To Write for Middle-Grade Readers is to Write About Elsewhere
We’re not writing for us as we are now, but us as we were, or could have been, or should have been.
Bringing back any memories? Good. Technology changes and the climate changes, but the soul-crushing ache of transferring schools, the fear of being made fun of, and the hope when your crush looks at you and smiles—that doesn’t change. What experiences are pivotal to your character’s development?
In Washington, DC, I dreamed of adventure.
I was ten when I first flew to see my grandmother. My parents and my siblings stayed behind while I got to seek new lands, find new quests, and maybe eat junk food without the fear of stern judgment. Elsewhere was a row house deep in Anacostia, or a hot church on a Sunday morning while my grandmother sang hymns, or a water park my aunt and uncle took me to after an intense game of Duck Hunt. Elsewhere was a terrifying night of sleeping in a room by myself after spending all my previous years sharing a room with three other siblings. Elsewhere was my grandmother comforting me while explaining what “homesick” was while her stories played on the tiny television in the background. Elsewhere was an adventure, but I learned that for me, an adventure was better when experienced with others.
Exploration can reveal the interior. MG fiction is as much about the realizations we make inside our minds, between action and consequence, as it is about the progress we make outside. Maybe the real journey is the one we went on inside our heads; the tricky part is getting into the heads of our characters. Allow them to make choices we wouldn’t! We’re not writing for us as we are now, but us as we were, or could have been, or should have been. Write for the kid who doesn’t know the answers but does know anything is possible, and who explores until they either find the answer or stumble onto another adventure that is even more thrilling than the last. Find the journey pertinent to that particular character.
Adventure and exploration aren’t just limited to the grandiose either. Elsewhere can be found in the attic. At recess. Under the bed. The kid who tames the dragon and the kid who finally beats an older sibling in basketball both march into the kitchen triumphant and guzzle iced tea from a mug their mother told them not to use. It isn’t the scale of the journey to Elsewhere that matters, but its impact. What impact does your character’s journey have on them?
In Accra I dreamed of family.
I traveled to Ghana during my tenth summer. Well, maybe traveled is an emotionless verb. More like I was dragged kicking and screaming, protesting the injustice of a trip to the unfamiliar when the familiar had only recently become so. It was between my fourth- and fifth-grade years, and we left Wisconsin to O’Hare to Heathrow to Kotoka near the end of June. We were to spend a whole month with friends of the family for the next month. I can’t remember if I was horrified or excited (horricited?), but I do remember thinking that losing out on a summer of hijinks and shenanigans in my neighborhood was the worst thing imaginable. True censorship of fun.
And yet, Elsewhere emerged between the towering anthills I explored with my older brother and the youngest son of our host family, a boy who would become another brother, a new cousin, a best friend, and an undying companion. The three of us tracked geckos and fled from spiders. We watched movies and held dance-offs. We devoured chocolate and escaped the heat in the house of another boy who owned a Sega Genesis and Mortal Kombat II (Jax >>>> Johnny Cage, debate your ancestors). As a kid who grew up removed from extended family, I found the camaraderie and joy I’d feared I’d left behind in Wisconsin and carried home the knowledge that family can be what we declare it is, and that a neighborhood could stretch from the red clay of Accra to the gray cement of Milwaukee.
Find the journey pertinent to that particular character.
We enter the middle-grade era of our lives in an additive mode: Every encounter in life contributes to our worldview, or the way we process events through our lived experience. Logically it must, as we are consumers of stimuli from birth. But in our middle-grade years, we are that amorphous mass of putty within a cocoon, and those encounters with other people—the time we share, the things we learn, the hurts we feel, the joys we embrace—bring with them awareness and a near-daily revelation. How, as you’re writing your middle-grade story, does your character transform throughout the course of their journey to Elsewhere? How do they return? Do they even return?
I didn’t become a marine biologist. The ocean—as I tell students when I visit—is scary. But maybe somewhere else another child dreams of that too. Or they also dream of adventure, or friendship and family, or maybe they dream of a land called S’mores ruled by talking marshmallows. The point is that they dream. Write for that child. Maybe they’re your child; maybe they’re your inner child. But when we write middle grade, we should keep those readers in mind.
I write about Elsewhere, a fantastical place that transforms from space to a magical land with larger-than-life folktales to a realm between worlds. A place where the journey is just as much the point as is the destination. A place where everyone can access, is welcome, and is invited back. A place where bonds are formed and self is identified. Where even if you never make it, just the possibility of its existence creates wonder and sparks curiosity.
Kwame is a husband, father, writer, a New York Times bestselling author, and a former pharmaceutical metrologist in that order. His debut middle-grade novel, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, was awarded a Coretta Scott King Author Honor, and it—along with the sequels Tristan Strong Destroys the World and Tristan Strong Keeps Punching, is published by Rick Riordan Presents/Disney-Hyperion. He is the co-author of Last Gate of the Emperor with Prince Joel Makonnen, from Scholastic Books, and the editor of the #1 New York Times bestselling anthology Black Boy Joy, published by Delacorte Press. A Howard University graduate and a Midwesterner now in North Carolina, he survives on Dad jokes and Cheezits.