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Middle Grade Novel Structure 101: Stuck in the Middle (Grade) with You

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

When I was nine years old, my fourth grade teacher read a story to our class about a boy and his two hunting dogs in the Ozark Mountains. Where the Red Fern Grows did more than make me teary-eyed; it filled my young mind with wonder, imagination, and inspiration. 

That book, along with others like Bridge to Terabithia, the Chronicles of Narnia, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and A Wrinkle in Time, to name a few, began a twisting path that eventually led to my writing and publishing my first book nearly thirty years later. Now as a grown-up and dad to three boys, those books still hold a special place in my heart.

The world of children’s literature, “kidlit” for short, has many realms and spans a sizable age range for children all along the development trail.

It can be divided into numerous sub-categories, but the big buckets are:

  • Young Adult (Ages 13-18)
  • Middle Grade (Ages 8-12)
  • Picture Books (Ages 3-8)

Like anything else, there are nooks and crannies throughout those categories, from Board Books, Early Reader, and Chapter Books, to Preteen and New Adult. It’s good to remember that each young reader is different, and that borders are gray and often influenced by reading level, community dynamics, family background, and much more.

Middle Grade Readers

Middle grade is specially positioned, like that dreamy period just before dawn, when the light pokes over the trees but you can’t yet see fully. Third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grades are often formative years, when children begin to peer from the nest and truly notice the world around them.

Unlike the greater freedoms and angst of the subsequent teen years (two strange creatures in this phase currently live in my home), middle grade readers are usually still tethered. But their eyes are open and they often show a hunger to learn about others who might be different from them, to explore history, art, famous people and places, science, and the fantastical world of imagination. It’s no wonder that this enchanting period provides authors such a rich canvas.

Middle Grade Novel Structure

Rules for length, style, language, themes, and plot can also vary in middle grade. But the better you know the standard guidelines, the more informed you can be if you decide to break them.

Length

Broadly, middle grade books tend to run between 20,000-50,000 words, but word count varies—Charlotte’s Web is 32,000 words, and the first Harry Potter book is nearly 77,000 (and they go up from there).

Content

Middle grade is normally less scary and violent, romance is rarely more than a crush, and language is minimal, and yet there are exceptions for all of those rules. But writer beware, proven methods and expectations from readers, parents, and teachers exist for a reason. Deviating from the norm can set you on a narrow ledge. You might see things that you wouldn’t from behind the railing, but without a keen sense of balance, you can quickly get into trouble.

Language

Just like writing for any other age group, tone is critical. If you want your stories to resonate with target readers, be sure that descriptions, dialogue, situations, and topics ring true to modern-day kids.

Writers should immerse themselves in other popular middle grade books, tap into their own rich childhood memories, and find appropriate ways to observe and listen to how today’s kids interact and speak. The proper voice might come very naturally if you’re in a house with kids in this age group, but if it’s been a while, watch popular shows and movies, listen to relatives and family friends, or volunteer at a local school, church, or community group.

Connecting with Middle Grade Readers

One of my most fulfilling experiences in writing middle grade has been connecting with young readers at school visits and events. Late elementary and early middle schoolers are often eager to meet and hear from authors at classroom visits, school assemblies, and writing workshops.

Those same elements which engage kids this age with stories often make for captive audiences as I explain the inspiration for my books, give writing tips, explain how imagining stories can be a job, and answer dozens of questions. Young faces light up and stare in amazement at the “rock star” who has taken the time to come to their school. I look forward to the day when a debut author reaches out and shares that my visit or books played a part in their creative journey.

While there are many genres and age groups for which you might craft your words, few make as lasting an impact as those for middle grade readers—standing in the doorway to a waiting world, filled with the magical light of wonder and imagination.

 

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Steven K. Smith

Steven K. Smith is the author of thirteen books for middle-grade readers across his The Virginia Mysteries, Brother Wars, and Final Kingdom series. Steven’s books have sold over 100,000 copies, and he has spoken at more than 150 elementary and middle schools. The Virginia State Reading Association chose his book, Shadows at Jamestown, as a 2019-20 Virginia Readers’ Choice elementary title. Steven lives in Richmond, Virginia, with his wife, three sons and a golden retriever. Visit his website at www.stevenksmith.net.

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