Friday, January 4, 2013

The Magic In Middle Grade: Remembering Your Audience During Revisions - Jennifer Nielsen

The middle grades are a wonderful time for readers. Books for this age boast heroes such as Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and Roald Dahl’s wonderful Matilda. There are classic stories such as A WRINKLE IN TIME or THE WESTING GAME that will live forever, and amazing newcomers that are added to our favorites shelves each year.

However, authors who write middle grade novels face specific challenges. Most are solved by one simple trick: remember your audience.

The middle grade reader might be as young as 6 and as old as 15. Within those ages, there is obviously a huge span in maturity, reading ability, and interests, so please consider those variations in writing your specific book. However, there are some traits that most middle graders have in common:

* A growing curiosity about the world.
* A love of “useful” knowledge (information they can bring into their own lives).
* A maturing sense of humor.
* A sense of idealism and fair play.
* An aptitude for moral questions and gray areas in judgment.
* A loyalty to their peers and value systems.

These very traits are what make some of the biggest middle grade books so popular. As the story’s hero wrestles with his moral boundaries, the reader begins to define his as well. As the heroine fights the injustice in her family or peer group, the reader identifies similar injustices in her own life. The more that you can help your reader connect to your hero through their shared traits (even if the conflict is far beyond a normal child’s experiences), the stronger their bond will be to your story.

During revision, it’s also important to remember a few key points about middle grade readers. After each chapter, consider pausing to ask yourself these questions.

1. Would a real person of my character’s age behave this way, or have I distorted typical behaviors to accommodate my plot?

Why is this important?
Middle grade readers are the most likely of any age to spot a phony character and feel cheated for it. They can accept and even identify with a character of extraordinary traits or abilities, but only if that character’s actions and motives are believable. If you don’t personally know someone in the age for which you are writing, it’s time to get to know them!

2.  How old is my main character compared to the expected age of my reader? Is the character’s gender the same as I expect for my readers?

Why is this important?
Middle grade readers are usually quick to figure out the age of the story’s hero. Although they will make exceptions, they generally prefer to read about a character who is slightly older than them. The crossover between boys and girls who will read about the opposite gender is growing, and there has also been a greater willingness by girls to read about boy characters than the reverse. Yet, this is still an important point to keep in mind.

3. What are the stakes if the hero loses?

Why is this important?
No matter what type of book it is, middle grade readers love stories where losing has major consequences. As you revise, look for places to raise the stakes and make life even harder for your hero.

4. Are there places where humor can be added?

Why is this important?
It’s certainly not mandatory to have humor in a story, and absolutely true that there are many wonderful stories where humor doesn’t play any role at all. However, if you have the type of story that can benefit from some humor, then readers will love it all the more!

5. Where does the story slow down?

Why is this important?
Some middle graders are more committed readers than others. To reach the greatest number of readers, learn to see the places in your story that kids will want to skip, or worse, just put down your book! Look for ways to maximize action, draw your readers into the next chapter, and that either explore the familiar in a new way, or else introduces something new in an exciting way.

And finally…

Remember that middle grade readers live in the stories they love. While the book is in their hand, they are the hero of that character’s adventures, experiencing similar emotions, dilemmas, and tests. Give them a story where they can one day write and tell you how they are just like the hero, how they wished they had that same power, or skill, or experience. Write the story you wish had existed when you were that age. Or for that matter, that you still wished you could read!

JENNIFER NIELSEN was born and raised in northern Utah, where she still lives today with her husband, three children, and a dog that won't play fetch. She is the author of The Ascendance trilogy, beginning with THE FALSE PRINCE; of The Underworld Chronicles, beginning with ELLIOT AND THE GOBLIN WAR; and will write the sixth book of the Infinity Ring series. She loves chocolate, old books, and lazy days in the mountains.

For most kids, accidentally starting an interspecies war would be the biggest event of their lives. But for Elliot Penster, it was only the beginning. When the Brownies, who are on the hopelessly losing end of that war against the Goblins, make Elliot their King, there’s one Brownie who isn’t celebrating. And he’s just made a deal with the Goblins to get rid of Elliot.

“Nielsen cleverly keeps the action and humor flowing from one silly obstacle to the next... This quickly addictive page-turner also entices readers with many sensory details, such as tenacious Gripping Mud, surprising tasty turnip juice and a tingly invisibility potion gone wrong... Definitely a series to invest in...” – Kirkus

“Oh dear. Funny names (Fudd Fartwick, Tubs Lawless) and unexpected events (almost being scared to death) tumble through the pages, and Nielsen writes about them with tongue in cheek.” - Booklist

Find ELLIOT AND THE GOBLIN WAR in the following retailers!


Angelica R. Jackson said...

Great post! Getting into the MG mindset is really difficult if you haven't spent time around that age group lately. Especially since I see so many writers deciding to focus on MG so they can include a message or teachable moment--there is a place for that, but the story has to come first. This is a very helpful checklist to help with that.

Ansha Kotyk said...

I love this list, it's a great reminder for me while I'm outlining and plotting. Something I'm doing right now. :) Thanks!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this post! I have always written YA but have recently been considering foraying into MG (since I now have an MG-aged daughter), and this post will be invaluable in starting me on my quest. Thanks again!

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Thank you. You've explained the 'why' of all these regularities in middle grade (like protagonist age), and I'm more amenable to making my characters the 'right' age because of your explanation. <- sorry I'm using weird words. It's late and I seriously can't think of normal synonyms. Fabulous post!