So many editors and agents were talking about how boy middle grade is The Thing. It's what everyone wants. And since I happen to have an idea for a boy middle grade project, I thought I would attend a session on boy middle grade fiction with Courtney Bongiolatti, associate editor, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
What did I learn? Basically, middle grade boys like genre fiction, so it's good to be very specific about genre with boys. Middle grade boys are often much more reluctant readers, whereas girls will pick up anything. You need to know your genre in order to write for it and be successful.
What are the main genres for MG boy fiction?
- Action: No paranormal, no magic, just a regular kid who is in a crazy situation. Examples: Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz; H.I.V.E. series by Mark Walden
- Adventure: These books are different from action, though the genres are similar. Usually adventure is more based in reality. The main character is often not the cool kid with a lot of friends like they are in action - they’re still trying to figure themselves out while getting into a lot of trouble. Typically with action the kids are choosing to do what they're doing, but with adventure they were forced into that situation. Examples: Holes by Louis Sachar, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.
- Fantasy: Harry Potter changed the industry so much, particularly the MG fantasy genre. Often with fantasy there’s a great goal at stake other than your own life or your own happiness. Fantasy is also appealing to boys because they like the idea that one day it could be them fighting gods or becoming a wizard. A lot of readers of fantasy need that. But it still needs to be obvious why your character is doing that - what's the motivation? Harry found a home in his new world, even though it was difficult. Often fantasy readers are more shy, already more of a reader than say an action reader. You try not to generalize, but you still need to sit down and think about who the reader is. Examples: Harry Potter, Percy Jackson
- Mystery: This genre leaves room for a nerdy protagonist. a lot of times with MG, they don’t want someone nerdy for a protagonist, but in mystery it works. Often these kids who are already reading John Grisham’s adult novels, even at this age. The books take a lot of the aspects of an adult formulaic mystery novel and apply them to an MG book, which makes it comfortable for people who are familiar with reading up. Examples: Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer by John Grisham, Encyclopedia Brown
- Humorous Mystery: Takes the mystery and adds something most MG boys love - humor. Examples: Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs, Brixton Brothers by Mac Barnett (I have to add that Courtney said this one works because it's a humorous update to the Hardy Boys, where the kids are accidentally solving mysteries. So parents give their children these outdated Hardy Boys books, then the kids find the Brixton Brothers on their own which totally make fun of the books their parents loved.)
- Sports: These books can range from the simple to the complex, but always revolve around a sports story. They work well for a simple reason - 12-year-old boys love sports. Examples: Return of the Home Run Kid by Matt Christopher, Heat by Mike Lupica
- School stories: For MG kids, the classroom is their life. It’s their home. They are with those same students and friends all the time, so that’s who they hang out with. School stories are mostly set in the classroom; the characters are hardly ever seen at home. Examples: Frindle by Andrew Clements, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
- Historical fiction: One of the toughest sells in MG. You will often have girls who read it even if it has boy protagonist just because they like that genre. Example: Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
- Combinations: Use of graphics and text combined are growing much more popular with the male MG audience. Examples: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Invention of Hugo Cabret
- Relatable: There are a ton of books that deal with kids that are bullied, and that’s who your audience is in these books - kids who are being bullied. But you need to be truthful, particulary with the ending. Don't throw in a popular kid to widen your readership. the same thing with . that book is aimed at them, you’re not going to help yourself by throwing in a popular kid to widen your readership. Examples: Loser by Jerry Spinelli, The Misfits by James Howe, So Hard to Say by Alex Sanchez, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
- Out of the box: MG is a good place to experiment. It's a more difficult sell, but if the writing is good you can get an agent behind you. Examples: Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going, Staying Fat for Sarah Bynes by Chris Crutcher, I Am a Genius of Unspealable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb
- MG books should be aspirational
- They should have series potential. Editors often like MG series because it's so hard to find successful books for boys that they want to buy a series. Courtney's boss will almost always ask her, whenever she pitches an MG book, "Great, can it be a series?"
- Experience. MG boys will throw a book aside the second you get a word wrong or if a character is wearing the wrong thing. So you have to know everything - not just dialogue and what they're thinking, but the whole experience of being an MG boy. If you have sons or nephews or cousins, watch them.
- Honesty. MG boys don't want an after-school special. They want you to stay on-camera for the gross-out things. Don't write a book that caters to their parents, with light bulling and a lesson at the end. They want to see a book about what really goes on at their school.
- Voice voice voice voice voice! You can work on it by READING, especially aloud, just to make sure it sounds like an MG boy.