The age of your protagonist matters. In fact, if your middle grade manuscript features a protagonist who is either too young or too old for the intended audience, it could end up getting rejected by agents and editors.
Middle grade fiction protagonists are typically between 11-13 years old, which is slightly older than the target audience. However, lower middle grade protagonists can be as young as ten years old.
This article is intended to help you determine the right age for your middle grade protagonist by outlining what your target audience demands, and why that matters to literary agents and editors.
Why Younger Readers Prefer Protagonists Who are Older Than They Are
There’s a term used in both the advertising and the entertainment industries called age compression. It means that kids are growing up faster today, and companies like Disney and Mattel are feeling the squeeze.
By the age of ten, most kids have already stopped watching Disney Channel and they no longer want toys for their birthdays or for Christmas.
There’s a similar push when it comes to middle grade (and even young adult) books, where readers are interested in characters who are older than they are.
It makes sense, if you think about it. When my daughters were toddlers they wanted be called big girls (not babies). Tweens can’t wait until they’re old enough to drive.
My oldest has been in a rush to gradate high school and move away to college since she was in grade school. And it’s fairly common for most people who are underage to want to turn 21 so they can legally drink alcohol.
We’re never quite satisfied with where we’re in life, which is a big reason why younger readers want to read about characters who are slightly older.
They can still relate, but there’s something aspirational about watching characters who are experiencing a life that is just out of reach.
In Fact, Middle Grade Protagonist Should Be as Old as Possible
If agents and editors believe that your manuscript has the potential for broad appeal, you’ll increase the odds of getting literary representation and a book deal.
One way to drive broad the appeal is to ensure your protagonist is as old as possible (without being too old).
For middle grade books, that means that you may to consider a 12 or 13-year-old protagonist.
After all, if middle grade books target 10-12-year-old readers but your protagonist is at the lower end of the age spectrum, there’s a good chance that most 11 and 12-year-olds won’t be interested.
Does that mean you won’t be able to sell a middle grade manuscript that features a ten or eleven-year-old protagonist? Of course not.
In Grey Griffins: Revenge of the Shadow King, Max, Harley, Natalia, and Ernie are all eleven-years-old. Harry, Hermione, and Ron were also eleven years old in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Want an even younger example? Auggie is ten-years-old and Wonder is one of the best-selling middle grade books in history!
The age of your middle grade protagonist definitely matters, but you don’t have to write to a formula.
As long as the age of that protagonist fits your story, you won’t be wrong. Just remember, an older protagonist may be more interesting to most middle grade book readers.
What Are Common Themes in Middle Grade Novels?
There’s a definite shift happening when it comes to our understanding of the themes that are appropriate for middle grade audiences.
Publishers, booksellers, and librarians are pushing the boundaries, but not all parents agree with where things are headed.
When it comes to selecting themes for a middle grade book, I ask myself this question: what are the main issues that someone the age of my protagonist is going through?
Middle grade books don’t shy away from difficult subjects, but they tend to avoid graphic depictions. Most middle grade fiction avoids fixating on topics like puberty, sex, and sexuality.
What Does a Middle Grade Protagonist Worry About?
Middle grade protagonists are often more focused on their external circumstances instead of their internal thoughts. After all, most 10-13-year-olds are in the process of becoming more aware of their feelings.
As a result, there typically isn’t a lot of complexity to their observations about the world. And that world is fairly limited since they can only travel on their own by foot or bicycle.
The following is a list of things that most people between 10-13 years old tends to worry about. I’ve broken them out into five categories:
- Friendship & Social Issues
- Growing Up
- The World
Friendship & Social Status
Cliques: Social cliques start to form somewhere between fifth and sixth grade, and children can be merciless when it comes to who they allow in and who they reject from their groups. That’s when children start to feel the social pressure to be attractive, athletic, and to wear the right clothes.
Social status is a major theme in middle grade fiction. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Draco Malfoy recognizes the benefit of having someone famous like Harry Potter in his clique, but when Harry rejects him that sets up a rivalry for the ages.
In Wonder, Via is dropped by her best friend who is hungry for acceptance after struggling with a difficult home life. Unlike Draco, Miranda actually comes back around. But we see the pain in Via when she’s dropped by Miranda, as well as the guilt Miranda feels after alienating Via.
Loneliness. Kids are terrified of being alone. Forget fitting in with the popular kids—will anyone accept them at all? Isolations leads to kids feeling like pariahs, which can affect every facet of their lives. Some pull back, others lash out, but the root of it all is intense emotional pain.
Rejection. As adults, we understand that failure is a natural part of life. Still, despite that knowledge we’re still risk averse because rejection is scary.
Put yourself in the shoes of a 10-13-year-old who has a crush on someone he thinks is out of your league. Or a girl wants to go out for volleyball but she’s worried that she might not make the team.
In their minds, rejection is often a referendum on their value as human beings, so they won’t risk the humiliation.
Exile: How many kids go with the crowd, even when they know what’s happening is wrong? That could mean joining the crowd to taunt someone, or even just gossiping about her. It’s often driven by the fear of rejection. They believe that if they don’t join in, they’ll be exiled. And the last thing any of us wants is to the be rejected.
First Crushes: Having a first crush is exhilarating. It’s also terrifying. I don’t know many adults, let alone children, who truly believe that they are fully deserving of love.
I mean, some of the most attractive and popular people I’ve ever known are also some of the most insecure people I’ve ever met. Because of that, we all tend to feel like people are out of our league, even if they aren’t.
It doesn’t matter if you’re ten-years-old, 25-years-old, or 105-years-old, risking rejection by expressing your affection for someone else is scary.
Cyber Bullying: Most kids aren’t afraid of cyber bullying until it happens to them—and when it does, it can feel like the entire world is watching. After all, the nature of most social media apps is that most communication happens publicly. It’s humiliating in a way that can cut to the core.
Nobody “Likes” Me: Instagram is in the midst of reviewing their policy of showing how many likes each image gets. They understand that they’ve been complicit in creating an anxiety driven by the belief that if enough people don’t like your content, then you aren’t valuable.
One of my daughters would erase her Instagram post if it didn’t hit 50 Likes in five minutes. And Instagram isn’t the only culprit. Kids measure their value as human beings by how many views they get on YouTube and TikTok as well.
Teachers. I have three daughters, and all three have been convinced that each and every one of their teachers have hated them. Sure, there have been a couple times that I think teachers crossed the line.
But a teacher could say something as innocuous as, “please turn around and stop talking,” and all three of my kids would come home and tell my wife and I that they had been yelled at.
Bullies. In the digital age, bullies can come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. Yes, there are bullies who try to intimidate other students.
But there is also cyber bullying that happens over social media and through texting and chat apps. Merely the fear of being bullied is enough to cause undue emotional stress. When it happens, the life of the victim gets turned upside down.
Homework. That word still gives me anxiety. It can give kids anxiety as well. My daughters put homework off until the last minute, and then they’ll have melt downs because they’re too tired to finish. It ends up getting handed in late and then their grades drop. Then the anxiety goes into overdrive.
Being Late. My kids have anxiety about walking into their classrooms late, yet they’ll continue to do their hair and change outfits long passed when we need to leave to be on time. This one is hard, because they hate it but they won’t do anything about it. It’s a real fear for tweens.
Being Different. I am crushed when unique kids are mocked into submission until their spirits are crushed and they either conform or are exiled.
That pathetic pack mentality creates enormous amounts of anxiety in all of us. It’s the rare human—regardless of age—who has the confidence to continue to express their individuality regardless of the social stigma.
Grade Point Average. I’m convinced that grades matter to everyone. Sure, some kids behave as if they don’t care but I’m pretty sure that’s just a front.
We measure our scholastic achievement by grades and living up to our own standards is hard enough—add to it the pressure of making our parents and teachers proud, and that’s a lot to deal with.
Changing Classrooms. The transition to middle school or junior high can trigger anxiety. There are fears of getting lost, forgetting the combination to their lockers, and walking in late.
Add to it the fact that they’ll need to learn how to work with several teachers instead of (primarily) one teacher, and there’s room for even more anxiety.
Physical Changes. This one is particularly difficult for tween girls. They tend to start their physical development earlier than boys, and dealing with those changes can be scary.
It’s often awkward and strange. Kids feel self-conscious, worried that they’re attracting attention—or that they’re not attracting attention. It’s confusing and a definite cause of worry.
Cognitive Changes. Tweens (or preteens) start to realize there is more to life than their small world. As they develop awareness of the world at large, they’re also attempting to process the complexity of how they fit in that world.
Uninhibited children who didn’t care about what others thought suddenly are fearful about fitting in and feeling left out.
Independence: These are the years where children start to pull away from their parents and rely more on advice and acceptance from their friends. As frightening as that can before for parents, it can also be confusing to children.
Self-Identity: There is something both exhilarating and frightening about watching kids discover who they truly are. We fear they’ll be mocked or alienated, and yet we want them to have the courage to be themselves.
After all, conformists don’t change the world. It’s fairly common tweens to try several personalities and friendship groups before they settle on one. It’s both exciting and scary for them as well.
Divorce. The threat of a family breaking up can trigger feelings of separation anxiety in children regardless of age.
However, with tweens already struggling to understand where they fit in the world, there is a great deal of worry about what that would look like if they safety of their family unit falls apart.
Parental Approval. Children feel immense pressure to earn the approval of their parents. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a classroom, on an athletic field, or from a stage, tweens want their parents to be proud.
Separation. Some tweens feel anxiety when they are separated from a parent for an extended period of time. Whether it’s due to business travel or divorce, they worry about their parents and can feel alone and isolated.
Sibling Rivalry. The relationship between siblings can be difficult. Younger siblings are often seen as annoying tagalongs and older siblings can be overbearing and bossy.
Add the complication of vying for their parent’s affections and things can get messy, which causes stress and anxiety.
Grandparents Health. As grandparents age, their bodies start to break down. People who were once seen as paragons of strength become frail and the fear of one day losing that relationship can deeply affect tweens.
Catastrophes. YouTube has given tweens access to endless information. Some of it is great. Some of it is terrifying.
My youngest daughter and the cast of neighborhood friends she hangs out with are obsessed with pollution, global warming, natural disasters, and animal extinction.
A healthy concern about all of those issues can trigger positive action but if left uncheck, that concern can grow to anxiety and fear.
Violence. It’s difficult to guard against violence on television. Yes, television, movies, and video games produced in the United States are filled with violence but so is the news.
Whether it’s terrorists attacks abroad or on our own soil, school shootings, or wars, violence is everywhere and it’s terrifying enough for adults. Tweens get triggered as well, particularly as they realize the world isn’t as safe as they once thought.
What is the difference in age between middle grade protagonists and YA protagonists? The age of your protagonist is one of the primary differences between middle grade and young adult audiences. Middle grade books typically feature protagonists between 11-13 years old, but young adult books have protagonists that skew a bit older. They range from 14-18 years old, but most often are they 16-18.
Should characters age in a middle grade book series? There is no standard as to whether or not characters should age in a middle grade book series. However, it is important to note that once a protagonist turns 14-years-old, a book is typically considered young adult.