When we think of someone who is good at writing, typically we simplistically think of someone who is good at writing fullstop. Someone who is an excellent wordsmith – but we don’t necessarily take into account genre or target audience.
For instance, someone who is good at writing an essay might be awful at writing a story. Someone who is good at writing a story might be awful at writing poetry. But the distinctions are finer than that. Someone who is good at writing a fantasy story might be very poor at writing a historical fiction story. Someone who is great at writing a science fiction yarn might be shocking at putting together a romance. This doesn’t even begin to cover the target audience. Writing a fantasy for children (e.g. Enid Blyton) or writing a fantasy for adults (Mark Lawrence’s Broken Kingdom Trilogy) is a hugely different ball game.
This is something of what I’ve discovered these past two weeks, when I’ve put aside some of my Young Adult work (YA for short) and started looking at Middle Grade stories (MG) again. I wasn’t making a lot of headway, so I headed to the library, which is where everybody learns stuff, and I checked out some MG books and sat down to read through them.
Here’s what I learned:
1. MG books have vastly simpler vocabulary than YA novels.
Sometimes it depends on the author. Lemony Snicket is more complicated in his writing than someone like Emily Rodda, for example. But overall, big words – like “imperious”, “suspicious”, or “obsequious” – either won’t occur at all or will occur every fifteen pages. And given the size of MG books, this is quite infrequent. Also, with new awareness about dyslexia, some MG books are specifically written so that they are dyslexia friendly.
2. MG books often dispense with descriptions.
While in YA books you might have lengthy descriptions of characters’ appearances and their surroundings, in MG books the description is often cut or limited to two features. The room was empty and dismal. The girl was short with curled eyebrows like sideways question marks. Done. Not a big deal. One has to think of attention span when writing for a younger audience.
3. MG books have simple solutions.
In my YA novels, I’m used to dragging out tense scenes, making things get worse and worse, describing every blow in a fight. In MG books, the moment of tension is over much faster than that. I’m reading Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions at the moment. When the protagonist finds a woman tied to a chair in a cellar full of rising water, he just throws a rock to smash a window and all the water drains out. Done.
4. Adults are just not important.
Where adults might play a bigger part in YA books, they typically vanish or are very confused or childish in MG books. Think of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series or The Magic Faraway Tree. To use my favourite MG author as an example again, the few adults in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events often die, prove useless, or turn out to be bad guys anyway. MG books are problem solvers for children. Hence, the children must be solely responsible for their mistakes and their successes. Again, this is different from YA books where – as the teenage reader is anticipating moving into the adult world and already, in fact, thinking of herself as an adult – adults more frequently appear as role models, equals, or helpers. Think of Harry Potter or Eragon (I understand Harry Potter is often classified as MG in libraries, but it is still often talked about alongside YA books). Adults still do not come to the forefront in many YA books. But they are, in my opinion, seldom as sidelined as they are in MG books.
5. There has been a quantum change in the past twenty, even fifteen years.
From my observations, the books that I read when I was a middle grader are vastly different from the ones that my music students read today. Some of these differences – I think – are a shame. However, I also think that there’s nothing to be feared about different. Admittedly, some of the books I read as a child were classics: The Wind and the Willows, Paddington Bear, Alice in Wonderland… All these books, while they are marvellous reads and are still treasured today, would probably not secure a traditional publisher or a captive audience in today’s market. One of the reasons they are well loved today (apart from superior quality) is because they are already known. Rather than assuming you can pull off a classic and making your book more complicated than it needs to be, try to get in touch with how children today think and write something that means something to them now. It doesn’t have to be trashy. Children today aren’t trashy. But it needs to be a book of our times.
All of this has actually revived a lot of my love for simpler literature that has the ability to laugh at the adult world. MG has its own place in the publishing market today, and it’s worth understanding.