Thursday, January 16, 2014

Cliches in middle-grade books for reluctant readers, and why they need to go

I spent the past few years very focused on reading as much middle-grade as possible--especially middle-grade aimed at reluctant readers. You know, the not-so-fat books, books with more illustrations in them (like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, only not), books with bigger type, you get the idea. If you're going to write for a certain age group, you should read lots in that department too, I think.

So you'll routinely see me checking out stacks of middle-grade books at the library. It's nice reading, even if you're not eight-to-twelve years old. But as I read more, I also started noticing some cliches/trends.

Trend 1: Lots of smarty-mouth books featuring boys. Now, I can't say anything about the mouth business, because Linc has his share of attitude. But some of the attitude I see in these books is kind of... Disrespectful toward adults, or fellow kids that are portly/foreign/homely-looking. Maybe it's the parent in me, but I frowned at this trend. You can be a smart-mouth without being disrespectful, I think (hope).

Trend 2: In these same books, we're FOREVER AT SCHOOL. Wimpy Kid makes it work, but there's more to life than school, even if you're a kid who gets around on a bike or via parental transportation.

Trend 3: No plot. A smart mouth and middle-school detention does not a story make.

What's frustrating to me about these books is that I visit classrooms full of the intended readers all the time. We plot a novel together (loads of fun), and what strikes me every time is how smart, creative, imaginative, and positive middle-schoolers are. They deserve better books. Especially if they're reluctant readers, because how do we expect them to keep reading if all they get is books on boogers, farts, and snarky comments about odd kids?

The good news? There are a lot more books being published for middle-graders, and really GOOD books at that. Sure, many are still in the fantasy department, but contemporary fiction is represented too. Let's hope that we'll see fewer Wimpy Kid knock-offs (why try anyway? Jeff Kinney does such a great job), and more stories taking kids on adventures outside the classroom... More mysteries too, I hope.

What do you think? Are there any cliches you're sick of seeing?


  1. But some of the attitude I see in these books is kind of... Disrespectful toward adults, or fellow kids that are portly/foreign/homely-looking.

    Thank goodness someone is saying it. My oldest is four, and right now everything is monkey-see-monkey-do. All of this dialogue from seemingly innocuous shows and movies takes on a new light when repeated by a small person in everyday life. For instance, the phrase "you old bag" from 101 Dalmatians was randomly thrown at a stranger in Target. A female stranger. Much parental embarrassment ensued.

  2. Yikes, that's not a good moment... It's hard, because you want funny and entertaining, but not *that* way.

  3. This post hit the nail on the head. I taught at a school for gifted kids for several years and we used to plot out plays and stories all the time. What was so wonderful about the experience was how A) good their stories were B) they were always, very naturally plotted in a classic three-act structure C) how sophisticated and in tune with their emotions the kids were. The stories were always positive and followed a hero's journey. There were delicious bad guy and girl characters, but doing the right thing was a very important theme for them - and I gave them free reign. Even the older kids, who were interested in a grittier storyline - wanted their characters to do the right thing and definitely wanted to follow a plot. They just wanted high stakes and to bring their characters back from the brink in order to deliver that "dare to be great" moment. Thanks again for the post.

  4. I've had the same experience: kids instinctively follow that three-act story structure, and come up with great character arcs. It's fun to watch how excited they get to come up with their own story.

    Thanks for sharing your experience here, Victoria!

  5. Boys seem to require humor in huge doses. Girls not at all.

  6. I read the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid and I can see its appeal to kids, but I felt bad about the way the main character treated his neighbor and friend. I know a lot of kids who love the books and laugh out loud when they read them. I am glad there are books for all kids an personality types, but I would like to see more mysteries and books that show kids using their imaginations. :)

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Humor is huge, absolutely. Though I think it sometimes masks the lack of story... The line between funny and offensive is fine--and definitely in the eye of the beholder :-)

    More mysteries, yes! :-)

  8. Since I don't seem to have an email for you I will put this here. I have an idea for a YA dystopian series but I am wondering if the market is just too flooded for another one. Before I get into it any further, I thought I would ask. I know you are in middle-school and not YA but I thought you might know. Thanks! My email is when you have a minute. Patti


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