by Anne E. Johnson
Making characters talk in a middle-grade story or novel is not the same thing as writing for very young children. Needless to say, as kids get older they can follow (and appreciate) more complicated dialog. However, increasing vocabulary is not the only factor that distinguishes dialog for this age group.
Keep It Wondrous
One marker shared by the best MG lit is imagination. And, just as the stories are often full of wonder, let the characters reflect that in their voices.
In her novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, inspired by ancient Chinese folklore, Grace Lin uses arcane, stylized language with no slang and very few contractions. Stripping the language of artifice and modernity gives a specific atmosphere.
In one scene, the main character’s Ma and Ba (father) are worried about their missing daughter. Their fish (!) gives them enigmatic wisdom:
“There is fear in the wind,” the fish said, “great worry.”
“Is it a storm?” Ma asked.
Ba looked at the fish. It stared at him with big eyes.
“I’m not sure,” said Ba.
Keep It Personal
With increased comprehension comes increased demand for details by the reader. Let each character have his or her own style of speech and favorite topics to talk about.
Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Framed is a humorous contemporary novel about a boy in a small town. In that context, every single character is visible and important.
Here a girl nicknamed Terrible Evans, who is obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, sits next to the main character and spews forth trivia rather than making conversation. (Know anyone like that? I do, too.):
“Did you know,” she said, “that in the original comic, Splinter wasn’t a mutant rat?”
“No. I didn’t.”
“In the telly series, splinter is a rat who used to be a human. But in the comics he’s a rat who was always a rat. On telly he used to be Hamato Yoshi, who mutated into a rat because of a mutagen…”
And on and on. Although this conversation does not contribute substantively to the plot, it tells the reader volumes about both the character speaking and the character patient enough to hear her out.
Keep It Loose
When kids talk to each other, it’s practically a different language from the one they use around adults. This is particularly true when the kids have a lot of shared experience, such as schoolmates.
A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban, shows some good examples of capturing this in dialog. During one conversation between the main character and a boy she knows, notice how little narration and tagging there is. The words spill out in a believably fluent way:
“You were pretty mad out there,” Wheeler says.
“You were pretty mad yesterday,” I say.
“You punched a bird.”
“A fake bird,” he says. He shoves his hands in his jacket pockets.
Keep It Silly
And the most important advice of all for the writer of middle-grade lit: Let your imagination be sprinkled with humor.
And you can’t get more humorous or imaginative than the late, great Terry Pratchett. Here is an exquisitely bizarre excerpt from his first Tiffany Aching novel, The Wee Free Men:
“There really is a school for witches?” said Tiffany.
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said Miss Tick.
“Is it magical?”
“A wonderful place?”
“There’s nowhere quite like it.”
“Can I go there by magic? Does, like, a unicorn turn up to carry me there or something?”
“Why should it? A unicorn is nothing more than a big horse that comes to a point anyway. Nothing to get so excited about,” said Miss Tick.
Which middle grade novels do you think have the best dialog?