Why is middle grade so hard to get right?

I keep reading all over the web that editors and agents want great middle grade. But they also say, it is really hard to find middle grade with an authentic voice. A story they fall in love with that has the perfect combination of character, plot, and voice.

I wonder why.

I read a lot of middle grade. And YA. 

  • Some books I stop reading after a few chapters because the story doesn’t interest me at all. But kids might love it.
  • Some books I skim through big sections of the middle and read the end. And usually, I don’t feel like I missed a thing. But kids might love it.
  • Sometimes, I read the entire book but I put it down realizing kids would love this but something was missing for me. Usually it has to do with a slow pace or lack of originality. (And there’s the whole I’m a writer and so it has to be really good for me to love it.) (And there’s the whole reader subjectivity thing too.)
  • And sometimes I know from the first chapter, sometimes the first page, that I’m going to love this book. And I can’t put it down. And I recommend it to all my friends for their kids to read. And I tell my writer friends about it. I can’t help it. I still think about the story a couple years later and I reread it.

Why do you think middle grade is so hard to perfect? Or if you write YA – what is the last book that you absolutely loved and wish you wrote?

And talking about perfecting middle grade voice. Today is the last day to enter my middle grade book give away! Click here and enter!

17 Responses to Why is middle grade so hard to get right?

  1. Sherrie Petersen June 25, 2010 at 6:48 am #

    There’s some middle grade that I love that my kids aren’t really into. And others, like Percy Jackson, that our whole family enjoys. For YA, I just read Matched by Ally Condie and LOVED it!

  2. The Alliterative Allomorph June 25, 2010 at 8:50 am #

    I don’t write MG or YA, but I assume it might be because, you being an adult, the material doesn’t seem original enough. But for a kid, someone who hasn’t had the life experience you’ve had, I think it would interest them becasue they haven’t read about it, seen it in the movies, or lived any such thing yet.

    The books that obviously grab you, are things you’ve never read before, or perhaps conjured emotions you’ve never felt when reading before. But remember, there’s a first time for everything, and kids are going to expereince a lot more firsts than you are.

    I’m just speculating here, correct me if you think I’m wrong!

  3. Andrea June 25, 2010 at 10:36 am #

    An interesting question. I find that MG varies a lot in terms of how young the voice seems. It think it’s hard to capture a MG perspective when you’re an adult because your life experience gets in the way.

  4. Laura June 25, 2010 at 11:09 am #

    Sherrie – Trying not to be jealous – really looking forward to Matched!

    AA – Very valid point. I think that def. plays a role.

    Andrea – I agree life experiences are part of it too.

  5. Nelsa June 25, 2010 at 12:58 pm #

    I love anything by Louis Sachar – he’s done MG and YA and just nails it. I loved the first Percy Jackson book primarily for the voice and humour of Percy (humour that was left out of the movie which destroyed it). I keep shilling Flipped by Wendolin van Draanen because I loved the voice she gave to both the hero and heroine (so hard to do alternating POVs and do them well). I hope Rob Reiner doesn’t destroy the story in his movie adaptation.

    And the YA that hasn’t left my mind and that I wish I’d written is the Catching Fire series by Suzanne Collins. That one was just a driving plot, cliff-hanger endings and a tough, yet sympathetic heroine (love those).

  6. Laura June 25, 2010 at 1:59 pm #

    Thanks Nelsa – I also loved those books. And when translating a book with a great humorous voice like Percy over to film – it’s almost impossible!

  7. Laurel June 25, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    We’ve been enjoying Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Desperaux–and what I think she does well is layer elements that appeal to kids with ones that appeal to adults. Some of the humor is over the head of my 7.5-yo, but hubby and I have been riveted by it. My daughter is captivated by the underdog storyline.

    Maybe that’s the answer? I think MG books are more likely to be read-alouds to early readers, so the best books have dual appeal to the kids and the parents reading them aloud. Look at the Hobbit and Harry Potter–they also have that layering. I’ve heard the same about the Percy Jackson books.

  8. Laura June 25, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    Laurel – yes! I think mg books that appeal to both kids and adult are the ones that stay in print and become timeless! Kate Dicamillo is a perfect example!

  9. Andrea Vlahakis June 25, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    I think one reason may be that there’s such a spectrum of MG readers, from early books like Mr. Putter and Tabby, to HP, and everything in between.

  10. Vonna June 25, 2010 at 8:02 pm #

    So much of what editors consider to be the perfect combination of character, voice and plot are individual opinions. In the past few months, I have heard senior editors from the same publishing house give their opinions on the Artemis Fowl series. One loved them and said they were some of her favorite MG books, the other thought they were utterly humorless with an unlikeable MC.

    So who’s right?

    Personally, I thought they were great fun.

  11. Stina Lindenblatt June 25, 2010 at 10:25 pm #

    I write YA. I wish I’d written PERFECT CHEMISTRY, 13 REASONS WHY, the VAMPIRE ACADEMY series, any of Sarah Dessen’s book, etc. 😉

    (yep, no author envy here)

  12. Marcia June 26, 2010 at 5:20 am #

    MG can’t be too babyish and it can’t be too YA-ish. I think it needs voice and plot balanced. The ones that are “all voice” and no plot thread bug me to pieces, and I just got done throwing one against… er, I mean, taking it back to the library. Of course, the other extreme doesn’t work either.

  13. Dawn Simon June 28, 2010 at 5:52 am #

    I LOVE both genres, but have been reading way more YA than MG these days since that’s what I’m currently writing. I think both genres are a challenge because we have to nail everything in only so many pages while competing with all the distractions teens and tweens have these days. A couple YA books I love: PAPER TOWNS by John Green and WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED by Judy Blundell.

  14. kris June 28, 2010 at 10:01 pm #

    I love Upper Middle Grade almost more than I love YA — and at the moment I write mostly YA. I think YA draws a lot on romantic elements (if not romance outright) and coming of age, which done well, is poignant and heart-breaking. Upper Middle grade seems to be smarter sometimes, to me, because the protags aren’t distracted by hormones. One of my favorites is The Time Travelers by Linda Buckley-Archer (an awesome and very smart book). When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is also a good example.

    Good question Laura!

  15. Susan Kaye Quinn June 30, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

    What a great question!

    First, I really enjoy MG books, but they have to be the upper MG, longer books. And that’s the kind I aim to write.

    Ones I loved: Artemis Fowl, Leviathan, Lemony Snicket, HP, the list is endless

    And yes, there were several where I was like, Huh? This is really, really, not so great.

    Part of the challenge of writing MG, IMHO, is that it is pure storytelling – no sex and violence and internal endless monologue and angst to drive the story along. Think about it: eliminate all of those items from adult (or young adult) novels and what do you have left? Not much.

    So having a compelling story, and getting that wide-eyed innocence right in the MC and the tone just right … I think there’s a reason there aren’t a lot of great MG books. They really are difficult to write.

    Still, going to try! 🙂

  16. Kerrie Flanagan July 1, 2010 at 4:27 pm #

    This is a great question. I agree with Susan, a good MG book has to focus on the story. And like Andrea said, we can’t let our adult life experiences muddle up the writing. I guess the key is to channel our inner tween and go for it!


  1. And we have some winners! (And some answers about writing middle grade) – Laura Pauling - June 28, 2010

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