Guest Blogger: Barbie Jo Mahoney

20 Jan

Tips on writing Middle Grade

Hi Everyone! And thank you to Gem State Writers for having me here today! Middle Grade fiction is finally getting the recognition it deserves in the industry by touching those very impressionable readers. What a prime opportunity to hook a young mind on reading! But it’s tricky.

Middle Grade encompasses the 4-7/8th grades. And that’s an upper level 4th grade reader. 8th grade, I believe, is where you will get readers who are content with the “easy yet entertaining read,” and those who are first delving into the throes of tween fiction and young adult fiction. So while you don’t want to talk down to your reader, it’s important that you’re not writing way above their heads either. Vocabulary plays an important role. Putting in a big word every now and then is fine as long as there are context clues to help them figure it out.

I started out writing adult contemporary romance. A lot of the feedback I received from contests was that my heroine seemed immature. Well, okay, she was a 20-something young woman. What did they expect? Then I received some Young Adult books at a conference I attended. I devoured them, and thought that if my heroines were immature maybe I was writing in the wrong genre? So I gave YA a try.

Only I’m not a YA writer. What I thought was YA, turned out to be Middle Grade. In Middle Grade, your characters need to be between the ages of 13-16, YA is 17-21. YA topics tend to be edgier, sometimes gritty, although they can be funny. When you look at the YA books on the shelf, a lot of them deal with current issues plaguing our teens. There is a TON of drama and angst. I just can’t write that. As much as I would love to, it’s just not who I am. I’m light and funny and emotional, but not in a deep dark way. Obviously there are other YA topics and stories that are paranormal, sci-fi, etc… but there’s a different feel to a YA story. I think as a writer you either have it or you don’t. That’s not to say you can’t have a serious issue in a Middle Grade book, you just have to watch how you present it. And as you know, a Middle School student’s issues are different than a High School student’s. Oh, there’s drama…Middle School kids just look at it differently.  Always keep in mind the age of your reader.

Voice is huge in a middle grade book. You don’t want your characters sounding too juvenile, but you don’t want to have them sounding like they are going off to college either. If you have middle grade kids (or know someone who does) listen to how they speak, watch how they dress. What are their favorite pastimes? Try to avoid “fad” words that will eventually date your book. When I first started writing middle grade, I made the mistake of using slang from MY era (the lovely 80’s). I just thought back to when I was in 7th grade – how I acted, what I said. When I let my kids read it, they had no clue what I was talking about. Of course my CP hadn’t had any issues….cuz she was a child of the 80’s too! Of course, there are some words that are universal and will always be around. The best thing to do is find a Beta Reader in the age group so they will catch anything that isn’t working. Beta Readers are great, and they can even be helpful in brainstorming (gotta love those young, creative minds)!

Keep the premise easy to understand, yet entertaining and unique.  You want to suck them into your story so they will be begging mom and dad for the next book! Thinking series with Middle Grade, in my opinion, is essential. Keep them turning the page and wanting more. Think of a unique idea and expand upon it. Young minds love world building and adventure. Some even want their first taste of romance…that first, sweet, innocent kiss. I love writing about crushes! There’s something about that innocence that inspires me to write young love! And in a MG book you have to keep it clean!  I find it refreshing to write for a younger audience.  When I have to switch gears to write adult romance, it’s another refresher. Writing in both worlds is a lot of fun and very fulfilling.

If you’re up for the challenge, then give writing MG a try. You might find yourself in a new genre!


Posted by on January 20, 2012 in Idaho



13 responses to “Guest Blogger: Barbie Jo Mahoney

  1. Johanna Harness

    January 20, 2012 at 5:59 AM

    Great description of the differences between YA and MG. I’ve written both and found myself nodding as I read. Thanks for blogging for GSW today!

    • Barbie Jo

      January 20, 2012 at 8:00 AM

      Thanks Johanna! I’m so happy to be here.

  2. Liz Fredericks

    January 20, 2012 at 6:38 AM

    Thank you so much for this information. I’m still fussing out the nuances of genre and really appreciate your description. Thank you so much for blogging with us!

    • Barbie Jo

      January 20, 2012 at 8:04 AM

      Hi Liz! Sometimes I feel like I’m all over the place. I will come up with a really interesting premise and think “oooh, this would make a great YA”, but then no matter how much I want it to be – my voice is still MG. I’ve found if I fool my mind to think I’m writing adult romance, I could pull off the YA – but then I feel like I’m putting my characters in too “adult” of a situation. So I’ve come to the conclusion I jump from MG straight to Adult Romance. LOL. Maybe someday I will find that YA ground.

  3. ramblingsfromtheleft

    January 20, 2012 at 7:52 AM

    Barbie Jo, I enjoyed your post mostly because it reminded me of how my son read, what he read and his driving passion for reading. It also brings to mind, how I selected books for both children. Of course, Judy Blume comes to mind. Her work begins as MG and grows into YA … Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, to Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. She also continued with other YA and then also light romance. I think if we look at the market today, we might well take a lesson from authors like Blume, Beverly Cleary, Madeleine L’Engle, and the wonderful host of children’s writers through time. Who did not love reading Charlotte’s Web to their kids, or introducing them to the love of fantasy with Tolkein? Each stage of child’s reading life brings new and exciting wonders and the voice and language as it evolves from MG to YA is a delicate issue writers and parents best address.

  4. Lynn Mapp

    January 20, 2012 at 8:08 AM

    Barbie, thank you so much for guest blogging at Gem State Writers. I really didn’t know the difference between MG and YA, and I should.

    • Barbie Jo

      January 20, 2012 at 8:20 AM

      I’m thrilled to be here, Lynn! many people don’t know the difference. I have to admit I didn’t until I started writing it. There are those fine lines between the two, but once you correct yourself so many times (like I had to) it eventually sinks in and all comes together. Like I said, it’s a refreshing change and if you ever want to switch gears for a while and challenge yourself differently, it’s a great way to do it. I always tell myself, I want to be the MG writer who writes a story and hooks that reluctant reader. 🙂

  5. Barbie Jo

    January 20, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    Originally my MG ideas were boy-based. I felt that a majority of the books out there were really written with young girl readers in mind. Aside from a few sports related books or some adventure series, I didn’t see much out there for the “guys”. At the time my boys were pre-teen, falling right into that upper MG relm and I thought how cool if I could create a series they would love. Of course, by the time I worked through it, they are long past that reading stage! LOL. My daughter on the other hand is right beside me now, helping me brainstorm! I love it. I was a huge Beverly Cleary fan growing up and re-read my Henry Huggins books to them when we’d go camping (yes, I had saved them!).

  6. Clarissa Southwick

    January 20, 2012 at 8:30 AM

    Barbie Jo, My daughter is in this age group and it’s really hard to find good books to read for her. Perhaps these wonderful tips will inspire someone to write another great MG series. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for your next book 🙂

    • Barbara Witek

      January 20, 2012 at 4:29 PM

      Thanks Clarissa. I agree, it is very hard to find books. While I don’t want my daughter growing up too fast, I don’t want her falling behind by reading something that is “too young” for her. She’s 12 and reading The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan and she loves it!

      Meredith, unfortunately I don’t have a book out. 😦 I had an offer for my MG series, but after careful consideration and much disappointment, I walked away. Sometimes you have to listen to your gut, even if it takes you away from your goal – there’s a reason. BUT…. I’m working hard on finding another publisher for it, so fingers crossed.

      In the meantime, look up Kari Lee Townsend. She will be re-releasing her MG Samantha Granger series. Her first book, Digital Diva, Talk to the Hand will be coming out soon and it’s perfect for that age group. My daughter was a beta reader for Kari, and she thought the book was awesome!

      I’ve enjoyed blogging with you ladies today! Thanks again for having me!! Friday is my blog day on Mysteries and Margaritas. If any of you would like to guest post/blog there, just let me know! Clarissa knows how to find me! 🙂 Have a great weekend!

  7. Meredith Conner

    January 20, 2012 at 11:35 AM

    Thanks for blogging today Barbie Jo. I hadn’t realized the definition for MG either. Thank you for defining that. I have a daughter who will be in the 4th grade next year and I’ll start looking for your books. She loves to read!!

  8. Mary Vine

    January 20, 2012 at 6:42 PM

    What a great age to write for. I liked reading about your journey to find out what you were born to write. I also really like how you are putting vocabulary words in there, because success in school these days has to do with learning vocabulary. Thanks for sharing your story.

  9. Peggy Staggs

    January 21, 2012 at 9:41 AM

    Barbie Jo, very interesting. Our son was a veracious reader when he was in school (and still is), the problem we had was finding suitable books for him to read. I’m glad the genre is expanding the way it is. If we get them started early, they’ll be readers for life.


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