Middle grade sits awkwardly in the space between effortlessly adorable picture books for young children, and effortlessly trendy YA for teens. Maybe that’s why I enjoy writing it so much – because it reminds me of how I was at that age. I was a gawky, awkward kid with a nose that was growing too fast for my face, a mouth full of braces, and giant glasses that made me look like an even bigger dork than I already was. But much like the protagonists of many middle grade novels, I wasn’t yet jaded by the reality of life. I still believed in magic, and more importantly, I still believed in myself.
Me as a middle schooler.
Middle grade encompasses virtually every genre (except maybe romance – grooosss!), but my personal favorites are classic fantasy adventure stories like Harry Potter or The BFG. When writing the Warren the 13th series, I was very much inspired by the works of JK Rowling and Roald Dahl, as well as many other middle grade fantasies like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Book of Three, and The Dark is Rising.
I love how all these books mix thrilling adventure and some rather dark themes with child heroes who are capable, good-hearted, and unflappable. Warren the 13th is modeled after these examples; he’s plucky and hard working and has a kind spirit (Almost too kind at times, as he can be rather gullible.) And like I was at that age, he’s not exactly the most attractive kid around.
And what would a good middle grade adventure be without a horrid antagonist to stand in the kids’ way? Many times, this takes the form of an adult figure, whether evil or simply incompetent. Thankfully, there will also be allies, also often in the form of adults. But unlike the horrible antagonists, these grownups are kind or helpful, and offer much needed support for our heroes. This duality of good and not-so-good adults is reflective of the time of life that is middle grade. Kids this age start to see adults as they actually are- flawed human beings, and sometimes it’s an uncomfortable reality to face.
Middle grade is also a time for kids to test the boundaries of their independence. They’re not yet teenagers, so they don’t have the same freedoms that their older counterparts do, but they still long for more responsibility and choice, all while still needing a solid family base to support them. Family is important in middle grade, and it’s common to find orphans at the heart these stories.
Illustration by Jim Kay for the illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
And what does an orphan long for more than anything? A place to call home. Family is one of the central themes of Warren the 13th, and Warren (also an orphan) learns that family isn’t always the unit you’re born into, but the one that is made up along the way. He, too, has a mix of horrible and wonderful adults in his life to challenge and support him, but ultimately its his own decisions and actions that save the day.
People often ask me what’s the hardest part of writing for a middle grade audience. They wonder if I have to censor myself from using curse words, or simplify the story to suit my audience. But this has never been my experience. I certainly don’t hold back anything, or avoid using big words or exploring dark themes. (As for curse words, they’re simply not necessary, especially when a clever insult or made up exclamation is much more fun). It’s a mistake to assume that the audience isn’t smart enough to handle things – one should never dumb things down for children. I’m sure many of you can remember a time when an adult talked down to you like you were an idiot. Not fun, right?
In fact, I encourage anyone who might be reading this to try their hand at middle grade. Try writing something that you would have loved to have read as a kid, and you might find that not much has changed about your sensibilities since then.
I always carry notebooks in which to write.
Speaking of which, you really ought to read more middle grade too, because there is some fantastic stuff out there that will transport you to your inner child. After all, middle grade may be tad awkward, but it lives on inside all of our spirits, grinning through braces and tugging us on our next adventure.