What is Middle Grade Fiction? An Introduction to Pure Joy
What is middle grade fiction?
Oh, it’s only a category of books that represents the most exciting time in a young reader’s literary life. No big deal.
Don’t get me wrong. My life as a grown-up reader has been full of jaw-dropping adventures and dreamy resolutions. As a tiny reader, picture books captured my itty-bitty soul.
But we can never discover books the same way we did when we were first turned loose to forge our own literary paths.
Middle grade fiction is the category of reading you graduated to once it became clear you could plow through your early reader chapter books without a guiding hand. This was when reading became less about building a skill and more about disappearing inside a world.
Middle grade fiction is where it all really began for a lot of us.
But I get it. As heartfelt as that sentiment may be, you’re a writer and still need to know the parameters that define middle grade fiction. How old is the audience? What’s the standard word count? Is this or is this not the same as young adult fiction?
Hang in there. I’m about to share everything you need to know to understand whether your book fits into the middle grade category.
Let’s get to it.
What is Middle Grade Fiction in a Nutshell?
While adult literature is categorized by genre, children’s fiction is categorized by the age of the reader.
Middle grade (MG) readers land between the ages of eight and twelve (so third to sixth grade). This audience has moved beyond chapter books, which contain fairly easy vocabulary, simple sentences, and single storylines that feature almost exclusively external conflict.
If you’re writing a middle grade book, you’re writing for young readers who are ready to dive into fiction independently. They’re not reading with a parent over their shoulder anymore. Instead, they’re under the covers with a flashlight way past their bedtime, flipping through an adventure they chose for themselves and can’t put down.
It’s pretty exciting stuff.
Middle grade fiction dives into deeper themes than chapter books do. While middle grade isn’t as introspective as young adult (YA), it does begin to mirror the inner lives of its readers. (More on that in a moment.)
As is the case with most children’s fiction, the protagonists of middle grade novels tend to be a little older than their readers. A standard age range for an MG protagonist is ten to thirteen years old.
And what do these protagonists do?
As for the length of a middle grade book, most fall in the range of 30,000–50,000 words, though fantasies are often longer.
So that’s the big picture. Let’s drill down into some of the details.
Middle Grade Audience
As I mentioned above, middle grade readers are independent readers. They no longer sit down with a book because someone has tasked them with learning to read. Now they’re cracking spines with the goal of enjoying a story.
This means your job as a middle grade author is to understand the stories and themes that speak to their growing souls.
If you write MG, your audience is in a phase of life where they’re beginning to see the wider world beyond themselves. They’re discovering who they are not just as individuals, but as contributors to their families, communities, schools, and friendships.
They’re also discovering the social structures that define their lives at school, at home, and in the neighborhood. From friends and media, they’re learning what it supposedly means to be cool, be important, and belong.
And they’re beginning to clue into tougher life experiences like divorce, loss, and prejudice.
In short, they are beginning the long journey out of adolescence. The best middle grade novels reflect that experience. Here’s how.
Popular Topics in Middle Grade Fiction
The themes that resonate with this age group tend to center around topics such as:
- Family (including heavy topics like grief and divorce)
- Friendship (especially lost, new, or evolving friendships)
- Experiences at school
- Body changes
- The question of belonging at home, school, or in the community
- New awareness of what’s going on in the wider world
- A growing sense of identity and personal responsibility
You don’t have to be afraid of getting real with young readers. In fact, for most kids, middle grade fiction is a priceless vehicle for exploring, empathizing, and discussing all the scary stuff that comes with being human.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds tackles the trauma of domestic violence. Maniac Magee confronts race and prejudice. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret covers puberty. And I think we’re all still recovering from the experience of grief in Bridge to Terabithia.
That said, you’ll likely notice that middle grade fiction serves primarily as an introduction to these tough topics. An MG book that includes a storyline about terminal illness will probably discuss loss and grief generally but won’t go deep on the inevitability of death and suffering.
Another tactic middle grade authors use to keep it… well, middle grade, is tone.
Middle Grade Tone
There is no definitive “middle grade tone.” For one thing, genre is a determining factor when creating a story’s tone, and as we know, there are several genres in the middle grade category.
The compliant, dispassionate tone of The Giver reflects the attitudes of Jonas’s dystopian reality. Diary of a Wimpy Kid strikes a very different tone with humor and optimism.
It’s probably more helpful to talk about the tones you wouldn’t expect to find in middle grade fiction, such as:
In other words, the goal of middle grade fiction is not to devastate the reader. You can talk about tough stuff. You can write some tear-jerking moments. But this is not the right age group for presenting the idea that life has no meaning and people are inherently terrible.
One exception: middle grade authors will use an excessively negative tone in a winky way. A famous example is the macabre tone of Lemony Snicket. But his writing is so playfully dreadful that readers are in on the game from the very beginning.
“In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” - The Bad Beginning
The author’s tone plays at misery, which makes misery safer to explore.
Now, let’s talk about voice.
Middle Grade Voice
What is middle grade fiction if not fiction designed to be consumable for young readers?
Unfortunately, a lot of first-time middle grade authors make the mistake of assuming this means their narration should take on a childlike voice. They oversimplify their sentences and vocabulary, toss in some kid slang, and get liberal with exclamation points.
The result is often a manuscript that kids and editors alike immediately recognize as a grown-up doing a bad impersonation of a twelve-year-old.
A better option is to approach your middle grade fiction voice the same way you would if you were writing for adults. Start by asking yourself who is telling the story. Ask:
- What is the narrator’s personality?
- Which point of view am I using? How close is the narrator to the story?
- What is their attitude towards the story? (This is your tone, by the way.)
- How do I want my readers to experience the narrator? Do I want them to laugh? Feel wonderstruck? Be creeped out?
Build the voice of the narrator—their word choice, rhythm, tone, pacing, all of it. Then worry about making the diction appropriate for middle grade readers.
“In the time since the Baudelaire parents' death, most of the Baudelaire orphans' friends had fallen by the wayside, an expression which here means "they stopped calling, writing, and stopping by to see any of the Baudelaires, making them lonely.” You and I, of course, would never do this to any of our grieving acquaintances, but it is a sad truth that when someone has lost a loved one, friends sometimes avoid the person, just when the presence of friends is most needed.” - Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning
The narrative voice of that passage is very adulty—even a bit formal. But the author finds a playful way to clarify terminology kids might not be familiar with and creates a sense of camaraderie by addressing the reader directly.
like smears of snot
on our front door…
…Bathroom paper hangs
from our willow.”
- Inside Out & Back Again
Thanhhà Lại writes Inside Out & Back Again entirely in verse through the voice of a ten-year-old Vietnamese refugee. Instead of trying extra hard to make her narrator sound “childlike,” she focuses on vivid, concrete images and simple, direct sentences.
The result is evocative poetry any kid could understand.
What is Middle Grade Fiction Compared to Young Adult Fiction?
Sometimes it can be hard to tell where middle grade fiction ends and young adult begins. For the simplest answer, let’s look at the stats.
Age of Reader: 8-12
Age of Protagonist: 10-13
Page Count: 30,000-50,000 (more for fantasy)
No profanity or sexual content
Age of Reader: 12-18
Age of Protagonist: 13-19
Page Count: 50,000-75,000 (more for fantasy)
May feature cursing, violence, or sexual content (but not erotica)
As you can see, young adult fiction can get deeper, darker, and more adult than middle grade fiction. YA authors may add layers to the heavy themes explored in MG fiction. They may also allow for bittersweet resolutions and shades of gray.
That’s because their readers are ready.
YA readers are in a new phase of personal development. They’re deepening their sense of identity, discovering more about themselves, and beginning to consider who they want to be in the world beyond their school and home.
In short, young adult readers are learning how to become young adults. As a result, they gravitate towards fiction that is introspective in addition to being plot driven. They like characters who are discovering their calling in life and their role in society.
Also, if you want to write a story about teenagers falling in love, YA is the place for you.
Tips for Writing Middle Grade Fiction
Now that you know what middle grade fiction is, let’s explore some quick tips for writing it well.
Read a Ton of Middle Grade Fiction
If you read a lot of DabbleU articles, you’ve probably seen this advice a lot. If you want to write any genre well, you have to read a lot of it. And lucky you, you’ve chosen a category where the books are short.
I recommend creating a deliberate reading list for yourself. This list should include:
- Current middle grade bestsellers within your genre (Prioritize this one if your goal is to sell books.)
- Middle grade classics
- Middle grade books that seem interesting to you
Then start working your way through the list. Take notes as you write. What do you notice about the story structure, tone, voice, and diction? How do the authors make complex topics accessible to young readers? What tropes or themes keep coming up?
Get to Know Your Readers
The better you understand your readers, the better your odds of writing a story that resonates with them.
If you know any kids in the middle grade age range, pick their brains. Ask them about their lives, school, friendships, family, what they know about current events. Notice what they seem to value, how they judge themselves and others, what they worry about, and how they talk.
Don’t forget to talk about books, too! Find out what they’re reading, which books they love, and which books they hate.
If you don’t know any kids, volunteer for a local mentorship program or kids’ club.
Keep Up With Trends
Is there a trope, format, or subgenre your readers can’t get enough of right now?
Maybe werewolves are having a moment. Maybe Choose Your Own Adventure is all the rage again or kids are going nuts for steampunk adventure.
Whatever is hot, make a note of it. That’s not to say you have to jump on the bandwagon. There’s always a risk that what’s big today will fizzle out by the time you’re ready to start querying agents.
But being an informed writer in any genre means knowing what your audience is responding to. This is why you want to keep an eye on the bestseller lists. And if you know any teachers or parents, ask them what their kids are secretly reading behind that math book.
Take Them on a Journey, Don’t Teach a Lesson
Every story has something to say. That something is what we call a “theme,” and if you work your theme into your story artfully, your reader will get it without feeling like they’re being pummeled with a moral.
A moral is a lesson that comes out all preachy because you let it take precedence over your story.
Young readers are subjected to preaching a lot because we grown-ups get all excited about instilling them with our wisdom. It will absolutely, one hundred percent annoy the heck out of them.
Just focus on telling a great story about compelling characters and let your messaging subtly ride that wave.
Don’t Talk Down
My five-year-old niece once promised her mother she’d take a bath “straight away.” We all thought this was hilarious because we’re American and “straight away” sounds like a super fancy word for such a small child.
But she watched loads of Peppa Pig so of course she knew the term. And she learned how to use it correctly through context.
Kids absorb everything and comprehend a lot more than we give them credit for. They also find it irritating when we talk slower and only use words we assume they can spell.
No, you don’t want to bombard them with nonstop SAT vocabulary. Simplicity is still valuable here. But if “ravenous” is the right word, use it and support it with context.
Use Slang With Caution
When the mature among us try to write for younger audiences, it’s easy to reach for the slang. This is dangerous ground.
The biggest issue is that slang will date your story… or it’ll date you.
A reader who picks up your slangy book ten years from now will either assume the story they’re reading takes place in the past (not necessarily a bad thing) or they’ll think they’re reading a story written by a grown-up who’s trying to relate to them and missing the mark.
I’m not saying to avoid slang altogether. I’m just saying to know the risks if you decide it’s the right choice for your novel.
Give Kids Agency
This is a big one.
Grown-ups are not the heroes of middle grade novels. Kids are.
Your child protagonist must face their internal and external conflicts without an adult holding their hand. Sure, they can go to a grown-up for mentorship, but their battle, their decisions, and their victory all must be their own.
The real answer to the question “What is middle grade fiction?” is that it’s literature designed to empower young readers. These books are safe spaces where kids can test out risks, consequences, challenges, and solutions in their imaginations.
If you let an adult lead the way or save the day, your readers lose that sense of possibility and personal responsibility.
So, no deus ex machina in the form of Mom and Dad. Kids run the show to the very end.
Let’s Get Writing!
By now, you should have a solid grasp on whether the book you’re writing counts as middle grade fiction. Hopefully, you also have a clearer sense of how to ensure that book appeals to young readers.
Want a little extra help? Check out DabbleU for more articles on conflict, character development, and more. Our ultimate guide to writing books for kids might help.
And consider using Dabble to craft your story. With Story Notes, Stickies, Comments, and more, Dabble has everything you need to plan, write, and revise your book. Right now, you can even try it for free for fourteen days, no credit card required. Just follow this link and get Dabblin’.
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