Mad For Middle Grade: Watch Your Language!

Welcome to MAD FOR MIDDLE GRADE!  We’re here the first Monday of every month, discussing middle grade writing, chatting about from our favorite middle grade books, introducing our own middle grade titles, sharing middle grade writing advice, and generally obsess over everything middle grade! And if there’s any middle grade topic you’re interested in, we’d love to hear it in the comments!

Hey–guess what. It’s MIDDLE GRADE MARCH MADNESS! Which works out perfectly because we have three amazing March releases:


by Robin Herrera
Release date: March 11


by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Release date: March 18


by Skila Brown
Release date: March 25

Congratulations Robin, Laura, and Skila on your fantastic releases! May your books nestle into the hearts of young readers everywhere!


This month we are discussing language in middle grade–from colorful swears to slang to made up words to integrating foreign language to how to use particular words to construct a voice. Read on as we spill our secrets about how word choice can affect the setting and characters.

Question: How do you handle language in middle grade, and what tips do you have about using word choice effectively? How does your use of language create a particular voice?

Louise Galveston

Characters define themselves by the words theBytheGraceofTodd_slsconf copyy use, and if those words don’t ring true, you’ve lost your reader. To put it in a proverb: “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” When I compose a first draft, it’s nearly all dialogue with no description, because that’s how I discover who my characters want to be.
By the Grace of Todd has four viewpoint characters, and several other main characters, all with distinctly different voices. I relied on using catch phrases and varied sentence structure to keep the voices unique from each other: Duddy says “Dude!” a lot, Lucy “mmm hmms” and “yannos,” Todd likes “holy frijoles,” Lewis the Toddlian speaks very formally, like C3PO, and Persephone, the cowgirl Toddlian talks like a character in a Louis L’Amour novel, using such phrases as, “yer jest a sorry sack o’ taters.” To keep consistency of voice, I wrote the different POV chapters out of order. It was important to me that the kid characters sounded authentic, because that makes the fantasy elements more believable and fun.


Rachel Searles
Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan

In writing THE LOST PLANET, I didn’t make aTHE LOST PLANETny changes to the complexity of the sentence structure or vocabulary just because it was middle grade–I wrote the way I would write for any age. Because it’s science fiction, there are a few made-up terms like “annirad” blasters and colorful exclamations like “What on Hesta’s seven suns?”, but their meaning is apparent in the context, and I tried to never overexplain anything. Because I personally find that science fiction with a boatload of made-up words and slang gets a bit inaccessible to the average reader, I intentionally kept those expressions to a minimum. Even my main character names are straightforward, 21st century names–sure, those probably won’t be average names in the future, but I find it makes the characters more easily relatable. Besides, if I waste good weird names like Zap and Xaphlod on my Earthan boys, how will I distinguish my aliens?


Dana Alison Levy
Delacorte/Random House

18769364I love words. I love long words, slippery words, and — a writer’s favorite — words that I can use perfectly but have no idea how to pronounce. I also love swears! But when writing Middle Grade I had to rein in both tendencies and make sure that the language worked for four Fletcher brothers. With four narrators is that word choices really changed depending on whose head we’re in. Eli, who has a real fascination for science, explains things precisely. Jax is more prone to hyperbole, while Sam, the eldest, uses the most slang. And of course Frog, who is only six, speaks largely in exclamation points. When you’re the youngest, I guess you need to be loud to be heard!


Heidi Schulz

Talking about language in MG? Yes!

One thing I love is when authors use sophisticated lHookCover_frontonly_72anguage and advanced vocabulary. I’m not talking about overwriting or purple prose, but rather, not shying away from complex sentence structure and/or less familiar words. (Lemony Snicket does this well.)

I think most MG readers are able to pick up on contextual clues to figure out what something means. If not, there’s always the dictionary—which I must admit to using myself for the word “perfidy” in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux.

I think the key to making more difficult language accessible is to write with a strong, engaging voice that will carry the reader through the unfamiliar parts.

But that’s easy, right? RIGHT?


Jennifer Downey

Language! Playground. Arsenal. Paintbox. 51qfkCHJ1QL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Box of Shrimp Chocolates. First-Aid Kit. Third Rail. Last Resort of Humans Separated by Skin Sacks. Growing up I fell in love with the serpentine, multi-claused language of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, L. M. Montgomery and E. Nesbit. I liked and like my narration packed with asides, double-backs and unexpected passage-ways — pockets to hold the comic perspective in the tragic sentence, and the tragic perspective in the comic one.  I assume there are kids alive today who also delight in such rich mazes.

Because The Ninja Librarians is an adventure fantasy which had to, if not hurtle forward, at least move smartly in that general direction, I (and my suffering editor!) had to pick and choose when the story could afford my natural er…excesses. Despite our best efforts, I think my incorrigible impulse to force readers to cuddle/ lick the kitten/crowbar shapes/tastes of words, remains detectable. Forgive me, Hemingway Youth Guild members!


Adriana Schanen

I love a good, juicy, breathless,51XMyuS393L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ careening run-on sentence. I also love when people get to the point. Writing QUINNY & HOPPER in two first-person POVs let me indulge both linguistic loves.

Quinny is a Tae Kwon Do green belt, expert tap dancer, beginner accordion player — and the life of any party.  Relentlessly sociable and often hot-tempered, she has trouble using her “indoor voice” and her engine’s got one speed: very, very, extra-very fast.

Hopper is a gifted artist and budding scientist who’s deeply curious about people – but from a distance.  He’s happiest holed up in his room, sketching, reading or juggling. He thinks Quinny talks too much, but he’s mesmerized by all the words in her mouth.

Dual first-person narratives are tough to pull off, especially in characters this young (rising 3rd graders – yikes!). But, being a Gemini, I went for it.


Kate Hannigan

When I was writing CUPCAKE COUSINS, I wanted to capture the spirit of books that I think have a certain timelessness. Elizabeth Enright’s GONE AWAY LAKE, Jeanne Birdsall’s THE PENDERWICKS. Both features kids running around in the summertime enjoying the simple pleasures of being a kid. So while my book is clearly contemporary – one of them goes to zoo camp each summer! – I was deliberate in my references and language in not going for up-to-the-minute trendiness.


Edith Cohn

For me, language in middle grade is the 20518878same as language in any novel. It’s best when it reflects the character’s personality, background and setting. Setting? Yes, language can enrich your setting. Here are some examples from my novel SPIRIT’S KEY which takes place on an island.

“Nector grins wider than a clam at high tide.”
“Luck of the oyster crab has abandoned me today.”
“Last one there is a rotten jellyfish.”
“Son of a sand fiddler!”

My main character Spirit uses ocean references because she lives on an island and is deeply connected to her home. Her place on the island is one of the book’s biggest themes. Whooping wowzers! Language can convey everything.


Jen Malone
Aladdin/Simon & Schuster

One thing I’m really conscious about ATYOURSERVICEis using language and phrasing to try to give another level of insight into my characters.  My opening line of AT YOUR SERVICE (which is: Oh! Holy! Yikes!) is a phrasing I made up just for Chloe and hopefully shows her tween voice well. But I also tried hard to show how much a part of her New York City (her hometown) is, by choosing similes that refer to it whenever possible. When she has a crush on the boy she describes his eyes as “the same navy as the Hudson River before it storms” and she blushes “the bright red color of the TKTS booth” in Times Square. It was a very deliberate decision that also was a ton of fun to write. My favorite is when she describes her feeling of “ugh- this is too much to handle at once” as being like “walking to school in February and having to go down a half block from the crosswalk to avoid the puddles of slushy, sooty, melting ice puddles and then stepping off the curb only to land in the dog poop someone didn’t scoop AND getting sprayed by a taxi driving too close to the side of the road.” As much as I love visiting New York myself, there ARE some times the city turns on you. 🙂


Tara Dairman

When you’re writing a book with aAllFourStars large cast, one of the biggest challenges can be making sure that your characters don’t all sound the same. One trick that sometimes helps me with this is to give a character a sort of “catch-word,” which they use when they’re feeling strongly about something. For instance, in ALL FOUR STARS, Sandy pronounces things “excellent” a lot, and Charissa (kinda like this author) overuses the word “awesome.” Meanwhile, our heroine Gladys—who tends to face disaster more often than her friends do—relies heavily on the middle-grade-friendly (and cooking-related!) expletive “Fudge!”

One word may not sound like much of a start, but I’ve found that it can serve as a gateway into a character’s entire speech pattern.


Skila Brown
Candlewick Press

When I was includingcaminar Spanish words and phrases in Caminar, I had to think about how to let a reader know what each phrase meant. Sometimes I included the English translation right after that. Sometimes I relied on context clues. Other times I just allowed that the word was similar enough to an English cognate that even the youngest reader would figure it out. My editor suggested adding a glossary at the end of the book—a great idea. But definitely the hardest part was coming up with a pronunciation guide. It’s hard to explain the sounds of one language using only the sounds of another to do so. I don’t envy the writers of language dictionaries!


Rebecca Behrens

In WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE, IWhen Audrey Met Alice final cover had two very different voices to work with: a contemporary first daughter, Audrey, and a historical one, Alice. I had so much fun figuring out how Audrey would use language—she mentions a lot of names and acronyms, such as her Secret Service code name, “Tink,” acronyms like POTUS, and other nicknames based on her family’s political roles, like “First Gent” and “Fido.” Alice’s voice was a little trickier—I really wanted to make sure her diary entries were realistic. Hopefully, her voice is believable as that of a seventeen-year-old in the early 1900s. I’m sure I’ve included a few anachronistic words here and there, even though I did rely heavily on an online etymology dictionary and other resources to see when terms came into use! But I also wanted Alice’s words to flow nicely and stay accessible for young readers today.


Robin Herrera
Amulet Books

I’ve read a lot of craft books that advise HopeIsagainst using any sort of slang. They specifically tell you that slang is a bad way to date your novel. But does anyone read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and think about how dated the slang is? NO!  

Anyway, my one golden piece of advice on slang is to use it consistently. Yes, your book will sound dated if you have a character blurt out hot slang words a couple times. That’s not how kids talk! And a lot of kids don’t even use known slang, they make up their own. (Which is what I like to do!) Stellar example: just started reading Ryan Gebhart’s There Will Be Bears, where the main character, Tyson, uses the word “yamhole.” I love it! The meaning hasn’t even been explained yet, but contextually it’s easy to figure out, and it gives you insight to Tyson’s personality. (It helps that Tyson doesn’t just say it once.) Whatever you do with slang, be consistent! Don’t be slangin’ all over the place or it will ring false.


What do you think are the distinguishing factors in language for middle grade readers? Is there a topic you’d like us to discuss next month? Let us know in the comments!

Happy springtime! See you again on Monday April 7th.

Lauren Magaziner is a 4th grader at heart, watches way too much TV, and loves to steal people’s toes to make Toecorn, which tastes like chewy, meaty popcorn. Only one of those is true. (Okay… you caught me. They’re all true.) Her MG debut THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN WITCHES—about a boy who becomes a witchling’s apprentice in a town full of dangerous, Toecorn-loving witches—is forth-coming from Dial/Penguin on August 14, 2014.

3 thoughts on “Mad For Middle Grade: Watch Your Language!

  1. I love how everyone’s approach to language and middle grade word choices is different…and yet, everyone has found that perfect fit for their novel. What a lovely discussion! I’d enjoy hearing you all discuss using pop culture references in your novels, if you haven’t already covered that.

  2. Pingback: My Top 10 MG Speculative Fiction Picks for 2014, Part 1 | Scribbles and Scraps

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