Perhaps this is why I volunteer to chaperone (stalk) my kids' field trips, why I jump at the chance to drive (stalk) my kids and their friends to the movies, and why I often help out (stalk) in my kids' classrooms.
Middle school is a time of great discovery… and great dichotomy. Kids are learning how to fit in as part of a group, while also trying desperately to stand out. Your daughter refuses to acknowledge your existence when she’s with her friends, yet clings to you when you’re snuggling at bedtime. Your son can’t remember to throw his dirty socks in the wash, yet he has no problem bathing in his favorite cologne. They get nostalgic for when they were “little,” yet they can’t wait to grow up.
Yes, middle school is quite possibly the most emotionally and physically confusing time in our lives. Which makes it such rich grounds for writers to grow something meaningful.
My favorite middle-grade novels subtly acknowledge the chaos and confusion happening in the brains and bodies of its characters. When I write middle-grade, I dig deep into the archives of my own mind and remember what that time period felt like. Admittedly, I cringe a lot during these exercises. A lot. I picture an insecure, frizzy-haired girl with braces and glasses who just moved to a new town, where, remarkably, all the kids have smooth hair, straight teeth, and perfect eyesight.
As most main characters do in middle grade novels, I grew up during my middle-school years. I discovered conditioner. I got contact lenses. The braces came off. Slowly, I gained confidence, thanks in part to my parents, as well as a few select teachers who were convinced I just needed a little push to find my way in the world… or at least to find my way through middle school.
Of course, it’s been lots (and lots and lots) of years since I’ve been in middle school. The clothes are different (I still miss leg warmers), the music is different (Rick Springfield still rocks), and even the method of communication is different (notes folded into mini paper footballs are still more fun than texts).
But the basics haven’t changed. Kids today, just like kids back in the day, are still trying to find out where they fit in, who their true friends are, and what makes them special.
Today’s kids still experience the sweaty-palmed excitement of a first crush, the thank-god-I’m-not-alone comfort of a BFF, and the heart-pounding thrill of making the soccer team. They also know the blow of your crush not like-liking you back, the punch-in-the-gut pain of being dissed by your friends, and the stomach-sinking feeling of seeing a bad grade on a test.
Those issues are what will resonate with middle-schoolers, regardless of if their school pictures have them in bell bottoms or skinny jeans. It’s a universal truth throughout the ages… the middle school years are just weird.
But, just like 80’s fashion, there is beauty in that weirdness. And if we, as writers, can recall those mostly-weird-but-sometimes-wonderful feelings, we will create an authentic voice. We will speak for the middle-graders who, sometimes, are still too confused to speak for themselves.