Bestselling Middle Grade Fiction Part 2: Tense & Point of View

This is part two in my middle grade fiction series. Here is part one: Genres & Topics. Future installments will include information and statistics on word count and debut vs. established authors.

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Methodology

I compiled the statistics below based on the New York Times Bestsellers List for middle grade novels. I included all novels that made the top ten list between April and September 2013 (a six month period).

I did not include media tie-ins (Lego, Disney, Star Wars, etc.) as these books have their own momentum that may have nothing to do with the subject matter, the quality of the book, etc.

I did not include nonfiction.

I did not include books that were sequels because they are not standing alone on their own merit.

I did include books that are the first in a series even if a subsequent book had already been published before the first book made it on the bestsellers list.

Purpose of Research

While there are a lot of factors that go into a book’s success, I wanted to break down the elements of the most popular middle grade books in the current market.

My primary motivation in doing this is to answer some of the most frequently asked questions by aspiring middle grade authors, such as appropriate topics, genres, word counts, point of view, tense, etc.

Bestselling Middle Grade Tense & Point of View

Present Vs. Past Tense

Whether or not agents, editors, and readers like or hate present tense has been a point of speculation for a lot of writers for quite some time.

Of the 22 books on the list, 16 were in past tense and 6 were in present. While past tense remains more popular, present tense is clearly acceptable in middle grade fiction.

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 9.04.23 AM

Present vs Past Tense in Realistic Fiction

Present tense was slightly more common in realistic fiction than in fantastical fiction. Out of 10 books, 3 were in present tense.

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 9.09.41 AM

Present vs. Past Tense in Fantastical Fiction

Present tense was slightly less common in fantastical fiction than in realistic fiction. Out of 12 books, 3 were in present tense.

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 9.10.55 AM

Third vs. First Person Point of View

First person point of view has been becoming increasingly popular. It turns out that first person point of view has actually surpassed third person point of view among bestselling middle grade novels.

Out of 22 books, 12 were in first person and 10 were in third.

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 9.19.27 AM

First Person vs. Third Person in Realistic Fiction

This is where the statistics get really interesting. First Person is far more popular in realistic fiction.

Out of 10 books, 7 were in first person and only 3 were in third.

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 9.21.56 AM

First Person vs. Third Person in Fantastical Fiction

In fantastical fiction (fantasy, paranormal, etc.), third person was slightly more common.

Out of 12 books, 7 were in third person and 5 were in first person.

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 9.26.44 AM

Conclusion

Realistic fiction is both more likely to be in present tense and more likely to be in first person, while fantastical fiction is more likely to stick to the traditional third person past tense.

However, no clear conclusions can be drawn from this data since we don’t know whether there is more first person and present tense in realistic fiction simply because more writers choose to write it this way (rather than that it is preferred by agents, editors, or readers).

My primary conclusion from this data is that anything goes. If you want to write a present tense, first person middle grade novel, it certainly doesn’t seem to be an inherently tough sell.

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7 thoughts on “Bestselling Middle Grade Fiction Part 2: Tense & Point of View

  1. Priz Murrell says:

    Excellent post, thank you! I have one concern, though. In the section Present vs Past Tense in Realistic Fiction, I read that “Present tense was slightly more common in realistic fiction. Out of 10 books, 3 were in present tense.”
    Isn’t this supposed to be the opposite? I mean even the pie chart says the opposite was true.

  2. Shell Flower says:

    This is a great post. My critique group just went over my MG story beginning this week and there was disagreement over whether present tense was acceptable in MG. From these stats, it seems like it can certainly fly. I love your scientific break-down of all this info. Thanks!

  3. NannaWrites says:

    Hi Ellen,
    This was a great post. I am currently preparing myself to write my first ever middle grade story, and I’ve been trying to figure out which POV to go with. I have heard that 1st person is more preferable in middle grade in order for kids to put themselves in the place of the main character – however I myself prefer to write in 3rd person, and my novel is in the fantastical genre so I’m happy that 3rd person is more common in that genre, though I would probably have written it in 3rd even if it wasn’t the “norm” just because it’s my strongest viewpoint.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      I’m really glad this helped. I’ve had a lot of clients concerned about whether it’s okay to write middle grade in 3rd person so this research was important to me because I wanted to demonstrate that both 3rd and 1st are completely acceptable.

      Best of luck with your project!

  4. Scott Miller says:

    Saw one of your vids on YouTube and followed you here.

    A few years back I read a YA novel where the author used a very close third-limited combined with a present-tense narrative. The author did many things right, but that combination wore on me and by the time I was 2/3 of the way through the novel, I was translating the narrative, in my head, into either first-person, or into past tense. Then last year I needed an example of third-person present-tense for my writing group, and so did the “Look inside” thing on Amazon, and typed out a few paragraphs.

    Upon my brief reread I realized why that combo bugged me. The third-person was so close and deep with the protagonist (and never really varied) that it felt like first-person, except with the “wrong” set of personal pronouns. The combination with present-tense clinched it. It felt as if the story was told by the protagonist, not some nameless narrator, and the protagonist was one of those crazy people who always refers to herself in the third person. I don’t think that’s what the author intended.

    Present-tense works with first-person. The POV character is the storyteller and we are living the scenes with that character, as the story unfolds. In fact, present-tense can solve some of the problems unique to first-person: (Such as, when is this story being told in relation to past events, and how can a mere mortal remember all this detail so perfectly?) Even so there are still a few advantages with past-tense, so it’s six of one versus half-dozen of the other.

    Present-tense with third-person makes me think of some kid in a movie theater, on his cell phone, narrating the movie blow-by-blow to a friend who couldn’t make it that day. It annoys me and puts distance between me and the story. In a third-person scene, who is the narrator? How/why are they relating this story to us as it unfolds? Where is the narrator? And why don’t the characters notice him? IMO it’s unnatural and freaky. A different issue from the crazy third-person character issue.

    Have you seen “Bright Lights Big City” by Jay McInerney? (Hardly MG or even YA.) Second-person that works. Interestingly, it has to be present-tense. I suspect any attempt at second-person past-tense would be an utter and complete failure.

    Anyway, fascinating statistics. Thanks.

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