Know your audience. That’s one of the first things they teach you in journalism school. What they don’t teach you is that this rule applies to writing pretty much anything else. Especially children’s fiction. But there’s a catch.
When you’re writing for middle grade readers – or children of any age – you’re actually writing for two audiences: the young reader and the adult gatekeeper.
Whether that gatekeeper is a parent, grandparent, teacher or librarian, there’s almost always another set of discerning eyes on work intended for middle grade readers. It’s tricky, but it can be done.
When you think about it, writing for two readers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gatekeepers want to make sure their kiddos’ reading material feeds their brains with wisdom without exposing them to developmentally inappropriate content. Parent gatekeepers are rightly vigilant in determining what their kids may or may not be ready to tackle, and often want to fuel my kid’s imagination by introducing them to parts of the world that they may not otherwise get to see.
The folks who decide where books are shelved and whether they are bought are incredibly important.
In talking with a number of librarians, parents, grandparents and teachers, here are three subjects that are “no-go” when they’re looking for appropriate middle grade reading material.
Life is full of bumps and thumps. But graphic descriptions of the broken bones is unnecessary for a middle grade reader.
Author Steven James distinguishes suspense from thriller from horror writing like this: Suspense is when you know *something horrible* is about to happen.Thrillers are stories in which the reader knows the horrible thing that’s about to happen and they follow the protagonist through efforts to stop it. Horror is when you watch the horrible thing happening to the protagonist.
The variables here? Point of view and treatment of violence, and they’re relevant to kids as well as adults. Generally speaking, middle grade readers and their adults agree that mild suspense and thrills are okay, but graphic descriptions of violence are not at all appropriate. Violence and gore are off limits.
2) Extreme Romance.
One aunt told me her fifth grade niece would rather read ten books about puppies than a single book about a girl with a crush on the boy-next-door. Middle grade readers are still very outward-focused and don’t want to read an inner monologue describing the torment of a first crush.
Some kids are curious about and experiment with physical romance at an early age – but writing descriptions of physical romance for young children is unnecessary. There’s no need to rush kids into romantic entanglements, and there’s even less need to introduce discussions of attraction or temptation. Seriously, that’s bordering on grooming behavior. Sex, sexuality, and innuendo are out of bounds for this age group. Children should get to be children. Full stop.
“I know that he’s going to hear foul language on the playground at school. I can’t stop him from that, or make him unhear what he’s already heard. That doesn’t make it okay to read cursing in our living room,” says one mom. Coarse language, swear words, potty-mouth characters – however you describe it – are off limits for middle grade readers. If you want to create an “edgy” character, use wardrobe or behavior choices, give her an interesting ‘tic’ or quirky habit. But keep it clean.
Does this jibe with what you have learned about writing for middle grade readers? Do you agree or disagree? I’d love to hear about your experiences writing for this age group, so please comment below.