Breaking the Rules With Middle Grade Novels

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Have you read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? J. K. Rowling breaks the middle-grade rules that all of us middle-grade authors are told are very important to follow, especially if we are debut authors. When J. K. Rowling finally had this manuscript accepted, she was a debut author, of course, and it was accepted (after many rejections) by a mainstream publisher. And of course, the rest is absolutely history. But let's start with the rule-breaking...

1. The book opens with Mr. Dursley as the main point of view character. Mr. Dursley is a man (not necessarily young although he does have an infant son) who works for a drill company. He is not very nice. He doesn't even like or want to mention the name Harry Potter, who turns out to be our hero.

2. The rest of the first chapter is told in either Mr. Dursley's viewpoint or the viewpoints of two very old wizards, Dumbledore and McGonagall.

3. Harry is a baby!

The rule all of those points above are breaking is that chapter one does not start with our hero as an 11-year-old boy. Another rule: it's not written in a child's point of view (it's in omniscient point of view). It actually starts with the point of view of adults, and one of them isn't too fond of Harry!

I recently read this first chapter to my daughter who is now the perfect age for a middle-grade reader (she turned 9 in October). She loves the Dork Diaries series, but I want her to love Harry Potter. So I started reading it to her because I knew if I left it to her, she would not connect with this first chapter. How many children have made their way through that first chapter of adult POV to get to the other side where we meet Harry as an 11-year-old boy because they knew how great the books are? Or they had seen the movies? Or someone read it to them? How can we be sure? But while I read the first chapter to Katie, she kept saying, "I'm confused. I don't understand. Where is Harry?"

Luckily for all of us, some editor at Scholastic Books saw the brilliance of the way J. K. Rowling wrote this book and let her break the rules (another rule she broke--the length--it is way longer than most middle-grade fiction books, even for the fantasy genre).

Now all of this is to say that these Cinderella stories do not happen very often; and if you are writing a middle-grade novel, and you are a new author without a big following, you should follow the rules! What are the rules? What are middle-grade readers expecting?
  • A point of view character who is around 12 or 13 and who is going on some kind of adventure without a lot of parental or adult help
  • A manuscript that is 30,000 to 50,000 words long
  • A problem that can be serious (although funny is also good in middle grade), but there would not be drug abuse, sex, or any other issue, like cutting, that might be the focus in a teen novel. An adult or teen character in the novel can have a problem like this, but it's not happening to the main character in middle grade. The main character is dealing with problems that kids have--crushes on the opposite sex, puberty, not fitting in at school, family drama, etc.
  • The novel begins with the point of view character in the moments of his or her life before the catalyst occurs and thrusts them into the events of the novel problem
  • Authors should not try to sound cool or use slang
The best way to figure this all out is to read a lot of popular and current middle grade books, so you can get a feel for the voice, characters, and the way problems are dealt with. Don't just remember your favorite books from your youth. Kids change, just like everything else, and so it's important to understand the genre today.

If you are a rule-breaker and you really believe in what you are writing, then I'm here to tell you that if you work hard, you may get a lucky break like J. K. Rowling, or you can self-publish and work hard to build your audience. However, to give yourself the best chance, follow those rules above. There are so many wonderful middle-grade novels out there with those rules, and they exist because kids like to read books with them. Middle grade readers may not be able to tell you those rules--they just know what they like.

As for Harry Potter, I'm so excited we are reading these books together at this point, and I can't wait to share the love of this rule-breaker with my daughter.

Join Margo's WRITING MIDDLE GRADE AND YOUNG ADULT FICTION: A STUDY AND WORKSHOP online class which starts on Tuesday, January 21. To read the syllabus and register for the class, click this link. Margo is the author of the middle-grade novel, Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg, published by White Mane Kids. She is currently working on a prequel to the book. 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Maargo--Because I inhaled every one of the Harry Potter books, beginning the day they went on sale (I'd read all day, into the weekend, until I was finished), I forget they are MG novels.

Just don't let your daughter watch any of the movies until you're finished with the series, because everyone knows Hagrid is one of the best characters in the books, and everyone also knows that the movies did a horrible job of casting an actor to play Hagrid who looked nothing like Hagrid and sounded nothing like Hagrid, which of course ruined the movie-watching...

Oops. I went on a tagent. I'll get back on track. Thanks for the reminders about MG novels. Another oops. Since my main character in my WIP is a cutter, I guess I'm writing a YA instead of a MG. Oh well... And enjoy a second go-around with Harry Potter. Sharing it with your daughter makes it a priceless experience.

Cathy C. Hall said...

I've heard the (American publisher) editor for the HP books speak (and give a workshop on writing novels) and she's the first to harp on that rule-breakingness of HP. To wit, don't write your MG, breaking all the rules because JK did it and look where she landed! That was a one-off and you're so right (and her editor agrees!) that for most of us, it's much better to follow the main rules about MG. And if you want to go rogue, give editors a really unique concept!

Y'all enjoy the read!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

You know what they say - you have to know what the rules are and why they are there befure you can break them and make it work. Clearly, she made it work again and again.

Margo Dill said...

Sioux: I'm interested in the main character in your cutting novel--how old? Of course, you will find that there are kids who cut probably much youger than we want to know. I think the point is that when you hear "middle-grade" you aren't thinking of necessarily "edgy" books. However, I heard a podcast the other day about a middle grade book that is supposed to deal with very tough subjects and there was much debate as to where to put it YA or MG, and they finally went with MG. I got it from the library because I am so interested to read it. The title is Everlasting Nora if you want to check it out.

Margo Dill said...

Cathy: Is that Cheryl Klein? (I have also heard Arthur Levine talk--and Cheryl too--fascinating, both of them, in my opinion).

Sue: Right. Just right. :)

Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top