What is Middle Grade?

Hidey-Ho Scriblers – J Monkeys here.  How are ya?  I’ve been thinking about my Livingston-Wexford Series lately as I’m gearing up to start writing the 3rd book in the series.  It really is a Middle Grade series because it is at its heart a quest story, an adventure for the 14-year old main characters.  The series deals with some potentially dark issues (the main characters’ entire families seem to have been slaughtered by dark forces pretty much unknown) but that happens off-screen (at least so far).  The series doesn’t tackle gritty YA issues of sex, drugs and eating disorders.  But Middle Grade is so wide a genre, that I don’t want my books to get lost.

Consider this.  The following books are all in the Middle Grade genre:

  • The Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey
  • Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys
  • Charlotte’s Web by EB White
  • JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books
  • The 39 Clues series
  • Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and the Kane Chronicles
  • CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer
a page from Captain Underpants

Here’s the problem. Captain Underpants is a great series for kids in grade 2-4. It’s very engaging and funny with wonderful pictures on every page.  It has a straightforward story with few if any subplots.  It’s a Middle Grade Book.

The 39 Clues series is for kids 8-12 years old.  That’s 2nd-6th graders.  It’s a fast paced adventure series where kids travel the globe on a quest to win their late grandmother’s estate.  All their relatives are trying to kill them.  It might be a little dark for an 8 year old, in my opinion, but hey, I’m not your kid’s parent.  It does have a lot of great history and geography in the series.  Each book is pretty straight forward, there aren’t a lot of subplots, but there is an arc that holds the series together.  It’s a Middle Grade series.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is intended for kids in grade’s 4 and up.   We all know that series get’s pretty dark, and the books get pretty thick.  The subplots are complicated enough to have spawned a zillion websites.  It’s also considered a Middle Grade book.

The Enola Holmes Mysteries are fun, quirky mysteries where Sherlock Holmes younger sister is solving crimes and avoiding capture by her brothers in Victorian England.  It’s also a Middle Grade series intended for kids in grades 4-6. 

Here’s a sample paragraph from page 43 of The Case of The Gypsy Good-bye:

“This modern metropolitan dungeon was not only chokingly dense and shadowy, but also dank and dripping.  The tunnel was even darker, and I had no lantern.  Still, that must be the way she had gone…confound my own daring, which might one day be the death of me.  As a child, I had always been the kind to cross a river not by walking on the bridge, but by balancing atop its balustrade.”

The whole series is written in lyrical, but somewhat complicated, language/grammatical structure.  And there were a number of words that I had to look up…pulchritude for example.  It means beauty or comeliness.

When you compare one end of the Middle Grade spectrum (Captain Underpants) with the other (Enola Holmes) it’s hard to imagine that they could be classified in the same genre.   Nancy Springer’s style of writing alone almost makes the series Adult Literary Fiction, in my opinion.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a wonderful series.  I just can’t imagine that I would have understood much of it when I was eleven.

So what am I to do with my books?  I’ve been calling them a ‘Tween Adventure series with elements of the paranormal.  That’s quite a mouthful, I know.  But I want to appeal to twelve-year olds.  Do you remember being twelve?  I wouldn’t have been caught dead with a little kid’s book like Captain Underpants when I was twelve.   Today’s ‘tweens are even more status conscious than ever.  I guess I’ll stick with ‘Tween Adventure and hope it takes the world by storm.

Today’s secret: if you don’t like the genre your book fits into and you are Indie Published –  make up your own genre name.  If you are confident enough about it, hopefully people will assume you know what you are talking about and maybe it’ll catch on.

Today’s question: what’s your favorite genre?

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9 thoughts on “What is Middle Grade?”

  1. Excellent post J. I don’t fit into the average group of readers, so I didn’t realize those classics were aimed at the YA audience. You idea of the paranormal to fit 12 year old’s in today world sounds reasonable. I look at the classics myself to see how and why they became such loved readings. Thanks for the valuable information.

    1. Yeah, it’s crazy. YA is edgier these days – more fraught with angst. MG is more about questing in some way it seems. Thanks!

  2. Morning, J. Great breakdown of the disparity in MG Lit. It does seem to span the globe, doesn’t it? I was that eight-year-old who got on the bus after looking up words in the dictionary and asking the bus driver, “Do you know what pulchritudinous means? It comes from the Latin, pulcher or pulchra, meaning beautiful.” My bus driver thought I was nuts and I got punched a lot by kids on the bus, but i was a word geek. I would have loved a book like Nancy Springer’s. I think we can’t dumb down our writing for kids, but obviously age-appropriate language, subject matter, and theme are important. It’s just hard to know exactly what is age-appropriate these days since kids are exposed to so much. It’s a quandary for a writer, for sure.

    I love your books and they definitely have a MG feel to them. I think you’ve got your target audience about right, but I think they would be ideal for ten and eleven-year-olds the way kids are reading up these days.

    1. Thanks! I agree, that my books are appropriate subject matter for a 10 year old. And I also agree that we shouldn’t dumb things down for kids, but I had to look up pulchritude. I suppose it all comes done to the author’s voice. I think there were a lot of allusions in Enola Holmes that kids wouldn’t get, references to Chaucer and such. But by the same token, the school secretary in Captain Underpants is Miss Anthrope and kids wouldn’t get that one either. Thanks!

  3. First let me say that the my 13 year old (who will be 14 tomorrow! yikes!) informs me, quite authoritatively, that Captain Underpants is “for all ages.” I wonder if some of the confusion here comes from the fact that kids in the middle grade years read at such different levels. What a kid will read depends on so many factors: individual interests and tastes re: subject matter; reading skills: willingness to look up unknown words, ability to figure out meanings by context. I think categorizing The L-W Chronicles as a ‘tween adventure series is right. It aligns with the 39 Clues series as far as readership. Though if you’ve read the first two in the “new” 39 Clues series, Amy is now 17 and has a boyfriend, and Dan has aged up to, I think, 14. (The boyfriend-girlfriend subplot is squeaky clean though. I don’t think they’ve even held hands)

  4. As far as favorite genre … is “ripping good mystery including romance and adventure, either contemporary or historical, or occasionally paranormal” a genre? Because that’s what I like best!

  5. Hi J,
    Well … normally I like romance. I also have read The Harry Potter series and the Percy Jackson. I read a lot of everything, I guess. I think what matters most to me is a satisfying ending. I want to know the characters I have spent the last week with make it, survive, fall in love, live happily ever after … or whatever ending appropriately fits the book. Wouldn’t it have been a disappointing ending if the evil lord killed Harry or if Nancy Drew couldn’t solve the mystery?

  6. My favorites genre is whatever books sound interesting to me and that includes books targeted for children, MG or YA. I agree that books should not be dumbed down for kids. It’s not a bad thing having to crack open a dictionary – or open an app – to look up a word. That’s how we all learn new things! Like Gerri said, it all comes down to story-telling, no matter the genre!

  7. Great post! I’ve wondered about this myself, as a reader, writer and mom. In my mind, Middle Grades encompasses third through eighth. I realize that’s quite a span, but remember that kids mature at all different rates as far as reading ability and interest. Some of my favorite books and authors are directed toward middle grades and I’d consider myself a grown-up at this point. Or maybe not?? Good luck with your Tween Adventures!! Sounds like a hit. :)

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