Writing for middle grade boys means writing for a tough audience of mostly reluctant readers, according to Courtney Bongiolatti, Associate Editor for Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. The answer is to write in specific genres that appeal to subsets of boys. In her breakout session at the summer conference in LA of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Bongiolatti decribed the most popular genres and offered examples of successful books in each.
Action books have characters with special talents and outlandish plots but no magic or paranormal elements. These characters choose an adventure and operate outside adult control, for example as spies, villains, or explorers. The protagonist is always a boy, always cool, and often an orphan. His gang of buddies includes characters that different kinds of kids can relate to-- a clown, a brain, an athlete, or even a girl. Examples include the H.I.V.E. books by Mark Walden and the Alex Ryder spy series by Anthony Horowitz.
In Adventure, a boy falls into a situation where he has to figure something out, solve something, or save himself without adult help. Independence is an important theme. Usually the adventure means being torn out of a familiar environment, though more humorous adventure can occur closer to home. The hero is not necessarily a cool kid, especially at the start. Examples of successful adventure books include Holes by Louis Sachar and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Adventure books may demand a higher reading level than action books.
Fantasy appeals to stronger readers than either action or adventure books. Often the fantasy hero discovers a destiny he must fulfull. Fantasy attracts readers who dream of being the hero, including dreamier, quieter kids. Examples are the Harry Potter books, which changed the industy, and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, which lets kids who have trouble in school envision themselves as demigods.
Mystery novels can have a nerdier protagonist than most of the other genres. The hero may be inquisitive, bright, not naturally part of the popular crowd. An example is Encyclopedia Brown, who is comfortable being a nerd and in fact earns the respect of his peers because they need his brilliance to solve mysteries. Another example is Theodore Boone, kid lawyer, invented by John Grisham, who applies the formula of adult mystery novels to a kid's book.
Humorous Mystery is an important sub-category that allows some melding of genres; it can include aspects of both adventure and mystery. A unique setting or unusual situation can help set up the story. An example is Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs, which concerns the murder of a hippo zoo mascot. Another is the Brixton Brothers series, an up-to-date send-up of the Hardy Boys by Mac Barnett.
Sports books are an important genre for boys who relate to nothing but sports. The formulaic Matt Christoper books sell and sell. Mike Lupica's books are more serious, appeal to a wider and older audience, and end up being about more than just the game. To write successfully in this genre, the author has to know sports.
School Stories are a wide-open genre with a different audience, usually of better readers. For kids 8-12, the classroom is like a second home. Often the book theme includes rebellion. Examples are Frindle by Andrew Clements and The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt.
Historical fiction is a tough sell. Writers probably need to offer a strong hook that links to a subject already known to be popular with boys. Examples include historical fiction about early days of baseball or Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts with its echoes of guns and gangsters.
Next, there are Combinations, often combinations of story and pictures, such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney or the Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.
Bongiolatti calls the next category Relatable. These are more likely to be issue books, and honesty is important. Examples are Loser by Jerry Spinelli, about being bullied; The Misfits by James Howe, and So Hard to Say by Alex Sanchez, about growing up gay.
The final category is Out of the Box. This seems to be a catchall phrase for the unexpected books that don't fit the other categories, and they're riskier. Examples of some that have worked well are Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher, and I Am a Genius of Unspeakale Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb. All of these have atypical protagonists.
In general, Bongiolatti advises, write about a character your reader wants to be. Observe boys, their dress, their lingo, their likes and dislikes. Boy readers are not tolerant of small lapses of authenticity. Keep an honest voice.
I'll be back with more conference tidbits over the next few days.