Middle-grade readers are at a magical age when they really begin to fall in love with reading, stories – and authors! They are also on the cusp of the biggest adventure that any of us ever undertakes – growing up – so it’s little wonder they’re the perfect audience for novels full of adventure, mystery and a little bit of history. Just like the books by popular middle-grade author Allison Tait, who discusses five reasons why you should consider writing for this age group.
By Allison Tait
With eight novels published and another to come next year, I think it’s fair to say that I love writing middle-grade fiction.
The textbook definition of middle-grade fiction is that it’s written for readers aged 8-12, has a word length in the range of 35,000-50,000 words. The stories still feature family in a way that young adult novels don’t, and are generally low on violence, swearing and romance.
That definition, however, doesn’t encapsulate the breadth of the worlds – fantasy and contemporary – contained within the pages of middle-grade novels. Nor the vivid characters that stay with readers for life.
But we’ll get to that.
I began my own middle-grade writing adventure for one simple reason – I had a son in that age group so I’d been reading piles and piles of them out loud to him and his younger brother. In fact, it was two conversations with my older son that inspired The Mapmaker Chronicles series – one about that feeling you get when you stare out into space and try to imagine where the edges are, and one about how the world was mapped.
It took me six months to get around to doing something about with that idea because – let’s face it – we often ignore our best ideas because they’re a little bit scary. Up to that point, I was writing commercial women’s fiction. I’d never written for children of any age, I’d never written a series and, frankly, I wasn’t sure I could.
But then I sat down one day to give it a crack – and I was hooked. Writing middle-grade fiction was the best fun I’d had in ages.
Three series later, I’m switching gears a bit to bring out a stand-alone novel next year, but I still love diving deep into the world of readers who are experiencing big feelings for the first time. I’ve outlined five reasons why I love it so much – and why I think you should try it – but I’ve also pulled in a few friends to help me explain.
1.The middle-grade audience is defined – but also broad
When people ask me what age group ‘middle-grade’ covers, I generally say 8-14. When you think about what you were like when you were eight years old, compared to where you were at when you were 14, you might consider this a pretty broad range.
The truth and joy of middle-grade fiction is that every reader is different – which is why there’s a broad range of middle-grade fiction to suit.
“Middle-grade is the sweet spot between childhood and adolescence,” says award-winning author Nova Weetman, whose latest novel The Jammer is out this month. “It’s the in-between. Still sometimes sleeping with a teddy but probably not advertising the fact.”
The audience is sometimes split into lower middle-grade (ages 8-12) and upper middle-grade (ages 10-14). My Maven & Reeve Mysteries slot neatly into upper middle-grade because they feel like young adult in complexity, characterisation and voice, but they don’t have any themes that might trouble readers (or their parents).
Middle-grade author Emily Gale agrees. Her latest novel The Goodbye Year is out now. She says: “I like [the definition of] middle-grade to be pretty loose age-wise, 9 to 14. I want it to straddle primary and high school. There’s already this big leap that children take at the age of 12, when they leave primary school behind. So I love to think of middle-grade as seeing them through that and well into high school. A broad definition that overlaps with young adult serves readers best, allowing for the fact that everyone develops at a different rate.”
And that development is the key. Middle-grade novels are as good for seven-year-old advanced readers as they are for reluctant readers of 16 or adults who just love being transported by a great story.
2. Middle-grade fiction has heart
“I love the way there’s a lot of room for what I call ‘heart’ in middle-grade,” says award-winning author Allison Rushby, whose latest middle-grade release is Miss Penny Dreadful And The Midnight Kittens. “Comfort, family, laughter, cosiness,” she says. “And I love how MG focuses more on the immediate world of the protagonist and how the adult world is still on the periphery of the protagonist’s existence (though it may well be closing in fast).”
When you’re 10 years old, your family are your world. And this family can take many forms: your school, your friends and your immediate neighbourhood. At 10, you are also still at the centre of your world (though rapidly realising that might not always be the case).
Being a middle-grade writer allows you to tap back into those magical feelings and to dive deep into the uncertainty that growing up thrusts upon us.
“I love writing for this age group because I still remember all my feelings when I was 12,” agrees Weetman. “How embarrassed I was about my body changing. How much I wanted to be taken seriously. How I wondered if anyone would ever really ‘get’ me and how desperate I was to belong. “
3. Middle-grade fiction is where readers for life are made
If you think back to the ‘books that made you’, many of them will be novels you discovered in your middle-grade years. The books that spoke to you as though the writer understood exactly what you were going through.
“Books were such company for me when I was 12,” says Weetman. “They steered me through the mess of friendship problems, fights with my parents, and questions of identity. I’d like to think that a tween somewhere feels like one of my books has helped them work some things out or at least shown them that they aren’t alone in experiencing those big feelings.”
Sometimes what a middle-grade novel offers is escape from that every day. Middle-grade fantasy novels will address all the tween issues of bullying, friendships, first crushes and growth, but through a lens filled with adventure and magic.
My strongest middle-grade memories are of mystery stories, and I could not get enough of kid detectives banding together to outsmart bad guys. Several decades later, I wrote the Maven & Reeve Mysteries to see if I could create the same excitement and intrigue for young readers today.
Who knows what that might lead to in another twenty years or so?
Gale says: “This is the age when I became a reader-for-life, it’s when it really set in as the pastime of all pastimes, and to think that my writing might form a tiny part of someone else’s journey to becoming a reader-for-life is too good to pass up.”
4. Middle-grade readers will go anywhere with you – as long as you give them a reason
This age group is curious and thirsty for new words and new worlds. “I find this age group to be full of generous, enthusiastic, demanding, creative and capable readers,” agrees Gale. “These qualities keep me on my toes and urge me to reach deeper into my imagination.”
It was in writing for this age group that I was able to unleash my inner storyteller, in a way that I had been unable to do in stories for adults.
When writing for adults, I got far too hung up on what I was trying to say, rather than focussing on telling the story. In middle-grade novels, the story is naturally everything – after all, you’re writing someone’s bedtime read!
Middle-grade readers won’t question the wizard, the pirate, the sea monster or the fairy, as long as they make sense in the world you create.
5. Middle-grade is an age range, not a genre
The beauty of middle-grade fiction is that there’s something for every reader – and therefore every writer. Everything from the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan and Wonder by R.J. Palaccio to The Unstoppable Flying Flanagan by Felice Arena and The Missing by Sue Whiting sits on this shelf.
And, of course, the key to writing it well is to read widely until you find your sweet spot.
Here are some authors to try:
- Warm and heartfelt: Nova Weetman, Emily Gale, Shirley Marr
- Action thrillers: Tristan Bancks, Sue Whiting, Jack Heath
- Historical: Pamela Rushby, Jackie French, Belinda Murrell, Felice Arena, Katrina Nannested
- Mystery: A. L. Tait (well, really), R. A. Spratt, Nancy Springer
- Adventure: John Flanagan, A. L. Tait (why yes, again), Emily Rodda
- Fantasy: Jessica Townsend, Jacqueline Moriarty, Jordan Gould + Richard Pritchard, Karen Foxlee, Garth Nix
- Humour: Tim Harris, Oliver Phommavanh, Nat Amoore