Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 19, 2011

Middle Grade Voice – Stacey Whitman

Stacey Whitman, editorial Director at Tu Books had a nice write up  on her blog the other week about voice.  I thought you might be interested in reading some of the excerpts.  Here’s Stacey:

Voice is the one thing that I don’t feel, as an editor, that I can fix. It’s  too intrinsic to the art, too personal, something that has to be worked on  before it comes across my desk. And a humorous voice? Even harder to shape as  an editor. I completely appreciate how tough humor is just in general. It’s  very subjective.

However, there is also a certain voice that I can only describe as “trying too hard.” The intended humor is super-goofy, overexplaining the jokes and losing the reader in the process. It feels too self-conscious, like the character is watching herself too closely instead of living her life. Humor should come, in my opinion, as a side effect of situations that happen to be a little goofy, rather than forced out of something the character finds funny, which is harder to translate into reader laughs.

Part of the problem is that self-consciousness can sometimes work in YA, at  least more than middle grade, because teens are more likely to notice things  comment on them in a snarky way. Middle graders aren’t expected to be jaded just yet. But it’s not just that. Have you ever noticed that whenever, say, Stephen Colbert loses his deadpan, the joke loses a little something? Part of the hilarity is in the deadpan delivery. And we also have to acknowledge that not everyone is a humor writer—and that’s okay. Sometimes a book can be better when it’s not trying so hard for the laughs.

If you are writing humor, my only suggestion for improving your craft is to read writers who make it work, like Lisa Yee, Michael Buckley, and Tu’s own Greg Fishbone.

What I’d really like to see in my submission pile, though, as far as middle-grade books are concerned, is not necessarily humor—after all, we’ve got the hilarious Galaxy Games coming out this month already; go buy it! or read an excerpt!—but rather straight-on fantasy, science fiction, and mystery for middle-grade readers of both genders, but particularly girls because I don’t have much on my list for middle-grade girls right now. I’d love to see something more along the lines of Shannon Hale’s books for middle grade readers (one of my favorite books of all time is her Book of a Thousand Days, set in a Mongolia-like world): adventure and coming-into-her-own (not necessarily coming-of-age, which is more of a YA thing; would love such YAs, but I’m talking MG here right now). I also wouldn’t mind something along the lines of Michael Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm, while noting that even though the book is funny, the point-of-view character, Sabrina, is the straight (wo)man. It’s everyone else around her who’s all wacky-fairy-tale-ish.

Voice is tough to master for any writer. So perhaps take a look at your book and consider: am I trying too hard to make it funny? Can it be played straight and enjoyed for the adventure, mystery, magic, and fun of it all, whether it’s funny or not? Because perhaps its strengths lie elsewhere—and that’s a good thing!

Read more on slang:

Talk tomorrow,



  1. This is really useful, helpful info, Kathy. I know I loved Eve Adler’s workshop on voice, too. I know that, for me, the voice of a particular book finds its own voice somehow. That’s how I’ve found it to be for me anyway.


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