The Magnificence of Middle Grade – why I read these books, why I write these books, and why these kids are awesome.

There are three boys under the bridge that spans the small creek at the end of my dead-end street. It is summer. They are all eight years old. It is a glorious age, eight.

“Our parents don’t know we’re here,” says one boy, not knowing that I am standing on the bridge, directly over his head.

“I know,” says another boy. “We’re on our own. Let’s never go back.”

Well, it’s happened again. A bunch of people who don’t read children’s literature with any frequency, passion or enthusiasm asked a bunch of other people who don’t think about children’s literature above the occasional passing interest, to name their “top YA novel”. These conversations always make me crabby. Because – and I must confess this bugs the spit out of me – once again we must wade through well-meaning comments demonstrating the rampant and weird conflation of YA and Middle Grade books.

There is a thing I must make clear: Middle Grade novels and Young Adult novels are not the same novels. To conflate the two is to dampen or derail the discussion. And really, what’s the point of a derailed discussion?

Listen, folks. Caddie Woodlawn is not YA. It’s Middle Grade. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is not YA. It’s Middle Grade. The Giver? Also Middle Grade. And Harry Potter (at least the first four books are MG – number five is squarely in YA territory). A Wrinkle in Time? Yup. That’s Middle Grade too.

This distinction is important because middle grade kids and teenagers are different. Their world views are different. The rules governing their lives are different. Their relationships are different. And while it is incredibly common for middle grade kids to “read up” and for teenage kids to “read down” (I know TONS of fourth graders who are huge fans of the Hunger Games trilogy, and I know TONS of teens who are huge fans of Terry Pratchett‘s The Wee Free Menand its tie-in novels), just as it is common for lots of kids – both middle grade kids and teens – to read grown-up books and dig the hell out of them,  it is important to read and understand each separate genre on its own terms. That’s what we do as readers – we categorize, evaluate, compare and understand. And then we read everything. Wildly.

The wildness is important.

It is raining. The sky is dark and dumping. Water streams in great gushes from the corners of the roofs. Fifteen kids, aged four to twelve, tear across a mud-soaked yard. The adults huddle in the closest living room, holding paper plates of pasta salads and barbecue and lemon bars in one hand and cans of beer that went warm hours ago in another.

“Come inside,” the adults say. “You guys are soaked.”

The kids, in mid-step, pause. They stare at their parents as though they have started speaking another language. Sumerian, maybe. Or Elvish. They continue running. No adult can tell what the game is. Only that it is insanely fun.

I read a lot of books. It’s an occupational hazard. I read grownuppy novels and nonfiction and poetry. I read folk tales and fairy tales from around the world. I read science fiction and fantasy. I read YA novels. I read picture books. I read theological texts. I read foundational scriptures of religions that are not my own. And I read Middle Grade novels. Lots and lots and lots and lots of them.

Could I pick a “very best one”? A “top novel”? Not on your life. I wouldn’t even hazard to try. And, in fact, the very idea is somehow, well, icky to me. It is a reductive, banal process that is the very opposite of what Middle Grade novels do for me. The Middle Grade novel, fundamentally, is the act of expansion. This is because middle grade kids, by their very natures, are expansive. They are wild, impulsive, intuitive, inscrutable, curious and contradictory. They speak in multitudes. They yawp. (And believe me, I live in a sea of kids. The collective YAWP from these children is as ubiquitous as air.)

I am listening to “Carmen”. It is magnificent, as usual. The nine year old in my house stops. Listens curiously.

“Did she just say, ‘egg roll’?” he says.

“No,” I say. “Hush. I’m listening.”

“And now she just said ‘Elmo.’”

And then he starts dancing. All rhythmic stamping and flying fingers and bony elbows and knobby knees. Bizet would have been amazed.

What fascinates me about these kids is how easily they transport themselves between their selves now and their selves as they will be. Somewhere around third grade, the notion that the lives that they know will one day fall away – that their child selves will cease to be and their adult selves will take their places – really starts to hit home. Ask any third grader what he or she wants to be when they grow up, and they will tell you approximately nine thousand things. Firemen and scientists and astronauts and doctors and presidents and marine biologists and bush pilots and park rangers and spies and cops and professional divers and janitors and teachers and inventors and acrobats and basketball players and actresses and “just famous”. Sometimes, all at once.

This is a thing I know for sure. When a middle grade kid sits down to read a novel, their adult selves are reading, too. The adult that kid imagines him or herself to be. The adult that will, one day, pick up that same book, and read it. And when we, as adults, pick up the books that we read as kids, our kid-selves are reading with us. Across time, across space, across experience and understanding, across universes, across dimensions, across everything boundless and wondrous and strange. Which means that these books, when done well, allow for that sense of concurrency. They allow our selves as kids and our selves as adults to reflect back at one another. I see you, the child says to the adult she will be. I see you too, the adult says the the child that he was. Both narrative lines, both sets of understandings, harmonize with one another. And it is a wonderful thing.

“What do you want to be when you grow up,” the eleven year old asks her seven year old cousin. They love each other, these girls. They are linked souls.

“I already am grown up,” the seven year old says. “I am already all the things.”

I love the kids of this age. I love everything about them. I love their humor and their silliness. I love their capacity for wonder. I love their bravery and their fears and their litany of worries. I love their valor. I love the boundlessness of their imaginations. I love their willingness to try. I love their willingness to connect. I love them in their big-heartedness and their shriveled soulishness and that both of those things can happen simultaneously. I love their selfishness and their selflessness, and that both of those things can also happen simultaneously. I love their dreams. I love their nightmares. I love  their very selves – their effable, ineffable, effa-ineffable, deep and inscrutable singular selves (apologies to Mr. Eliot).

I read Middle Grade novels. I write Middle Grade novels. I love Middle Grade novels. I spend a lot of time thinking about Middle Grade novels. I will never tell you which one was the very best of all. It is a ludicrous idea. I can tell you which books moved me. I could give you a list that is miles long. I could invite you to my house and hand you book after book, and talk each one up for hours. Because that, in the end, is what books do. They do not belong on lists – the belong in peoples’s hands. And in our hearts. And in our lives.

“WAIT,” one boy says.

“WHAT,” say the others.

It is negative five degrees. Not including the wind chill factor. They are standing on a frozen hillside. Their faces are red. Their upper lips are white with frozen snot. They are balanced on their snow boards, ready to go screaming into the sky. Speed and light. Black jackets. Bright scarves. A frozen landscape. A shattering white.

“We need to decide our superpowers.”

“You don’t need to decide your superpower. Your superpower shows itself to you. That’s how it works.”

But best of all, these novels give us, as grown-ups, an avenue and a tool to connect with middle grade kids - our own children, our neighbor kids, our nieces and nephews, our students, the kids we meet at the library, kids in our church, and, yes, the kids we used to be. These books lay out a blanket in the market square. They call out to all passers by - Come! the books shout Sit! Gather together! This is a story for all of you. Young people! Old people! People of middle age! Come and share and connect and laugh and weep and worry and wonder and live. When I talk to middle grade kids about the books that we have both read, we will talk about characters, and we will talk about amazing feats, and we will talk about jokes and ideas and scary parts and mind-blowing parts, but what we are actually saying is this: I see you. I feel with you. We have hearts and souls. We have compassion and grace. And look! We are so alive.

Next up: Stories Are For Everyone.

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8 thoughts on “The Magnificence of Middle Grade – why I read these books, why I write these books, and why these kids are awesome.

  1. That was brilliant, Kelly. Thank you.

    I always find it interesting when people mention The Book Thief in these kinds of lists. It’s a wonderful, important, beautiful book, of course, but it’s not really YA or MG, not IMHO. It was first sold as an adult novel in Australia, and sure, it sits on teen shelves here in the US, but that doesn’t make it a YA novel. With an eleven-year-old protagonist, and an ageless narrator, I think it defies categorization. Those are the best kinds of books.

    • Yeah, THE BOOK THIEF is an interesting example of a book that defies typical classifications. And maybe we call it children’s literature because of its careful deference to Story, in the grand sense. My fourteen year old often says that she reads adult books for good ideas and kid books for great stories. It makes me sad if such a thing were true – I don’t particularly see it. But perhaps these books like the book thief are part of a grander tradition – in which there are great stories and great ideas AND EVERYONE IS WELCOME.

      I love this bit from Phillip Pullman on the subject:

      “In the field of literature, story retreated. The books we talked about just now, Middlemarch, Bleak House, Vanity Fair — their authors were the great storytellers as well as the great artists. After modernism, things changed. Indeed, modernism sometimes seems to me like an equivalent of the Fall. Remember, the first thing Adam and Eve did when they ate the fruit was to discover that they had no clothes on. They were embarrassed. Embarrassment was the first consequence of the Fall. And embarrassment was the first literary consequence of this modernist discovery of the surface. “Am I telling a story? Oh my God, this is terrible. I must stop telling a story and focus on the minute gradations of consciousness as they filter through somebody’s…”

      “So there was a great split that took place. Story retreated, as it were, into genre fiction-into crime fiction, into science fiction, into romantic fiction-whereas the high-art literary people went another way.

      “Children’s books held onto the story, because children are rarely interested in surfaces in that sort of way. They’re interested in what-happened and what-happened next. I found it a great discipline, when I was writing The Golden Compass and other books, to think that there were some children in the audience. I put it like that because I don’t say I write for children. I find it hard to understand how some writers can say with great confidence, “Oh, I write for fourth grade children” or “I write for boys of 12 or 13.” How do they know? I don’t know. I would rather consider myself in the rather romantic position of the old storyteller in the marketplace: you sit down on your little bit of carpet with your hat upturned in front of you, and you start to tell a story. Your interest really is not in excluding people and saying to some of them, “No, you can’t come, because it’s just for so-and-so.” My interest as a storyteller is to have as big an audience as possible. That will include children, I hope, and it will include adults, I hope. If dogs and horses want to stop and listen, they’re welcome as well.”

      I like stories that welcome everybody.

  2. I didn’t really appreciate the fine difference between YA and Middle Grade until our son hit middle school. He’s a voracious reader, but more “adult” novels leave him cold. Out of desperation I made a deal with him, I’d read one of his novels for every one of mine that he read. So I discovered Darren Shan’s Demonata and Cirque du Freak series, and a few other odds and ends. So far he has not finished one of mine. From what I can gather, at 12 he is not quite ready to put up with 30k words of character development to get to the action. Most of the books he’s handed me leave me bored, an occupational hazard at this point as I can no longer read a novel without deconstructing it. They are as formulaic as, well the military action adventure stuff in my “guilty pleasure” reading pile.

    Then I started writing a MIddle Grade novel. Holy smokes they’re different. Your description of “wild” is spot on. It’s like getting on top of a spirited horse, and trying to go somewhere. Its also been a lot of fun.

    And, as usual, your descriptions are as entertaining as they are accurate. Thank you.

  3. I was a voracious reader…a gal-pal and I had fun reading contests….who read the most books. It wasn’t serious. I easily ploughed through 200 books within 6 months or so. I was 14 yrs. old. Way past middle grade. She was articulating feminist stuff..which all the other girl classmates –were politely puzzled. I was fascinated and not disagreeing with her! (of course I have a mother who is very stubborn and occasionally cussed in Chinese, like a fisherman).

    At middle grade, I felt powerful…a turning point as they say for girls 9-11 yrs. I was having fun biking, playing softball, doing art on my own and read tons of novels. I so remember that golden time in my life. Then it did become difficult.

    It’s useful memory ..because it’s helpful to know intuitively what one is naturally gifted/good.

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