early everything following is a suggestion about how to write middle grade. These are great practices because—there is only one rule: when you write middle grade, you are a kid. You are not an adult who cares about paying bills, worrying about politicians, or setting up a date. You are a kid; so you care about how your best friend suddenly started acting mean toward you, that math doesn’t make sense no matter how much you study, and that your mom won’t buy you a new video game even though you’ve been really, really good. Even if things like bills, politicians, or dates come into the middle-grade novel plot—maybe the main character’s parent can’t pay the bills, there’s political upheaval in the story, or the character has a little crush on someone—you do not approach these things pontificating like an adult. You approach them with the thoughts and feelings of a child.
“There is only one rule: when you write middle grade, you are a kid.”
The Right Voice
Traditionally, books for kids have been written in third person, though first person is also a growing option. Whether you write in third person or first (or even second person), it still needs to be a child’s voice.
How do you find the right voice? Well, you were a kid once: what was your voice then? Some slang and technology may have changed, but the essence of the voice will be the same.
If you have writing you did as a child, whether for school or for fun, get that out and read it. Did you keep a diary? Or if all else fails, do you have home movies to remind yourself what life was like? If you have a child who writes, and if the child is fine with you reading their writing, see how they express themselves.
Do you remember the books that meant so much to you at this age? Get those out and read them. Remember what about these books spoke to you so much. It’s also good to read newer middle grade, not only for a marketing standpoint (if you’re interested in publication), but so you can compare modern trends to the books that touched you as a middle-grade reader and see what universal feelings resonate.
It might help to write out some of your own childhood memories. Don’t write them as an adult looking back (at least not for this exercise). For example, write what your desk looked like, how brand-new crayons smelled, all the energy and intimidation of the first day of school. As an adult, you can walk in and out of a classroom during the school day, and it’s your choice. As a kid, you don’t have a choice. This is your assigned classroom for the school day for the entire year, and this is where you stay. Remember what this feels like. These memories might spark some ideas, and these scenes might even be useable for a middle-grade book.
“The good thing about using slang is it can make the book feel especially applicable right now. But it can also date the book after a few years.”
Do you remember when you learned certain words? I often do. As a kid, I liked to show off when I learned new words; but sometimes, I was also cowed when adults would use words above my head because it felt as if they were mocking me and keeping me out of their conversations with that vocabulary. Were you the same?
When you’re writing, word choice always matters, but it can especially matter for kids because they’re still growing their vocabulary. And like adults, some kids will have bigger or smaller vocabularies than others.
I approach vocabulary differently depending on the project. When I wrote a Barbie comic for young readers, I figured parents would probably be reading it to them, so it was okay to use a few words kids might have trouble reading on their own, but they had to be words they would recognize.
If you’re writing for younger kids in middle grade, say the early chapter books like Junie B. Jones, they might be reading it with a parent or might be reading it on their own. In these books, I would be especially careful not to throw in big words because these books are often stepping stones to reading independently. When I first learned to read, I remember how some books were too intimidating. Once I had a better handle on reading, then I felt more comfortable reading books with a bigger vocabulary.
So, let’s say you’re writing middle grade above the level of Junie B. Jones. What level of vocabulary do you use? I’d say it depends on the genre. Are you writing fast adventure books, like I did with my Minecrafter fantasy series? With that, I stuck to words I figured kids would know. That type of book is meant to be fun and sped through.
Are you writing something more serious that you want kids to contemplate? Then it’s fine to put in words of a higher vocabulary (maybe even “contemplate”). I wrote a serious historical chapter book, and I use some words I’m sure are going to be new to kids, but I also include a glossary of historical terms. But also keep in mind who is using those words. Parents will likely have a bigger vocabulary than kids. A parent might say, “Can’t you be more articulate?” Odds are a kid won’t say that (though of course, there are exceptions!), but they might understand the word based on context and repetition.
Stay true to your characters. If you need to write the rough draft with your own terms and go back in to make it sound more child-friendly, that works, too!
Another thing to keep in mind is the use of slang words because they change. I tend to avoid slang, though I might use a little. The good thing about using slang is it can make the book feel especially applicable right now. But it can also date the book after a few years. On the other hand, if you’re doing a historical book, using the slang of the time can make it feel more authentic, as long as kids can understand it. The use or non-use of slang really ought to vary depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
“Using a more basic vocabulary for some books can make it more inclusive to readers of different abilities, but it’s important not to dumb it down.”
Authenticity and Child-Friendly
Middle grade spans the ages of seven through twelve when you count both chapter books and tween books in this category. That’s five years where kids go through a lot of growth—physically, mentally, and emotionally. If you’re writing for older middle grade, your character might get big crushes. If you’re writing for younger middle grade, things are probably a lot more innocent. If you’re writing for older middle grade, your character might take good care of how they look. If you’re writing for younger middle grade, that mud puddle over there might be really tempting. Keep these age differences in mind.
Colorful language often helps in middle grade. In a book for young adult (YA) readers, you might say, “My mother kept asking me to clean my room.” In middle grade, you might say, “My mom asked me a million times to clean my room.” We know she didn’t really ask a million times, but it gets across the voice and how it feels to the child protagonist, as if she’s asked a million times.
Adults (usually) learn to keep some thoughts to themselves. They learned this lesson because of the many thoughts that came out of their mouths without filtering as a child. Kids, on the other hand, tend to be brutally honest, especially when they’re younger. They tell you how they feel. And when you’re writing in their voice, that’s how you feel, too.
A good middle-grade author does not treat kids as if they’re stupid. Using a more basic vocabulary for some books can make it more inclusive to readers of different abilities, but it’s important not to dumb it down. Sometimes, books come with messages, and it’s important that the message weaves its way into the story, so the reader appreciates it instead of feeling hit over the head with it. Lecturing or preaching will sound like school and/or parents: watch how fast the kids tune it out.
Another common mistake I see is using vocabulary words that just don’t sound right. Try this:
My teacher instituted a new rule.
My teacher made a new rule.
Some other possible middle-grade rewrites for the sentence:
My teacher started a new rule.
My teacher hates kids, and that’s why she started a new rule.
I love my teacher’s new rule because it finally got the kids in the back row to stop bugging the rest of us.
Let’s try another example.
I thought there was a legitimate problem in the cafeteria.
I thought there was a major problem in the cafeteria.
Some other possible middle-grade rewrites for the sentence:
I can’t believe what’s going on in the cafeteria! You have to see it to believe it.
There was a problem in the cafeteria, and I could smell it a mile away.
Have you ever eaten food so gross you taste it all day? That’s all they serve in my cafeteria. Yuck.
Some kids will go around using words like “institute” and “legitimate,” but most won’t. Why do I bring up these two words specifically? Because I recently saw them used in a middle-grade book, and it just didn’t ring true to me.
One good way to make sure you’re not making mistakes is to go to the readers themselves. If you have a kid in the middle-grade age range or know someone with a kid who’s interested, you can read your manuscript to them or let them read it themselves—kids can be beta readers, too. Let them tell you what feels real and what doesn’t. They know better than anyone.
Danica Davidson is the author of eighteen books and comics for children and young adults, including the middle grade Holocaust book I Will Protect You (Little, Brown), which she created with survivor Eva Mozes Kor. She has written thirteen middle-grade Minecrafter adventure books, YA books on how to draw in the manga style, and comics in both the Barbie and Tales from the Crypt franchises. Find out more about her at www.danicadavidson.com.