Middle-grade fiction has seen a surge in popularity over the past several years, with writers such as Jeff Kinney and Mary Pope Osborne frequently topping both bestseller and top earning author lists. Australia has also produced its fair share of bestselling stories. Think Andy Griffiths' colourful Treehouse books, or Jacqueline Harvey's precocious Alice-Miranda series. And Allison Tait’s fantasy adventures The Mapmaker Chronicles series and her latest The Book of Secrets: An Ateban Cipher Novel (published as A.L. Tait). These are all crushing it with great reviews and even better sales. With so much attention on middle-grade, many writers might wonder if this is the age group for them.
What is middle-grade fiction?
The key thing to keep in mind is that middle-grade is not a genre; it's a demographic. It generally covers grades 4 to 8, or roughly ages 8 to 12. Obviously, this is a group with very diverse interests and reading ability, and it leaves a lot of scope for range and topic. Bestselling author and Australian Writers’ Centre presenter Allison Tait says that this is the very thing that makes writing for this age group so interesting.
“There's middle-grade for kids who like farts, and then there's middle-grade for kids who want to read about self-discovery and growth,” Allison says.
Allison's latest series, The Ateban Cipher, is aimed at 10-12-year-olds, just like her previous Mapmaker series. It’s an age that she finds particularly fascinating as it’s a time when kids are ready to launch into being teenagers.
“They're at an age where they're aware of the world around them, and in some cases it terrifies them, and in some cases it excites them, depending on the human in question,” she says.
It is helpful to remember that this is a period of discovery for kids, when they're trying to figure out what's important to them and how they're going to get by in this big bad world. For this reason, themes like friendship, adaptability, resourcefulness, and resilience have always been popular – whether it's Enid Blyton's Famous Five or Julie Campbell Tatham's Trixie Belden, to more modern stories like J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter or Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series.
These stories all have relatable central characters who try to solve problems. For most kids, childhood is a cloistered existence. Around this middle-grade age, they become aware that they are going to have to go into the real world and learn its rules, and the idea can be scary. Essentially, middle-grade fiction allows kids to watch somebody negotiate worlds that they don't understand, make mistakes and find solutions – all from the safety of their bedrooms.
The character Gabe, from Allison’s The Book of Secrets, is a good example of this. In the first of the Ateban Cipher books, Gabe is literally sheltered, having been brought up in a monastery all his life, until circumstances dictate he go out into the world. At first he is unsure of himself, and the story explores how he copes.
“And he manages because he makes fantastic friendships that help him,” says Allison. “He's not on his own.”
These very deep friendships are found in the most successful middle-grade books. Kids in this age group love the notion of having friends who are going to support you through anything. Harry has Hermione and Ron, Pooh has Piglet, and Charlotte has Wilbur – friends don't always have to be humans!
On the flip side, testing these friendships can provide rich fodder. There’s often no greater crisis than losing friendships – just think of Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, where Harriet loses her friends when they discover her secret journal.
Some authors might employ magic to help their protagonists, or make them get by on wit alone. In either case, the characters usually work through problems on their own, reaching conclusions that make readers think “yes! I could do that, too.”
What middle-grade fiction isn't
With all that in mind, you might start to think that middle-grade fiction could be about anything. Strong central characters, good friendships, and satisfying solutions to problems – these could apply to any genre. What authors need to keep in mind, though, is what should be left out of middle-grade, or at least toned down.
While friendships are strong, romance is usually absent. Characters are going through enough stress and drama without the added hassle of kissing and feelings! Of course, this will depend entirely on what age range you're pitching to – older middle-grade, or a series that grows and develops over time, can include the flourishing of romance. J.K. Rowling does this very well in Harry Potter, with characters slowly developing feelings for each other and forming relationships throughout the series.
Violence and gore is also usually kept to a minimum in middle-grade fiction. In an adventure series, you might have sword fights and bows and arrows, but the actual description of violence is toned down.
“Violence of pretty much any level is difficult to manage,” says Allison. “You can have it, but you have to think about how it's put together.”
Some middle-grade fiction can be very complicated, and weightier topics can be explored, but they need to be done with care. Nova Weetman's book, The Secrets We Keep, deals with depression and trauma, but has proved popular with kids and their grown-ups alike. Animal stories are also a good way to explore heavier themes without being too confronting. Basically, you don't want to traumatise your readers. You want to evoke emotion and provoke thought, but you have to remember that your ideal reader is a child.
Finally, you aren't just negotiating for the attention of your child readers; you need to get past their gatekeepers first. Parents, librarians, and teachers all vet books and will exclude anything that's too over the top.
Building a middle-grade book
Generally, middle-grade fiction should be somewhere around 40 – 50,000 words. Anything shorter than that would lean towards junior fiction, while books that are too long will turn kids off. In particular, the first book in a series should be about this length, with room to expand as the series continues.
“A massive book, for a lot of kids, will just look too hard,” says Allison. “But there are conventions of genre, as well. Fantasy novels or adventure novels can go slightly longer, because the non-stop action of a fantasy adventure allows you to get away with it a bit more. My Mapmaker Chronicles and Ateban Cipher series are all around 55,000 words.”
As with any demographic, you have to understand your reader. You're not writing for adults, and you need to keep that in mind all the time. Your protagonists might be older than your readers – kids like to aspire – but you have to understand their constraints of language and world knowledge. Having said that, it's not necessary to simplify your language. Kids hate to feel like they're being patronised.
“You write the story as the story needs to be written, bearing in mind who your protagonist is and who your readers are,” says Allison. “But you don't dumb it down, ever. Never.”
The middle-grade market
Young adult (YA) has obviously been phenomenally successful over the past decade, with series like The Hunger Games and Twilight driving huge interest and spinning out into film tie-ins. The middle-grade market is not quite at that level yet, but it does have its heavy hitters. Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, for example, are spectacularly popular. Starting off online, the first book racked up 20 million views by 2007, before coming out in print form. It has now spawned 10 sequels as well as four film adaptations.
Australian authors have proven to be strong in the middle-grade demographic. Allison's Mapmaker Chronicles has recently been optioned for film, as has The Impossible Quest series by AWC presenter Kate Forsyth. Andy Griffiths' Treehouse books topped the bestseller list in 2016 with more than 700,000 sales across five books. The bestselling adult fiction book for the same period sold just 131,000 units.
Basically, when middle-grade fiction works, it works. Kids of this age are voracious readers and when they find a book or an author they like they will read everything they can get their hands on.
So, should you write middle-grade?
The authors who succeed the best at middle-grade fiction are usually parents or teachers (or both) who genuinely love this age group. Like any genre or demographic, you have to really know your reader. You need to know kids in this age group and observe them closely. Hang out in bookstores and libraries and read as much as you can so that you really understand the market. Absolutely nothing will prepare you for the writing experience like immersing yourself in the reading.
Children's series author Louise Park calls this ‘reconnaissance'.
“Get yourself into as many bookshops and sit on the floor of those bookshops for as long as you can,” Louise says. “Have a good look at what is there, what is claiming the space, and why it's claiming the space.”
You also have to remember that kids have changed. Anne of Green Gables is still popular, but that doesn't mean you should write Anne of Green Gables. Allison thinks this is a big problem for writers starting out in this space and she warns that you shouldn't rely on memories of what you loved as a child. You have to write for today's kids, and that means spending as much time with them as possible.
That’s not to say your stories can’t be set in the past – Australian Writers’ Centre presenter Judith Rossell has written a beautiful series featuring intrepid orphan Stella Montgomery who solves crimes in 19th century Australia. Both Withering-By-Sea and its follow-up Wormwood Mire have been smash-hits. But Judith is writing the past – which is different to trying to rewrite your childhood memories.
So, should you write middle-grade fiction? If you have a story that you are passionate about and you think kids will love it, go right ahead! Writing middle-grade fiction is a grand adventure – and if you do it right, it can be the most rewarding thing you'll ever do. You could even change a child's life and turn them into a lifelong reader.
By Nat Newman
Nat Newman is a freelance writer