The monster guide to writing a children’s book: middle grade edition

1024 683 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

Hi, awesome writer! I’m so glad you’re here. Writing for children is the best job (or hobby) in the world but it’s absolute not the easy option! Children deserve to read and see themselves in the very best books, written by people who care passionately about making brilliant stories for their young audience. Writing for children should never be an afterthought or last resort because other types of books haven’t worked out for you. It needs to be something you put everything into – because children can tell the difference!

There’s lots of advice out there – and on this site – about the best way to write a children’s book so I’ve put everything together here in one mega, ultimate guide. I’ll be focusing on middle grade books here but look out for the YA edition, too! Happy reading 💙

WHAT IS MIDDLE GRADE?

Middle grade is the label given to books written for children aged approximately 8 to 12. 

It does sound pretty US-centric thanks to the term ‘grade’: here in the UK, children are in years at school, not grades, so some some writers get confused and think the ‘middle grade’ label only applies to American books. It doesn’t! And some writers assume that ‘middle grade’ means ‘middle school’ which can really narrow the age range of the audience depending on where you live in the world. But don’t worry about any of that! Just remember, middle grade = roughly 8 to 12. Sometimes it’s called something different, like junior fiction. Some people refer to middle grade as ‘chapter books’ because they have chapters in them (which absolutely makes sense, I know) but chapter books are a completely different category aimed at younger children, around 5-7. Chapter books are usually the first books children will read that are divided into chapters, meaning this audience is already familiar with chapters by the time they reach middle grade. 

Within the wider landscape of children’s books, it sits between chapter books (the real ones!) and young adult books.

Middle grade is sometimes split into lower middle grade and upper middle grade and those labels just refer to the age of the children reading them. Lower MG is aimed at readers around 8-10 while upper MG is for children around 10-12 but this is not set in stone! 

There is always crossover between categories, with young children reading books aimed at older children and vice versa so these age ranges are guides rather than stipulations. 

To learn more about where middle grade slots into the literature spectrum, from board books all the way up to new adult and adult, check out my An Introduction to Writing Middle Grade and YA online course.

WHAT ARE THE EXPECTATIONS AND CONVENTIONS OF MIDDLE GRADE?

Different age ranges come with different conventions. When a child picks up a book, they bring their own expectations based on other books they’ve read, and agents and publishers come to your manuscript with industry expectations based on the current market and what’s already working. Convention doesn’t mean ‘hard and fast rule’ but you should always have a good reason for breaking them! Here are the main conventions you need to know about if you’re writing a middle grade book:

  • Average word count: Middle grade novels usually somewhere range between 20,000 and 50,000 words, with around 35,000 being the ‘sweet spot’. Fantasy and science fiction tend to run longer due to their world building but still shouldn’t typically go much beyond 60,000 words for a debut author.
  • Protagonist’s age: Main characters are usually between 10 and 13, with 10 being common for lower middle grade and 12 being common age for upper middle grade. Young readers often prefer to read up a little so you can aim for a protagonist that’s a year or two older than your target audience but anything older than 13 is moving into the YA space.
  • Mature content: While middle grade novels often tackle complex and difficult topics, mature content like swearing, sex and graphic violence are typically off limits. Some edgy elements might occur off-page but are never explicit. Romance very rarely develops beyond a crush or holding hands.
  • Themes: Middle grade stories often focus on family or friendships in some way.

WHAT’S A MIDDLE GRADE MINDSET AND HOW DO I GET INTO IT?

It’s really important that your readers can relate to your main character and feel invested in your story. For that to happen, your characters need to be believable and feel authentic to your readers – they need to sound and act like real children and not like an adult writing children. That’s one of the hardest things to get right for most of us because it’s been a long time since we were the same age as our audience! So it’s absolutely crucial that you spend time trying to get into a middle grade mindset, thinking like your readers and really trying to understand them. 

You can do that second-hand by reading lots of modern middle grade novels and paying attention to the child voice and perspective, and you can do it first-hand by speaking and listening to children. You could also try listening to music that reminds you of your own childhood and what it feels like to be young and going through the experiences and emotions your readers are going through right now.

For more ideas on getting into a middle grade mindset and learning about your audience, check out Know Your Audience: middle grade, a blog post all about exploring and researching things that modern children are interested in and talking about.

WHAT ARE THE GOLDEN RULES OF WRITING MIDDLE GRADE?

There aren’t really hard and fast rules when it comes to writing for children, just conventions. An agent won’t blacklist you because you included a swear word in your middle grade novel or made your character 9 instead of 10. But I do have three very, very strong suggestions to bear in mind when you write your book. Golden suggestions don’t sound quite as helpful so let’s just think of them as rules for now.

  1. Think like a child: I already talked about about getting into a middle grade mindset and this really is absolutely key. If you’re not thinking like a child, readers won’t buy into your character or story world because they won’t feel the book is really speaking to them.
  2. Don’t make your hero an adult: Children typically want to read about other children. It’s hard for middle grade readers to relate to adults enough that they can really put themselves in their shoes for the duration of a novel and feel invested enough in their journey that they’re on the edge of their seat waiting to see what happens to them at the end. Help your readers connect with your protagonist by making them a similar age because then they’re much more likely to be going through similar experiences and emotions.
  3. Don’t lecture your reader: A hundred or so years ago, didactic books preaching to children were the norm. Plot and character were often secondary to a book’s ‘lesson’ and it was common for stories to have a heavy moral, religious message. Children don’t like that anymore. They want fun, escapism, empowerment, new perspectives, the feeling that they’re not alone. Leave the lessons for school and just give them the good stuff.

WHAT GENRES CAN YOU WRITE FOR CHILDREN?

Pretty much all of them! So many people – including booksellers and reviewers – make the mistake of thinking ‘middle grade’ is a genre in its own right when in fact it’s an audience. It tells you who a book is for but it doesn’t tell you anything about what sort of book it is or how it might make readers feel. That’s what genre’s for! Almost any genre that adults read can be written for younger readers, too. Obviously some genres and subgenres aren’t terribly appropriate or relatable for children, like erotica, splatterpunk, courtroom drama, romance or hard science fiction, but pretty much everything else goes! For example:

  • Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Science Fiction
  • Realistic / contemporary
  • Thriller
  • Mystery
  • Adventure
  • Historical
  • Literary
  • Myths and retellings

For a really thorough list of genres and subgenres along with examples of middle grade books that fit those categories, take a look at my most popular blog post ever, The Monster Guide to Middle Grade and YA Genres and Subgenres. For an even more detailed exploration, take my online course: Nail your book’s genre & get it in front of your dream readers!

OKAY, BUT HOW DO YOU ACTUALLY WRITE A STORY FOR MIDDLE GRADE READERS?

When it comes to things like plotting, outlining, writing and revising your novel, middle grade is really no different to YA or adult fiction. Children want and expect a compelling opening, a relatable protagonist, fleshed out secondary characters, a solid story goal, obstacles getting in the way, believable motives, sufficient backstory, interesting descriptions, exciting plot points, a convincing antagonist, a vivid setting, supporting subplots, a satisfying ending and familiar genre conventions or tropes.

Whichever age range you’re writing for, my recommendation is always to start with your main character’s GMC: goal, motive, conflict. What do they want? Why do they want it? What’s going to get in their way? This is what will drive your story and make readers care about the outcome.

HOW CAN YOU LEARN ABOUT THE MIDDLE GRADE MARKET?

The most important thing to do before you start writing or even plotting your children’s book is to get really familiar with the market and understand what children actually want to read. Children’s literature has changed a heck of a lot since we were young and relying on your favourites from fifty or even twenty years ago won’t tell you anything about what’s selling today and what agents and publishers are looking for. It’s absolutely vital to read as much modern middle grade (ideally published in the last three years) as you possibly can and to take notes! What are the themes? What’s the main character’s voice like? How’s the world building? What role do the adults play? Be curious, analytical, interrogative. Learn to read like a writer!

And if you’re worried that reading other authors might negatively impact on your own writing, don’t! Reading widely is always a good idea!

WHERE CAN YOU FIND MODERN CHILDREN’S BOOKS TO READ?

If you’d like to get up-to-date on middle grade that’s being published today, there are loads of places you can look! For example:

WHERE CAN YOU FIND WRITING CRAFT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS?

I’ve put together a jam-packed list of my 45 favourite writing craft books for children’s book authors here. It’s divided into five categories:

⭐️ Writing for children and teenagers
⭐️ General writing craft
⭐️ Genre-specific guides
⭐️ Language and style
⭐️ Children’s literature history & theory

You can also read an overview of one my favourite craft books, The Magic Words by Cheryl B Klein, on the blog.


Thanks so much for reading, lovely writer! Want empowering, feel-good writing chat and fairy dust in your inbox? Plus receive a PDF of my recommended writing craft books for children’s and YA writers (including go-to genre guides and Children’s Lit MA reading list) AND £20 Wolf Credit to spend with me! Sign up today!

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