If you’re the parent of at 20-something kid, you probably do remember Goosebumps. Both the book series and the television series were wildly popular with the middle-grade crowd in the 90’s, and my daughter loved both. I can’t tell you how many of those books we got from the library or bought for her personal stash.
My mother-in-law didn’t approve. The books are about scary topics, but they’re kid scary — like vampires living next door or creatures coming out of the school pool. They were scary for middle-grade readers, but mildly scary.
I didn’t really listen to the non-approval caveats. I figured that if my daughter liked them and was reading, they were harmless enough. At this age, it’s all about getting kids to read. This is when they form the habit.
There are lots of other middle-grade books with less scary topics, of course, but the style, length and topics need to first be of interest to kids that age. Here are some middle-grade books that I found to be noteworthy:
- Number the Stars and The Giver by Lois Lowry
- James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
- Charlotte’s Web by Garth Williams
- Percy Jackson & the Olympians series by Rick Riordan
- Holes by Louis Sachar
- Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
- Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini by Sid Fleischman
- All About Sleep, by Elaine Scott
That’s a small list of excellent books, but you can see we have everything from Cinderella retold to fantasy to mythology to magic and in some of them some very sensitive topics are presented. Mostly, anything goes, as long as you keep in mind that the readers are kids whose viewpoints are being formed — in part — by what they’re reading.
I’ve had several short stories and articles for middle-grade kids published, and the basics are to keep things interesting. Give them interesting factoids they can wonder about and in fiction, interesting characters that they can relate to. Just don’t baby them and don’t talk down to them.
Off-kilter presentations would include anything ribald or extremely violent. Death is OK and morality shouldn’t be too preachy. Show don’t tell in that so that kids get the moral without knowing they’re learning something.
Length should be around 300 – 400 words for an article and about 750 words for a short story, though that differs. Books for middle-graders should be 20,000 words or so, but that varies, too. Look at the length of some Harry Potter books. Read some of the above titles to get a feel for length, subject matter and style.
It’s very important to listen to and figure out these kids, too. Don’t add “fad” details, like current slang or what kids are buying today. That will date your piece and as things go out of fashion so quickly in this world, your work can be obliterated by a change in middle-grade whimsey. Not good.
And remember, there are two groups, really — a younger group that’s loosely 8-9 and an older group that’s 10 -12. You’ll need to figure out which group you’re more comfortable with and write for them.