3 Key Components of Middle-Grade Novels

By Amy Fitzgerald, Senior Editor

I’ve been in a flurry of middle-grade manuscript acquisitions lately, which means I’ve been reading a lot of middle-grade submissions and buying some of my favorites. You’ll see them hitting shelves in a year or two, after the Carolrhoda book-making process has worked its magic.

Maybe you’re wondering how I decide which manuscripts I want to buy and publish. The answer is always shifting to some extent, but here are some constants that draw me to a story.

Characters on a mission

This is especially important in middle-grade novels. In YA, the plot can be murkier, because life tends to get more complicated and less clearly defined as kids become teens. But for characters between the ages of 10 and 14, a mission of some sort is crucial. It grounds the story, giving the characters something to work toward, question, succeed at—or fail at—and ultimately grow from.

A boy wants to escape his war-torn homeland and get his family to safety. A girl wants to earn a scholarship to high school while still somehow supporting her poverty-stricken, illness-ravaged family. A boy wants to overcome the obsessive-compulsive behavior that’s been his coping mechanism for his family’s losses. These aren’t find-the-buried treasure missions, but they’re compelling to an editor like me.

Characters facing real-life challenges

I read a lot of delightful stories—stories that are funny and fast-paced and sweet. But I don’t always try to acquire those stories for Carolrhoda. Not because they’re not good, but because Carolrhoda middle-grade novels need an extra element: an undercurrent of something real and difficult and maybe scary. This is the age when kids discover how their actions and choices impact their world—and the ways in which that world is beyond their control. When my heart breaks for a character, or when I’m holding my breath for them, I know that something true—something with weight and depth—is alive in a manuscript.

Characters who grow and change

There’s nothing more disappointing than getting to the end of a story and realizing the main character is still exactly the same. Even the most exciting adventure falls flat if it hasn’t shaped the character’s perspective on and approach to life–preferably in ways that readers can trace throughout the story. I don’t tend to look for one overarching lesson a character learns or one big answer they find. Instead, I look for gradual stepping-stone-sized growth—not all of it linear or positive—that makes them a deeper version of themselves at the story’s conclusion.

What middle-grade novels do you love, and why? Tell us in the comments!

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