“Did you have to dumb it down?” by Lauren DeStefano

A Curious Tale of the In-Between“Did you have to dumb it down?”


This—or variations of this—was the most common question I received when I announced that I had written a middle grade novel. Nobody asked me this when I pondered writing adult literature, or when I published books in the young adult range.


Each time I’m asked about dumbing down my stories for middle grade readers, it becomes clearer and clearer to me how desperately these books are needed. And how desperately this genre is needed.


Young readers see the world as brightly and as vividly as the rest of us. They see joy and they see tragedy. They experience loss, and they are a part of a family dynamic. They are fully realized. And they are just trying to make sense of the things they see and the things they feel.


Sometimes, the clearest explanation comes in the form of a book. A book is patient. It is quiet. A book does not say “that’s a silly question” or “why do you want to know about that?” Rather, a book is a friend. It tells a story and it understands its reader every bit as much as the reader comes to understand it.


Did I have to dumb it down for younger readers? Definitely not. Kids need a dumbed-down book like they need a moldy piece of broccoli in their left shoe. Kids need a way to make sense of the world. They need companionship. They need to laugh. To cry. To see all the triumphs and tragedies of the world reflected onto a page, sewn into a story that makes sense. They need a book that will help them to charge forward into their world, bolder and braver and more prepared.


They need to know that they aren’t alone.


Middle grade, for me, is not about creating a neat and safe version of life that won’t startle or confuse. It’s simply about life. Of all the things I’ve written, and attempted to write, middle grade has by far been the most fun, but it’s also where I learned the most.


Middle grade is the fuel for our young readers. And today’s young readers are the ones on a course to lead the world tomorrow. I want them to have access to everything they’ll need to know about their world and their selves laid out on the page. I want them to be bold and unafraid and well equipped when it’s their turn to take over the world.



Lauren DeStefano
is the
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Internment Chronicles and The Chemical Garden trilogy, which includes Wither, Fever, and Sever. She earned her BA in English with a concentration in creative writing from Albertus Magnus College