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How Dark is too Dark for Upper MG?

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I'm writing an MG fantasy adventure. It's upper MG; the main characters are 13. I was wondering if there are certain dark themes that you can explore with upper MG? Like, death, murder? Or self-sacrifice, even if you lose your life? Are weapons like guns and swords considered okay, or too hardcore (the use or the mention of them?)?

Sorry if this seems obvious, but I'm new to MG and I wanted to give it a try!
#1 - September 19, 2014, 10:32 PM

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I would start by loading up at the library on as many new MG as you can. (Classics from your childhood won't give you a sense of what is being published today.) MG can cover a lot of things; what makes it different from YA or adult is the perspective and the manner of handling it. At least the first three Harry Potter books are middle grade, and they start out with Voldemort murdering Harry's parents. The themes of death, racism, prejudice, and yes, even sacrifice, are part of the story, and they're serious themes (but do notice that no one is in danger in real life of accidentally adavera kedavera-ing anyone.) My Friend the Enemy, by Dan Smith, is a historical about WWII and there are real, life bombs falling in England when the story takes place. The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel, is a historical fantasy that's essentially a murder mystery. And there are plenty of action stories where the bad guys show up and threaten kids with guns. But the way something like this is handled in a middle grade is hm...perhaps a bit less gritty/realistic/close to the skin? It's hard to explain--I think you'll have to read a pile of MG to see it. Because it's possible to take the same plot elements and tell a story from a MG point of view and a YA point of view (and an adult point of view, too, for that matter, something that's different from either YA or MG). I will say that novels about suicide, or sex scenes, or hardcore language (heavy swearing) do not turn up often in middle grade.

It's all in the handling, though. So go check out the new book shelf, and enjoy! It's all research, after all! :)
#2 - September 20, 2014, 05:54 AM

I'm going to say it's all okay, it's not as if children in the US haven't heard of all those things. The issue is how it's handled. I faced this a lot because my second book, MG, has violence as one of its themes, and a boy dies, his death is central to the ideas in the book. And even third grade classes read it. Still, I struggled over parts of the story a lot, how to handle violence. I'd say you may well want to avoid death in an action-type story, it's often not truly needed.

But yes, you can do it all. I'd read Doll Bones by Holly Black which shows that even a bit creepy is creepy enough for MG, Dan Poblocki's The Nightmarys which is classed as 3rd grade and up, The Zombie Chasers by John Kloepfer for a silly-violence perspective, Bridge to Terabithia by Paterson as the iconic death in a children's book where it's absolutely real and tragic, and The Golden Compass by Pullman which is awfully dark in its own way,  also The Graveyard Book is famous for a very terrible opening complete with blood and murder. The Giver, too, and Number the Stars, both by Lois Lowry, have really careful well-done approaches to violence, in a real world and fantasy setting both.

A lot depends on the setting too. If you're in a fantasy world with crazy pirates after a boy with a stone that makes him fly, they may have blunderbusses or whatever. That's very different from guns in a contemporary USA setting in a book for elementary school kids. 

Olmue just posted while I wrote this. She says it really well. Fantasy settings, magic, historical settings, those change how it works. I totally agree with her: "it's all in the handling"
#3 - September 20, 2014, 06:35 AM
« Last Edit: September 22, 2014, 01:56 AM by KeithM »
Keith McGowan,

The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher might be one to check out. It's MG mystery rather than fantasy, but I thought it was pushing right up to the boundaries with realistic, gritty material for MG. it involves murder, guns, the FBI, etc.
#4 - September 20, 2014, 06:36 AM

Swords are perfectly fine. Percy Jackson is a current example of that. Guns you have to be careful with. It's all about context with guns. For example, if it's sci-fi, you have blasters, if it's historical you'd have flintlocks or muskets, if it's contemporary, then you'd have to have a good reason to have it. The effect the mere word "gun" has on text can be physcologically watered down just by using an alternative word like "pistol". 

Death and murder run rampant in MG. Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book starts off with a brutal murder, and John Connolly's The Gates features adults getting devoured by demons and then possessed. In fact, The Gates is heavy on the occult. The thing, however, is that it is all fairly humorous.

You can literally get away with murder if there is humor involved. It's good to be concerned about these things when writing for kids, but at the end of the day, just write it. Sort out the tidbits when it's done. If not, you're going to drive yourself nuts. Now, off to continue writing about pirates, guns, swords, drunken escapades, and death....
#5 - September 20, 2014, 08:08 AM

Thanks guys! I'll keep all the advice (not to mention those amazing recs) in mind!
#6 - September 20, 2014, 09:38 AM

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Then there's one of the most classic MGs of all time, which starts out: "Where's Papa going with that ax?" (Charlotte's Web)
#7 - September 20, 2014, 02:22 PM

Most themes are okay in upper MG. It's more about how you handle the themes, not the themes themselves. For instance a book that features self-sacrifice because the character believes the world is worth dying for, could work for upper MG. A book where a main character sacrifices herself because life is just pointless anyway may be harder to sell.

You'd want to familiarize yourself with editors who publish books with as heavy themes as the ones you are writing, and sub to them.
#8 - September 20, 2014, 04:29 PM

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In general, you can include a good deal of violence in a fantasy but less in a realistic, present-day book.  If the action is off on another planet, in the future, or way in the past, it seems to be accepted by both the gate-keepers and the children themselves.  Even publishers/editors who're known for edgy YA novels get a bit anxious if a MG manuscript seems too real and close.
#9 - September 21, 2014, 08:03 PM
Sheila Welch,  author/illustrator. Don't Call Me Marda, Waiting to Forget, Something in the Air, The Shadowed Unicorn, Little Prince Know-It-All

It's not an exact match for my situation, but thanks for asking this!:D
#10 - September 24, 2014, 12:44 PM
You can find my stuff at: uggc://

These are really good questions and answers.  The title of this post jumped out at me because I've been wondering a little myself.  I can tell by watching animated movies these days that kids are more used to dark matter than ever before.  I taught 2nd grade last year (which is why I was absent; I was going crazy), and it was funny to learn that whereas I played tag when I was their age, the biggest chase game now is zombies.  Anyone caught turns into a zombie, and they walk with their arms out straight trying to catch non-zombies. When I read The Graveyard Book for Children's lit class, it opened my eyes to how much grittier material is for kids these days.  The whole family is murdered with a knife in chapter one.  In Coraline, also by Gaiman, which I both read and watched, the main character's parents are kidnapped, and a monster replaces them with really creepy handmade people.  It all reminds me of those scenes in The Hogfather(Pratchett) about children liking the gory parts of stories, although that is not universally true. 

With all that said... In my MG fairy tale in progress, I have to kill a witch.  While it's no worse than Hansel and Gretal or Little Red Riding Hood, I suppose it is a teensy bit graphic.  I wanted to make her a worthy villain, so I inserted a couple of really creepy parts to build upon her evilness.  She has motivations, and those are addressed, but I didn't want this to be like the Bugs Bunny version of a witch.  It's a tad darker than a The Wizard of Oz version. 
#11 - October 05, 2014, 01:59 PM

I'd say your story could be very au courant! Creepily dark/edgy fantasy for MG is definitely being talked about! And if it wasn't late at night I'd be able to remember several titles from the past year or so that fall into that category. I always tell people not to write to trends, but it's nice when what you are writing meshes with a developing (not played out) trend...
#12 - October 05, 2014, 08:28 PM
Harold Underdown

The Purple Crayon, a children's book editor's site:

I'm not sure if your comment is meant directly for me or the original author of this thread, but thanks, Harold! I agree.  If I'm not emotionally motivated by it, I find it difficult to write it. I finally understand what my writing instructor meant when she said write the "emotional" truth, not the actual events. I'd say fewer lawsuits, but there's that whole Frozen thing with Disney...

I'm reminded that the original Brothers Grimm were much grimmer.  I guess at some point, we stopped punishing wolves and witches and started educating them and giving them better housing or something.  :-)  As for my book, that witch is dead! Yes, somewhat dark and creepy is my favorite genre.  Just finished the last new chapter of my rewrite and now just have a few minor patches before I get in my mental zone (reading good stuff for style and flow) for editing prose for aesthetics. I know it's late... I'm rambling... Gotta sleep.
#13 - October 05, 2014, 11:12 PM

Bunnynut, my comment was addressed to both of you. And your mention of Grimm reminded me of one of the books I was thinking of. A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz. That's from 2011, almost a forerunner. This year there's The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. And there are a few others I still can't remember!
#14 - October 06, 2014, 05:30 PM
Harold Underdown

The Purple Crayon, a children's book editor's site:

L.M. wrote: "I'm writing an MG fantasy adventure. It's upper MG; the main characters are 13. I was wondering if there are certain dark themes that you can explore with upper MG? Like, death, murder? Or self-sacrifice, even if you lose your life? Are weapons like guns and swords considered okay, or too hardcore (the use or the mention of them?)?"

You've already received some great answers here, but I will say that most of what you list here happens in my MG series (Loki's Wolves, Odin's Ravens, & the 3rd one which isn't out yet; Little Brown Books For Young Readers).  The one exception is the gun thing.  That particular thing can be tricky to manage.  However, we have a murder (by a child), death of another character, monsters, near strangulation, family members consigning a child to be sacrificed, fights with the dead/trolls/a dragon, being runaways, self-sacrifice, and . . . various other "dark" things.  We've not met resistance with it. We've had a couple starred reviews, came in as an honour book in the Ontario Library Assoc for our age group, & in general had a great reception. 

The only area that any reviewers have critiqued negatively have been "Norse words are hard to pronounce" (which, honestly, is not actually OUR fault) & that it wasn't dark enough! ---> "... young readers may happily turn the pages in little danger of losing sleep. Armstrong and Marr are both pros at spooking kids. Here’s hoping that with the next instalment they really start to show their fangs." (QUILL & QUIRE; April 2013).

So, I don't think that dark is a bad thing overall, esp for older MG.

That said, younger MG can go dark too: Neil Gaiman's GRAVEYARD BOOK & his CORALINE were both very dark. Neil's GB won both Newbery AND the Carnegie. Holly Black's DOLL BONES was too. Neil won a stack of awards for those books, & Holly picked up 4 or 5 starred reviews & a Newbery Honor. Dark can be quite fine :)
#15 - October 09, 2014, 05:26 PM

I'd say the real issue is are the characters MG? Dark has been done in countless books, but it'd be important to keep the characters in that MG category. For me, it's the characters that determine if it's MG, not necessarily the story, and I think when it is dark it can be too easy to write older without realizing it.

#16 - October 10, 2014, 04:29 AM
« Last Edit: October 10, 2014, 05:33 AM by Ree »
HANGABOUT, FAR FROM HOME, Orange Blossom Publishing, August 2023.

Ree, I agree about character age.  When I was taking a writing class, my teacher asked me how old the narrator was.  I love first person whenever I can swing it, and I said the story takes place when she's twelve.  She said, I know, but how old is she when she's telling the story?  Oh wow.  I never though of it that way.  Take the Monstrumologist, a YA novel.  The main character is both 12 and well over 100.  Because he's much older when he's telling telling the story, he can sound better educated.  The experience he's gained since the story took place has affected how he perceived what happened then and changed the story.  Even though his character may have been younger, telling the story from a more mature pov changes the age limits of the audience.  The age of the narrator, the voice, and the audience are all related.  Both A Tale Dark and Grim and A Series of Unfortunate Events feature an older narrator who seems to interact with and reassure the audience as the darkness increases.  It's like reading a book or seeing a movie that lets you know in the first scene or so that the characters survived the events of the book/movie.  If hinted at up front, it could be a way of reassuring young readers when darker elements are introduced.
#17 - October 11, 2014, 10:15 PM


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