How to Create a Setting for Middle Grade Fiction in 4 Steps

Abi Wurdeman
September 22, 2023

Writing middle grade fiction is one of the coolest things you can do with your creative talent. 

With your books, you’re inviting kids to discover reading as a chosen lifestyle. 

It’s not their parents reading to them anymore. They’re not thumbing through chapter books to demonstrate their reading skills to teachers. Middle grade readers are forming their own independent relationship with books. Very exciting stuff.

But before young readers can discover the magic of reading through your books, you have to master the magic of writing for this age group. That includes crafting a dazzling world children will love to get lost in.

This article is going to help you make it happen. Stick with me, and you’ll learn:

  • The key elements of a stellar middle grade setting
  • The considerations involved in middle grade worldbuilding
  • How to create your setting in four steps
  • Examples of middle grade books with unforgettable settings

Before we get into any of that, however, we need to clarify who your audience is and what they look for in a story. 

Understanding Middle Grade Readers

Seven middle graders jump on a rock in the ocean.

Middle grade readers are typically 8-12 years old. We have a whole guide to middle grade characters that will take you deep inside the minds of your audience. For now, since we’re worldbuilding, we’ll just focus on what the typical middle grade reader’s own world looks like.

Simply put, these readers are living in a pretty small universe. Their lives revolve around family, school, and maybe a few locations in their neighborhood—a friend's house, dance class, etc.

Within these little worlds, your readers are just beginning to see themselves as contributors and participants in social systems. They’re starting to consider what it means to be a good friend, think more about how others see them, and worry about questions of belonging and identity.

That’s not to say your middle grade novel must take place in a setting that resembles your readers’ real lives. After all, we read to explore new experiences, and young readers are no different.

What I’m saying is that wherever your middle grade novel takes place, keep it simple and find a way to translate the real middle grade experience into the fictional world you’re creating. 

How is friendship expressed using the technology of your sci-fi world? Does your fantasy hero(ine) feel like they have to shift identities to fit in when they leave home and journey into an unfamiliar realm?

Little maneuvers like that will help you write a middle grade novel that makes your readers feel understood. 

Now let’s talk about what keeps them entertained.

Key Elements of a Captivating Middle Grade Setting

A tree grows out of the center of an ancient, moss-covered building.

Successful middle grade books tend to work these four elements into their settings:

Atmosphere – This is the mood of a place. Chilling, energetic, peaceful, enchanting—that sort of thing. In a bit, we’ll talk about how to convey the atmosphere in your writing. The short version is that you want to use a lot of concrete details that engage all five senses.

Familiarity - Even in the most extraordinary setting, you want to plant a few environmental details middle grade readers can relate to.

Take Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for example. Harry’s life at Hogwarts isn’t just jaw-dropping magic; it’s also grueling classes, cafeteria drama, and a (biased) magical points system reminiscent of a classroom marble jar.

Novelty - On the flip side, it’s important to offer your young readers some novelty. Invite them to explore a new environment or try on a new experience.

That doesn’t mean you have to introduce an extravagant adventure to your plot. You can introduce novelty simply by giving your protagonist a quirky family, a unique field trip, or even a really rad treehouse.

Simplicity - Again, keep your setting simple and easy to comprehend. Ask yourself how a ten-year-old would describe the world of your novel when recommending it to a friend. If it’s hard to imagine, you might be building something that’s too abstract or complex.

What to Consider When Worldbuilding for Middle Grade Readers

A middle grade kid stands in front of a chalkboard and looks into the distance, thinking, while holdng a notepad.

So what do you need to know about the setting of your middle grade novel? How specific should you get?

Here are some aspects of your fictional world worth nailing down.

Geography and Landscape

Your young readers don’t need Tolkien-level detail about the geography of your setting (nor do I). Just give enough information to help your reader imagine what it’s like to live in a place like this. 

What sights surround your protagonist? How do they get around? 

Make note of things like forests, mountains, lakes, deserts, important boundaries, really cool plants or animals… you know, the big stuff. And if you’re writing an adventure that takes the protagonist across different landscapes and climates, give your reader enough details to delight in those ever-changing environments.

Magic Systems

A child holds a wand as if casting a spell.

Is there magic in your middle grade novel? If so, it should come with a few rules, like science does.

What are the restrictions on magic? Can everybody access the same kind of magic? What do your characters risk by using their powers

Again, the magic system of your middle grade fantasy doesn’t have to be complex. But you should have some clear rules in place so your audience can engage emotionally with the use of supernatural powers. If they think your protagonist can fix everything with a quick incantation, you’ll have a tough time building suspense.

Our resident fantasy expert, Doug, has a great guide for creating magic systems.

Time Period and Historical Context

Whether your story takes place in the past, present, or future, you need a solid understanding of how that context defines the setting.

What technologies are commonplace for your characters? How do they travel, communicate, and get educated? What issues do they overhear their parents talking about? How do they dress and what do they do for fun?

Culture and Society

What are the cultural and social norms of your story’s setting? What do your characters do for fun? Where do they hang out and how do they talk? What values are they learning at home and school? Are there any prejudices or taboos that create conflict for your protagonist? 

Our societies—large and small—influence our sense of morality, belonging, and identity. This is something your reader is just beginning to understand, so let them see glimpses of it in your setting. That includes the microcultures of home and school.

Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting a Middle Grade Setting

A little toy bus on a sidewalk.

You’ve got the gist of what belongs in the setting of a middle grade book. Now it’s time to put this all together. 

Step 1: Pre-Writing Preparation

Your first order of business is to decide where and when your middle grade story takes place. Before you even begin brainstorming settings, think about your novel’s genre.

For example, a middle grade adventure story demands a more exotic location than realistic middle grade fiction. To get a better idea of what types of environments are popular in your genre, read successful middle grade books that are similar to your own.

Consider your theme as well. Is your novel about courage, for example? Then you might want to include at least one setting in your story that’s frightening to your protagonist. 

Step 2: Research and Inspiration

Once you’ve nailed down the where and when of your middle grade novel, start dreaming up the details.

Some of this might come from research if you’re working with a real-life location or time period. We have an entire guide to researching historical settings that works for present day worlds, too.

If you’re building a fantasy world and you have trouble getting started, there are all kinds of places you can go for inspiration. Dive into mythology, look at photos of real places with otherworldly vibes, and write down what you love about the universes in your favorite fantasy novels.

Step 3: Establishing the Setting

A writer sits on a white couch writing in a notebook.

When it’s time to actually write your novel, establish the setting right away on page one. But be artful about it.

Remember, your middle grade reader doesn’t want a ton of description. They want to get right to the conflict. So select a few key details that will help the world come alive for your audience.

As I mentioned before, choose concrete details that engage the senses rather than just saying “It was a creepy house” or “The magical island filled Carter with wonder.” Let your reader hear the creaking door hinge or feel the cool water of the sparkling lake. 

This li’l strategy is what we call “show, don’t tell,” and we have worksheets to help you master it.

Step 4: Integrating Setting and Plot

Finally, as you write your story, think about how your setting can influence your plot.

Can you use the physical landscape of your world to create obstacles for the main character? How might the weather symbolize your protagonist’s feelings? How does the atmosphere of a location shift as a scene that started out optimistic suddenly takes on an air of dread?

Your setting isn’t just a backdrop. It’s a living, breathing element in your middle grade novel. To get a better sense of what that means, see how these authors create worlds for young readers:

Examples of Exceptional Middle Grade Settings

A middle grader reads on a bed beside a corgi.

Successful middle grade novels are the best teachers you’ll find in your journey to becoming a children’s author. They’ll help you improve your character development, create compelling conflict, and—of course—build captivating worlds.

Here are some examples of interesting settings in middle grade books.

Naomi, Florida - Because of Winn-Dixie

Family and local culture are huge in this middle grade novel about a little girl who forges new relationships and heals old ones with the help of a dog.

Alabama/Saigon - Inside Out and Back Again

Author Thanhhà Lại helps western middle grade readers connect to both history and another culture with this tale of a young refugee adapting to her new life in Alabama after the Fall of Saigon.

The Underworld of Greek Mythology - The Lightning Thief

This thrilling fantasy pulls a modern 12-year-old character into the world of Greek mythology, brilliantly blending the familiar with the extraordinary.

Get Inspired With Dabble

We’ve covered it all. Now there’s nothing left to do but start building your middle grade setting.

If you could use some more genre-specific guidance, check out these articles:

And if you need help keeping those wild brainstorms organized, try Dabble! 

If you’re not familiar, Dabble is a writing tool designed to streamline the entire writing process. Use the Plot Grid to structure your novel and Story Notes to organize your character ideas, story settings, and research. All these features are only one click away as you draft your novel. Even revisions are a breeze thanks to stickies, comments, and more!

Curious but not ready commit? No problem. You can try Dabble for free for 14 days. Click here to sign up and keep your credit card in your wallet—you won’t need it to start your trial.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.