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This Major Difference Sets Apart Middle Grade Fiction From Young Adult Fiction

I’m a big fan of the young adult fiction genre – when it’s done right. Which, judging by the last three young adult fiction books I’ve read, isn’t the norm right now.

These days, there are just far too many examples of it being done horribly, horribly wrong, involving messages and actions that teenagers just aren’t emotionally equipped to handle.

And no, I’m not talking about slashing each other to pieces inside an electronically engineered arena. The Hunger Games was intense, but I’m much more referring to significant smoochy smoochy kinds of messages and actions.

Whatever writer first thought that hormone-ridden, underdeveloped teenaged brains were ready for the romantic big leagues was a raging lunatic. Or a sicko. And the same applies to whatever writers jumped on the bandwagon.

Fortunately, to my knowledge, nobody’s tried that with middle grade fiction yet, the genre frequented by eight to 12 year-olds. Thank everything, in this case, the arts aren’t following culture.

Besides… considering the protagonists involved and at the risk of channeling an eight to 12-year-old… Ew. Ew. Ew!

With that said, here’s a still-respected writing rule for middle grade fiction. Break it, and you’re not going to get a traditional publishing contract anywhere good.

Keep it innocent.

The YA (young adult) genre may have gotten ridiculously trashy over the past 15 years or so, but middle grade stays cute and classy. The hottest and heaviest characters will get is a chaste kiss on the cheek or holding hands – which is exactly as it should be.

There’s plenty of non-romantic topics to explore in middle grade world building anyway, particularly when children aged eight to 12 are starting to notice a whole lot more than they used to.

Eight-year-old, nine-year-old and 10-year-old boys, after all, more often then not still think that girls are kinda icky. And while the numbers of adolescent males who believe in cooties does start to drop after that, it’s not like they’re all rushing to ask their female counterparts out on dates.

Eight-year-old, nine-year-old and 10-year-old girls, of course, are much more naturally inclined toward having crushes. At that age, I remember having like three “boyfriends” – meaning boys I thought were cute.

Clearly, I was on the clueless side at the time. But wasn’t I supposed to be?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I fully recognize that times have a’changed since the halcyon days of my ‘80s and ‘90s-fueled childhood. (High tops, tie-dye and L.A. Gear, anyone?) But children are still wired the same in the end.

Okay. Off my soap box and onto the second half of our writing rule for middle grade fiction. What other plot points are there to write about when the sort of hot and heavy, smoochy smoochy romance is off the table?

How about:

  • Young ladies set in particularly memorable time periods of American history like the Revolutionary War, Great Depression and WWII? That’s what the middle grade fiction American Girl series did with memorable figures like Felicity, Kit and Molly.

  • A boy who’s “under a curse” that began with his great-great-grandfather and got passed down each subsequent generation until it landed him in a boy’s detention center. There, he and his fellow inmates have to dig holes. Lots and lots of them. That’s the story line Louis Sachar describes in his aptly named middle grade fiction Holes.

And guess what? Both the young ladies’ series and the standalone boy’s book have made a mint since they first debuted!

There are plenty more examples where those came from – both newer books and those that have stood the test of time. So think more along the lines of action, adventure and discovery than smoochy smoochy stuff.

Break this writing rule for middle grade fiction, and you’re bound to be disappointed publishing-wise.

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