My career is just weird. I write books for adults, and I write books for middle-grade readers (generally defined as aged 9-13). From time to time I get asked by other writers what the difference is. Some are just curious about a field outside their own. Some want to try their hand at middle-grade because they have fond memories of the books they read when they were kids. Or they’ve heard the field can be lucrative (it’s not). Or they want to write short books in hopes of creating more product in a shorter amount of time. Some of them (the ones I like best) want to write for kids because they love kids books, or there’s some part of their brain they hope to express through kids books, or they have some other difficult-to-define but nonetheless burning desire to write kids books.
So, I thought it might be helpful to touch on how my approach differs between writing adult books and kids books. I can tell you right now that I’m probably not going to be terribly helpful.
For one thing, my adult books are full of violence and cusses, and if books were movies, those books would get R-ratings. My middle-grade books have much less nasty violence and no cusses, and they’d get PG or maybe PG-13 ratings. Is the difference in the violence and cusses, then? Well, only to an extent. No f-bombs in middle-grade, certainly. Usually no s-bombs, either. Seldom will you find harsh, graphically depicted violence. And little or no sex. But there are enough adult books that don’t feature such nasty stuff that we can’t reliably point to content restrictions to describe how adult and middle-grade books differ.
What about the ages of the characters? Certainly that’s got to be the absolute key difference between adult books and kids books. Er. Only sort of. Stephen King’s written a lot of books and stories with kids as point-of-view characters, but they are not kids books because they are told from an adult’s perspective. Even when there’s no Richard Dreyfus providing a framing device, there’s a quality of reminiscence, of expressing what childhood was like from an adult’s perspective. King does it brilliantly, often triumphantly, and his books featuring kids are among my favorites of his work. But middle grade doesn’t look upon childhood from a distant remove. It must concern itself with the immediate interests not of childhood, but of a character who is a child. It must express love, friendship, anger, hatred, hope, ambition, fear, courage, and all that other human-y stuff through the perspective of a fully realized, textured, complicated individual who happens to be somewhere from around 9 to 13 years old.
All fiction draws from the same periodic table: characters undergoing ordeals and experiencing change, interesting ideas, environments ranging from rooms to universes, and theme and metaphor and language. There is no trick, no checklist, no understanding of editorial restriction that will lead to a full understanding of the difference between adult and middle-grade fiction.
If you don’t believe me, try imagining the following scenario: You are a writer of science fiction. You write science fiction because you love science fiction, you’ve spent many years reading science fiction and practicing the writing of science fiction, and when you sit down to write, science fiction is what comes out of you. You’ve got a friend who is very much like you, except everywhere I said “science fiction,” sub in “fantasy.” They haven’t read much science fiction and have written even less of it. And now they’ve come to you and they want to write science fiction. Because… I don’t know. Because the books are shorter. Because reasons. What would you tell them? Could you tell them anything truly helpful? Could you tell them something that didn’t really come down to think different, write different, be different?
So, all that said, you still want to write middle grade? Do it. It’s an amazingly rewarding field, filled with beautiful work by inspiring writers, and the readers are simply amazing. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not for you. Certainly don’t let me tell you it’s not for you. Have fun. Respect your audience. Approach it with the same passion you would any other kind of writing. And write good books.
About the Author:
Greg van Eekhout’s novels include Norse Code (for adults), Kid vs. Squid (middle grade), The Boy at the End of the World (middle grade), and California Bones, the first volume in a new contemporary fantasy trilogy from Tor Books. It’s the kind that comes with cusses. For more information, visit his website at www.writingandsnacks.com or follow him on Twitter @gregvaneekhout.