Transitions. They are the name-of-the-game for middle grade authors and readers and the reason that I love writing for this age so very, very much.
Fifth grade was one of the most magical times of growing up for me. It was when I was introduced by my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Baughman, to books like Bridge to Terebithia, Matilda, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Trumpet of the Swan.
It was when my best friend and I made a fort in a small patch of woods, exchanged locks of hair and became blood sisters.
It was when my friends and I played MASH–You know, the Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House game with the hidden hope that maybe someday…someday…we would really marry that movie star and live in a mansion in Paris with four children.
It was when I sat on the ledge between my parents and my friends and decided on my own whose voice I would listen to.
Life was magical and confusing and filled with so much emotion on every extreme.
It was a delicate time when my friends—both girls and boys—were transitioning in so many ways.
And Middle grade writers, like middle grade readers must see the silly humor in boogers and farts as well as feel the intense pain of a lonely lunch table or a goodbye to a friend who is moving or the loss of a grandparent we never thought could die. Though Young Adult may be hot and show no signs of slowing down, we remain on the outskirts much like our readers themselves who hang in the balance between elementary school and high school, of childhood and young adulthood, innocence and experience, dependence and independence.
So how do we write stories for this age? How do we create stories that make them laugh and forget, that make them cry and remember, that make them look at the murky muddy mess of change and transition with hope?
We must approach our writing with 3 things as vital to our writing toolbox as the correct brand of jeans, the clean backpack, and the meticulously picked folders are for our audience.
And that’s the first thing we as middle grade writers must have when we write…respect.
Every event, every moment with friends, teachers, parents, family, or the first sparks of romance is felt at such an extreme with middle graders.
I remember waking up and feeling excited, despaired, annoyed, giggly, worried, hopeful, insecure, confident, dreamy, nightmarish, awful, wonderful ugly, beautiful, popular, unpopular, stupid, and smart, all within the first 15 minutes of walking through the heavy double doors of my school.
And all of those feelings were real and true for me and they are real and true for our readers at any given moment. So to have a teacher roll their eyes or a parent say “you’re just being emotional,” or another adult shrug off their feelings as silly is not only disrespectful, but it is hurtful and puts a wall in between us and our readers that may not come down.
No one wants their feelings to be laughed at, mocked, looked down on, or considered silly so we must be careful to treat our main characters and our audience with the respect that they yearn for and the respect they deserve.
And then we must remember our own middle grade years with perhaps not necessarily a fondness but with a profound respect—a respect for all that we went through and all that it helped us to become—good and bad.
Yep, we must respect our own middle grade years.
Oh yes, I said it. And that is the second thing we need to have as middle grade writers.
Cause how can we respect our readers, their feelings, and their experiences, if we don’t respect our own journey through the bowels of middle grade knowing that we made it through to the other side?
This, of course, means pulling out the hideous pictures of big bangs, perms, tight-rolled stone washed jeans and finding in them the beauty of what we went through of what our audience is going through now.
We must see our years as middle graders as kind of like a mosaic.
Bits and pieces of colored and broken glass put together in a way that you’d never think could be possible when you look at the mess on the floor.
We have to remember the bits of words—the ones that hurt and the ones that redeemed, the scent of the humid cafeteria, a fleeting vision of walking down the hallway either alone or accompanied on either side, a snippet of whispered dialogue of she likes me/he likes me.
Whether we like it or not, those middle grade memories, both ugly and beautiful, are a part of who we are and they always will be.
So what do we do with them?
As middle grade writers we must smile at all our broken misshappen pieces lying on the ground, pick them up and make a mosaic—a work of art—out of them.
And art that brings hope…cause that’s what those broken pieces represent, don’t they?
And that’s one of the aspects I adore most about writing and reading middle grade fiction is the hope that can be found somewhere inside. Hidden inside the wardrobe with a lion named Aslan, near platform 9 and 3 quarters, with a dog named Winn Dixie, a spider named Charlotte, and three unearthly strangers named Mrs Whatis, Mrs. Who and Mrs Which.
There is hope in the midst of that transition.
Like all of us, middle grade readers need hope and maybe they need even more than us since they are at a time when they are first learning to navigate all the tremors of life all on their own.
They need to know that “this too shall pass” that somewhere beyond their bickering parents, their broken hearts, or their ruined friendships that there is still hope and that yes, they can make it through this and they can overcome and come out on the other side.
We need to infuse hope into our novels, however thin a thread it may be, cause really it could be the thread that our readers hold onto and follow through the darkness of the cave until they are out into the light of day.
So yeah, those transitions are pretty important, deserving of respect. And they’re also the reason why I write and read middle grade fiction.