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Are Middle Grade Authors Getting It Wrong?

This past summer, a discerning teenage journalist wrote an article outlining the reasons she doesn’t enjoy YA novels. I read through the list, nodding to myself as she ticked off many of the most common tropes of the genre, then summarily destroyed each one as outdated, reductive or just plain farcical.

The article caused a lot of YA authors I know to reflect, and a few to panic. Were they really writing books for the enjoyment of young adults, as their Twitter bios proudly stated? Or had their writing careers just been one prolonged exercise in misguided appropriation of youth culture for the sake of self-gratification? Gulp.

I rejoiced in seeing the article so widely shared. Because the uneasy truth underpinning children’s literature is that we are adults writing for (and often as) children. Children’s literature is—at least in this day and age—mostly unique in this aspect. That is, it is written pretty much entirely by one group of people for a totally different group of people. What makes this dynamic all the more precarious is the marked imbalance of power between the adult creators and the child readers.

This imbalance makes it essential for authors to seek out opportunities for meaningful input from young readers. And it means that when they talk about what they love and hate and want and don’t want in the body of literature that is nominally theirs, we should probably listen.

So when, during a Skype Q&A with the Chapin School Mock Newbery Club last fall, a student asked me about my pet peeves for middle grade books, I was quick to turn the question back on her.

To my surprise, this sparked a conversation in which practically every student at the table began to voice their grievances with middle grade books. Most of them didn’t even have to think about it. It was like these dedicated readers had just been waiting to spill to someone what they really thought of the books that filled their library and classroom shelves. I nodded along, but in my head, I was taking furious mental notes and wondering if my books would measure up.

Later that day, I wrote to their advisor, Natasha Goldberg, and asked if her club would write out their pet peeves and allow me to publish them here. Fortunately for me (and for you, fellow middle grade author!), they did. Brace yourselves, authors, and read on below, where I’ve loosely grouped pet peeves into categories and lightly edited them for clarity.

One final note before we get to the good stuff: children need all kinds of books, written by all kinds of people. They need books to make them laugh as well as books to make them cry. They need long books and short books, poetry books and picture books. The children quoted here are self-identified readers at an all-girls, high-performing private school who are interested in books that they think could meet Newbery award criteria. They don't and can't speak for all child readers everywhere. With that important caveat in mind, I think you'll find that many of their insights are valuable to apply to any type of children's fiction. In other words, these ladies just give darn good writing advice!

Click Bait

One of the most common (and serious) charges levied at middle grade books? False advertising. Or, as one fifth grader succinctly put it: “Click bait, meaning that the back cover is really cool but the rest is boring.”

Other readers wrote that they hated it when…

“…the author tells the reader something in the description of the book and then it does not happen.”

“…you check out a book or even buy it and it looks very good because you looked at the first few pages, but when you actually read it it’s very boring.”

“…you’re at the bookstore and you see the back of the book and it looks so good but when you buy it all that happens is what is on the back.”

In sum, kids know when adults have lured them into books under false pretenses. But often times, they don’t find out until they’ve already used their allowance to buy it, or chosen it as their library book for the week. And then they feel tricked, as well they should.

Means to an End

For other readers, it wasn’t that the description didn’t match the book. It was that there was a disconnect between the beginning and the end. Turns out middle grade readers don’t much like it when…

“…you think the author is going to do something so you read the whole book, then when they don’t do it, you’re just sad.”

“…there’s something that is really obvious that you can predict and then the author does not make it happen.”

“…the book builds you up to a great ending and then the ending lets you down so much.”

“…the author puts the most exciting part at the beginning of the book and then the end Is so lame.”

“…the beginning is amazing and the end is terrible.”

Uh, oh, authors. It seems some of us have been phoning it in for those last fifty pages. Which goes back to those false pretenses. Kids know what foreshadowing is. They study it in upper elementary and middle school. If you’re foreshadowing something that doesn’t happen, they’re going to want their money back.

But don’t be too heavy handed, folks, because readers also don’t like “when the book is way too predictable.”

Good point. Who does? And yet I do read a fair amount of middle grade books that leave little of their ends to be imagined by the time I get to the halfway mark. My guess is this is because so many of us fall into the trap of thinking that young readers aren’t smart enough or paying close enough attention to figure out what’s coming next.

But if I learned one thing from this group of readers, it’s that we shouldn’t underestimate their intelligence or their critical thinking skills. This is particularly true, it seems, when it comes to…

Character Development

Remember all that stuff you heard from your MFA program/favorite writing guide book/critique partner about the value of creating well-rounded, complex characters whose motivations drive the stories? Turns out, all that stuff was actually true!

Readers wrote that they were turned off by a story when…

“…the writer is afraid to let a kid talk to an adult when if they did the whole problem would be solved.”

“…there is a cliff hanger but [the author] moves on and leaves the character stranded.”

“…a character has a skill or talent, and when they get put into a situation, they go down the long road instead of using their skill.”

“…there’s too much black and white and not enough gray”

“…a character is able to do something but does not think about doing it.”

“…characters have no personality, you can see that the character has potential but they are not developed.”

“….the author describes the setting well, and then forgets about describing the character!”

“…there’s a lack of back story.”

These readers know when a character has been the victim of lazy plotting. What's more, they don't want caricatures. And they actually like backstory! I’ll admit I've had doubts, as I suspect many of us have, about whether readers were able to really value complex characters and character-driven stories, in this age of branded and commercial fiction. So these critiques were music to my ears.

You know what I didn’t hear, not once? A reader complaining about being challenged too much. No one protested about authors spending too long describing the character, or having too many flashbacks. Or not being able to follow what’s happening in the story. One reader actually complained about books in which…

“…the author thinks the kid can’t handle hard words and the book has too easy words for the reader.”

Hear that guys? This set of readers--who, again, don't represent all readers--want us to trust them. Trust them with words that will enrich their vocabularies (with maybe a few well-chosen context clues to help them figure those words out). Trust them not to get bored with character-driven stories. Trust them with storylines where not all the action is packed into the first few scenes, but that offer a well-paced build up to a rewarding end (but a last word of caution from one reader, who warns that it peeves her when “the plot turn doesn’t happen until the end”).

I think the other thing readers--and I feel comfortable saying all readers here--really want is to be able to trust us. The authors that are supposed to write for them. They want to trust us not to sell them snake oil or insult their intelligence. Not to write flat or stereotyped characters. Not to build them up if we know they’re going to be let down.

Easier said than done, right? Writing is hard. None of us set out to write a book with a lousy ending. But kids (for the most part) don’t get to write books that show up on library and bookstore shelves. We do. So the least we can do is ask ourselves, when we reach the end of a draft, if we’ve done our very best for young readers.

When you think about it, that’s not so much to ask.

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