Many writers are attracted to writing for the middle grades. In some ways, this often seems easier than dealing with the structure and limited word count of picture books or the “edginess” of teen lit. Also, many of the kids in this age group are “eager readers”, so there’s a ready audience. Most of them know how to read well and they’re not as distracted as they may become in the teen years.
However, since editors’ desks are continually filled with manuscripts for middle grade novels, we need to think of ways to stand out from the pack…to present simple ideas with a new twist.
Florida author Donna Gephart was in the right place at the right time with her idea for a book with a very long title, “As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President!” Even before the current “non-traditional” candidates arrived on the scene, Gephart thought about turning things around by having a young girl’s mother enter the race. Her publisher timed it to come out at the beginning of this year’s highly-charged primaries, and it’s done very well.
In Sara Darer Littman’s “Confessions of a Closet Catholic,” her main character is a Jewish girl who is convinced her life would be better if she were a Catholic. When she takes steps to do this (in secret), the results are anything but conventional.
Chris Crutcher writes YA novels about tenacious athletes who often overcome impossible odds. Yet in his biography (for middle-grades and YA), “King of the Mild Frontier,” he tells of the embarrassment he endured as a certified “dweeb.”
Here are some additional ideas to think about when you want to create an unusual middle-grades novel.
Nature—Years ago, I noticed the beautiful jacaranda trees that bloom profusely in Southern California during May and knew there had to be a story there. My first Los Angeles Times story, “The Secret of the Jacaranda Tree,” became a series with a new story appearing every year for 5 years. When you let the beauties of nature that appeal to you—the ocean, the mountains, a particular flower—into your mind and heart, you’ll be surprised at the stories you’ll find there.
Turning Things Around—Instead of the usual “nerdy girl with glasses yearns to be accepted by the popular girls,” how about if, through a counting error (hanging chads, anyone??) the nerdy girl wins a beauty pageant and throws the whole pecking order of the 6th grade out of whack? It could work.
Twins—In the current issue of Children’s Writer (Oct., 2008), Christina Hamlett looks at story lines involving twins and details what works and doesn’t work. She suggests new ways to write about them, such as instead of the usual formula of separated twins wanting to re-unite, how about, she suggests, one twin deciding being an only child would be much better and tries to find ways to make that happen. Hamlett’s article contains much more advice on this subject.
Good luck! I’m looking forward to seeing some unusual middle-grade novels in print in the future.
Contributed by Marjorie Flathers