I’m not sure why kids 8 – 12 have been labeled “middle-grade” readers because the youngest of them are still in grade school. We’re talking about kids who can read pretty well, and who are either just learning to be independent or who are approaching their teen years. These are very different groups of kids. However, their reading abilities are very similar, and so, they’re lumped together.
That means you have younger kids, who are more sensitive that the older kids, and they have to be approached much the same as kids in the preschool group — with sensitivity. Older kids can take topics even as severe as rape, while the younger ones are still in the rosy glow of childhood, in general. Of course, not all of them have been so protected which is sad, but think about the group, rather than the individual when thinking about writing for these kids.
Construction of the work doesn’t have to be as simplified as it does for early readers. You can use bigger words, but since no adult is reading to these kids, you need to explain words that might be unfamiliar nearby in the text so that they understand. So, style isn’t nearly as constricted at it is for the younger group. Complex sentences are OK, too, though you can’t use them constantly. There should be a mix of both.
Fiction should be focused on the conflict with one character as its protagonist. Kids this age are in the “discovery” phase. So, stories where the main character is overcoming a problem works very well. All readers want to relate, and kids this age do it easily. They love to feel a win.
Think of Nickelodeon when thinking of middle-grade readers and of books like Roald Dahl‘s Matilda, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. The Harry Potter books are also geared toward middle-grade readers, which might surprise some, since they deal with death, betrayal, and a whole plethora of emotions that aren’t kid-centric. Middle-grade conflict needs to be important, and because of it, many middle-grade selections can be of interest to older readers, too. Obviously, J.K. Rowling‘s series is a prime example.
Nonfiction books are on various topics — math, exercise, menstruation and puberty, and they’re explicit. The Period Book, for example, actually depicts how sex occurs. Though this book is probably too much for some kids, it’s a gentle way for parents to present the facts. So, these readers aren’t kids anymore. They’re learning about how the world really works.
Presenting the conflicts in life is very important to middle-grade writing. You are teaching kids how things work, and if you do it responsibly, there are few topics that are taboo. Let’s talk more about how all this works in the next few days. In my mind, this is one of the most interesting groups of kids to write for.