Middle grade books: The magical world of the tween
Updated: Jan 4
Too old to be a child. Too young to be a teenager. The tween inhabits a small transitional space between two worlds. No longer interested in little kid stuff but not quite ready to confront the tumultuous rollercoaster of teenage identity, rebellion, sexuality, and choices. Often, the tween is like Goldilocks seeking a bed that fits.
This is the age I find most fascinating. This is when kids are impressionable, often unsure of themselves, both longing to and afraid to spread their wings. They’re experiencing changes in themselves -- physically, mentally, and emotionally. They often fret about being accepted by peers. I recall my own tween years as a time of freedom meted out by the spoonful -- stingily, I thought at the time, although hypocritically appreciating the parental protection afforded.
This is the time of the practice run, when kids can experience events in their imaginations before they need to face them in the real world. And this is why middle grade books are so important.
Middle grade books vs. Young adult novels
While there are books that sit on the fence -- mine included perhaps -- there are definite distinctions between books for 8 - 12 year olds and YA fiction.
YA tends to be grittier, suitable for readers who have matured enough to contemplate trickier subject matter. These books are generally longer and more explicit than the ones for slightly younger readers. The Novelry offers a clear and concise description of the differences, so I won’t go into detail here. Instead, I’d like to share the reasoning behind my own tween writing choices and what reactions I hope to inspire in young readers.
My tween fictional heroine: Sam
“… a winsome tween protagonist…”—Kirkus Reviews
As the Kirkus reviewer points out, my character Sam has an awful lot of responsibility for someone her age. I deliberately loaded her up with worries, so that the real-life concerns that tween readers face might shrink by comparison. I also gave her plenty of faults. She stumbles, get angry, doubts herself, and makes mistakes. She is fully human and (I hope!) relatable for tweens.
The tween and teen years are a time of intense brain development, so it’s not surprising that the sunny disposition of the young child is often replaced by moodiness and unpredictability. Experts stress that positive communication and influences are critical during this period.
“Adolescents are not just going through the physical changes of puberty but also making neural connections between different parts of their brain, wiring it for the rest of their lives,” says Ron Dahl, director of the institute for human development at the University of California, Berkeley.
He goes on to say: “The dramatic learning isn’t necessarily cognitive in the sense of remembering facts and figures. It’s more about social development and forming an identity. Kids learn to calibrate their feelings and navigate uncertain social situations.”
In my books, I put Sam in situations that are uncertain indeed. She meets people very different than herself -- Boyo, for example, who has blue skin and communicates with fish by wiggling his fingers. She faces danger, both physical and social. She has to confront her own insecurity and learn how to trust her judgment. Sam’s experiences -- shared vicariously by the reader -- can help build confidence, calmness, and kindness. Positive messaging can wire the brain for an attitude of positivity.
The power of fiction
Multiple research studies confirm what we intuitively know: Stories shape our thinking and our lives. Stories have been the essence of human communication since the time of the cave.
Why are stories so powerful? Fiction allows us to see the world through another person’s eyes. It builds empathy. It also helps reader develop cognitive and analytical skills as the brain works to fill in details and “see” the story. And there’s a strong argument to be made that fiction may provide more important benefits than non-fiction, according to Harvard Business Review. After all, who doesn’t remember characters from their childhood reading? And still feel empathy for the protagonist’s challenges, years later?
Straddling two worlds with Cli-fi
Just as teens straddle the space between childhood and teenage worlds, my Under-Under World series bridges the real world with a fantasy paradise -- a depiction of what the real would could be. I thought this was a useful metaphor for the tween existence.
Unlike dark dystopian fiction, my youth climate fiction is based on hope rather than despair. Yes, there are hints at looming real-world peril, but always within context of positive actions that can be taken. Throughout the books, it’s young people who make a difference. They face danger but dig deep inside to find the courage to soldier through. They cement friendships that can withstand the turbulence around them. They see not only obstacles, but possibilities. They imagine different, better ways of doing things.
Kids have brains like sponges and absorb new, positive information more readily than adults. Because they have limited experience, they’re less attached to old patterns -- and that’s a good thing, because we as humans really need to change our ways, particularly in relation to caring for the planet we call home. Kids -- and tweens in particular -- can often show us the way.
Explore the Secrets of the Under-Under World tween book series CLICK HERE