Is It Too Serious for Middle-Grade?

Saturday, June 27, 2015
In the young adult and middle-grade children's writing course that I teach for WOW!, one of my students recently asked if the plot she was planning for her middle-grade historical fiction novel was too grim for the age of the audience. I told her no, it wasn't, and she had a great idea. I can't share her idea with you on The Muffin, but I can give a few tips if you ever find yourself thinking about writing a book for a younger audience.

1. You can deal with heavy subjects, but sometimes these are not happening to the main character.  Especially in historical fiction books where the history is known (such as Nazi concentration camps or slavery in the United States), you don't want to ignore these grim historical happenings. But you can either tone down the reality, or minor characters can have the tougher role. The main character is not the slave or the refugee, for example.

In my middle-grade novel, Finding My Place, the main character Anna has a lot of tragedy happen during the book, set in 1863 in Vicksburg, MS--her ma dies; her pa is at war; her family has to live in a cave while the city is being shelled. But all in all, these things are happening around her. She is affected by them; but for example, she does not get wounded by a shell. She is not a slave.

Kids are smart, so you can't pretend like real life can not be terrible, but you can tone it down.

2. Life can be grim. It has been. But it can also be comical and happy. 
The other thing you can do is put in some lighthearted scenes or a funny character. Your main character can also be funny at times. Look at the middle-grade novel, Holes. Again, this deals with some heavy subjects--basically children being driven to work under terrible conditions at a juvenile detention camp. But parts of the book are comical. I mean even the main character's name--Stanley Yelnats is a bit silly. If Louis Sachar would have made everything about this book as emotional or heavy as the topic could be, the book might not have been as popular with the middle-grade audience. Most children's movies have a character that is for comic relief--Olaf in Frozen or Eddie Murphy's dragon in Mulan. It works. So think about adding a little comedy in the midst of the tragedy.

3. Read other authors and see how they do it. 
If you still aren't sure what to do, take Stephen King's advice from his book, On Writing: "You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Talk to a librarian; read middle-grade reading blogs; check out state recommended reading lists--there are ways to find books that deal with grim subjects, and figure out how these successful authors deal with a young audience but a serious subject. Learn from them, and then transfer these ideas to your own work.

So have you ever read a book for 12 or under with a serious subject? How did you feel the author handled this problem? Are you facing this in your own writing? We'd love to hear about your experiences.

Margo L. Dill is the author of three books for children and teaches novel and children's writing courses for WOW! Check out more about Margo at


Sioux Roslawski said...

There was a Mark Twain nominee a while back (6 years ago? Ten years ago?). It was one of two nominated books that year that had the word "black" in the title (if I'm remembering correctly). This one was about a kid whose dad had died in Vietnam and her mom was a nurse there, came back, and emotionally suffered. The kid had to contend with her mom literally shooting up the house... and not just one isolated incident. I thought it was a bit too dark for that age group.

But it might just be me...

Margo Dill said...

Hi Sioux,
I haven't read that one but I might do some research to find out. It does sound dark. It is a fine line and I think the big thing is as a parent and teacher to read the material first, so you can discuss with your child or know if your own children are ready for something like that. Thanks for sharing!

Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan said...

My 8 yr old and I are reading Jerry Spinelli's "Maniac Magee." Talk about serious and silly at the same time! HIs parents are killed, he runs away from home and ends up in a town divided by race and faces threats from both sides. It's intense, but very timely right now. Also very silly.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Elizabeth--"Maniac McGee" is one of my favorites. Jodi Picoult (she and her daughter co-wrote it) has a book called "Between the Lines." It's about what happens to the characters in a fairy tale once the book is closed at night. Does the prince like being a prince? Is he truly in love with the princess? Although Picoult usually writes for adults, this is a kid-friendly book, and would make a great read-aloud. (It IS as long as her other books.)

Clements' "Frindle" is also a good one.

Enjoy Spinelli. He has quite a way with words.

Margo Dill said...

Love Maniac McGee too. I also like Wringer by Spinelli. In fact, it is one of my favorite middle-grade books.

Renee Roberson said...

This is a great topic, Margo. I had to read several books with my daughter (fifth grade) this year for school that I thought had some pretty serious topics and content. One was "Chains" by Laurie Halse Anderson. The topic was slavery during the Revolutionary War and it had what I thought was a LOT of violence for that age group. The main character is actually branded in the face with an "I" for "Insolence" and that shocked me. The book was very good, but very depressing. We also read "Fever 1793" by the same author and it also had a lot of graphic content dealing with that time period and the effects of the illness. I joke that if a book is "award-winning" it usually is pretty graphic or has foul language. Another MG book I picked up at a conference was Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz. Based on a real-life story, it follows the life of one boy as he makes his way through 10 different Nazi concentration camps. It was heartbreaking and pretty much left no detail to the imagination. I thought it might be little tough for the age group, but my daughter asked to read it and I let her. It was very eye-opening to her and a good introduction to the Holocaust, as she will do an in-depth study of it in 6th grade next year.

Margo Dill said...

Hi Renee: I've read both of those Laurie Halse Anderson books, and I think the reason they are able to be more "graphic" perhaps is because of their historical setting. But I think you are right about a lot of award-winning books. Drama sells. :) And wins awards. It is tough as a parent, and I think sometimes as parents we are more sensitive to what our own children are reading than we could be if we thought of 5th graders in general. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Linda Williams Jackson said...

A little late with my comment, but I'm currently dealing with this issue while revising my manuscript. I wrote it as YA, but my editor says it will work better as MG. (And I agree.) But it deals with really tough issues (Mississippi, pre-Civil Rights era). So I'm having to turn off my internal overprotective-mom-editor and listen to my real-life professional editor and just tell the story--the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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