I got into a discussion on Facebook recently about middle-grade fiction and what is and isn’t good writing for middle-grade. Now, I’m far from an expert on that age range literature, but I’ve read enough books and I’ve got enough kids that I have some knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.
Anyway, in the course of this discussion, one person commented that if your protagonist is eleven, you can’t give him fourteen-year old thoughts. This launched into a discussion about how some kids are more mature and able to handle more complex issues, and the conclusion I came to was that if you’re going to address complex issues, you still have to do it in an age-appropriate way.
There may be some young readers who are more mature and are not interested in the books that others their age are reading. Of course that happens and it’s usually not a big deal for them to read up and consume more mature content, but just because an eleven-year-old can and does read fiction geared toward fourteen-year-olds does not mean fiction written toward eleven-year-olds should contain that same content.
You’re aiming for a target demographic. There will be those outside it who read it, but the goal is to hit a specific majority. And yes, it’s hard. Writing is an art form, and writing middle-grade especially so. It’s hard to nail down an eleven-year-old’s voice, to know what kinds of thoughts they have and how those are different from an older child’s. It’s hard to pinpoint the differences in a three-year age gap, and yet a lot changes in those three years.
And just because your protagonist is younger doesn’t mean they can’t deal with complex issues. Things like death and divorce and financial trouble are things eleven-year-olds experience. And some have dealt with far more painful traumas. But again, you’re dealing with a target demographic. The average eleven-year-old boy, for example, is going to be more interested in video games than in girls. He’s going to be more into sports than texting. A book aimed at eleven-year-old boys shouldn’t be filled with sexual tension or exposition about the psychology behind bullying.
If you have a tricky situation involving a bully, and you want the reader to understand that the bully is acting out because he or she is hurting, you can deal with that issue and still solve the problem in the way that an eleven-year-old would.
How you say things is easily important as what you say. You may have a great message that is perfectly applicable to your target demographic, but if you preach it the way you would from a pulpit to a room full of adults rather than showing it through the character’s actions, in the way that the character would experience it, you’ll lose any chance of reaching your audience, because they’ll be bored and give up before they ever hear the message.
Know your audience. Go hang out with some middle-schoolers. Listen to how they talk. Pay attention to what they do and say. Learn their voices and apply them to your characters. Ask kids in your target demographic to read your story and find out if they’re engaged in what’s happening. Ask them to be honest about parts they skimmed over or thought were boring.
And of course, learn good writing craft. The best story and characters in the world will still be bland and uninteresting if your prose is boring. Sentence structure, grammar rules, guidelines about show vs. tell and backstory, and all the other things that go into good writing still apply. Don’t cheapen the quality of your words just because you think the reader is too young to be discerning.