How Hormonal Can Your Middle Grade Character Be?!

I was recently editing a MG manuscript where the protag kids were about 12 or 13 years old and I realized there’s a distinction, in my opinion, between writing as if your characters are actual kids and writing your characters for kids. So actual 12 or 13 year olds are using some pretty colorful language (even including all the more nasty 4 letter words), experimenting with kissing and touching (I know! Shocking, right?!) and they are basically just walking bags of smelly, emotional hormones. Yes, 13 year olds are already hormonal! Often, middle grade stories, whose readers are between 8 and 12 years old, feature older kids. It’s natural, because kids want to read about older kids, they want to look up to your characters. But if you’re writing for a middle grade reader, I don’t think it’s appropriate to be talking about nascent BJs, embarrassing BO, or dropping F bombs, you know? (If you need somebody to explain what those initials mean, ask a 13 year old…) Ok, you can talk about body odor… Now, if you’re writing a YA manuscript and you have 12 or 13 year olds walking and talking like actual 12 or 13 year olds, I think it’s a whole different thing.

What do you think? How true to life do you think MG or YA characters should be? Where do your characters stand? 



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9 responses to “How Hormonal Can Your Middle Grade Character Be?!

  1. I’m a writer and a mom of a 13 yo boy, and he doesn’t have the peppery language problem as of yet. Neither he nor his friends from the football team. I have heard him, however, say a four letter word once or twice when he dropped the ball. They do however, get nervous and sweaty when they even try to talk to girls, especially cheerleaders from the opposing team or cute girls in the halls at school. No experimental this or that as of yet. My son is considered (yea, I’m partial but hey, he’s my son) one of the cooler guys in his grade, yet when we were at the avenue (outdoor mall), we were suddenly face to face with two cute girls from his grade, and he got suddenly very very quiet, and began staring at the ground. Odd, I know, but he was truly scared to talk to them.

    After we left, he told me,”I think the blonde one is really cute.” He couldn’t even muster a hello or even a grunt. He was petrified and overcome by beauty, apparently.

    And yes, Ms. Epstein is RIGHT about the odor! It took two months at the beginning of the school year to convince him that deodorant was NOT an option, it was a must. And yea, MS boys do wear odiferous axe. I hate the smell, but ’tis better than b.o.

    They text and tweet and are addicted to their I-phones, and that IS a fact. So you need to make sure this is something your MS age characters do with electronic ease. They like hardcore rap (my suburban kid loves Lil’ Wayne and Eminem). The only colorful language I usually hear related to my son at all, would be rap lyrics I hear on the way home from school sometimes, as he listens to his music. Oh well, as long as he’s not saying what those rappers are, it’s fine by me. The guys also wear everything Under Armour.

    These are just a few tips I’d say to add into your work if you want to keep it real when writing about middle school boys.

  2. I actually had this conversation with someone ages ago. Someone told me my MG had a scene that was too steamy. Seriously, all it was was an embarrassing first kiss. No touching, nada. Sure they were swimming in a pond but it was more embarrassing and awkward than anything. Others disagreed. I think it really just depends on taste. Let’s face it at age 13 I was reading Go Ask Alice (for those who are unfamiliar it features a girl who gets addicted to drugs and becomes a baby prostitute). Still, keep it clean, but you can still make it fun for the younger readers.

    I know as a kid I didn’t need some intense story like Go Ask Alice, as long as I was getting the elements of romance and things that seemed to teeter on the border of acceptable, I was happy.

    What I mean is I liked hints of more, but nothing more. For example in my story–the girl gets so close to the guy–there is tension and turmoil inside them and then they kiss and it turns into a sweet cutesy moment, but before that it lingers on the verge of “well that’s hot”. Hopefully, what I said makes sense haha.

  3. You talk about colorful language and I laugh because things are indeed different than they were so many years ago. We have way better communication than our parents and grandparents had. Kids are armed with cell phones and picture taking has become much more frequent and so has language. I had to wait to get home from school before I could ring up a friend and moms used to think that you should have nothing to hide. Now “don’t invade my space” is the rule not the exception. So who bothers to check themselves? Who cares? Colorful expressions are in, but truthfully, later in life there is a haunting feeling that your ass pictures will come back and show themselves just when you are looking for a job or a friend, and then, you guessed, it’s just too late.

  4. MsJudy

    You make a good point. 12/13yos are going through a transition phase. Some are already through it and getting pregnant. But up until that point, the thought of all those changes are scary and icky. So for most 8/10yos, reading about it is…not so interesting. Even disgusting. Or way more information than their brains are ready to handle.

  5. Writers have to decide how to play the game, I guess. Do we want to sell our books? If so, what MG gatekeeper considerations are we willing to entertain? Or will giving the middle finger to gatekeepers catch the eye of the right people and propel our books onto bestseller lists? And how does one go about giving the middle finger to gatekeepers in an effective manner? I certainly don’t know. So for now I’m just writing as honestly as I know how.

    That said, I don’t think being crude for its own sake is all that valuable, especially when it feels like a patch for weak writing. I love crude at just the right time but it depends a whole lot on context, for me.

    • This post isn’t about pandering to gatekeepers. It’s about writing to your audience so your audience can hear you. If your intended audience are 8 years old you need to speak in a language the 8 year old can hear, even if you’re telling a story populated by 13 year olds. I believe that writing a MG manuscript authentically (honestly) includes keeping your readers in mind when you’re telling your story.

  6. I’m with you. What makes Betsy Byars and Beverly Cleary timeless is their ability to write about the innocence of that age–because even though teenagers may indeed act in a far more sophisticated fashion these days doesn’t mean that they aren’t still innocent underneath it all. That innocence is what makes their books palatable for a middle grade child.

    • I get what you’re saying, but I wasn’t necessarily pointing to the innocence hiding in teenagers but more about how to convey whatever is there (innocence or precociousness) in a way that younger kids can hear it, so that it’s meaningful to them, doesn’t go over their heads, resonates so they can relate.