed.

Summer, with its reduced emphasis on structured lessons, is the perfect time to think about this somewhat nebulous story trait. Gathered below are some examples of voice in MG fiction, a few writing projects for students experimenting with voice in their own writing, and (for writers of MG) a brief list of tips for “turning up” your story’s voice.

Middle Grade Voice Examples

Strong voice can seem like a you-know-it-when-you-read-it element. For practice in recognizing voice, study some examples before assigning yourself a search-and-find mission in some favorite and some brand-new titles. Here are a few handy examples of MG voice:

  • Jessica Vitalis’s self-assured protagonist Fud in Coyote Queen:

“That doesn’t mean I sat around crying about how things were, because I didn’t. And I certainly didn’t think twice about magic. I was too practical for that.”

  • Jennifer L. Holm’s witty main character Beans in Full of Beans:

“When someone says they’re gonna help you, they’re just waiting to stick their hand in your pocket and take your last penny. I should know. I got relatives.”

  • Any characters from Christopher Paul Curtis. Here’s Elijah speaking certain truth in Elijah of Buxton

“But classroom learning just don’t work the same as when something happens to you personal.”

Voice Activities in the Classroom

As the school year winds down, consider having your MG students experiment with the concept of voice in their own writing. You might begin by having readers search for examples in novels they read throughout the year. Introduce the idea of voice with some focusing questions: What line or lines have vocabulary, word choice, and phrasing that tell you right away what kind of a person this character is? What line would be spoken only by this protagonist? Where is a question or an exclamatory remark that highlights the voice?

With some examples at their side, students can then try their hand at voice by writing a real-time scene from the viewpoint of a selected, existing protagonist.  Writers already may be savvy with writing from a character’s perspective; try to direct their focus on the voice of the character through word choice, vocabulary, cadence, pace, and sentence length. For a scenario that also boosts excitement for the end of the school year, students might place their protagonist in a “summer vacation” scenario.

How Writers of MG Achieve Voice

These are some common strategies for practicing and assessing voice in your MG writing.

  • While middle grade characters certainly keep secrets and remain private about some things, they typically are more open with emotion than teen characters.
  • Defy stereotypes. Offer your characters traits that conflict with common assumptions.
  • Focus on the foundational blocks of a good story: themes, plot, detail, description, characterization. Voice is the conveyance system that communicates the story to the reader in the most effective, most “hearable” way.
  • Don’t allow the writer’s goals for sharing pithy truths to become the character’s goals. The character’s goal is to pursue their objective and resolve their conflict.
  • Stick with on-level vocabulary choices.
  • Who are your beta readers? Have a few middle graders in the mix to comment on MG characters’ believability.

Thanks for reading, and have a story-filled summer!

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Jenn Brisendine
Along with her MUF posts, Jenn can be found at jennbrisendine.com, where she offers free teaching printables for great MG novels along with profiles of excellent craft books for writers.