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Who are today’s middle graders?

December 17, 2012

The days when middle-graders filled my home with noise, activity, and clutter are long-gone.  My middle-graders are adults now, with spouses and lives of their own.  I remember how my children acted at that age, what they were interested in, and what they read.  Does any of that hold true for today’s middle-graders?  Short of adopting a representative population (no, thank you!), I needed to find a way to get into the head of today’s middle-grade kids.

I have nieces and nephews whose children fall into my target age group (a lucky break for me), so I began observing what they wear, how they speak, and what seems to be important in their lives.  I watched how they interacted with their parents, their friends, and their siblings.

Never, ever feed them after midnight.

I watched middle-grade kids at places like the mall, the library, and the movie theater while trying not to look like a stalker or pedophile.  (Sitting on a bench, watching kids, and taking notes sometimes gives the wrong impression.)  I checked out stacks of middle-grade books (The Secret Garden, Hoot, The Graveyard Book) from the local library and rented movies for that age group.  I expected to see Night at the Museum and E.T. on the recommended lists, but others, like Pirates of the Caribbean surprised me just a little.  Would I have taken my kids to see it?  I remember the conflict we had when Gremlins came out, with the marketing ploy of those cute, innocent-looking stuffed animals.  I watched it alone in the theater and gave a firm “thumbs-down” to them when I got home.  My popularity rating plummeted.

Are today’s middle-graders more sophisticated and worldly?  There are more youngsters traveling across the country/globe than there were when my children were that age.  They have lots of electronic gadgetry that was nonexistent in my children’s world.  Yes, today’s middle-graders have all of this “stuff,” but underneath it all, are they still the same boys and girls as my kids were?  I’d like to think so.

So, I read and research.  Listen and observe.  I’m striving to find a balance between what their world is today and who they are underneath it all. I’d like to think that if you were to take away the trappings of today’s world, a girl or boy of eleven would behave pretty much like my daughter and son did at that age.

I’m planning to visit some middle-grade classes at the local elementary school and observe what goes on.  (Standing around in the parking lot or loitering in the halls will probably not bode well for me.).  Note to self:  Call first and register at the office.

I lucked out when I found an interested parent who encouraged her children to be my focus group.  I send a couple of chapters, a short comment sheet, and chocolates.  In return, I receive feedback from my target audience.  What a deal!

So who are today’s middle-graders?  I’m still not sure, but I’m having a lot of fun trying to figure it out.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 17, 2012 4:07 pm

    What fine questions you pose. Any middle AGE adult trying to write for a middle-grade audience faces what seems like the great divide between their own (or their adult children’s) lives and those of the current crop of readers.

    Right now, I’m reading a stack of books that I checked out from my library’s Young Adult stacks–and one of them focuses on a ten-year old protagonist. No sex, drugs, violence. No particularly literary language. Why then, is this a YA?

    Mis-shelved? Maybe. But that doesn’t help a writer figure out how to create stories for the middle grade audience.

    (Forgive the rant. It just felt like one more twisted thread in the knotty fabric which is the guidelines for writing for kids.)

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