Hope and a Happy Ending (or, How to Write for Younger Readers) by Emma Read

The Age of the Age Range

Young Middle Grade, early readers, chapter books? On the 5-7 shelf in WHSmiths, or the 6-8 shelf at Barnes and Noble? Where do they fit, and who are they for? Well, according to Caroline Abbey, senior editor at Random House: ‘Chapter books are … where a love of independent reading is born’. So wherever you decide to put them, they’re important. I’m going to stick with the term YMG and avoid assigning an age range at all – these versatile little books are for everyone, and have broad appeal:

  • They make great ‘grown-up’ bed-time reading for young children (it’s next-level stuff, to pop a bookmark in and know that more is coming the following night.)
  • They transition children smoothly from the cocoon of school levelled-reading to the glamourous world of true MG, where many an over-enthusiastic reader has floundered trying to read too much, too soon.
  • And once a child becomes a confident reader, YMG can provide a break from the drama and complexity of a 300+ page novel, a safe place to return to – what adults might call a guilty pleasure, but without the guilt.
  • (also, adults love them too – I often pick up a Dahl, Dick King-Smith or Chris Riddell)

Easy Reading, Easy Writing?   

In many professionals’ opinion, YMG is the hardest category to write for, ‘…you are writing for kids who are just learning to read on their own [and] it’s incredibly important to create a book that will encourage them,’ says Abrams editor, Erica Finkel (https://twitter.com/ericafinkel?lang=en)

It’s a tough balancing act– to write using a simpler narrative suitable for an emerging reader, whilst carrying three dimensional characters, convincing dialogue and a sophisticated and captivating plot. As we’ve seen, they need a wide appeal, while holding true to the core reader, and it can be all too easy to slip into the more complicated prose style of older MG.

Tips of the Trade – Some advice I’ve gathered while writing YMG

  • Focus on action and dialogue– these are the doors into your character for young readers who aren’t yet proficient in subtler indicators, like body language and emotion
  • But, go easy on the dialogue! Too much will slow the pace, and paceis everything. Use dialogue tags so it’s clear who’s talking (don’t be shy of ‘he said, she said, they said’) 
  • Limit your number of characters and (like any book) they must be well rounded and believable
  • plots are generallylinearfor simplicity, with no, or few subplots
  • YMG will usually be illustrated at some level. Consider the visuals – what will make great line drawings?
  • Your words need to work hard, while remaining simple and concise – be mindful of word choice, but don’t talk down
  • Limit description. Younger children will fill in the gaps in with their imaginationand description can, again, slow the pace. Young children are more likely to put a book down and do something else if they are not fully engaged.
  • Keep in mind your audience. YMG is designed to be read by children and adults to children
  • Voiceis (as always), key. YMG books may be read aloud, so can’t sound boring.
  • YMG can tackle important themes, but make sure these are age appropriate, such as fitting in, making friends, dealing with change, growing up, conquering fear, accepting ‘otherness’. Never preach or be didactic
  • Think about series potential and competition from series books
  • There is a debate surrounding bleak and ‘realist’ endings in kidlit, particularly YA. But for YMG it is important to have a satisfying resolution, a happy ending and a sense of hope and optimism

Skinny Spines and Series’

But it is worth it? YMG has a reputation as being a hard sell – they don’t stand out on the bookshelf, they’re drowned out by series’ and the quantity of illustration raises publisher costs.

Young Middle Grade is on the rise. MG continues to dominate the book fairs (at time of publishing), especially humorous, and there’s no age group that likes funny fiction more than the young reader. If you are drawn to write for this age group don’t be put off. It IS hard, and you WILL need to stand out, but isn’t that true of any good writing? And if you crack it you will have found your way into the hearts of young readers when they need you the most.

*‘Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.” – E.B.White

Links: 

https://www.independent.co.uk/extras/indybest/kids/best-books-for-4-to-7-year-olds-a7358921.html

http://lighthouseliterary.co.uk/blog/2015-11-15-how-many-words-are-in-a-childrens-book

Emma Read is the author of Middle Grade debut, Milton the Mighty – shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award, published by Chicken House in 2019. The sequel will be out in spring 2020. She is a mentor with WriteMentor Sparks and runs creative writing workshops for children in KS2.

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