Ask a room full of publishing professionals what makes a novel middle grade, and you’ll get as many different answers as there are people in the room. So how can an author determine whether their manuscript (or shiny new story idea) is suited for middle grade shelves? One might be tempted to examine the audience in an effort to answer this question, but readers of MG range from young advanced readers (think six and seven year olds) all the way up through adults. In order to get to the bottom of this dilemma, we need to turn to the material itself. Let’s start by examining some of the parameters commonly associated with middle grade books.
Some claim a novel can be defined as middle grade if the protagonist is roughly eight to twelve years old. This is a terrific jumping off point, but the reality of writing novels is seldom that straightforward and it doesn’t address the murky middle ground of thirteen and fourteen year olds, who often don’t fit neatly into MG or YA. In a blog post, author Diane K. Salerni reveals that the publisher of The Eighth Day asked her to lower her protagonist’s age from 14 to 13 to better suit the middle grade market. Another example of the problematic nature of relying strictly on age comes from Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter. The twelve-year-old protagonist should, in theory, anchor the story firmly in middle grade territory. However, another main character is a fourteen-year-old eighth grader, who is already a father. In an author interview posted on the publisher's website, the book is labeled young adult.
Clearly, we need to look beyond age––we also need to consider subject matter and themes. For example, does including the birds and the bees automatically mean the story can’t be MG? Including explicitly sexual material is definitely a sign that the novel isn’t destined for middle grade shelves, but this is not to say that romance can’t appear in middle grade stories or that edgy material (or the lack thereof) defines MG novels. Books such as Nest, Bridge to Terabithia, Wish Girl, and Paper Cowboy all demonstrate that topics such as suicide, death, terminal illness and depression/mental illness are fair game.
Sometimes writers are tempted to look at point of view and language/writing style to help determine the audience for their novels. Many middle grade novels are written from a single point of view and contain relatively straightforward language. But by now it won’t surprise you to hear that this isn’t always the case. Wonder has six separate POVs. Echo is another great example of multiple POVs within one novel. And one must only compare The One and Only Ivan to The Thing About Jellyfish to see that it’s neither language nor writing style that defines middle grade novels. Nor can one point to factors such as external (versus internal) plots, genre, or word count. Although these are all important considerations, a few moments in a bookstore demonstrates that middle grade novels are every bit as complex and versatile as the audience that reads them.
If you’ve made it this far and still aren’t exactly sure whether your story is middle grade or not, let me leave you with this final bit of advice: the only way to truly understand the middle grade market is to read middle grade books. Although every story is different, if you read enough of them, you’ll develop an intuition that, together with a close examination of the elements discussed above, will help you determine exactly whether or not your story fits into the ambiguous yet beloved category known as middle grade.