In my experience, middle grade voice is one of the most difficult to get right. Young readers can instantly pick out a voice that isn’t authentic. If it sounds too young, it may seem condescending to readers, but if it sounds too old, it won’t be accessible. After years of working on middle grade voice, here are my tips for writing it authentically:
- Read MG books
This should go without saying, but make sure you’re reading a lot of recently-published middle grade books. Middle grade has a voice that’s completely different from any other category, so you can’t pick it up from YA or picture books or anything else. And I say “recently published” because market trends change, and it’s important to be familiar with what’s being published today. Familiarity with the classics is always good, of course, but they’re no substitute for recently published works when it comes to learning voice.
- Listen to MG kids
Listen to how kids in this age group (generally ages 8-12) speak. The key to being authentic is knowing what the voice ought to sound like. Voice can range even among kids within this age group; a book narrated by an eight-year-old is very different than one by a thirteen-year-old. The best way to pick up on these differences is to pay attention to how kids speak.
- Use humor
Humor is often an important aspect of middle grade books. Even MG books on serious topics usually still incorporate humor in some form. While you’re reading all those middle grade books, as you should be doing per tip #1, pay attention to how MG authors incorporate humor in their work. Don’t be afraid to be silly or goofy!
- Don’t be flat
The voice must be engaging, not flat. This is true of books in every category, but it’s especially true for MG. Middle grade readers don’t want to listen to something that drones on; the voice must be compelling enough to grab their interest and keep it. Let your character’s personality shine through to keep the voice from being dull.
- Don’t preach
Middle grade kids are really resistant to books that feel “sermon-y” or focus too much on the lesson they’re supposed to learn. Stating the lesson outright is likely to alienate readers. Focus on the story you want to tell instead of the lesson, and trust kids to figure out the meaning themselves.
- Think about word choice
I don’t mean to suggest here that young kids can’t handle big words, or that middle grade books should be written down for their readers. But when thinking about authenticity, it’s also important to think about specific word choices.
Say that you’re writing in the first person from a ten-year-old’s point of view, for example. Let’s start with this sentence: “The room was ostentatiously decorated, full of antique furniture and oil paintings in gilded frames.” That doesn’t sound much like a ten-year-old, does it? What if we change it to this: “The room was fancy, full of old furniture and paintings in gold frames.” This sounds much more like something a ten-year-old would say, yet it conveys a similar image. Words like “ostentatious” and “gilded” likely aren’t in a ten-year-old’s vocabulary, and while a word like “antique” might be, I think your average ten-year-old is more likely to say “old.” The structure of the sentence didn’t change at all, yet the voice sounds completely different. As for why I removed the word “oil,” that brings me to my next tip…
- Describe from kids’ point of view
When considering which details to include in a scene, keep in mind what your young character is most likely to narrate. Kids see the world differently from adults, and they notice different things. I removed the word “oil” from the sentence above, because a ten-year-old isn’t as likely to call a painting an “oil painting” as an adult is. They’d probably talk about the colors, or the image itself, instead. Where an adult might say “an oil painting in a gilded frame,” a child might describe it as “a painting of white flowers in a blue vase.”
This doesn’t mean that you have to simplify your descriptions or write down to your audience; it just means describing scenes in a different way, as seen through the eyes of a child. What’s the first thing they notice? What stands out to them? What do they think is important? What do they ignore? What do they find fascinating, and what do they find boring? Understanding what your character notices is just as important as how they describe it.
What do you think? Do you write middle grade? What are your tips for middle grade voice? Let me know in the comments!
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