Know your audience: middle grade

934 532 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Unless you’re ten, it can be hard to get into the mindset of your young readers when writing middle grade fiction. Schooldays are a distant memory for most of us, but even if we could remember them clearly, things have changed a little since our day. When I was in primary school, we spent our lunchtimes playing with Pogs and swapping stickers (and there was that one weird summer where we all walked around with dummies in our mouths – don’t ask), but trends move on and children’s tastes change.

So, how do you figure out what’s on their minds these days? You do your research! This post isn’t about getting into the mindset of a middle grade reader by thinking like a child and harnessing your own memories or understanding how children’s brains and emotions work. Those are really important things to consider as a writer and I’ll be posting about them in the future (in the meantime, Jerry Griswold’s Feeling Like a Kid is a brilliant resource); today, I just want to talk about how you can dig deep into what children like, do and say these days, so you can be sure your characters are authentic, realistic and relateable, rather than spending their days rollerskating down to the ice cream parlour to show their friends their new Tamagotchi.

Talk to children you know

If you have children, you’re already winning at this one. But if you don’t, try to spend some time with nieces and nephews or your friends’ children. Ask them what they’re interested in, where they like to hang out at weekends, who their friends are, what they think about school, what they want for Christmas, what they want to be when they grow up. Details like this can really help add colour to your story, even if you don’t think they’re important to the plot. If your twelve-year-old protagonist dreams of seeing Pearl Jam in concert but the children you talk to have never heard of them, pay attention, as this could mean your main character doesn’t feel realistic or relateable to a modern middle grade audience. It doesn’t mean you have to change that detail, but you will need to ensure readers can connect to your protagonist in other ways. Show them why they love Pearl Jam so much, how they feel when they listen to the albums or look at the posters on their wall. What’s the story behind their fandom? Ask those nieces and nephews how they feel about their favourite bands and how they felt when they first heard them, and inject those emotions into your character. This is how you introduce unfamiliar elements to readers without alienating them.

And when you’re talking to these middle grade readers, find out what books they love right now. Then, go and read them! To be a children’s author you have to read children’s books, so immerse yourself in what that audience is reading and buying today.

Volunteer as a school reader

If you have the time to spare, why not help children with their reading? There are lots of initiatives that pair volunteers with schools like Bookmark, School Readers and Beanstalk, where you’ll listen to a child read one-to-one, helping them with words they find tricky and talking to them about the story. With things as they currently are, lots of these organisations are offering virtual reading sessions so you don’t have to go into the classroom. Activities like this are a great way to interact with children in your target market and listen to them talk to each other, too, but it’s also a brilliant chance to see what they’re reading, what books they enjoy and what vocabulary or subject matter might trip them up. After reading with eight-year-olds who complain the book they’re reading to you is boring, you might decide your own plot needs to be faster paced or more action packed.

Read kids’ magazines

I was a voracious magazine reader as a child, buying everything from Girl Talk and Smash Hits to Farthing Wood Friends and Polly Pocket. Features writers at magazines really have their finger on the pulse when it comes to knowing what their readers care about. When I worked for a women’s magazine, our story ideas came from TV, adverts, the news, competitors’ publications: we sucked up everything around us that 50+ women were consuming and addressed the topic that mattered to them, and predicted what they’d care about later. Zeitgeist was the magic word! So when you pick up a children’s magazine, you can be sure the writers aren’t just publishing stories they think kids today *might* like – they KNOW their audience inside out.

Pop to the newsagents and buy a few magazines aimed at your target audience – websites like Magazine.co.uk will tell you what age each magazine is marketed to. Take a look at The Week Juniorfor example. It’s aimed at 8-14 year olds which covers a middle grade audience and reports on current affairs, so it will give you a brilliant overview of how journalists are talking to children about news and politics – what language do they use? What tone? What are the questions children are asking about the world? You can see from the cover of Owl Magazine that the readership is likely to be worrying about making new friends and calming first-day-at-school nerves, so if you’re writing a school story, these are concerns you should have your characters voice, too.

Watch kids’ TV

As well as giving you an insight into what topics and themes children’s TV deals with these days, watching TV channels like Nickelodeon, CBBC and CITV is a great way to observe dialogue and body language. Yes, they might be actors, but the scriptwriters have done their homework and the lines in those shows will usually reflect children’s natural speech pretty accurately. Watch how the characters talk to each other, how they interact with adults, what they do with their hands or facial expressions when they’re angry or excited.

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes