Best-selling children’s author Suzanne Selfors remembers the question well.
“Why are all your characters so miserable?” asked the grade-schooler.
She’d never been asked that, but it was a good question because she does like to open her books on kids in less-than-happy situations. And she quickly had her answer, “I like to make my characters as miserable as possible because it’s so much fun to make them happy again.”
I’m on Whidbey Island teaching for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and Suzanne is one of our guest speakers. (Just to brag a bit, our summer residency featured two Newbery authors–Gary Schmidt and the just-announced medal winner, Matt de la Pena.)
But back to Suzanne–she’s an expert on popular middle grade novels. She has three different series going including the Imaginary Veterinary series, Smells Like Dog series and Ever After High series. She’s also the author of books for teens and adults, but middle grade is her sweet spot. She sold eight middle grades last year with more in the works.
Middle grade is currently hot” in children’s literature. It used to be YA, but middle grade is in even more demand right now. Some of Suzanne’s insights include:
Middle grade is aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds but 4th graders are considered the core readers of the middle grade genre.
Overwhelmingly middle grade deals with a theme or issue of displacement. The main character is often transported to a new location—they move from one world to another. To a new school, to summer camp, arrive for a visit with grandparents. It makes sense. Not only do you get troublesome parents out of the way, but your kid hero is in a natural situation to discover new things and to be tried and tested.
Speaking of troublesome parents, they, along with other adults, are few and far between in middle grade stories. And, really, who wants them around giving advice, solving problems, soothing hurts and, in general, interfering with this process of growing up.
Even if the basic setting is new much of the action will happen at home or at school, Suzanne says. As an author, she particularly likes conjuring up her main character’s bedroom, because this is such an important space for a child; the one place in the home that is theirs.
Middle grade heroes are doers. No mini-Hamlets here. They are going to jump up and rush in where wise men fear to tread.
Middle grade books are clean. No swearing and no sex. If you get into boy/girl dynamics, your character might have a mild crush, but mostly it will be a friendship. If the kid reader wants something grittier or more romantic at 11 or 12, they are going to read up and find books like the Twilight series.
Make ‘em laugh. Humor is huge. Just consider The Diary of Wimpy Kid series. Author Jeff Kinney is the top-selling children’s author in the U.S., probably in the world, with hundreds of millions of his books sold. As Susanne noted, when it comes to awards, humor doesn’t win, but when it comes to sales and kid-appeal, it definitely does.
Magic is big. Of course, there’s realistic fiction but many, many middle grade books contain magic. Not just in their plot, but in their appeal. Ask people about their favorite books and so often, you’ll get a far away look and a smile as they remember a book they read before they were 12. They are the heart of the childhood reading experience from Charlotte’s Web to Pippi Longstockings to Harry Potter to Percy Jackson.
Which is one reason they are my favorite genre to write. You can have humor, magic, complex characters, dramatic plots, moments of quiet beauty, and a depth that can hit kids at a level they will remember all their lives.