Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Writing for Middle Grade

This is for all the MG writers out there, targeting the 4th/5th graders (ages 9-11).

As a volunteer in an elementary school for the past 7 years, I have fabulous connections and opportunities to talk to this group of readers (and younger, but that's a different post). Last year, I was thrilled when my oldest son's teacher asked if I wanted to interview individual students about what they were reading on a weekly basis, month after month. The instructions were simple enough... ask for a synopsis of what they'd read so far to get a feel for comprehension (probably to make sure they were actually reading). Of course, I had to take it many steps further and get into why they like certain books, and why not.

The best thing about this year-long adventure? Every student had to meet with me, not just the ones who couldn't wait to tell someone how fabulous certain books are. These particular readers could gush on and on about reading everything by certain authors, certain topics, and more than happy to point me to other books they love... These kids are amazing because they've been around enough to know what they like and don't like, and they actually know why. My questioning was sort of like sending my ms to a writer rather than a reader for a critique. The most memorable bit of information from this class of reader was.. they love being part of a different world, and they hate characters who make stupid decisions.  

Some kids feel compelled to read the same thing over and over. Bone, by Jeff Smith comes to mind, along with Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Why don't they branch out and read something different? Answers ranged from something like, "It's easier to read because of the pictures," to, "I know what's happening so I can picture it better in my head." (like watching the same movie over and over as a kid?) "Nothing else is as funny" "I get more out of it every time I read." "I read the whole series, so I started over."

What about the students who don't enjoy reading? I'm torn here, because this is the group I would've fallen into for many reasons. But as I think back, I wonder if I would have found a book with the power to turn me into a "real" reader if I'd been given a choice about what I could read? All I remember are the hours of required textbook reading. I love that my boys can pick any book they want, with the only restriction of "required reading" being a minimum of fifteen minutes a night.  

Anyway, comments from this group were things like, "I wish they had..." books about monsters... books about planets that are easier to follow... murder mysteries for kids... comic books... funny books... baseball books... "If I wrote my own book, it'd be about a brother and sister, and the sister is terrible to the brother and the parents don't notice" ( <-- good idea!). These sorts of answers are sad to me, because these books are definitely out there! The kids just haven't found the right book that will inspire them to read more. They haven't found something better than watching TV. Something that changes the way they see words on a page. Worse, by this age, they've pretty much decided they don't like reading.

I know this is getting long, but I had to share the following data. For this past February, I conducted a very un-scientific poll to find out why people (of all age groups) love the books they love. This data comes from multiple classrooms and personal contacts who spread the word, (with various versions of the same question). The biggest surprise for me (from ALL the data) was that many of the younger kids (my two included) seem to prefer non-fiction over fiction. Go figure!

So without further ado, with much appreciation and thanks to one of my most favorite teachers on the planet, here is the raw data (narrowed down to the 4th/5th grade level). (I've corrected spelling... )

"Because I like mystery books that are somewhere I'm not. Usually they're in America. I love reading because it gives me something to do and it gives me an interest also I always learn something in a book."

"Because I liked to read Pokémon. Pokémon is better than Bakugan."

"It lets me enter another world. They make more sense or they have more adventure."

"I like reading because it keeps me occupied. I like Indian books better because they are action packed usually."
"You can learn good things later on. Some can help you."

"I like reading because you can learn stuff and it is just fun. I personally like books with dragons because they are so interesting."

"I like reading because it is fun. Books are good to read because it helps you read better."

"I like science reading. The reason I like science books is because I'm really into science."

"I like reading because it's a fun way of taking a break from chores or school work. I think non-fiction books are better because they're different than what you do every day."

"Because some books are cool. Some books aren't because some authors have better imagination."

"I like to read because I can learn things and read a good book at the same time. Other books are better than others because I like fantasy and sometimes I feel like I'm in the book."

"Some books are better than others because some of them have more action than others or more things happening."

"I love reading because it helps you with everything. Some books are better than others because some are not interesting when others are."

"Hard to explain it but some books have no imagination."

"Because it will pass time. I like books that have dogs in it."

"I love to read because some books are really interesting. Some books are better than others because some are biographies and some are fantasy."

"It gets your mind off stuff and it's fun. Fantasy books are better than non-fiction because fantasy is like more fun."

"Books make my family seem boring. It's good to have more exciting things happen."

"I get to picture a whole new world! Some books are better than others because some have more pictures than others."

"I like reading because I learn new things."

"I like to learn things about facts, like world records and things people do."

"I like nonfiction books better than fiction because I learn more."

"I like reading because some books pull you in and make you want to keep reading. Some books are not as good as others."

"I can learn things I can't learn anywhere else."

"I get to pretend I'm someone else and compare myself to other people."

"Because it takes me to another world and gives me drawing ideas."

"It depends on what kind of books you like."

"I like reading because it is fun. Bad books are bad and good books are good."

"I like to read because it's fun and some books are really interesting."

"I don't like reading. Because some have better imaginations than others."

"It's fun. They just are."

"People in books have more fun."

I hope you find this data interesting. :-) 
Happy Writing!
~Toni Kerr


  1. Some of these cracked me up: "I like science reading. The reason I like science books is because I'm really into science." That's how I imagine my engineer husband as a child!

    Thanks for sharing your treasure trove of data.

    1. Some are definitely hilarious! And I wish I some were more specific... Answers from the 2nd grade class were quite funny as well. :-)

  2. Interesting! Really surprising how many like non-fiction. Although I guess I read all the encyclopedias in 3rd grade.

    1. Yeah, the 2nd graders in particular were very high on non-fic side. Non-fiction and funny.

      Maybe because when they go to the school library, and don't know what they want, the librarian asks what they like, and they give a non-fiction answer... ?

  3. I love this! The answers are wonderful. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks! It was an enlightening project. :-)

  4. What a neat post, sharing actual thoughts of children on reading. In some ways the answers are all over the map (good for authors who write different types of stories), but at the same time they seem to boil down to a common theme--reading is fun. Oh, that we writers can live up to that. Thanks. Enjoyed this...

    1. Totally agree! I tried to chart it out and couldn't really do it without making assumptions. Seems they want interesting and fun-- whether it be fiction or non-fic.

  5. I would have never guessed nonfiction is so popular. It's awesome getting advice from kids and you're so lucky that you were able to. I know a lot of kids at that age do love the books with pictures too. My daughter loved Captain Underpants for a long time and I worried at her reading taste. But as she got in 5th grade and older, she moved into the Percy Jackson, Hunger Games, and more YA books.

    Thanks for sharing all the advice.

    1. We went through the Captain Underpants phase too. My oldest (6th grade) just read the Hunger Games series and loved it! Now my 2nd grader wants to read it... I don't want to discourage the reading, but I think it's a tad over his head. LOL

  6. Thanks for this list of quotes...it helps me to see my MG novel with different eyes!

    1. You're welcome! MG writers have a tough market! It seems an awkward stage of serious and funny, with a huge range of maturity levels... I'm glad I'm YA!:-)

  7. Wonderful post. It is interesting to hear what kids have to say about books. Our grade school had a rewards program. If a child read, they won a little prize like an eraser or small toy. They had to talk to an adult about the book they read. I loved hearing their take on books and found a few good ones to share with our kids.

    My kids are college age or older, but I remember struggles for getting them to read. It is so important to find right books for kids. I'm glad to see more books that appeal to boys being published. My daughter had a problem with phonics and didn't read well for a long time. She wanted a book that she could use a bookmark with. I found a few books that were a compilation of several smaller books. She could read and use a bookmark. BTW She is excelling in college right now - on dean's list. Each of my kids still love to read. I credit wonderful teachers, creative librarians, and my willingness to read endless stories to them. Reading is crucial.

    1. Reading is crucial and I'm so glad they still love to read. :-)

      At my son's middle school, you have to get a certain amount of points for reading, which you get by taking comprehension tests when you're finished with a book. "Big" books are worth more points, or you could read a ton of little books... The points are spent at the school store (they also get points for homework and such). Whatever keeps them motivated! I'm for it.

  8. Great post!

    I was just reading about how there is a high demand for nonfiction books in elementary schools in the SCBWI bulletin.

    I'm surprised because I rarely read NF as a kid but I would read tons of fiction.

    1. There's a 3rd grader that I talk to quite often and he HATES fiction. I guess I understand.. but really? Hate? He says it's a complete waste of time to read something that isn't true. I argue of course, but sometimes that age can be stubborn. I'll have to check back in a few weeks to see if he feels the same. :-)

      If I recall correctly, he was reading Lightning Thief at the beginning of the school season...

  9. Thanks for the data! Great post.

    1. You're so welcome! Deadwood sounds like a fabulous fit for this group. :-)

  10. This is a wonderful post. Thank you for giving us this window to the thoughts of middle grade readers.

    1. You're welcome and thanks!! I'm working on getting access to a high school classroom, which could be very interesting as well. :-)

  11. Great post! Its nice to have this insight into our audience's funny little minds!!

  12. The comments made me giggle because I can picture the earnest faces and hear the sweet little voices responding to your prompting! Love it.

  13. Thanks for sharing this, Toni! Some of the kids' answers are really interesting, especially those who prefer non-fiction. Then again, I also think it's great that they're interested to learn about the things that go on in the real world. While lessons can be learned in fantasy or other genres of fiction, sometimes, the author's firsthand experiences is easier identify with. -Shelley@Yall Twins

  14. OMG. .these kids really make me laugh!! Indeed, how I wish I had seen these before publishing my first book for these cute middle graders, The Missing Laddoos. I am so thankful to you for such a wonderful post...Stay happy!!



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