Introduction to Middle Grade.
First, here is an overview of the rules for Middle Grade.
Middle grade books are intended for the 7-12 age group. The term ‘Middle Grade’ bears no relation to middle school. Middle Grade books are actually intended for Elementary school students, although many of them, especially the great classics, such as Alice in Wonderland, are enjoyed by readers of all ages.
The five year age range from 7 to12, spans a great deal of childhood development compared to the five year Young Adult age range of 13 to18, and for this reason the Middle Grade field is divided into two sections: Chapter Books, (7-10 age group), and Classic Middle Grade (10-13 age group).
Chapter books provide the next step up from Picture Books. Even though we haven’t studied Picture Books in this class yet I’m going to compare them to picture books, as I think it’s useful way of understanding the field, and I’m sure you’re familiar with picture books.
Picture books are intended to be read aloud to the child listener by an adult––or an older child who can read. The Adult reads the words while the child looks at the pictures, hence the pictures add to the story. Important story information can often be found only in the pictures, and not in the text.
Chapter books are intended for children who are reading by themselves fairly confidently––and even beginning to read silently.
They are nearly always illustrated, but now the illustrations provide more of a decorative function, making the pages look less intimidating to the young reader.
Absolutely all of the essential story information is now in the text. Even if someone reads the book aloud to a child, the child may only glance at the illustrations, and will probably follow along with the text.
As the illustrations are less important to the story, chapter books don’t need to be printed in full-color––and usually they aren’t. The books look much more like the kind of books that grown-ups read (assuming they read), and are much longer than picture books.
Even though chapter books look like grown-up books they’re usually much shorter. This is because the type size is much larger––to help developing readers with deciphering the words.
This means there are fewer words per line, and fewer lines per page.
The books are usually 120-150 pages in length––8-12 chapters with about 8-10 pages per chapter. This is a similar page length to Classic Middle Grade, but remember the type is larger, so the books are shorter overall.
The stories are usually quite simple and straightforward, with one predominant story problem, and one sub-plot.
The number of major characters is usually limited to the size of an average family (5?), and the issues dealt with tend to be uncontroversial.
Endings tend to be happy––or at least hopeful––and all loose ends tend to be tied up satisfactorily.
CLASSIC MIDDLE GRADE (ages 8 to12).
These really are the classics. Most of the great children’s books from the past are middle grade: CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, THE SECRET GARDEN, THE HOBBIT, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and WIND IN THE WILLOWS, are all middle grade.
These books look essentially no different to the books intended for adults. The font may be slightly larger, but not noticeably so. The books might be short, but often can be as long––if not longer––than young adult books.
The stories are complex, with multiple characters and sophisticated conflicts.
Story problems begin to be sophisticated enough that there are sometimes no easy or complete solutions.
Endings are usually not sad or depressing, but they are often bittersweet, and may even leave a lingering sense of concern. Among the classics, the DIARY OF ANN FRANK is middle grade, are boos by the author Lois Lowry, such as NUMBER THE STARS, and THE GIVER.
These particular books begin to address very serious political and sociological problems, and the notion that those in charge might not have the best intentions.
Louis Sachar’s novel HOLES is a slightly less serious example of this.
Looking ahead this is what you are going to be writing for your major Middle Grade project.
1: You will be writing either the opening chapter of a middle grade novel, or a middle grade short story.
2: Write about 5 pages, double-spaced, 12 point type (write more than 5 pages if you need to).
Remember, your main characters––and your intended readers–– should be between 8 and 12.
3: Your story should be written from the child’s point of view
4: Throw your reader into the drama from the first paragraph.
5: Avoid having the parents solve any problem.
6: The Workshop day will be around the end of March (this may change, but it won’t be earlier). This time we’re going to do a partner-edit instead of a peer-group workshop, so you won’t need to post your story ahead of time. I will tell you more about how to do a partner-edit nearer the time.
Now let’s look at some Middle Grade openings:
This is from HOLES by Louis Sachar:
There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.
There used to be a town of Green Lake as well. The town shriveled and dried up along with the lake, and the people who lived there.
During the summer the daytime temperature hovers around ninety-five degrees in the shade—if you can find any shade. There’s not much shade in a big dry lake.
The only trees are two old oaks on the eastern edge of the “lake.” A hammock is stretched between the two trees, and a log cabin stands behind that.
The campers are forbidden to lie in the hammock. It belongs to the Warden. The Warden owns the shade.
Out on the lake, rattlesnakes and scorpions find shade under rocks and in the holes dug by the campers.
Here’s a good rule to remember about rattlesnakes and scorpions: If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
Being bitten by a scorpion or even a rattlesnake is not the worst thing that can happen to you.
You won’t die.
Sometimes a camper will try to be bitten by a scorpion, or even a small rattlesnake. Then he will get to spend a day or two recovering in his tent, instead of having to dig a hole out on the lake.
But you don’t want to be bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard. That’s the worst thing that can happen to you. You will die a slow and painful death.
If you get bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard, you might as well go into the shade of the oak trees and lie in the hammock.
There is nothing anyone can do to you anymore.
This is from CORALINE by Neil Gaiman.
CORALINE DISCOVERED THE DOOR a little while after they moved into the house.
It was a very old house—it had an attic under the roof and a cellar under the ground and an overgrown garden with huge old trees in it.
Coraline’s family didn’t own all of the house—it was too big for that. Instead they owned part of it.
There were other people who lived in the old house.
Miss Spink and Miss Forcible lived in the flat below Coraline’s, on the ground floor. They were both old and round, and they lived in their flat with a number of ageing Highland terriers who had names like Hamish and Andrew and Jock. Once upon a time Miss Spink and Miss Forcible had been actresses, as Miss Spink told Coraline the first time she met her.
“You see, Caroline,” Miss Spink said, getting Coraline’s name wrong, “both myself and Miss Forcible were famous actresses, in our time. We trod the boards, luvvy. Oh, don’t let Hamish eat the fruitcake, or he’ll be up all night with his tummy.”
“It’s Coraline. Not Caroline. Coraline,” said Coraline.
In the flat above Coraline’s, under the roof, was a crazy old man with a big mustache. He told Coraline that he was training a mouse circus. He wouldn’t let anyone see it.
“One day, little Caroline, when they are all ready, everyone in the whole world will see the wonders of my mouse circus. You ask me why you cannot see it now. Is that what you asked me?”
“No,” said Coraline quietly, “I asked you not to call me Caroline. It’s Coraline.”
“The reason you cannot see the mouse circus,” said the man upstairs, “is that the mice are not yet ready and rehearsed. Also, they refuse to play the songs I have written for them. All the songs I have written for the mice to play go oompah oompah. But the white mice will only play toodle oodle, like that. I am thinking of trying them on different types of cheese.”
Coraline didn’t think there really was a mouse circus. She thought the old man was probably making it up.
The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring.
She explored the garden. It was a big garden: at the very back was an old tennis court, but no one in the house played tennis and the fence around the court had holes in it and the net had mostly rotted away; there was an old rose garden, filled with stunted, flyblown rosebushes; there was a rockery that was all rocks; there was a fairy ring, made of squidgy brown toadstools which smelled dreadful if you accidentally trod on them.
There was also a well. On the first day Coraline’s family moved in, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible made a point of telling Coraline how dangerous the well was, and they warned her to be sure she kept away from it. So Coraline set off to explore for it, so that she knew where it was, to keep away from it properly.
She found it on the third day, in an overgrown meadow beside the tennis court, behind a clump of trees—a low brick circle almost hidden in the high grass. The well had been covered up by wooden boards, to stop anyone falling in. There was a small knothole in one of the boards, and Coraline spent an afternoon dropping pebbles and acorns through the hole and waiting, and counting, until she heard the plop as they hit the water far below.
Coraline also explored for animals. She found a hedgehog, and a snakeskin (but no snake), and a rock that looked just like a frog, and a toad that looked just like a rock.
There was also a haughty black cat, who sat on walls and tree stumps and watched her but slipped away if ever she went over to try to play with it.
That was how she spent her first two weeks in the house—exploring the garden and the grounds.
Her mother made her come back inside for dinner and for lunch. And Coraline had to make sure she dressed up warm before she went out, for it was a very cold summer that year; but go out she did, exploring, every day until the day it rained, when Coraline had to stay inside.
“What should I do?” asked Coraline.
“Read a book,” said her mother. “Watch a video. Play with your toys. Go and pester Miss Spink or Miss Forcible, or the crazy old man upstairs.”
“No,” said Coraline. “I don’t want to do those things. I want to explore.”
“I don’t really mind what you do,” said Coraline’s mother, “as long as you don’t make a mess.”
Coraline went over to the window and watched the rain come down. It wasn’t the kind of rain you could go out in—it was the other kind, the kind that threw itself down from the sky and splashed where it landed. It was rain that meant business, and currently its business was turning the garden into a muddy, wet soup.
Coraline had watched all the videos. She was bored with her toys, and she’d read all her books.
She turned on the television. She went from channel to channel to channel, but there was nothing on but men in suits talking about the stock market, and talk shows.
This is from ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams Garcia:
Good thing the plane had seat belts and we’d been strapped in tight before takeoff. Without them, that last jolt would have been enough to throw Vonetta into orbit and Fern across the aisle. Still, I anchored myself and my sisters best as I could to brace us for whatever came next. Those clouds weren’t through with us yet and dealt another Cassius Clay–left–and–a–right jab to the body of our Boeing 727.
Vonetta shrieked, then stuck her thumb in her mouth. Fern bit down on Miss Patty Cake’s pink plastic arm. I kept my whimper to myself. It was bad enough my insides squeezed in and stretched out like a monkey grinder’s accordion—no need to let anyone know how frightened I was.
I took a breath so, when my mouth finally opened, I’d sound like myself and not like some scared rabbit. “It’s just the clouds bumping,” I told my sisters. “Like they bumped over Detroit and Chicago and Denver.”
Vonetta pulled her thumb out of her mouth and put her head in her lap. Fern held on to Miss Patty Cake. They listened to me.
“We push our way up in the clouds; the clouds get mad and push back. Like you and Fern fighting over red and gold crayons.” I didn’t know about clouds fighting and pushing for a fact, but I had to tell my sisters something. As long as Vonetta kept her fear to one shriek and Fern kept hers to biting Miss Patty Cake, I kept on spinning straw, making everything all right. That’s mainly what I do. Keep Vonetta and Fern in line. The last thing Pa and Big Ma wanted to hear was how we made a grand Negro spectacle of ourselves thirty thousand feet up in the air around all these white people.
“You know how Papa is,” I told them. “No way he’d put us on a plane if it were dangerous.”
They halfway believed me. Just as I had that soft plastic arm out of Fern’s mouth, those Cassius Clay–fighting clouds threw our 727 another jab.
Big Ma—that’s Pa’s mother—still says Cassius Clay. Pa says Muhammad Ali or just Ali. I slide back and forth from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Whatever picture comes to mind. With Cassius Clay you hear the clash of fists, like the plane getting jabbed and punched. With Muhammad Ali you see a mighty mountain, greater than Everest, and can’t no one knock down a mountain.
All the way to the airport, Pa had tried to act like he was dropping off three sacks of wash at the Laundromat. I’d seen through Pa. He’s no Vonetta, putting on performances. He has only one or two faces, nothing hidden, nothing exaggerated. Even though it had been his idea that we fly out to Oakland to see Cecile, Pa’d never once said how exciting our trip would be. He just said that seeing Cecile was something whose time had come. That it had to be done. Just because he decided it was time for us to see her didn’t mean he wanted us to go.
My sisters and I had stayed up practically all night California dreaming about what seemed like the other side of the world. We saw ourselves riding wild waves on surfboards, picking oranges and apples off fruit trees, filling our autograph books with signatures from movie stars we’d see in soda shops. Even better, we saw ourselves going to Disneyland.
We had watched airplanes lift up and fly off into blue sky as we neared the airport. Every time another airliner flew overhead, leaving a trail of white and gray smoke, Big Ma fanned herself and asked, “Jesus, why?”
Big Ma had kept quiet long enough. Once inside the terminal, she let it all hang out. She told Pa, “I don’t mind saying it, but this isn’t right. Coming out to Idlewild and putting these girls on a plane so Cecile can see what she left behind. If she wants to see, let her get on an airplane and fly out to New York.”
Big Ma doesn’t care if President Kennedy’s face is on the half-dollar or if the airport is now officially named after him. She calls the airport by its old name, Idlewild. Don’t get me wrong. Big Ma was as mad and sad as anyone when they killed the president. It’s change she has no pity on. However things are stamped in Big Ma’s mind is how they will be, now and forever. Idlewild will never be JFK. Cassius Clay will never be Muhammad Ali. Cecile will never be anything other than Cecile.
I can’t say I blamed Big Ma for feeling the way she did. I certainly didn’t forgive Cecile.
When Cecile left, Fern wasn’t on the bottle. Vonetta could walk but wanted to be picked up. I was four going on five. Pa wasn’t sick, but he wasn’t doing well, either. That was when Big Ma came up from Alabama to see about us.
Even though Big Ma read her Scripture daily, she hadn’t considered forgiveness where Cecile was concerned. Cecile wasn’t what the Bible meant when it spoke of love and forgiveness. Only judgment, and believe me, Big Ma had plenty of judgment for Cecile. So even if Cecile showed up on Papa’s welcome mat, Big Ma wouldn’t swing the front door open.
Take a reported statement, such as: ‘It started raining,’ and turn it into 6 sense impressions.
Sense impressions are everything that the main character of your story experiences directly, in other words, everything she sees, hears, feels (physically), tastes, and smells.
1: Sight: The sky turned black, and a moment later huge drops pounded onto the pavement in front of us.
2: Sound: Raindrops drummed on the window.
3: Physical feeling: Icy rain tickled my scalp, streamed down my neck, and pooled inside my collar.
4: Smell: I was enfolded by the warm scent of cut grass in the rain.
5: Taste: I tipped back my head and opened my mouth. Bitter raindrops landed on my tongue.
6: Emotional: The rain needled on my scalp, streamed down my neck, and pooled so deeply in my soul that I could hardly bear to take another step…