Valentine’s Day is coming and love is in the air. Right?
Well, maybe not if you write middle grade.
Middle grade fiction is for kids 8-14. Let’s face it, they know about crushes. But not really romance. If you’re writing a crush into your MG novel, keep these things in mind.
Boys during the middle grade years are no Casanovas. In fact, they’re pretty much the opposite. They are squirrely, and awkward, and let’s face it, kind of weird. They are not sweet talking anyone and remain pretty clueless about things.
Boy-girl interactions at this age are just fraught with awkwardness but also butterflies. It’s all new and kind of exciting but kind of bewildering at the same time. I remember my first dance in sixth grade. A boy asked me to slow dance (oh my gosh!) and when he put his hands on my waist said, “Wow! You’re skinny.” That was it. There was no clue as to whether he was saying it as a negative or positive or if he meant anything by it or if he just hadn’t yet developed a filter between his brain and his mouth. (My money’s on that last guess.) But I still remember it to this day because of the mixture of so many thoughts and emotions it set off.
Does he like me? I don’t like him. What does that mean? Do I say thank you? A boy’s hands are on my waist!
You get the picture.
I’ve yet to see a middle grade where the MC has a boyfriend or girlfriend. Although in WONDER, there is a lot of talk about other people pairing up. But the narrators don’t really take part. This seems to be the unspoken rule of MG. Other people can have a boyfriend/girlfriend, but generally not the main character.
In MG, the crush is not the focus of the story. It’s usually a minor subplot, though in some books it is a larger subplot. Take for example, FORGET ME NOT by Ellie Terry, which releases this spring. The story revolves around a boy and a girl and their friendship. But there is definitely a little crush that develops through the story. To pull this off though, you really need the two characters to interact almost entirely just as friends. No lovey dovey stuff the whole way through.
Some people will tell you that physical affection is a big no in MG. But from my reading, that’s simply not true. A WRINKLE IN TIME has many moments of hand holding (admittedly not romantic, mostly because they’re scared but there are some FEELINGS that come with it) and one kiss. And that was published AGES ago. 😉 Likewise, WHEN YOU REACH ME also has a very sudden, kind of awkward kiss, and by the end the two characters are kind of going steady, but it doesn’t mean too much.
If you are going to put a crush, and especially a kiss, in your MG story, you have to earn it. I don’t mean that the same way romance writers mean it, with the right kind of build up. I mean that it should feel almost necessary to what you’re trying to show in your book. It should act as a marker on character arc, or an important illustration about your character growing up and becoming less of a child. It should have real, meaningful significance.
So, maybe romance isn’t blossoming in middle grade, but awkward crushes and tiny first kisses are.
How about you? Do you have any stories from your life that illustrate the awkward middle grade crush phase? Share in the comments.