Hello! Today on the Kid Lit Craft column I’m going to be covering my favorite of the many amazing types of kid Lit books: middle grade.
But first, what is middle grade? It’s not a name you hear often outside of the publishing world, and if you peruse your indie bookstore or local Barnes & Noble, you won’t find the section with these books titled that.
Instead, you might see them broken up into graphic novels, books by series, or young readers. And dang, you should check out all the amazing cover art for these books. I could go on and on about how talented the illustrators designing middle grade covers are.
But, let’s go ahead and dive right in.
Middle grade is the name given to books for 8–12-year-olds. It fills the gap between chapter books and young adult novels and offers young readers with budding tastes and advancing reading skills a broad range of beautiful stories from contemporary, to fantasy, to spooky, to verse novels full of poetry. Middle grade books typically feature characters the same age as the reader (that 8 to 12 range with the occasional 13-year-old in upper middle grade) and deal with subjects relevant to those readers.
Often, middle grade themes might explore a young character finding their place in the world as they grow up. Family and friendship might feature prominently. Middle grade is also becoming beautifully diverse with a wonderful rise in books about kids of color and their experiences and adventures. All in all, middle grade contains a wide array of adventures to enjoy. I’ve included a few of my favorites below, but please check out your local library and bookstore for yourself. You never know, you might find a new favorite!
Examples: Voyage of the Frostheart by Jamie littler, Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera, The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart, Red White and Whole by Rajani LaRocca, New from Here by Kelly Yang, Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston, The Warriors Series by Erin Hunter, Witchling by Claribel A. Ortega.
Word Count in Middle Grade
Word count for middle grade has a pretty wide range depending on the story you are trying to tell. As a general rule according to the Writer’s Digest and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for 2022, the typical word count for middle grade is between 22K and 55K. And while some recommend 35K as being the ideal word count, your word count comes down to whether you are writing upper middle grade or lower middle grade and whether your story is contemporary or fantasy/sci-fi. You see, there are nuances to these things that often go unspoken.
While all books are pitched to agents under the general category of middle grade, there are differences in books meant for 8-year-olds versus 12-year-olds, even though both an 8-year-old and a 12-year-old might enjoy the same book. A book geared mainly for an 8-year-old might be closer to that 20K to 35K range while one geared to a 12-year-old with a more complex plot would most likely hit closer to the 45K to 55K range.
Most contemporary books don’t require the extensive world-building that fantasy and Sci-fi stories require, so you should really stick to keeping the story under the recommended 55K. However, for fantasy and Sci-fi, you have more wiggle room in your word count and can stretch closer to 60K (70K at the highest).
Now, these word counts are the general guidelines for manuscripts. This may look different for final books since they have gone through extensive revisions and edits, so don’t go comparing your middle grade to the large tomes sitting on the shelves of your local indie bookstore.
I’m no expert on graphic novels, so I’m going to keep this section short. But I absolutely can’t leave this article without mentioning the beautiful rise of graphic novels for a middle grade audience. While some are headed by author-illustrators, others have a separate author and illustrator. Graphic novels are brilliant because they open up a whole new world of visual storytelling for young readers, especially those that might be more reluctant.
Here are a few of my favorites that I’ve read. This is only a small selection, and I highly recommend hitting up your local bookstore or library and checking out all of the brilliant graphic novels available there.
Graphic novel examples: Roll with It by Lee Durfey-Lavoie and Veronica Agarwal, Lightfall: The Girl and the Galdurian (Book 1) by Tim Probert, Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, Sheets by Brenna Thummler.
Good Resources for Middle Grade Writers
So, where can you go to learn more about middle grade and refine your craft? Here are a few great places to get you started!
The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein
Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. This book, while not directly related to middle grade writing, is a fantastic resource for plotting and revising your novel! I would also highly recommend checking out the resources on Jessica Brody’s website.
The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). This international organization provides so many resources for both new and experienced children’s book writers and illustrators. From virtual conferences, regional critique sessions, and The Book (a book created by the society full of agents, query suggestions, and manuscript formatting guides).
Reading lots of middle grade books. There is honestly no better way to learn about middle grade books than by reading them! Read in different genres. Just read. I can guarantee it’s one of the quicker and more enjoyable ways to improve your craft.
Phew! We’ve made it through all the kid lit I will be covering in this series. Hopefully, this gives you a jumping-off point if you are new to middle grade or new resources if you are already working away on a novel! Thanks for reading and be on the lookout for the next article packed with more kid lit tips and lessons.
Olivia Fisher is a children’s lit writer and freelance editor with an English degree from BYU-Idaho. When she isn’t dreaming about living in a treehouse or chasing down her two young boys, she enjoys curling up with a book, watching Star Wars, writing her next adventure, and trying to live in the state of child-like wonder that we all secretly, or not so secretly, miss. Follow her adventures on Twitter or Instagram, or hire her for your next editing escapade on Fiverr.