Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Tess Hilmo on Middle Grade Books

This week The Literary Lab presents a series of guest posts exploring the conventions of different genres and what writers love and loath about each of them. We're continuing with Tess Hilmo on...

What is Middle Grade?

It’s probably easiest to start with a list of some popular middle grade books. These include

The Giver City of Ember

Spiderwick Chronicles

Harry Potter Artemis Fowl

The Graveyard Book

Island of the Blue Dolphins

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys

Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events

The Tale of Despereaux

FableHaven series

Just to name a few.

The best part about Middle Grade is that it encompasses many genres….fantasy, science fiction, literary, humorous, action adventure, mystery, even basic romance.

There are exceptions to every rule, but some distinguishing features of Middle Grade include:

Age of Protagonist – Middle grade fiction is aimed at children ages 8-13, so the protagonist is usually around the 12-13 age range.

Subject Matter – You’ll find stories of death/illness, relationships, divorce - even murder within the covers of a middle grade book. Typically, scenes are less graphic and more skewed for the appropriateness of the intended reader.

Word Count – At one time, Middle Grade books had lower word counts. That is no longer the case. Some of the fantasy series are up in the 400 page range and kids still gobble them up! I was asking an editor about this very thing a couple of years ago at a conference, and she said that younger middle grade stories still fall in the 30-50k range. Older middle grade runs the gamut.

Language – you won’t find much swearing in Middle Grade as a rule.

Tess’ Soapbox Moment

Middle Grade books require the author to provide the same quality of writing as other novels. Those of us who desire to write successful MG novels still pay attention to issues of characterization, plot, atmosphere, dialogue, etc. There are fantastic and beautifully written MG books and there are lousy ones – just as with any other genre. Personally, when I think of a great MG book, I think of one that child and parent would both enjoy reading.

How awards distinguish Picture Book, Middle Grade and Young Adult literature:

The Caldecott Medal
is awarded to the ‘best’ picture book each year.

The Newbery:
Oh, the precious Newbery. Every Middle Grade author dreams about it (at least this one does!). Started in 1922 and named after John Newbery, a publisher, it is generally awarded to one of the top Middle Grade novels every year. Newbery Honors are also given each year.

The Printz Award is specifically for YA. Young Adult literature usually has an older protagonist, more serious themes, more opportunity for language, sex, etc… I’ll let another writer tackle this subject as I am no expert!


  1. Great post, Tess! I think this tackles the basic questions for Middle Grade, and will help many distinguish between it and YA.

    I love that you make it clear that MG is not any less or easier to write than any other genre. In fact, I think it's probably harder! To write for such a specific age group, and the appeal to adults as well. That is amazing. I know your Middle Grade novel does this!

    My question is this: Does the Harry Potter series move from Middle Grade to more YA? Because I know they get darker, and the protagonists get older. Much older than 12 and 13! And I know the movies seems to be getting more and more adult-driven, in my opinion. Although that might be a completely different subject.

  2. Okay, Lady Glamis is reading my mind . . . again. Please stop!

    I had the same question about the Harry Potter series, especially since it followed him from MG to YA. Now, the basic concept is that the audience is growing older with the character . . . but does that mean the level of writing must grow as well? At what point does MG metamorhis into YA?

    Great post. I truly admire authors that are able to write MG/YA and make the characters realistic and believable. I've read some books where the teenagers come acros as 40 year olds. Not believable at all. I, unfortunately, have never dared to journey into MG/YA territory.

    Thanks for the post.


  3. Good Morning friends! Yes, you are both Right Glam and Scott -- Harry Potter does stretch to YA by the last few books. I should have clairified that.

    But how cool it is that you 'got' that! Now you can see the difference between MG and YA by looking at the progression of that series.

  4. It seems like MG may be more difficult to write than adult genres, because you have a larger target audience (i.e. kids and adults).

    This provides the opportunity to weave in additional layers. Makes me think of Bugs Bunny cartoons...the things I laugh at now are different than the things that amused me as a kid. The humor was actually very sophisticated in many Looney Tunes.

  5. Awesome post! The biggest problem for me is the age of middle grade. I wasn't sure if I could go up to 14 or not. 14 seems to be too old for MG but too young for YA. So does no one write a book with a protag that's 14? Who would read that? Just wondering.

  6. This was an excellent summary! Thanks, Tess! I'll look forward to reading your books someday with my kids! That's thing I love about many of the books you've listed. I enjoy them as much as my kids--we actually listen to them on tape together and have a blast talking about plot and character and message.

  7. That is the million dollar question Elana - I'll give my 2cents on it, but others should weigh in as well.

    Ok, I'll say 'it depends'. Let me give you some examples:

    The first one is The Princess Academy by Sannon Hale (Newbery Honor winner). Exellent book with a protagonist that is a little bit older. Still, the story reads like MG and it, indeed, fell on the MG shelf of bookstores.

    The flip example is 'Wishing Moon' by Michael O Tunnell. Also a great book - but he wrote w/ a 14 year old protag and then it ended up shelved in the YA section of some bookstores. I had the opportunity to have this very discussion w/ this author and he said that - by putting his MC at 14 and removing any parental involvement (she lives on her own pretty much and makes a lot of adult type decisions about her life) it fell into YA.

    This latter example was a bit of a problem for the author because he intended the book to be MG and it reads MG, but it shelved in YA and that ultimately may have hurt its sales.

    So - a 14 y/o protag is a grey area. Most editors I've heard from will say play it safe and bump that character down to 13 or up to 15.

    Not a perfect answer, I know. What do others think?

  8. The definition of MG also lies in the reader. You listed The City of Ember and The Giver as MG, but in my library, they are in the YA section. When I read Ember, I thought the writing was MG, but I don't get to make that decision.

    The adult book discussion group at the library has also struggled with defining the boundaries of YA, which I think is even more difficult. We read The Book Thief, by Marcus Zuzak, a few months ago, and people (who are not kidlit folks, just regular library patrons) didn't understand why it was classified as YA. Not that they thought it was inappropriate for young adult readers, but the label confused them. A few were hesitant to try YA as they thought it was going to be fluff.

  9. What category does a novel fall into if the protagonist ages from 10 to 16?

  10. Thanks for the info, Tess. I never knew about the word count thing.

    Lynnette Labelle


  11. I think a lot of MG stuff gets put in with the YA because teens are less likely to read it if it is labeled MG. Kids, in my experience, like to read up...feel older. I love MG books. They totally run the gamut from literary to commercial. I like both ends of that range.

    The big difference I notice in bookstores is that the MG books are in the children's section and the YA books are not. Some books get shelved both places.

  12. Tess, Thank you for this wonderful post. I learned a few things, and I realized that I was still familiar with a few of the books that you mentioned, meaning that they have stayed with me since I read them as an MG'er.

    You said: "Typically, scenes are less graphic and more skewed for the appropriateness of the intended reader."

    I wonder, for you, if this is a plus or a minus. I can respect this attitude, but at the same time it makes me less-likely to try to write in this genre. How do you view this restraint? Is it more challenging for you, or does it make things easier?

  13. Neil Gaiman just won a Newberry for "The Graveyard Book," which begins with a grisly murder by a knife-wielding thing. Is Gaiman MG or YA? How old is the idea of "middle grade," anyway? I know that a lot of the classic books I read as a kid were written for kids ("The Wind in the Willows" and "Charlotte's Web" spring to mind), and they were solidly-written with beautiful prose, but I wonder how recently the audience age brackets were formed. What would "To Kill A Mockingbird" be?

  14. I loved the post! I have a middle grade series looming in the back of my mind. I don't know why I thought 25K was acceptable for word count. Perhaps for a series it still is?

  15. This is one of the best break downs of the genre I've seen!

  16. I love reading MG books, but I've never had much success writing either MG or YA. Since I write fantasy and many of my characters start young (my heroine for my present wip starts at 14) I have sometimes been given the advice to try to re-orient the book to a younger audience.

    I've tried, but I can't. I find it too hard to control my themes and vocabulary (ugh) to make it appropriate. When I try, I end up talking down to the reader, which is deadly.

    I think this shows a common misunderstanding. Fantasy+Young Protag does NOT equal Instant MG. This is another area where people underestimate how difficult it is to write a certain genre just because good authors make it LOOK easy. :)

    The Graveyard Book does begin with grisly murders, but they are not described in the same kind of explicit detail as, say, Silence of the Lambs. It's definitely a skill.

  17. Wow, I love a good MG discussion - thanks, guys!

    I'll give my opinion on the questions posed..but it is just my opinion.

    Michelle - you are so right about the shelving issue. Different stores will do as they will. MG is always in the 'childrens' section and YA has its own area outside w/ the adult books. The Giver, however is true MG. It won the Newbery. If it is shelved elsewhere..I think that is their error.

    Justus - good question and I'm not sure. I think it has a lot to do with content of the novel and any parental involvement. Example - The Princess Academy. This MC was in her teens, but her father was very much involved in saving and protecting her and the story read very sweet and simple. That made it fall in MG. My guess is if you end w/ the MC up at 17 its going to fall YA.

    Davin- my writing style and 'voice' naturally falls to MG, so I don't feel constrained at all. I would have a hard time writing something too graphic or overtly sexual. It's just not my thing.

    Scott - you make an excellent point w/ The Graveyard Book. There was a ton of buzz that went up when it won the Newbery. Some said it had too much voilence, others disagreed. I think it walked the line, but loved the book overall. No rule is steadfast in writing, I guess.

    T. Anne - for 25k to be acceptable, it would be very young MG or even early reader (think Junie B Jones stuff). Just MHO, which is proven wrong every day :)

    Tara - you got it perfect, girl!

  18. OH, and - lotusgirl - you are so well versed at MG, you could have done this guest post in your sleep :)

  19. Tara: You bring up a good point about the age of the protagonist not necessarily having anything to do with the genre of the book. "Keiran Smith, Boy" is a book for adults, as is "Reading in the Dark." Both are told by young boys. I also think that "The Catcher in the Rye," despite being forced onto high school-aged kids, is not a YA book.

  20. Scott B - yes, very good point.

    **hope you don't mind me jumping into the discussion again here**

    But, I will say there is a double standard when it comes to the age of the MC.

    You see, a 13 year old protagonist would be fine in an 'adult' shelved novel (think Secret Life of Bees) but a 23 year old would never be an appropriate protagonist in an MG book.

    I would venture to say the same goes w/ YA....you might find a 17 y/o protagonist in an 'adult' novel but would never find a 56 y/o protagnist in a YA novel.

    What do you think? Very interesting discussion and right up my interest-alley :)

  21. Great post ... and discussion! I think there will always be MG/YA "crossover" books. (just like there are for PB and early readers.

  22. >I would venture to say the same goes w/ YA....you might find a 17 y/o protagonist in an 'adult' novel but would never find a 56 y/o protagnist in a YA novel.<

    I'd be curious to know if this is audience-driven or publisher driven. Is it that young people genuinely don't want to read about adults, or is it that adults don't want young people to read about adults?

    When I was in sixth grade, I was reading Clan of the Cave Bear and Ivanhoe, in part because I really tired of reading about other sixth graders all the time. But it's true I wouldn't have cared much for stories of middle age adults worried about boring middle age stuff.

  23. When I was in school, back in the Dark Ages, we did read books with adult protagonists:

    "Flowers for Algernon"
    "On the Beach"
    "Brave New World"
    "The Red Badge of Courage"
    "All Quiet on the Western Front"
    et cetera

    and Shakespeare, too:
    "Julius Caesar"
    "Taming of the Shrew"
    "Romeo and Juliet"
    et cetera.

    I guess the whole idea of "age-appropriate" books is foreign to me, as my parents let us read whatever we liked from the shelves. If it interested us, they figured, we should likely read it.

  24. Absolutely. So did I. But, those books were not categorized as "middle grade". Honestly, I don't know when that category (or the YA category for that matter) was incorporated into publishing.

    I agree with you and believe children should read literature across the board - especially the classics. Our life would be so boring if we only read books that matched the age we were at the time. Some of my favorite books as an adult are picture books!

  25. Wonderful post, Tess! You explained things perfectly!

  26. Hmm, my protagonist lives on an island with six others (two of which are openly hostile towards him). When he's not on the island, he's aboard a ship, pirating with some of the island's males. Rumination imminent!

  27. Lemony Snicket is the don.

    Thanks for an excellent post. "Middle grade" fiction is the best.

  28. Great post, Tess. I have been letting a MG novel idea simmer for some time, but worried about writing it because it would be younger MG (my MC would probably be about 10) and I just don't know if there is really a market for that age group. So, on to other YA novels until I do some more research, and the idea boils over!

  29. What a wonderful post - for some reason I had thought that Middle Grade books skewed a lot younger, but your list along with your explanation really helped clear things up for me.

    Your list also reminded me of some wonderful books that I remember reading and loving when I was younger like Witch of Blackbird Pond and Island of the Blue Dolphins.

  30. I really enjoyed this post and discussion. Looking at your list, it is clear that MG books are what made me fall in love with reading, when I was 7 and 8.

    Also, I didn't even know there was a category of MG till about 6 months ago. I thought it was just children's, YA, and adult.

    Thanks for the informative post!


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