For our latest look at the middle grade category, we go straight to its source. We asked middle grade authors, some established masters and some who are newer to the scene, to share why they chose this discipline and what makes it special—and sometimes tricky to navigate.

“I peaked in middle school. Snort!” Lisa Yee (Maizy Chen’s Last Chance) says, reflecting on why she writes middle grade. “These are my people. Seriously, I totally identify with middle schoolers. When I think of my childhood, those are the years I visit most.”

Two-time Newbery Medalist and former national ambassador for young people’s literature Kate DiCamillo (The Beatryce Prophecy) notes, “I kind of backed into it; it’s what somebody once called serendipity-do-da.” Early on, she had been writing short stories for adults and submitting them to magazines while also working at a book distributor as a picker, pulling books from the shelves to fill orders. “I was assigned to the third floor of the warehouse, and that’s where all the kids’ books were,” she recalls. “As a reader, there was only a certain amount of time before I started to read the books that I was pulling off the shelf, and I read Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. I just loved it so much. It’s so warm and funny, yet it deals with this huge thing. Then I was off and running.”

Gordon Korman (The Fort, Scholastic Press, June) is another author who chalks his path to middle grade up to a happy accident—one that came along in 1978 when he was 14 years old and Scholastic published his debut novel, This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall. “I never consciously chose an age group,” he says. “My first book began as my seventh-grade English project, so I was just writing for myself and my friends at the time. The fact that it turned out to be a match for an age group that publishers were interested in was pure luck.”

In the view of Kwame Mbalia (the Tristan Strong trilogy), “There’s a point to be made about my maturity level somewhere in here, but it would be dismissive of how mature many middle grade readers are. And I think that’s the answer: I write for an age that is so fluid and dynamic, where we’re slowly becoming aware of the world around us and what we can—and can’t—control. It’s about finding agency at a time when we have the least amount of power and yet can recognize that fact.”

Author Sharon Draper (Out of My Heart) calls middle graders “the sweet spot.” To her, “the elementary group is a little bit young, and I don’t know if I could write for that age group as effectively. And high school kids have moved on. Sadly, many of them don’t even read anymore, which breaks my heart. But the middle school kids will read. And they get excited about books. They write to me; they’re enthusiastic. And I taught them for like nine million years, so they’re my people.”

Several authors we spoke with write other categories as well as middle grade, and they told us how they’ve learned to approach each one with a certain mindset. “I write for all age groups,” says Newbery Medalist Meg Medina, author of Merci Suárez Plays It Cool (Candlewick, Sept.). “When I decide to write for middle grade readers, it has to do with the sound of the character in my head, and also with my own feeling about the story that I’m going to write,” she adds. “When I’m thinking about a middle grade reader, they’re not really young and tender the way picture book readers are, for example. They’re not asking the vicious hard questions that we see in YA.”

Medina mentions some of the characteristics that help her envision her middle grade readership. “These are kids who are playful, who see the absurd things in the adult world, but sort of still need the adult world,” she notes. “There’s this in-between about them that’s really exciting and hopeful. It has a lot of potential for humor, for the ridiculous. And if that’s what I’m feeling inside, for the character, I tend to lean in to middle grade.”

Characters also lead the way for Laekan Zea Kemp, who makes her middle grade debut this fall with Omega Morales and the Legend of La Lechuza (Little, Brown). Kemp was selected as a PW Flying Start for her 2021 YA novel Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, and her second YA novel, Heartbreak Symphony (Little, Brown), goes on sale this week. “When I’m conceptualizing a story, the characters dictate so much in terms of genre, age category, themes, plot, etc.,” she says. “When Omega appeared to me, it was clear she wasn’t a teen protagonist. I’d already ventured into picture books at that point, although those projects hadn’t been announced yet, so it was really exciting to have this middle grade idea fall in my lap.”

Similarly, Kyle Lukoff—whose first middle grade novel, 2021’s Too Bright to See, was named a National Book Award finalist—found his way to middle grade through experimenting with other categories. “I tried writing young adult, and wasn’t especially good at it,” he says. “Then I tried picture books, and it turned out that I was pretty good at those. So, I was curious to try middle grade. I wasn’t sure at all, until reviews started coming in, and it seems like people think that I am good at it, so I will probably stick with it.” His follow-up middle grade title, Different Kinds of Fruit, will be released by Dial this month.

Already the creator of bestselling novels and comic books for adults, Marjorie Liu made her middle grade debut last month with Wingbearer, the first volume in a graphic novel series. “A child can bear witness to complicated truths,” she says of why she wanted to enter the middle grade realm. “When I was little, I was so aware of how beautiful the world is, how fragile and fleeting life can be. I’m sure if I were a kid right now, I would have called myself an environmentalist. On top of this, when I was around nine or so, I became specifically aware of the vulnerability of birds. I overhead an adult, maybe a teacher, talking about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and that if humans continued to abuse the planet there would be no birds left to sing.”

The impact of hearing those words was clearly lasting for Liu. “That was a profound moment for me that I think, unconsciously at first, helped inspire Wingbearer, which fictionalizes and makes a fantasy out of this fragility,” she says. “I wanted to write a book for that nine-year-old girl and others like her.”

“Hope and possibility”

“I love middle grade because I feel like it’s where characters are first discovering who they are in the world,” says Varian Johnson (Playing the Cards You’re Dealt), describing why he enjoys writing for middle graders. “They’re slowly being exposed to more experiences—and challenges—outside of their family. They’re also discovering that the world isn’t so black and white, and that everyone—parents, siblings, best friends, and even enemies—is nuanced. They’re beginning to see that no one is perfect, even themselves. And I think that middle grade books are the funniest books ever.”

Humor ranks high on Mbalia’s list of favorite things, too. “I love being able to seamlessly weave fart jokes into commentary on social issues,” he says.

Liu has embraced middle grade because “these are the years when the issues of life come lurching into sight,” she says. “It’s the age you become aware of mortality, and consequences, in the deepest meaning of the word. And yet, we’re still so connected to the imagination and wonder of our early youth. Middle grade readers are the contact zone between what’s so awesome about being young and what’s so challenging about growing up.”

Korman says he is drawn to writing for preteens because “this is the time when kids take control of their own opinions. Middle graders decide what they like—and what they don’t—and it has nothing to do with your teacher’s preferences or those great voices your mom does when reading aloud. I think that’s why so many adults who grew up with my books reach out to me on social media. The choices you make as a middle grader stay with you forever.”

Lukoff echoes many of his fellow authors in noting that exploring the inner lives of middle grade readers holds much of the appeal for writing in the category. “I like accessing the emotional range of middle grade,” he says, “from giddily delighted to utterly forlorn, which is always refracted through confusion and uncertainty, since kids that age are still relatively new to being people, and are in a very complicated stage of life. When I was a kid, I felt like being a kid was very hard and unpleasant, so I like writing characters who are doing their best during a time of life that is very brief but also formative.”

DiCamillo calls to mind the words of a middle grade icon in summing up what it is about writing for this age group that brings her joy. “Katherine Paterson has a great take on this,” she says, referring to an essay Paterson wrote for the New York Times Book Review in 1988 titled “Hope Is More than Happiness.” DiCamillo notes that she shares Paterson’s views on distinguishing a traditional happy ending to a story from a hopeful one. “I didn’t know it when I set out, but it’s like you’re duty-bound to end with hope,” she says. “I didn’t know that consciously, but I must have felt it. So, writing for this age group pushes me towards hope because I feel that’s what I have to do morally. And then also, I love that writing for this age group led to what I think of as a kind of peripheral magic. I think of it, oddly, as like The Borrowers. I read all the Borrowers books when I was a kid, and it changes how you walk into a room because if you think you see something moving, it could be a tiny little person. It’s that kind of thing out of the corner of your eye all the time when you’re writing for this age group, because anything is possible.”

Kemp says her middle grade project rose from what felt like a dearth of hope in the world. “I started drafting Omega during the summer of 2020 because I needed an escape, and it quickly became this playground where my imagination could just run wild, completely free from the stresses of daily life,” she says. “I needed that place to play. To experiment. To hope. And the more I wrote, the more that hope grew, which I think is at the core of what makes middle grade so special—there is this emphasis on hope and possibility and what could be if we just believe.”

In some cases, hope is a beacon leading authors to work through challenges that may arise within a story. Yee shared her recent experience: “In Maizy Chen’s Last Chance, Maizy’s grandparents own a Chinese restaurant that’s been in the family for over 100 years,” she says. “It has been targeted with hate crimes in the past—and in the present. I was watching the news during Covid-19, seeing hate crimes against Asians skyrocketing, and I channeled a lot of that into my novel. Then I was reminded who my audience was. Middle schoolers are so much smarter and more aware than people give them credit for. I realized that by pulling back and not centering the book on the hate, I could make a bigger impact. So, instead, I focused on hope.”

Liu similarly figured out how to bring a hopeful lens to writing about harsh realities she has witnessed. “We all draw from many parts of ourselves when we create, and half of writing a book is knowing which aspects of ourselves to restrain, and which ones to unleash,” she says. She recalled having to confront mortality at a young age. “It’s the unescapable fact that we’re mortal, our pets are mortal, this world is mortal. I wanted to write about this in a way that inspired hope and faith, and not dread. To do that, to write a book about the possibility of a threatened world, I had to practice a lot of restraint so that the grim didn’t overpower the hope.”

The kinds of writing difficulties that middle grade writers face are as varied as the voices spanning this category. Saadia Faruqi’s first middle grade novel, A Place at the Table, cowritten with Laura Shovan, explores the lives and budding friendship of two first-generation immigrants. As this tale hits very close to home, Faruqi encountered some creative sticking points along the way. “I’m an immigrant to the U.S. who came to this country as an adult,” she says. “I don’t have the frame of reference that my middle grade readers do. I don’t know how relationships work between adults and children here. Add to this the fact that I studied in a Catholic convent in Pakistan, so my biggest challenge has been understanding what middle school is like and what my readers face every day. From little things like what is homeroom, to big things like the subjects studied in sixth and seventh grade, it all seems otherworldly to me sometimes. I’ve faced this challenge head-on, however, by picking my kids’ brains until they are tired of me! I ask a lot of questions, show up at their school unannounced, check in with teachers and friends on social media. It’s all part of the research!”

For Johnson, the biggest challenge was letting go of the idea of writing a middle grade story that applies to every reader in the age range. “Some of my books, like The Parker Inheritance, are better for readers at the older end of the middle grade spectrum—others are better for younger readers,” he says. “I feel like I’m doing both the book and the reader a disservice by trying to be too broad. That being said, I always hope that my readers are open to trying a book—and then putting it down if they’re not ready for it.”

And Draper points to a larger overarching struggle that many authors feel. “The challenge is to write something that inspires them and encourages them and doesn’t bore them,” she says. “Something that keeps their attention. And as writers we have to be better and better because [middle readers] all have a phone and they spend so much time on their devices. And when they get home, they’re watching television. So I strive to capture something that will get them away from some kind of device and into an actual book with words.”

Like a number of her middle grade author compatriots, Medina has adopted strategies to navigate a range of ever-shifting writing roadblocks. “There are lots of conventions out there, including language—words that we can or can’t use,” she says. “And then there’s this whole movement of topics that people feel like, ‘No, we don’t want to touch that with this age group.’ ” But, she notes, “I try, as I’m writing, to resist all of those sorts of self-censoring conversations. I’m in the business of writing for children the truth about growing up. And the truth is that they’re here, and they see the world and they’re participating in the world.”

Medina adds that when she is in the zone writing a middle grade story, “I try not to censor the truth. Instead, I try to really be conscious of where they are, and ask myself, Is this the first time this reader is likely to experience this topic? Or, what is it from the point of view of someone who’s 11? What is the most important or impactful part of this subject?”

Medina sticks to her course when considering additional censorship pressures from the outside, too. “There will always be parents or teachers who feel we shouldn’t do this,” she says. “They have a very set way that they would like childhood to look and a set way that they want children’s books to look. The job is to artfully narrate and put down for kids the world they’re inhabiting, and then allow them to interact with that on the page and make their own conclusions and ask their own hard questions and agree or disagree with you. But it has to boil down to respecting the reader and telling them the truth.”