How Middle Grade Chose Me
Something readers are surprised to hear about my middle grade debut, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, is that I originally planned for it to be a young adult novel with a sixteen-year-old protagonist. In addition to the main plot about Zoe’s relationship with her incarcerated father, I’d planned a romantic subplot, and even a road trip with Zoe and her love interest. Before I started writing the book, I’d written three other contemporary young adult manuscripts. They hadn’t been the right stories to get me an agent or book deal, but I was still committed to publishing a YA novel.
So how did From the Desk of Zoe Washington become a middle grade book? It’s because middle grade chose me.
Early on in the drafting process, I gave one of my critique partners the synopsis I’d written for the manuscript, plus my opening chapter. They sent back amazing feedback, including that they felt my story would make a great middle grade book. They said they were convinced of it.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized how right they were.
The Decision to Switch to Middle Grade
There were several reasons why it made sense for From the Desk of Zoe Washington to be a middle grade novel. For one, the back-and-forth letters between Zoe and her incarcerated father, Marcus, seemed more suited to a younger audience. Family relationships are commonly explored in middle grade literature, and I could see younger kids enjoying the epistolary elements of the book.
I also thought about the more serious themes in my book: incarceration and systemic racism within the prison system. At first, I wasn’t sure if this was okay for middle grade. Were these topics too serious for that age group? But I realized that many middle grade books have covered these kinds of topics before. All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor and Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin also feature incarcerated parents. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia discusses social justice issues. There are many more examples of upper middle grade novels tackling tough themes. I quickly realized that the serious themes in my book could work for middle grade, as long as I handled them correctly.
Another benefit of this switch was that Zoe could be more naïve about the injustices within the prison system. As a younger child with less exposure to the world, there would be more for her to learn on her journey into figuring out whether Marcus was innocent of his crime. This meant Zoe would have even more room to grow as a character.
Changing to middle grade wasn’t as simple as lowering Zoe’s age. I had to make several changes to the story and plot to make it work.
What Switching to Middle Grade Meant for My Story
Of course the first step was aging Zoe down. I decided to make her twelve because, with the heavier themes in my book, I wanted her to be on the older range of the middle grade spectrum. I also took out the romantic subplot I mentioned above, and changed it to a friendship storyline. Lowering Zoe’s age also meant that she’d have less freedom. She’d need to rely on adults more in her daily life than if she were a teenager with a driver’s license. For this reason, and also because adults are generally more present in middle grade, I made Zoe’s mom, stepdad, and grandmother bigger characters in the story.
I also had to make sure I nailed Zoe’s voice. Voice is so important in all books, but especially in middle grade. It’s also really hard to achieve. I didn’t want Zoe to sound too sophisticated or too innocent. It’s a fine line. To prepare to write, I read a lot of recent middle grade books, and also listened to actual kids speak.
The most challenging change for me was shifting the way I wrote about Zoe’s reactions to things. In YA, it’s common to have characters spend multiple paragraphs thinking about their feelings. In middle grade, kids don’t usually over analyze their thoughts. Their reactions are more immediate. Coming from writing angsty teenagers, this was an adjustment, and it took many drafts to get Zoe’s voice right.
Why I’m Glad I Made the Switch
I knew I’d made the right decision when the first draft of the book as a middle grade flew out of me. I wrote it faster than I’d written all of my previous manuscript. It just worked!
Since I also started reading more and more middle grade books, I remembered how much I loved stories for that age group. Readers at that age are so enthusiastic about books, and I’m excited for the chance to be able to connect with them—as well as teachers and librarians. I also love the middle grade writing community! I couldn’t be happier to be debuting in this space.
Looking back at my previous YA novels, all sitting in a drawer, I now know that I was meant to be a middle grade author all along.
Janae Marks has an MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Children from The New School. She grew up in the suburbs of New York City, and now lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter. From the Desk of Zoe Washington is her debut novel and is out on January 14, 2020 with HarperCollins Katherine Tegen Books. You can find her online at janaemarks.com, plus on Twitter and Instagram @janaemarksbooks.