Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Let's Talk Writing MG: Who Comes to the Rescue?

Let's talk. In everything I've learned about writing for middle grade, a core characteristic is empowering the protagonist to save themselves and others. They are the hero. Not parents, automatons, teachers, older siblings, or monks. And sure, there are exceptions to the rule, I get that. But when I read it in middle grade fiction, it bothers me. I want the kids to figure it out, to save the day.

In We Are Not Eaten By Yaks by C. Alexander London, London does a great job of having the kids do most of the rescuing, but sometimes parents, monks, spirits, yaks swoop in to save the kids. He'd proven the kids could do it, empowered them and then had their mom show up and save them princess-in-a-tower style. I was frustrated, the kids were smart enough to do it themselves.

In The Clockwork Three by Matthew Kirby, the kids are empowered the whole book until in the very end, the automaton swoops in and saves Giuseppe. Giuseppe! I was mad. I'm verclipped.

In Harry Potter, Harry and friends always saved the day. No matter how frustrated you were with Harry that he didn't run to Dumbledore for help (seriously you would have thought he learned something at Hogwarts), Harry was left to figure it out even if it meant wandering way way way too long in the last book. But this is how it should be in the world of Middle Grade. (I guess if I think about it, even Harry had a bunch of adult team help. Is it impossible to empower the kids completely?)

When I pitched a MG story last year to an agent, my story had a magical element to it. The agent stopped me and said, "You have a great character why are you letting the magic save the day instead of him." At first I thought, well because the whole story is based on this magical realism. But the more I thought about it, I saw his point. I changed my story from magical realism to contemporary and I think it's loads stronger because the protagonist can't rely on what he believes will save him but must work to save himself.

These are my thoughts. Who do you think should save the day in a middle grade novel? And is it okay to have other people or things do some of the saving? What about working together with adults/things?


  1. I know from talking with my daughters that they love it when the kid protag is the one that solves the problem. That's why they are reading the book...because book kids get to do things that they don't have the opportunity to do yet, because the book kids get to be the superstar and the hero, something they don't always get to do in real life.

  2. The beauty of MG is that it teaches kids as it entertains them. So having the protag save the day, himself, or others is key. That empowers kids who often feel powerless in their world.

    You've given me something to ponder in my current WIP: am I allowing my protag to rescue himself and others? That will haunt me now (in a great way) as I continue writing. Thank you for that.

  3. While I agree with you, I also think it's okay for someone else to do the saving every now and then. Honestly, how many times does Snape save Harry's life? If you've read the books, you know he does. That was why (minor spoiler alert), after the 6th book, I knew that (contrary to evidence) he couldn't be the bad guy. He's even protecting Harry when Harry's trying to kill him.

    I don't think it's healthy or realistic to send the message that we should be able to save ourselves from everything. Yes, empower your characters, but as a Christian, I also believe we're saved by grace (whatever that might mean in the story you're telling- it might not figure in at all). You don't want to turn your character into a Mary Sue.

  4. What a great post, and great advice. This is definitely something I had to work on in my WIP. I realised I had a couple of points where somebody other than the kid was definitely saving the day, and returned control to my protagonist instead.

  5. Just read this, I think this is such an important point. I don't mind if the hero/ine doesn't solve every single problem throughout the book, has a little adult help or even gets rescued by someone else at some point - AS LONG AS she saves the day at the end. Otherwise it's such an anticlimax, it just feels like a cake that's gone flat.