Children in the preteen years are a fantastic audience to write for. Having graduated from the chapter book stage, they are now ready for real novels. The best readers among them will devour young adult and even adult titles, if given the chance. At the same time, this group has its own unique characteristics and preferences, which you are wise to keep in mind when writing for them.
Consider the Gatekeepers
Middle-grade readers are a group whose reading is still somewhat controlled. The books that make their way into the hands of 9-12 year-olds are usually assigned by teachers or chosen by school librarians, parents, and other grown-ups.
So in addition to appealing to kids, your book should be something adults will approve of. Obviously, that means no graphic sex, profanity, horror, or violence. Romance, where it exists, will be either implied or age appropriate – think puppy love or modest flirting. Fighting monsters is okay, if it teaches the value of heroism, but lurid details are not.
Adults also prefer children’s books that set good examples. They like main characters who make morally sound choices (at least, when it comes to the crunch) or who learn lessons that will benefit children when they grow up.
Bear in mind that not all middle-grade readers are strong readers. Librarians are always looking for stories that the slower readers in this age group can enjoy. So while your story may be longer and more complex than a chapter book, the vocabulary will be simpler than that of adult novels. When you do use difficult words, don’t put too many in one paragraph. Spread them out. Explain what they mean or make it easy for the reader to figure out their meanings from the context. Sentences and paragraphs should be shorter on average too.
Provide A Hero Your Readers Would Love To Be
The best style of narration for this age group is limited third person. You write from the point of view of one character, who is generally the protagonist. This technique lets the reader imagine being in the main character’s shoes.
To further encourage readers to identify with this character, it helps if he or she is…
It’s rare to find a middle-grade novel these days with an adult main character. Children like to read about characters who see the world from a perspective similar to their own. They like characters who are their age or perhaps just a few years older (so they can take bigger risks) and who have similar if slightly bigger problems.
Along these lines, make sure your main character has real flaws and problems. Perfect heroes are boring and unrealistic. More importantly, they are harder for the reader to relate to.
Incidentally, a character does not require a contemporary setting to have realistic problems. Middle-grade readers certainly enjoy historical, fantasy, or science fiction novels. But while your main character is fighting dragons, he may also be coping with typical 12-year-old challenges such as how to fit in, how to cope with peer pressure or bullying, how to choose the right friends, how to get approval from the adults in his life, or how to prove himself.
Every child has problems, and every child feels at times as though they are the only person to have their problem. They love to discover through stories that people in other settings can have similar problems and come out all right.
Children on the verge of adolescence are instinctively beginning to pay more attention to the wide world. They want to start making decisions and doing things they couldn’t when they were little. They are imagining what they will do when they are older. So they love books about characters who go on adventures far from adult supervision and who must tackle problems without adult help.
Of course, that’s true of all fiction. The main character in any novel needs to solve his problem or cope with his situation himself. There’s no point if someone else does it for him. The worst thing you can do in a children’s book is have a parent step in and rescue the main character or deliver the solution on a silver platter. For this reason, many great child protagonists are orphans who have no parent to help them (e.g. Anne of Green Gables, Orphan Annie, Harry Potter, Huckleberry Finn, Oliver Twist, etc.).
By the same token, middle-grade kids are starting to test their boundaries. They are becoming more powerful and discovering that they can get away with things. For this reason, they find stories that involve risk exciting. Breaking the rules, getting into dangerous situations, telling lies, and even behaving badly are ways the main character can explore his growing power. At the same time, the villains in stories demonstrate why rules of behavior are important.
Of course, your main character will have fears. Courage is the ability to act despite fear. For instance, in my novel, Dancing on the Inside, the main character wants to be a dancer, but she suffers from serious social anxiety that makes her afraid of dancing in front of others. What makes her a suitable protagonist is the fact that, despite her fear, she doesn’t give up. She does things that are incredibly brave for her in order to find ways of fulfilling her dream.
A good main character is someone children would love to be. He doesn’t have to be perfect, but he does have to have some great qualities. Maybe he has a special talent that wins him praise or admiration – which can be anything from athletics to zebra-training. Maybe he is smart, strong, funny, or creative. Maybe he stands by his friends or looks after the weak. While a main character does not have to be a nice person on the surface (he could be a pirate, con artist, vampire, etc.), he must have enough redeeming qualities to be a worthy hero. He certainly must be a better person than the villain.
Set Your Imagination Free
Probably my favorite thing about middle-grader readers is that they have not become jaded. They can believe that anything is possible and they love books that stimulate their imaginations. That gives the writer free rein to unleash the same kind of optimism, idealism, and creativity. It’s a wonderful state of mind for reader and author alike.
Glen C. Strathy started writing stories when he was 11 years old and too shy to have a life. He eventually found a life when he started acting in community theatre and met other writers, actors, dancers, and artists. He discovered that the best thing about performing arts (and other arts too) is that they give people more freedom to be who they want to be. After spending time as an actor, teacher, and freelance writer, he returned to his first love, fiction and wrote Dancing on the Inside, a novel for ages 9-12.
Glen earned an M.A. in English from the University of Western Ontario, and graduated from the Artist in Community Education program at Queen’s University, Kingston. He co-authored two non-fiction books, one of which (The Coming Economic Collapse, Warner Business Books, 2006) became a New York Times Bestselling Business Book. He belongs to the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). His website www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com provides advice to budding authors.
Glen lives with his wife, fellow writer Kaitlin Rainey, and their daughter in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.