One of my most vivid memories as a child is sitting in my closet with a blanket and pillow and reading some of my favorite books. Back then I didn’t know stories like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Bridge to Terabithia were considered “Middle Grade.” All I knew was the characters spoke to me in a way that transported me out of my home in California to an amazing new land. What pulled me in and kept me reading? The “voice” of the characters.
Today, I’ve asked writer, Melanie Conklin, to share what she thinks is key in developing that all important “voice” in Middle Grade literature.
Finding Middle Grade Voice
By Melanie Conklin
Middle grade stories come in many different forms and genres, but they all share one common quality: middle grade voice.
Voice is commonly defined as the individual writing style of an author, but in middle grade, that writing style has a specific feel. What is it that makes middle grade voice unique, and how do we identify it? I’ve discussed this question often on twitter, in forums, and with my critique group, and the one thing we can all seem to agree upon is this: middle grade voice is hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
While that’s not the most helpful conclusion I’ve ever coughed up, it does remind me of my days in design school, when I failed miserably in Art History because I couldn’t tell a Monet from a Manet. I spent hours at the library. I made flashcards. And I still bombed, because I was trying too hard to define the paintings. According to my professor, artists had flavors, not definitions, and the only way to know a Monet was to study Monet as a whole, so that I could recognize his paintings when I saw them.
So, I’m taking my professor’s advice again here. I’m not going to catalogue the hallmarks of middle grade voice for you today. Instead, I’m going to help you find middle grade voice as a whole, so that you will know it when you see it (even in your own writing).
Tap into Your Past
The first step to understanding middle grade voice is reading a ton of middle grade. Most of us did this back in elementary school and middle school. Try to recall some of the books you read and take the time to re-read them with grown-up writer eyes. Not only will you see the mechanics of the writing, but you will also recall your feelings from the first time you read the book. This feeling is part of what makes middle grade voice unique: a sense of wonder and exploration, daring and discovery, and genuine, uncalculated emotion…these are qualities of a good middle grade voice.
A Wrinkle in Time: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Holes: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”
The Secret of Skeleton Island: “The Three Investigators made their way into the old cave.”
Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
Now that you’ve tapped into your perspective as a child reader, it’s time to get caught up on the current middle grade market. I find that today’s middle grade is just as direct, humorous, and honest as classic middle grade, but with an even broader topical range, especially in the contemporary genre.
As you read current middle grade offerings, I suggest you read the passages aloud. Listen to the rhythm of the sentences. Pay attention to the word choice. Notice the sentence, paragraph, and chapter length. And above all, feel the flavor of the voice: can you imagine speaking to the narrator? Do you know what they look and sound like? Do you see them as a fully formed individual, with a life that existed prior to this story?
When You Reach Me: “So Mom got the postcard today.”
Slob: “My name is Owen Birnbaum, and I’m probably fatter than you are.”
Gregor the Overlander: “Gregor had pressed his forehead against the screen for so long, he could feel a pattern of tiny checks above his eyebrows.”
Don’t Try Too Hard
Once you’ve refreshed your brain with a bunch of middle grade reads, notice which books keep talking to you. That is the middle grade voice you hear most clearly. Read the opening chapters of that book again, aloud, and then ask yourself: what does my character have to say?
Don’t write down what you think your character should say. Try not to control too much in terms of story and pace and showing versus telling—that can all be fixed in revision. In the first draft of any story, our goal as writers is to tap into our character’s voice. Let your character speak to you about whatever comes to mind. When it comes to words, take the path of least resistance to reveal your character’s natural voice.
If immersion doesn’t spark the voice in you, look back at the qualities we have assessed while reading, and build a similar wealth of knowledge about your character: list their wonders and fears, their dares and discoveries, their emotions and looks and sounds. Often, when we struggle with voice, it’s because we don’t know our character well enough. You must invest time getting to know your character before they speak to you.
Middle grade stories capture that magical time in our lives when we begin to awaken to the ways of the world. I hope these tips help you give voice to that magic!
Melanie Conklin is a MG & YA author represented by Peter Knapp of Park Literary Group. In between books, she spends her time doodling and chasing after two small maniacs. She is also a founding member of Kidliterati.com, a group blog that gets to the heart of kidlit. For more on Melanie, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.