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by PJ Gardner

Calling all storytellers! Early middle grade needs you!

If you’re like me when I first started writing HORACE & BUNWINKLE, my debut novel, the term “early middle grade” is relatively unfamiliar. We’re much more aware of upper middle grade and the way it helps readers transition into the young adult sphere. But early middle grade is a real thing with a similar goal, only in its case the transition is from Chapter Books.

So What Is Early Middle Grade and How Is It Different From Chapter Books?

Let’s do a break down of the basics.

Chapter Books

  • Age of reader: 5-10
  • Word count: 5,000 – 10,000
  • Subject matter: concentrate on the external events of the story, fewer characters, less character development, more straightforward story

Early Middle Grade Books

  • Age of reader: 7-11 (8-9 year olds being the ideal age)
  • Word count: 15,000-30,000
  • Subject matter: Bigger cast, more complex characters, who have emotional arcs. Complex stories.

The Sky’s the Limit

Early Middle Grade is where we start to lose young readers, and I think that’s directly tied to the limited number of books aimed at them. And that’s where you come in.

Writing for this age group is full of possibilities. Series like JUDY MOODY, DOG MAN and GERONIMO STILTON prove that kids love a book with a healthy mix of the written word and images. Graphic novels are another format that kids are excited about, which is great news for author-illustrators.

Humor and adventure stories are always popular. However, books like A BOY CALLED BAT show that there is interest in deeper, real life topics as well. Also, there is growing need and desire for diverse characters.

Keys to Writing Early Middle Grade

There are two major keys to writing for this age group—create believable characters and craft dynamic plots.

Believable Characters

As writers for young readers we know children are people, too. They experience heartbreak and joy and everything in between as much as any adult. The difference is they don’t always have the language to identify or process those emotions. Books are an excellent way of giving them that vocabulary. I truly believe the early middle grade years are the most critical time to do that.

The best characters are born from a respect for the emotional life of the reader. So, whatever your character is experiencing—whether it’s funny or sad—keep it real. Dialogue and inner thoughts are especially important in creating that believability.

Dynamic Plots

By seven years of age a child has already consumed countless hours of TV and video games, where they have encountered a wide variety of stories. This means they won’t be satisfied by or invested in a book that isn’t interesting and compelling. The plot should have twists and turns, highs and lows, and real stakes. It may not be life or death, but it should feel that serious to the characters.

But Seriously You Should Consider Early Middle Grade

It may seem like a huge jump to go from picture books to early middle grade, but it’s actually a natural step. It calls for the same kind of creativity and skill set, as well as the enthusiasm for storytelling.

Early middle grade is the perfect place to branch out. First, it’s an under-tapped market, and it’s a fantastic market. Seven to eleven year olds are hungry for good books and they are absolutely devoted to their favorite authors. At present there simply aren’t enough books geared to the 7-9 year-old crowd.

Unfortunately, picture books are in lower demand right now. If you’re an illustrator as well, it can be time-consuming, which drastically limits the number of projects you can do at any given time. And, let’s be honest, they have smaller advances, too. These are the reasons why I recommend diversifying.

While no one can predict what will happen in publishing I’m convinced middle grade in general, and early middle grade specifically, is about to hit a boom.

Personally, I love writing for this age group. And I love getting pictures of kids reading my book independently. That’s a huge deal and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

I hope you consider being a part of early middle grade as well, because there will never be a better time to share your stories with older readers.


When PJ Gardner was a little girl growing up in Colorado she dreamt of being an actress or a dental hygienist or even Mrs. John Travolta. It didn’t occur to her that she could be a writer until she was a grown up. Her debut middle grade novel, Horace & Bunwinkle, has been published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, and she’s thrilled. PJ lives in the scorching heat of the Arizona desert with her husband, sons, and Boston Terriers, Rosie and Rocky. She doesn’t own a pig because her husband says she’s not allowed to. Visit her online at pjgardnerswitzer.com.

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:

BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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