This week at book club we discussed what it is that makes a book appealing to someone who is 10 or 11 years old. After our discussion we came up with a guide for authors who are thinking about writing MG (Middle Grade) fiction:
A Good Mystery
Great books have mysteries. It doesn’t have to be about a murder, kidnapping, or stolen item. Even small mysteries are interesting and draw the reader in. One member of book club said that even mysteries about whether people are lying, or have a small secret can really improve a book. Many of the students said that they don’t want to put down a book if there is an unanswered question, mysterious character, or general sense that something isn’t quite as it seems.
An Interesting Main Character
Year 6 were very clear that the main character does not have to be a hero, or even a good person. What they want is someone who is interesting. This means a rich inner life, a sense of self (or at least questioning their sense of self), and opinions. They wanted to see characters that were open to change and who ‘overcome their fears’. Students were very clear that they did not like it when main characters were vague or hard to get a sense of. The students wanted to see more main characters that reflect them and their friends. They wanted to see more characters with disabilities and characters who are BAME.
A Determined Villain
All good books, according to year 6, have a villain who shows real grit and determination. They are aware that villains can take many different forms. The students said that they liked villains who were nuanced, as villains can be more than just pure evil. They might have a reasons for behaving the way they do. This character is central to the book so make sure they have a good backstory. What came across the most from students is that they want a villain who never gives up. One that isn’t disrupted by hurdles. Who is inventive and regroups quickly. One student wants to see a villain who ‘never gives up and is blood thirsty until the end’ (I’d read that book in a heartbeat!). What they don’t like is a villain that gives up too quickly or is outfoxed easily.
Year 6 love a plot twist. They want something shocking. They want to audibly gasp. They want to have to feverishly ask their friends if they’ve read the book and what they think. They enjoy waiting for their friends to get up to the twist. Surprise, in their opinion, is the best thing a book can have. Especially when you can go back and see the work the author put into the book to make the surprise something that is true to the rest of the book.
I was surprised by this, but year 6 like when stories go back and look at past events. Whether it is new to the story, or another way of viewing what has happened in the book. One student wrote ‘sometimes I feel like we miss out on what made characters awesome’.
On a more general level the students wanted authors to know that they shouldn’t underestimate what 10 and 11 year olds will understand. They said that they like to be challenged. They want something that makes them think. If an author isn’t sure about something they could always talk to teachers or librarians online to see if they think students would like or understand the story.