The Elusive Middle Grade Voice?

Writing blogs can be entertaining and informative. There is a long list of them that I personally subscribe to, and although I try to limit the time I spend enjoying them, I like to at least scan most of them on a regular basis, especially if I see something that catches my eye right away.

On one such blog recently, I ran across an interview that someone had conducted with a specific literary agent. I can’t recall at the time which agent it was, or even which blog I was perusing at the time, but one comment the agent made caught my attention. I believe the interviewer had asked a question regarding a wish list, and among the items the agent mentioned was the fact that he’d love to find a submission for a novel with that elusive middle grade voice. Over the next several days, I found myself repeatedly thinking about that particular comment, and what it meant for those of us who strive to find that voice, too.

In the process of thinking about that, I couldn’t help but wonder what element it is that makes the middle grade voice so elusive. I know the middle grade spans an age group from as young as eight to the early teens, so that could be part of it. And as any of you know who have children of your own, or are around children much, there is a fairly wide gap in the speech patterns and thought patterns at either end of this age range. But I also know, from reading loads of middle grade books, that a typical middle grade book usually centers around young people with an average age of twelve years. That might be a big clue as to why the middle grade voice is so elusive.

Try to recall what you were like at the age of twelve. Were you totally childish in everything you did? Or did you act and think like an adult? It probably depended largely on your upbringing, your family situation, and even the age you are currently. Thinking back to my twelve-year-old self, I know it was a very weird, wonderful, yet frightening time. I still played with dolls and loved to color, but I also was painfully aware of boys. I still wanted to tussle in the dirt with the guys over a passed football, and then hope the following day that one of them might notice my new hair ribbon. That age is a time of such fluctuation of emotions, an ephemeral time of trying to balance between two different worlds, that I understand why it can be so elusive in trying to have it make sense on paper.

But I also had another thought about this subject. Perhaps when agents read our manuscripts, they are searching for a voice that will carry them back to memories of their own youth. Maybe they are looking for the voice they heard in their own head at that age; one that will bring back all the memories of what youth was for them. That, I fear, is a daunting task, because although we all travel through that time, it is different for each of us.

If anyone has any thoughts on how to make this aspect of writing for a middle grade audience any less stressful, I would love to hear from you. How do you find that inner child that will instill a believable and interesting personality into your middle grade characters?

Thanks so much for your time, and Happy Reading!


14 thoughts on “The Elusive Middle Grade Voice?

  1. The target is constantly moving, which makes it nearly impossible to hit. Harry Potter was popular among middle grade kids, but what made it a global phenomenon was its appeal to adults as well. On the other hand, things like the Captain Underpants series appeals to a big section of the middle grade crowd (boys in particular), but it’s not something most adults are interested in reading. Which is a more successful “middle grade” story? They both are, which illustrates the enormous target area — or rather, the multitude of fast moving targets out there.

    I guess my point is: write to what your inner middle-grader calls you to. Chances are there are middle graders out there yearning for those stories too.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Alan. I agree with you completely. It’s a world open to versatility, but I think the only way to be successful at it is to write from our own personal inner middle grader.

  2. Great insights. I think it’s daunting and possibly the biggest challenge in writing to find that elusive voice, whether MG or another voice, that rings true to the writer and to readers, editors, agents and reviewers. Nearly impossible to please everyone when we all have unique voices in our heads. Ah, to please a few would be wonderful.

    Thanks for taking on this subject and reminding us of its importance. I was hoping you would tell us how in five easy steps! 🙂
    I agree with Alan, whatever we do, we should stay true to our own voice and chances are there are some kids out there who can relate.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Kathy. Yeah – if I had all the answers I would gladly share them, but unfortunately I have a long way to go.

  3. Scrabble with the guys on the football field and then try to look pretty the next day? Lol, that’s still me. But yeah, the tween years are when we’re trying to figure out the adult we’ll become while still holding onto the kid we still are.

    1. I agree, Michelle, and I think the most successful writers are the ones who never give up on that mix.

  4. It’s all about how you make your readers feel, Melody. If you can hook their emotional cord, then you’ve done your job. That’s all any author can do, regardless of what what genre you write. Great post! Cheers!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Lisa. I just wonder if it’s more prevalent in MY. Perhaps it’s a universal issue.

  5. Melody, I think part of finding that middle grade voice is stepping into your character’s mind and emotions and trying to relate to their situation, and at the same time, trying to step back in time and consider how you would have reacted when you were that age. Obviously, the tween years are a time of great expectations, confusion, and angst. There is anger, crying, and craziness abounds. As a writer, we want our characters to leap off the page as perfect at solving any issue that comes their way. But what’s important is not the chain of events that take the reader on a journey from beginning to end, but rather how the character reacts and reconciles the difficulties along the way. At twelve, we made decisions, then wondered if they were the right ones. Sometimes we chose the first solution that came to mind. Then we beat ourselves up pondering all the OTHER possibilities and whether there was perhaps a better course of action. In many cases, we chose the first thing that came to mind, the thing that satisfied our more childish desires, with little or no thought for the feelings of anyone else, as long as we got what WE wanted. Starting out with this mindset allows the writer to mould the character and gives them the opportunity to grow as the story unfolds. I think you did a great job of capturing that elusive middle grade voice in your most recent manuscript (that you allowed me to read). As soon as you get it published, I would certainly suggest it to anyone who would like a great example of a middle grade character’s voice.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Michael. Your explanation makes a lot of sense to me. And your encouragement and kind words are much appreciated.

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