When YA Authors Make the Switch to Middle Grade

I’ve been working on a YA for…way too long! I know, this is a blog about middle grade books. You don’t want to hear about my YA woes. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about authors who are well published in one area and then start publishing in a whole new area. Authors such as:

Elana Arnold

Elana Arnold

Megan Frazer Blakemore

Megan Frazer Blakemore

Lisa Schroeder

Lisa Schroeder

Suzanne Selfors

Suzanne Selfors

Elana Arnold, Megan Frazer Blakemore, Lisa Schroeder and Suzanne Selfors are all authors who began their careers publishing YA, but now each of them has a new middle grade out. I was curious about that so I asked them a few questions:

1. Was there anything in particular that prompted you to write a middle grade when you’ve been publishing YA?

Elana: My literary agent is named Rubin Pfeffer. I always call him Rubin Pfeffer, not Rubin, because it is such a fabulous name. One day, Rubin Pfeffer said, “I’d like to see you try your hand at writing a middle grade.” And I thought, I am going to do it, and I am going to blow Rubin Pfeffer’s socks off. Now, this is not necessarily the best reason to write any book,  but it is a reason, and it was mine. Of course, as I delved into the manuscript that became THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES, I found many better reasons for moving forward and finishing–my love of the characters, my curiosity about the story, and, deep down and unrecognized to me at the time, my own struggles of coming to terms with the death of a friend, my own fear and anger about death.

Megan: My first book (Secrets of Truth & Beauty) was YA, and when I started working on The Water Castle, I thought it was going to be YA, too. But as the story developed I realized it made more sense for the characters to be younger. I think this is because of the magic and wonder of the story.

Lisa: I’ve always loved middle-grade books. When I think back to my childhood, those are the years I recall vividly, as far as books and reading goes. So I feel like in a way, it’s my first love. After publishing a few YA novels, I really just wanted to write something fun. That’s how IT’S RAINING CUPCAKES came about. It was late 2010, everyone was in a bad mood, it seemed, because the economy was failing, people were losing their jobs, and everywhere you looked it just seemed so gloomy. Since my first three YA novels were pretty sad, I felt like I needed a break from that. And I suppose I could have tried to write a fun YA, but I wanted to write something ten-year-old Lisa would have loved. And ten-year-old Lisa loved to bake!

Suzanne: The first book I published was a MG called To Catch a Mermaid. The deal was a two book contract, so I was supposed to begin writing the second MG, but I had this idea for a YA book and I couldn’t let it go. So before I began my second MG, I wrote Saving Juliet. For the next five years, I alternated – wrote an MG, then a YA, then an MG, etc.

2. Did you face unexpected challenges writing for a middle grade audience?

Elana:  Writing for a middle grade audience was not more challenging than writing for a young adult audience in that I try my best to not think about my audience at all when I am writing. I tell myself that it’s none of my business who will read my book. I don’t picture a reader; I write the story I can write. But for some reason, I did feel the need to write THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES in a close third person voice, while all my YA novels so far have been written in the first person.

Megan: At the time I had written only YA and was working in a high school library, so I hadn’t revisted middle grade in a long time and felt a little distant from it. I went back and read old favorites (like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsberg) to remind myself of the feeling of reading back then. I also read newer titles like When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead so I knew more of the current landscape and what was possible.

Lisa: Writing IT’S RAINING CUPCAKES was like taking a deep breath of fresh air. It was just so fun and happy-making. It really wasn’t hard for me at all. I almost feel now, as I look back at the seven YA novels I’ve published and the eight MG novels I’ve published, that I’m probably better suited for MG. The voice, the conflict, the family and friend troubles that occur at that age group, it all comes pretty easily to me. Having said that, I have a strong desire to write a deeper kind of MG, now that I’ve done so many fun ones. I mean, they all have a bit of emotional heft, but I’d love to go deeper and do something more substantial as far as that goes. When I think of some of my favorite MG novels, there is a subtlety about them that is so beautiful in the theme(s) they explore, and when the tender moments happen, you really *feel* them. If that makes sense? I’m thinking of books like BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE, RULES, and THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. It is not easy to write a MG novel that kids can enjoy and relate to but is also one that makes you think and feel deeply. Moving forward, I want to try to do more of that. Maybe. Hopefully.

Suzanne: I have to say that middle grade is my sweet spot. I love writing for this age. I think I’m still 12 at heart. These are the most natural books for me and I’d be happy to write for this age for the rest of my life. I’m so proud to call myself a middle grade author.

YA, however, is not such a natural fit for me. I’m not drawn to edgy, or dark. I tend to write about magic and adventure.

3. What do you see as the primary difference(s) between writing for middle grade vs. writing for YA audiences?

Elana:  I don’t think there is any topic too big or too small for either a middle grade or a YA audience. The same questions that tugged at me when I was eleven haunted me through my teens and into adulthood. Those questions tug at me now, as a writer, whatever I am writing.  And I never try to teach a lesson or impart a moral code. My job–whatever the book, whomever the audience– is to tell the only stories I can tell, as clearly and truthfully as I know how.

Megan: For me, when I write MG I feel more free to follow ideas however magical or whimsical. Writing YA I tend to be more grounded. I must say that this is a personal distinction, and not anything I would consider a rule of YA vs. MG. It’s just what I’ve done so far. I would love to write gorgeous YA magical realism like Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, but that type of idea hasn’t come to me yet.

Lisa: I think it’s a matter of keeping in mind the issues that those audiences are dealing with, as far as realistic fiction goes, and considering what the younger audience is equipped to handle. Middle-grade readers are just learning that they can have different thoughts, ideas, opinions, and wishes from their family members and friends, and that sometimes that can create conflict between people. It’s not easy trying to figure out how to get along with everyone, especially at school, where you have lots of different kinds of personalities. So it’s learning how to navigate their small world as they are becoming their own person. With YA, they are learning how to navigate the bigger world, the world at large, as they continue to grow and change. Family and friends still play a part in that, of course, but mistakes and/or disagreements usually have bigger consequences. I think there’s also this extreme need for teens to be independent, so when problems occur, they aren’t asking their parents about things, they’re trying to figure it out on their own, and that is not always easy to do.

Suzanne: For me, the biggest difference was….ROMANCE.

When I wrote Saving Juliet, my first YA, my editor called me after reading the first draft and said, “Suzanne, it’s good but where’s the romantic interest?” I was befuddled. The what? “You know, the cute guy. The one she’s in love with. You can’t write YA without some element of romance.” You can’t? Well, that sucks. I didn’t now the first thing about romantic tension. I figured it out, eventually, but it took time.

You don’t need romance in MG. Not one drop. Fourth graders are perfectly happy to read about traveling to an imaginary world and no one has to be crushing on anyone!

4. Do you plan to write more MG?

Elana:  Yes, I find that I love working on stories about younger people. My second middle grade novel, FAR FROM FAIR, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the spring of 2016, and I continue to develop ideas about middle grade people as well as teens.

Megan: Yes, definitely. I’m working on revisions for a MG project due out next year from Bloomsbury called The Firefly Five.

Lisa: Yes! I love it too much to stop anytime soon.

Suzanne: Yes. I just finished book #6, The Fairy Swarm, which will release in Oct, and I am under contract for three more Ever After High books. I’m working on a single title that I hope to sell, maybe this fall. I’m not sure if I’ll write another YA. I haven’t ruled it out entirely. If there’s a story that I can’t ignore, then I’ll write it. But at the moment, my heart and soul are in the middle grade world.

Check out these new middle grade books by Elana, Megan, Lisa and Suzanne!

Elana bookMegan book

lisa booksuzanne book1suzanne book2


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Dori Butler
Dori Hillestad Butler is an award-winning author of more than 50 books for young readers, including the Haunted Library series, the Buddy Files series, and the King & Kayla series. Her Buddy Files #1: Case of the Lost Boy won a 2011 Edgar Award and her books have appeared on numerous children’s choice and teen award lists. Dori grew up in southern Minnesota, spent 19 years in Iowa, and now lives in the Seattle area. She enjoys visiting schools and libraries all over the country and dreams of doing an author visit in all 50 states.
1 Comment
  1. Thanks for this post. Very interesting. I’ve only read one of the books here — My Secret Guide to Paris — which I loved. I will check the others out.