Middle Grade (All Genres) – Editor Critiques

Evelyn O’Brien scrambled out of her sodden uniform. She fired the offending garments into the wash basket, then stuck her long brown hair under the tap. With one ear cocked to Bob Marley’s soulful songs on the radio, she dried her hair in a hurry, whipped on blue denim jeans and a Diesel sweater then trudged into the kitchen.
‘What’s up with you?’ Julia, her mother asked as she ironed a shirt on the table. With cropped brown hair and round dimpled cheeks, she stood shoulder to shoulder with her daughter at five feet four. ‘You’ve got a face as long as a wet week.’
‘It’s that history assignment again – isn’t it?’
Evelyn scowled at her mother. ‘All the kids at school are talking about it.’ Her almond eyes flashed in anger. ‘Fionn destroyed mine, so it’s not like I’ll be going to London anyway.’
She had planned for this competition for months and poured weeks of sweat and guts into the assignment so she would be in with a chance to win a place on the trip. Now she had nothing to look forward to.

Why is her uniform wet? Why does she wash her hair if she’s already wet? The first paragraph starts to feel a bit mundane/tedious to read rather quickly because there isn’t much hook in her washing her clothes and hair. The description of the mother seems a bit irrelevant. It would be nice to tie it better into the scene somehow. It seems like you’re starting at this point so that you can dump information about the competition on the reader, but I don’t think this is a particularly engaging place to start.

Sofia giggled as velvety lips brushed her outstretched hand. The tiny pinto gelding bit into the apple with a loud crunch. He chewed, closed his eyes, and began to suck on his tongue. Frothy drool dribbled down his chin.

She’d discovered the miniature horses while exploring Grampy’s neighborhood earlier that morning. Sofia was almost eleven, surely mature enough to ride her bike without grown-up supervision. Mom might disagree, but she was three-thousand miles away.

Sofia returned to the horses’ paddock bearing gifts – three mushy apples and two wilting carrots rescued from the back of Grampy’s refrigerator. She barely knew her great-grandfather, but she’d be stuck living with him for the rest of the summer.

“Discovered the miniature horses” made me initially imagine that she found them in the wild. In the second paragraph, Sofia seems a bit defensive about her ability to ride her bike without supervision but there is nothing that indicates anyone had an issue with her riding without supervision. I would explain first that her mother doesn’t like her to ride alone, then explain that she did it anyway. The last sentence of the second paragraph feels disjointed because there’s no transition and it feels like a jump in subject matter. Overall, the writing is smooth. I’d hope for a hook relatively soon, but I think you have a nice clean voice.

When Audrey woke, blinded by a brilliant light, she could tell by the subtle vibrating purr of an engine that she was in the backseat of a car. Orchestral music was playing softly on the radio. That and the soft, drifting feeling of the car in motion might have been relaxing, if not for the fact that she couldn’t remember who’s car she was in or where they were going.
Audrey tried to raise a hand to shade her eyes from the oppressive light and panicked when she found her movement restricted by some kind of fabric.
“Hey, there, Audrey.”
Audrey stopped struggling at the sound of her caseworker’s familiar, soothing voice. She tried to say her name, Ms. Blanc, but her mouth and throat refused to form the words properly.

I think you’re intentionally creating the sense that the character has been kidnapped and I don’t recommend this. Starting with a character tied up or kidnapped/abducted is a trope anyway, and it’s misleading in a way that most likely doesn’t represent the tone of your story. I’m assuming this is going to be an orphan story about the girl going to a new home. Opening with an orphan moving to a new home is a trope, which doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but I don’t think there’s enough of a hook in the opening to stand out.

Dear Young Dark Skinned Girl,

Someone else’s beauty doesn’t detract from yours.

Your Dark Skin Sister

Mommy uses a neon-pink, wide tooth comb to fluff out the roots of my curls.
Every other day, I toss all my curls into a high ponytail on the top of my head. My go-to styles are a messy bun or a high ponytail.

If I really want to make a statement, I part my hair to the side, flat twist the front and put it in a low ponytail. Nothing more. Nothing less.

I have a lot of hair. Kinda like mommy: Long, thick, dark and curly.
Mommy’s hair and her wide, white smile are the only way anyone can tell that I’m her daughter.

Everything else comes from daddy.

Today isn’t a messy bun or high ponytail day. Today, mommy insists I let my hair down. We went back and forth for hours yesterday. I tried to explain to her that I could make the bun presentable if she would let me but I wasn’t convincing enough. She put what had to be one hundred twists in my hair. Then she pulled each individual twist to the front of my head and pinned them down, claiming it would give my hair “maximum volume.”

I’m not sure if the opening is from the author, a character, narrator, etc. The description of how the character does her hair probably isn’t going to create a hook for most readers. There’s not a lot to latch onto. The description in the last paragraph isn’t clear to me. I’m not sure if she’s twisting the hair to create curls or if she’s twisting it as part of the style she’s creating. I recommend creating an opening hook to get the reader invested and to let the reader know why these descriptions of her hairstyles are relevant.

Eva realized that feigning death was the only escape she hadn’t tried yet.

She’d tried everything else—prying open the window, sliding the hinges out of the door, and even bolting from the cell the moment it opened. She usually made it halfway down the stairs, and once nearly made it outside, but the soldiers in green uniforms always caught her. They were not kind.

She shook her head and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. If only she had a bit of that ancient magic her parents had whispered about.

The door of her cell lurched open. Eva backed into the corner, wondering if they were they going to kick her worse than usual today. If they did, then now would be the time to play dead.

She gritted her teeth. She’d do whatever it took to save her sister.

I think you have a strong hook, but the voice isn’t there yet. “Feigning death” feels a bit stuffy when “playing dead” would seem more natural (especially assuming she is only eleven to thirteen since this is MG). “They were not kind” could be replaced with something that demonstrates more voice/personality which would increase the reader’s emotional reaction to it. My main recommendation is to make the writing more natural and to convey some of the character’s personality. Show me why I should like Eva and want to spend time with her.

I wrapped my arms around myself as the cold penetrated my bones. There was no warm fire or merry faces awaiting me to come home…not anymore.
In fact, there wasn’t even a home waiting for me, just a bare husk of a house and here in a few days there wouldn’t even be that. I shuffled past the quieting streets, my destination was just ahead.

“Jesus loves me this I know–”

I turned and looked around, searching the empty street for the source of the young voice. In the entrance of a dingy alleyway a little girl – no more than eight, stood grinning up at the downcast sky, and she was…singing?

“–yes Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”

I approached, “excuse me?” The girl’s gaze landed on me and her face lit even brighter.

“Hello!” she exclaimed.

“Um, hi…isn’t it a little late for you to be out?” and cold, I added silently as I studied the thin clothing that hung off of her way too skinny form.

No “merry faces awaiting me to come home” is a bit awkward. Does “husk of a house” mean that the house is in disarray? The singing girl comes across like a horror movie trope, but maybe I’ve just seen too many horror movies. It’s difficult to feel invested in his/her conversation with this girl because there’s no clear reason why the reader should care about this girl or the main character. I feel a bit too disoriented to feel invested in what’s going on. I think you’re withholding too much information.

Not even the chill and drizzly afternoon could take away the smile on Amy’s face, not today. The mid-term school break had just started and for the following couple of weeks she would do nothing but sleep, read, and relax. Leaving the school library on the last day before the break, the dark sky reminded Amy how lucky she was that her mother had insisted on putting Amy’s raincoat inside her backpack.
With her helmet on, she climbed up on her mountain bike and pedalled away from the school. The rain fell harder as she crossed the road to her street. A loud crack of thunder crashed in her ears. She lost her balance, and almost fell into the small bushes at the left side of the street. Luckily, she recovered and continued safely onwards.

Opening a novel with the end of the school year is pretty common in MG. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but it might take more to stand out. I assumed she had already left school before “leaving the school library.” Amy’s raincoat doesn’t seem to be a significant element of the opening so I’d probably consider cutting it to get to the point faster. I think you could start with her on her bike, briefly describe the weather, then briefly describe her enthusiasm about break, which would simplify/shorten this opening.

Good friends are hard to come by. As if losing one friend so mysteriously two years ago wasn’t bad enough, losing my very best friend to my two worst enemies really wasn’t cool.
Leo, Johnny, and I were never going to get along. I didn’t need to be hit over the head to know that; they made it real obvious. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “You’re such a square”, or “You can’t walk two steps without falling over your own two feet”.
I know I’m a skinny, awkward ten year old who’s not great at sports, can’t catch a fish to save his life, flops every time he rides his bike to the top of a hill or tries to jump a simple ramp. No foolin’, every time. But nobody likes to keep being reminded of it. There’s plenty I could say back, if I had the courage.

The first paragraph has a good hook but the wording is clunky, starts with a cliché, and fizzles out with “wasn’t cool” (not a very strong or personality-filled conclusion). He says he doesn’t “need to be hit over the head” to know that they won’t get along, but they are pretty overt about not liking him since they’re directly insulting him. It seems a little contradictory that he agrees that he’s awkward and not very capable but also “there’s plenty I could say back,” which implies that he doesn’t see himself as inferior or that he thinks his friends also have flaws. I see potential in the voice, but the writing would benefit from being smoother.

The witch’s appearances at the mother goddess Durga’s temple were random and rare, but not rare enough for some people. Every time she appeared she brought the blight of the future with her and not everyone looked forward to it.

On that chill January evening, she hovered under the arch over the entrance to the temple, a living wraith with a shock of silver on the head and a swaddle of white cotton around the body that dared the wetness and frigidity and turned incandescent with every flash of lightning. What showed of her skin on her face and on her forearms was a surfeit of wrinkles on papyrus of shiny walnut.

She ventured out from under the arch whenever it stopped drizzling. Her eyes darted, scanning worshipers, seeking a lead to a read.

This seems like typical fantasy, not literary (as was indicated on the submission form). “Witch’s appearances at the mother goddess Durga’s temple” is quite challenging to read (because of so many words ending in S), especially for young readers. The first sentence of the second paragraph is too long and has too much packed into it. “Of wrinkles on papyrus of shiny walnut” is awkward to read. “Whenever it stopped drizzling” implies she’s come out multiple times, but that’s not the impression I got from the first paragraph.

“What do you see when you look out there?” Amanda asked her friend Gwilym who sat beside her.
“Danger,” he said simply.
“Everything is danger since you started apprenticing with the King’s Guard,” she said back, rolling her eyes. “Don’t you ever want to go find out what’s out there? Explore?”
“I’ve been out there. . .” His voice trailed off as he stared at nothing in particular.
“You went beyond the border?! When?” She turned to him, eyes wide with expectation.
“I started accompanying the patrols last week.” He said with no change of expression or tone. “It’s not what you think it is.”
Opening with dialogue can sometimes work but this dialogue isn’t particularly interesting. Amanda’s desire to know what’s out there is a fairly common motivation and as a result feels a bit generic. The reveal that her friend has been past the border isn’t exciting for the reader because the reader doesn’t know why it should be exciting, especially without any connection to Amanda. I don’t think you’re starting at the right place.

“Ruby” Bloodstone, my PE teacher is looking at me, his expression unreadable.
I stop burpeeing. “Yeah?”
He steps closer to me and lowers his voice. “I think you should go to the office and borrow a pair of pants”
“What?” I look down at my green leggings. “Why?”
“Just go. NOW.” He turns to Sienna, who’s burpeeing in slow motion, watching us. “I didn’t say stop! Get back to it! Come on, blood out of a stone!” Instinctively, I run my hand over my backside, hoping I hadn’t sat on chewing gum. Worse. A hole. A big hole. Blood rushing to my already red face, I grab my drink bottle and carry it behind me. I stride past snickering classmates, desperate to break into a run, but not wanting to draw attention, kicking myself for not cluing up to what was going on. Sienna and Lucy, my so called ‘friends’ had been giggling their heads off for most of the lesson. I should have known I was the butt of their joke again.

Putting “Ruby” in quotes makes the first line confusing. Starting with a problem is a good idea, but jumping right into this dialogue is a little bit awkward. I don’t think MG readers will know what burpees are. I was confused at first as to how she knew that the issue was with her backside. I would clarify that she’s putting the bottle behind her to cover the hole. Keep in mind your readers need a little bit more assistance than adult readers and won’t infer things as easily. I’m struggling to read this voice as belonging to a child. “Blood rushing,” “stride past,” and “desperate to break into a run” don’t sound like phrases I’d expect to hear from a twelve-year-old. I like the hook of the hole in her pants but the writing needs polishing.

It was midnight in Witch Tree Falls. A half-moon hung over the village just as it did every night. It was always half a moon and that was the way the witches liked it. Too much light ruined the fun of flying through the dark sky. The glow of the moon cast wonderfully eerie shadows on the ground. It was late and everyone had retired to their cottages for the night. All of the witches, young and old, slumbered in their beds. Some witches dreamed happily of flying high on their broomsticks. Others dreamed of casting wicked hexes and spells. Everyone slept that is, but one young witch.
Minerva Wicks couldn’t sleep. The half-moon seemed to knock on her window and call to her to come out to play. So, she rose from her bed and flew up to the hat-shaped roof over cottage Number Thirteen. The witchy cottage took up the end of Candlewick Lane. She gazed into the sky at the less than brilliant light of the moon. Wispy clouds creeping by dimmed it even more. Everywhere Minerva looked, she could see the hand of ancient magic.

In less than a few days, the annual witch’s moon would rise big and bright. The arrival of a full moon meant that Minerva would turn twelve-moons-old. Witches of course, counted full moons, not years, and a full moon always brought delight to the village witches.

The first paragraph seems like two paragraphs to me (when the subject changes from the moon to everyone being asleep). The description of the witches sleeping and dreaming leans a little bit younger than I think you might be going for and almost has a picture book vibe to me. It seems a bit contradictory that in the first paragraph the witches enjoy flying through the sky at night but in the second paragraph it seems as if the reader should find it odd that Minerva wants to go out under the moon. For clarity and smoothness, I would mention that there is a full moon once per year at the same time that you explain that there is always a half moon.


I woke up in darkness in the middle of the night. I laid there for a second, staring at a wall next to my bed. I listened to the faint chirps of crickets outside. For a moment, I tried to take my mind off of what I was about to do, trying to completely toss aside the heavy feeling in my body. I knew what I had to do.

I took a deep breath, silently getting out of bed and lowering myself to the floor. I didn’t dare to breathe when I set myself down. It would be all over if I woke anyone up.
Leaning down, I tried to peer through the pitch black, reaching under the bed frame for the backpack I had packed and put under the bed a day before.

I brushed the carpet under the bed with my hand, finally feeling the black fabric of the backpack. Before I took it out from under the bed, I felt around close to the backpack to make sure nothing had fallen out. I ignored what I felt, whether this was right or wrong. I knew I was doing the right thing, and I never would go back on it.

Starting with a character waking up isn’t recommended. You might get a pass on that one since the character is running away, however starting with a character running away is fairly common as well. This feels very wordy, especially the section focusing on the backpack. I’m not a big fan of vaguely stating that the character “has to do” something because it seems too deliberately vague, but this can work if you keep it short. “I ignored what I felt” reads as if he felt something that had fallen out of the backpack and ignored it.

The house has clearly seen better days. It’s obvious that the old farmhouse was once a beautiful home, but years of abandonment and neglect had left the paint to peel and the wood to rot and sag. Lia Warren can’t help but imagine how lovely it must have been when it was lived in and loved, but now? Now it just looks sad and a little creepy, especially with the waning sun behind the wall of trees casting long shadows over the property.
“Who lived here?” Lia shivers as a cool breeze sweeps through the prairies and sends a chill down her spine, a sense of dread creeping in.
They shouldn’t be here.
She regrets agreeing to come. But her new friends Marley and Becca complained that her birthday party was lame and that they should do something else. If she had known ahead of time that they intended to drag her along to explore some abandoned farmhouse, she…well, she would probably have still tagged along. It’s not like there’s much else to do in a small rural town, where there’s only one gas station and convenience store and farmland as far as the eye can see. Besides, Lia thought her birthday party was pretty lame too.

The first paragraph feels redundant because the house being rundown and also once beautiful is mentioned multiple times in a row. This could be cut down significantly. “Sends a chill down her spine” and “sense of dread creeping in” are both common phrases and when used close together make the writing feel generic/unoriginal. I think it would be nice to give more details about why the party is lame and how she feels emotionally invested in making these girls happy.

The Princes Tale

If you are here to know a story of heroism
Liken that of the Greeks in the Iliad that you may find in a certain library in this story
Or ells that of a fearless roman solider which may be found in a certain other.
Then I will save you the misfortune of the pages proceeding, for this story
Follows no such plain path, the lines of good and evil are not bleared they
are singular , inseparable for complete clarity one and the same.
My darkness is as appealing as my light, it is purer in fact more selfless
That is not to say this is not a story of great friendship or of marvellous magic
But should you not be ready to question all that is established in the annals of story telling,
I beg you go no further , for my path twists and winds as none before. By its end I fear you will come to love its darkness. Forgive me if you should come to love a beast .

Our story must start not with the young man who lays sleeping in the magical lands that are sacred to mystical beings. But rather a much less heroic older one in a spiritual land that divide the non-mystical kind. It is hear you must begin to understand the game that is afoot.

“Princes” should be “Prince’s” and “It is hear” should be “It is here.” These mistakes would likely get you an automatic rejection. The writing is hard to understand, both in the verse and in the ordinary narration. Writing in verse is extremely difficult and I don’t recommend it to most writers. The cadence/rhythm is awkward and this would be very difficult for MG readers to follow. It also doesn’t have much entertainment value or appeal to MG readers.

The boy panted. The moment had come. His moment. For years he watched the comings and goings of the guards, learned their routines and schedules. And he knew this was the day. The one day, he could risk it, could do it. He knew for certain it was within his reach. The previous six weeks he had spent all of his free time going over his plans checking up on parts of the path he would take. He took his knapsack from its hiding place. It was filled with stale biscuits and slightly molded bread, but he didn’t care. The moment he was free he would be eating like the foremen. Now he sneaked past the others he knew exactly where to set down his feet as to not wake the slumber of any of the other boys. Near the exit was the guard sleeping after having drunk to much just like he had done two years ago when he was also assigned this shift. Instead of heading down directly he went the other way to the ledge which the boys dared each other to jump to. He never participated in their games, not wanting them or the guards to know how good he was at them. From the ledge it was a small jump into the pigsty underneath, the smell could attract the guards he knew. But it wasn’t the guards he was worried about. Since it was the hounds he needed to outrun.

This is an intimidating block of text so make sure to use more paragraphs. Openings focusing on today being “the day” are common enough that I would almost consider them a trope. Try to pull the reader into the moment. There is a lot of telling and general explanation, but I’d like to see more scene setting and more introspection to orient the reader to what’s happening right now. Without establishing his status quo, his desire to escape will be harder to relate to so you might be starting the novel too late.

According to the humans, who are even taller than sheep and live in round houses up on the moor, bad omens are everywhere.

If you find a dead mouse on the beach, they say, the sea will rise up and swallow you.

If you meet a stranger with green hair, they say, it’s best to tell him a long-held secret to stop him cursing you with forgetfulness. Of course, you don’t have to, but asking for directions to your own house can be embarrassing – especially if you’re standing right outside it at the time.

The most feared omens, however, are those that happen but once in a thousand years. No one remembers what they foretell and so they could foretell anything.

Right now, it was this kind of omen that bothered Hamish of the Lost Clan.

True, he happened to be dragging a dead mouse across the beach by its tail, but he hadn’t actually found it on the beach and, yes, he happened to have green hair, but that was just coincidence. He couldn’t curse anybody if he tried.

To be on the safe side, though, he whispered a secret to the freezing night; the only one he was sure his foster-father didn’t know:

‘I love the wildcats. I love them no matter who they ate when I was three.’

I think this is a cute idea for a setup and it’s definitely intriguing. “Of course, you don’t have to” confused me initially because I thought a new point was being made and didn’t initially realize the subject was still being cursed with forgetfulness. Cutting that line would avoid confusion and improve the flow.

The writing feels a tad mature for middle grade, but if you’re shooting for upper middle grade and things become clearer after this setup, I think it should be okay. Do you mean that the mouse has green hair? It doesn’t make sense to me that he would tell a secret to himself because he himself has green hair (which is how I read it initially).

It was a dark and spooky night—actually it wasn’t. Not at all, but Hector wished it were.

Hector was a ghost and dark spooky nights were his favorite sort of night. Instead of wailing winds, there was a warm breeze. Instead of crunchy leaves, summer blossoms covered the gardens. There were no scary faces carved into vegetables. In their place, tiki torches were lit to keep the mosquitos at bay. It wasn’t even night but evening stretching on and on, the better for cookouts and neighbor gatherings.

Hector floated about to try and scare who he could. But the children were too busy chasing fireflies to watch for ghosts. Wondering what was interesting about lightning bugs, Hector chased a few himself. He even caught a few. They blinked their little lights inside his sheet giving him a fluttery tickle he didn’t much like.

No, it was as far from dark or stormy as a night could get.

But wait!

He heard laughter and saw smoke, was that a witch conjuring? Hector followed the black cloud to a collection of tables. A gathering of people crowded around a fire.

Cute idea, but I think it’s leaning towards too young for MG. Hector’s behavior and the description of children chasing fireflies has me imagining picture book age children rather than middle grade kids. “Was that a witch conjuring?” also feels like a picture book style question leading to a funny punchline.

“Carved into vegetables” could add unnecessary confusion when “pumpkins” would be much clearer. “But evening stretching on” reads just a little bit awkward. “Neighbor gatherings” seems a little off and perhaps “neighborhood gatherings” would read smoother. “Dark and spooky” changes to “dark and stormy” so make sure to pick one or the other.

Click, click. Clickety, click. Ordinary birds don’t make that sound – do they? Blaze had one sky – blue eye peeking out from behind his book. Flapping around his room was a bird, not like one he had ever seen before. It was a tiny humming bird made from glimmering – silver. It stopped and hovered over his bed, its jade – green eyes focusing on him. Strangely, its body started convulsing, then it opened its clicking mouth. Out fell a small silver cube. It tumbled across his bed. Cooper his scruffy, grey terrier barked at his door. The bird was gone. It zoomed out of his partially opened window. For the first time in about four months he wanted to gaze out. Tossing the book, he had been reading, grabbing the cube, he leapt up and ran across his room. Opening the curtains fully, the sun streamed through, momentarily blinding him. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the light, he was able to look out across the harbour. The tide was out and the hulls of the fishing boats were resting on the sand. On one boat, was a small flock of black cormorants making their normal gurgling sounds. A grey seal was basking in the sun. Looking up into the distance, he saw the snow – capped mountains, which lay in a great line, like a spine of a sleeping dragon. Far above, a large falcon stooped towards its unsuspecting prey. No sign of the silver bird.

This paragraph is a daunting wall of text and needs to be broken up into several paragraphs. “Blaze had one sky-blue eye peeking out” is awkward and causes the reader to stumble. Work on cutting out or moving details that don’t matter (Cooper, not looking out the window in a while).

Orienting the reader to the current world is a good idea before you introduce fantasy or strange elements. Without a sense of what things are usually like, the reader doesn’t know how to interpret this event. Pace the writing by giving the reader a moment to interpret what’s happening by having your character react to each new event. This will also give us a better sense of the tone/emotion of the scene.

Soccer tryouts were going fine until Elijah kicked a ball into my face and knocked me flat my back.
Coach Madison materialized above me, blocking the sun. “Eldridge, you alright?”
“Fine,” I mumbled, sitting up. My head spun.
“Stevenson!” Coach yelled across the field at Elijah, throwing his hands up. The scrimmage had stopped and all eyes were on me. “What was that?”
“Sorry, Coach!” Elijah yelled back. Then he gave me a look that made it perfectly clear that, no, he was not sorry. I glared at him and my head throbbed in response. I was gonna get him back for this.
Coach turned back to me. “Alright, off to the nurse with you, Eldridge.”
“What? No, I’m fine!” I staggered to my feet and stumbled into him. That didn’t help my case. “I can play!”

Without any context as to why soccer tryouts are meaningful to the character, there’s nothing to connect to in this scene. There is no demonstration of Eldridge’s personality. Ultimately, I don’t think you have much of a hook here, though perhaps it could work if these tryouts are emotionally meaningful and if you convey that to the reader (or at least hint at it).

“Don’t ask about his tattoos. That’s the main rule this summer. Just don’t ask about his tattoos. Do you understand?”

Grayson jerked his head up. He stared at his mother’s face in the rearview mirror, moved his eyes back to his phone, and continued to flip through the screens. He heard Makayla sigh, but she didn’t move; as usual, she was glued to her tablet.

“Grayson, I expect a response when I speak to you,” his mother snapped. “Do you understand the rules when you’re with your grandfather and that woman? I want no problems this summer. I don’t want to drive all the way back out to this wilderness before school starts. If you get into trouble out here… well, don’t.”

I love the hook about the tattoos, but I think you’d have better luck with it if you followed it up in a playful or intriguing way.

“Flip through the screens” doesn’t really mean anything. Be specific about what you’re describing. Is he looking through photos or apps? It’s important you can demonstrate an ability to be up with the times enough to convince MG readers they’re reading about a modern kid. “I expect a response when I speak to you” seems like an outdated phrase. “That woman” makes things feel a bit too tense. The vibe isn’t clear. Make it fun or make it emotional, but let the young reader know how they’re meant to be feeling.

45, Dover Gardens, London

The markings were beautiful, inexplicable and useless. Well, maybe not useless, Ayo thought. She and Femi had become close as a result of them.
It had all started when Ayo was five, and Femi, her brother, was fourteen.
Ayo and her mother had been sitting on a bus when Ayo saw her ‘illustration’ for the first time. It was summer, she was wearing a shoulderless top, and the bus happened to have video cameras. The on-board video screens showed the illustration spread across her upper back. It was the most beautiful piece of body art anyone could imagine: it showed a bird, perched on a rocky outcrop, preening itself, its beak darting in among its plumage. The artist, if there was one, had used needles with the finest points to capture the layering of the feathers. Most mysteriously of all, the bird was moving, as if in a film.
In her delight Ayo said, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful! How long have I had it? Why didn’t you tell me I had a tattoo?’
I like that you’re raising mystery about the tattoo, but the writing is a bit too vague/sparse for the reader to understand what’s going on.

The first sentence is going to be quite daunting for MG readers. A stronger initial hook would be one that focuses on how she didn’t know she had a tattoo.

I’m not sure why you’re referring to a tattoo as an “illustration” but it makes it harder for the reader to understand what’s going on.

On the last day of her life, Empress Katharina Agathea stood tall against the skyline of her burning capital, watching the siege engines of the rebellion tear the city apart. It was hard to believe from the eerily calm confines of the palace, but after a century of world peace, the Agathea Empire was finally coming to an end.

“My Empress” Adrian said, as he entered the room with an unseen bow.

The Empress acknowledged his presence, slightly turning her head to that familiar voice.
“Ser Adrian. Excuse me, I was lost in thought.”

Adrian remained quiet, running his eyes over the black dress that graced the white marble floor of her dressing room. She was supposed to have put on the padding of her armour by now, so that he could assist her in securing the plates.

“It’s quite beautiful isn’t it…?” she said, trailing off, letting her hands glide over the embroidered silk. A sparkle could be seen lighting up in her eyes, as if a particularly happy memory played out right in front of her. Perhaps she even heard the music of a ball room, felt her body glide across the floor, saw the gentle face of a lover smile down on her. Then, as quickly as it appeared, it was gone again. “I’m afraid I can’t get out of it myself,” she said, her view again fixed on the burning outline of the city.

Adrian approached her without hesitation and began untying the cross-stitched laces on the back. With a pounding heart, he revealed her freckled white skin underneath.

The writing is clean, but nothing about this feels like middle grade. I’m assuming you chose the wrong age group.

Starting with an empire falling is fairly common in fantasy and can feel a bit generic. I think it would be great to throw in some worldbuilding that’s unique to your story or to raise questions about the character or situation to help this opening stand out.