One of the first writing rules I learned in journalism school is that you have to know your audience. This rule applies to writing children’s fiction every bit as much as it does to news, only there’s a catch.
When you’re writing for children, it’s important to remember you’re writing for two audiences: the young reader and the adult gatekeeper. Whether that gatekeeper is a parent, grandparent, teacher or librarian, there’s almost always another set of discerning eyes on work intended for middle grade readers.
This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a great thing. As a momma, I want to make sure what my kiddo reads is feeding his brain with wisdom, not exposing him to content he may not be ready to tackle or worldviews that conflict with our family’s values. As a writer, I want to make sure what I put on the page is not only entertaining and thoughtful, but points young readers to Christ in an honest, relatable way.
But none of that matters if I can’t get my work past the gatekeepers. The folks who decide where books are shelved and whether they are bought are incredibly important.
There are a number of considerations to juggle when writing for middle grade readers, but for this post, we are going to prioritize content at the top of the list. In talking with a number of librarians, parents, grandparents and teachers, here are three subjects that are “no-go” when they’re looking for appropriate middle grade reading material.
Life is full of bumps and thumps. But describing the broken bones is unnecessary for a middle grade reader.
The author Steven James distinguishes suspense from thriller from horror writing like this: Suspense is when you know *something horrible* is about to happen. Thrillers are stories in which the reader knows the horrible thing that’s about to happen and they follow the protagonist through efforts to stop it. Horror is when you watch the horrible thing happening to the protagonist.
The variables here are point of view and treatment of violence, and they’re relevant to kids as well as adults. Generally speaking, middle grade readers and their adults agree that mild suspense and thrills are okay, but the graphic descriptions of violence similar to those in horror are not at all appropriate. Violence and gore are off limits.
2) Extreme Romance.
One aunt told me her fifth grade niece would rather read ten books about puppies than a single book about a girl with a crush on the boy-next-door. Middle grade readers are still very outward-focused and don’t want to read an inner monologue describing the torment of a first crush.
Yes, I know some kids are curious about and experiment with physical romance at an early age – but Scripture tells us not to awaken love before its time. There’s no need to rush kids into romantic entanglements, and there’s even less need to introduce discussions of attraction or temptation. Sex, sexuality, and innuendo are out of bounds for this age group. Children should get to be children. Full stop.
“I know that he’s going to hear foul language on the playground at school. I can’t stop him from that, or make him unhear what he’s already heard. That doesn’t make it okay to read cursing in our living room,” says one mom. Coarse language, swear words, potty-mouth characters – however you describe it – are off limits for middle grade readers. If you want to create an “edgy” character, use wardrobe or behavior choices, give her an interesting ‘tic’ or quirky habit. But keep it clean.
Does this jibe with what you have learned about writing for middle grade readers? Do you agree or disagree? I’d love to hear about your experiences writing for this age group, so please comment below.
Kell McKinney earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Oklahoma and an M.S. in documentary studies from the University of North Texas. She’s a part-time copywriter, double-time mom and wife, and spends every free minute writing and/or hunting for her car keys. Connect with her on Twitter @Kell_McK or kellmckinney.com.