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The Middle Grade Voice

The middle grade . . . shoe?
It’s one of – if not the – hardest voices to write in literature. The Middle Grade voice demands a connection with the youth, wide-eyed adventure and hunger for discovery found in 8-12 year olds – but rejects a myriad of ways adults might approach writing for that age group. If you write Middle Grade, you have probably discovered through research that agents and editors are hungry for it. So why aren’t they crawling all over themselves to represent the MG that comes their way? The most likely culprit is that the MG they read lacks MG voice.

Here are some (all too) common problems:

The (Elderly) Omniscient Storyteller: The omniscient voice certainly has its place in literature. However, when writing MG, is your storyteller an 8-12 year old, or is it an imaginary, village wise man, reminiscing on youth? You may think your storyteller is 8-12, but how much melancholy, how many lessons, how distanced is your voice from the age of your character? Can you hear a real, modern 8-12 year old in your head, or does the voice belong to someone who wants to weave his yarns to the younger generation? The real MG voice will spend less time reminiscing, “let me tell you a story-ing,” and setting up scenes (vs. plunging right into them) than a true MG voice will.

The Lesson Giver: In no genre of writing is The Lesson Giver appreciated – and for good reason. Very few people choose to read a story that sucks the pleasure out of reading by trying to teach a lesson. In MG, readers can instantly tell – and will instantly reject – a story that overtly teaches patience, education, service or any of the things adults feel MGers should be reading and learning about. The MG novel is not a platform. Consider, for example, the popularity of Artemis Fowl, whose main character is snarky, too smart for his own good and a criminal who most often gets away with it.

The Precious Voice: Have you listened to an 8-12 year old talk nowadays? They don’t sound much like a child from a Dickens’ novel, all wide-eyed and “Can I have some more, sir?” The voices of actual 8-12 year olds vary widely, from intelligent and even know-it-all to carefree to cautious and hesitant. They are not sweet little innocents who never make mistakes; more likely, they rush into mistakes and are reluctant to admit them. This stage of life is about exploring and testing boundaries, as well as the beginnings of self-discovery. The Middle Grade voice should not sound like a toddler, nor should it be innocent and sweet-as-candy. It should be real and raw and confused at times, but hopeful and amused and spirited.

What should you do when writing MG?

Be That Age: Stop trying to write for 8-12 year olds. Stop trying to make up what it feels like to be an 8-12 year old. If you can’t clearly remember how you felt at that age, and still retain some of the personality quirks you had at that age, maybe MG isn’t quite right for you. I don’t believe that the older you get, the harder it is to recall that age; rather, it comes down to whether that stage of your life was one of, if not the most, significant of your life. Did things (good and bad) happen that feel fresh in your mind? Can you both relate to and respect modern MGers? When you are around 8-12 year olds now, do you roll your eyes, smile indulgently (because, oh how cute they are), want to run or wonder why kids can’t be the way they used to be? If you do, MG is not right for you. You have to love this age group, identify with it and write your stories as a MGer. Additionally, you must recognize that modern youth are different from youth when you were that age in some ways. Other ways, such as the pull to be more heavily influenced by your peers, but with the family still being central to your life, tend to be more universal.

Have you struggled with the MG voice? Have you sent out MG query after MG query and wondered why, since agents are looking for MG, yours keeps getting rejected? Scrutinize your MG voice honestly to see if you’ve nailed it or if you’ve fallen into one of the common MG voice traps. Author Chris Rylander has listed some useful questions to (not) ask yourself and some additional MG voice advice at 5MinutesforBooks.
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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  1. I'm contemplating 2 different MG stories. One would deal with a dead girl's diary and the other would deal with a trio of friends. I can honestly say that the MG voice is a hard one but these stories are in my head and I'm hoping to channel them out. I'll bookmark this post as a reference as I go along on my journey. Thanks so much for this

  2. I've been thinking about MG for a while. Waiting for the perfect premise, and then off I go!

  3. I agree: writing for children is much harder than people are tempted to think!

    However, I must disagree on the lesson-giving aspect. I've always loved stories that taught me a story, ever since I started reading. I don't think it sucks any pleasure out of the story as long as it's not moralizing. What teaching lessons means to me, is seeing good deeds rewarded, and bad ones punished. I think it can give tremendous hope to children, who often feel underestimated and unfairly treated in a world that values results over intentions, appearance instead of heart, adults' opinions over children's.

  4. I'm editing a MG. I love having an excuse to regress. Who needs to wait for their second childhood?

  5. I very much agree with your last paragraph of advice. One of the problems I see in a lot of MG manuscripts is a forced kid voice. Though people are always talking about how important voice is and how difficult it can be to find, I don't think it's something that a writer should be too cerebral about. Figure out the right point-of-view, get yourself in your character's head, and tell their story as clearly as you can. The voice should come naturally.

    Great post!


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Item Reviewed: The Middle Grade Voice Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook