The wonderful thing about middle grade literature is that it’s really the beginning of opening up this idea of moral gray areas to children. It’s really the first time they get to experience that realization that good people can do bad things and bad people can do good things and maybe people are much more complex than the labels of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
Before now they’ve had fairy tales and picture books. Beautiful literature, but most of the time the line between good and evil is very stark, very black and white. The witch is always bad, the princess always good. there is very little gray area.
So as middle grade authors, this is a very heavy responsibility. One we should take great pride and consideration in. Here are some things to consider when writing in the gray areas for middle grade.
- Middle Grade novels can live and die with the gatekeepers. Parents, teachers, librarians. For the most part, they are sensitive, understanding people. but they still are trying to protect their children from some of the harder realities of the world. So while your MG book can deal with really hard topics (there are MG books about abuse, drug use, racial divides, mental illness, lgbt issues, etc.) if you would ever describe your MG book as “gritty” it’s probably not going to fly.
- Fantasy and adventure books have a lot more leeway. The villains in these books don’t have to be quite so redeemed or shown to have a good side. The protagonists can do illegal and “terrible” things if the circumstances call for it and the cause is good and right. Think of Percy Jackson, they definitely killed some monsters, trespassed, stole stuff, etc. But even in MG fantasy/adventure, the death toll stays very limited, the MC hardly ever gets their hands dirty if another person dies. Think of the first few Harry Potter books. Nobody dies in the first year, a bunch of people are frozen and Harry kills a deadly basilisk and ghost Tom Riddle in the second. It takes until the fourth book to actually have a real person die. And its not at Harry’s hand. After that the body count starts going up, but books 5,6, and 7 while they are filed under MG, have a lot in common with YA, so I wouldn’t judge what’s okay in your MG book by the later Harry Potters, but the earlier ones.
- Doing illegal things is a lot tougher sell in contemporary. They have to be relatively minor things. Trespassing, spying, maybe getting the better of a police force that has wrongly put you under house arrest (Okay, okay, I read Gordan Korman a few months ago. Can you tell?) But generally, if people in your MG contemporary do really bad things, there has to be an understanding that, somehow, there will be consequences for their actions. Often the protagonist will still get in trouble, even just a little bit, for doing something wrong even if their intentions were good. The thing is, the children reading these books are still just barely out of fairytales with black and white, good and evil. So while characters can exist in this morally gray area in MG contemp, I think there’s still this definite expectation that there will still be consequences. Maybe the antagonist won’t have as big of consequences as we feel someone deserves, but something. Or, if not consequences, then a moment of reconciliation or redemption, where we come to understand that the antagonist has a good reason for acting how they do or they do something to right their past wrongs.
- Especially in contemporary, there really shouldn’t be “bad guys.” You can have an antagonist (you NEED an antagonist) but they should be someone that your reader can understand or pity in some way. they can not be ALL bad. They can not be TRULY EVIL. They must have a good side. They must have good reasons or motivations. Or at least understandable ones.
- The most important thing for morally gray areas in MG is that good always wins. Even if the ending is not the happy one everyone hoped for, there is still hope. Life is expected to get better, or at least, the MC will be able to weather the storm and be okay. I think this is the kicker above all else. You can get away with a lot in your MG story if you end on hope. If good wins. And in MG, good always wins. Always. Remember, we’re not that far away from fairy tales. We are exploring moral gray areas, but we still want to present a good world to our readers. A world where kindness exists and hope always lingers.
We have a wonderful responsibility writing for this age group. Let’s not do it lightly. Let’s not write fluff. Let us write complex, morally gray, hopeful and beautiful stories. 🙂