Sarah Davies is the founder of The Greenhouse Literary Agency, which represents authors of YA, MG, and picture books.
Sarah loves literary fiction with a strong commercial hook. Middle grade fiction is really the first that immerses young readers in new worlds and introduces them to empathy. These books often are among the most important people read.
We are in a fabulous, golden time for middle grade. Librarians and educators play a bigger role in linking readers with books, and it's sometimes a slow process.
How can you raise the level of your writing and make your manuscript stand out?
She has identified eight common denominators of great, salable middle grade. Here are a few things she looks for:
1. Know your market. What is middle grade? Her submissions inbox tells her a lot of people don't know what they're trying to do or who they're writing for.
At the younger end, it's chapter books that are typically 15,000-25,000 words long and illustrated with line art. Her client Tricia Springstubb writes these. They can be character led or concept driven. Clementine by Sara Pennypacker is an example. The Magic Treehouse is concept driven.
Novels for older middle grade readers run 30,000-60,000 words. (If it's longer, ask yourself why.) These core middle grade novels are about characters from 10 to 13, with a sweet spot of 11 to 13. THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE by Kat Yeh is an absolutely delightful middle grade that received a lot of buzz.
There's also a "tween" category that tends to be pinker and fluffier and deals with crushes, clothes, and friendships. Aladdin does this sort of book well.
2. Know your reader. How is MG different from YA? The YA protagonist is older, with a protagonist who is 15 to 17. But it's not just simply about age. The interior world of the pre-teen child is different from the older teen. If all good fiction has some rite of passage in it, the older teen's right of passage is "who will I be as an adult." For a middle grader, it's about firsts, the beginnings of finding an identity separate from your parents. Asking who am I, what am I?
3. Voice. Her client Mark Maciejewski had a funny voice. His submission needed work, but that voice struck her. Sometimes she can hear the adult behind the voice--and adult who is trying to remember how they think children sound. "Can you access the real thing? If you can, you're two-thirds of the way there. If you can an agent will spot you."
Let your voice shine through in the opening, rather than dumping plot info up front.
Read a lot and listen to children speak and understand their phrasing and logic. "You've got to develop your voice muscle."
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