Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Insight Into the Middle Grade Market

Last weekend I attended the SCBWI Kansas chapter's annual conference. Titled "Let's Make Magic," with faculty that included editor Arthur Levine and authors Mike Jung and Jay Asher, it certainly lived up to its name.

While many of the presentations were very informative, I found one especially interesting. Literary agent Mary Kole gave an overview of the middle grade and young adult markets. Her information is included in her new book WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT (which I plan to purchase). But I want to share some of the highlights from her presentation (mainly because I'm a middle grade author!)

Overview of the Middle Grade Market:

  • A book's protagonist should be age 13 and under. Although the term "tween" books has become popular, a "tween" bookshelf doesn't exist. The market still divides it into middle grade and young adult. Middle grade readers read "up" so by having a 13-year-old main character, you will appeal to readers as young as age 8.

  • The average length for middle grade books is 35,000 words and shouldn't go higher than 60,000 words. While some kids at this age are voracious readers and can handle the higher word counts, many readers are reluctant (especially boys) so keeping word count shorter will help capture more readers. Both boy and girl readers fall into this age group so it's good to have characters of both genders. 

  • Fantasy and adventure books are the most popular in this market. Literary books do exist, but many agents/publishers are still looking for the commercial appeal that will sell. Series are extremely popular, but a first book that stands alone is a necessity. The story can have loose ends, but it needs to resolve itself emotionally at the end of the first book.

  • Middle grade language should not be edgy--it needs to be appropriate for the age especially since parents, teachers, and librarians still act as gatekeepers for this age group. Romance should be portrayed simply as sweet.

  • Historical fiction is welcome in middle grade, and "historical" now includes anything from the 1980s and prior! However, historical fiction only works if the time period is necessary to the story (if the story could be told during any time period, then make it contemporary).

  • Middle grade is a world of contrasts--kids feel the pull to have some independence but want to remain kids. Major changes are happening both physically (puberty) and emotionally. They worry about how others will perceive them.

There are just as many tips for the YA market, all of which can be found in WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT. Some of the information may seem obvious, but I think it's a great reminder of what middle grade authors should strive for when writing.

If you have additional helpful tips for middle grade authors, I'd love to hear them!

--KSR Writer


  1. Thanks so much for your post, Kathy! It's always helpful to hear a bit about how agents define the middle grade market. I want to add that my readers are telling me they really like the "sweet" relationship with my main character, twelve-year-old Jasmine and thirteen-year-old Cole in my upper middle grade, STAINED GLASS SUMMER. The relationship goes no further than a brief first kiss, and is more about the crush of the characters, and it seems to be a hit with readers!

    1. Mindy, it sounds like the romance in "Stained Glass Summer" is perfect for the MG market! Thanks for stopping by!