I’m not sure how or why, but I didn’t read many middle grade novels between the ages of eight and twelve—the target age range for these books. I started out by reading Winnie the Pooh, Charlotte’s Web, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit with my mom. I then transitioned to reading chapter books such as the Amber Brown series on my own. Later, I jumped to books such as The House on Mango Street and Pride and Prejudice, as well as other Young Adult books. The only middle grade novels I recall reading were the Little House on the Prairie books and Harriet the Spy, although those are sometimes classified as chapter books.
In other words, I didn’t have much exposure to middle grade literature. In fact, it wasn’t until I took a class on children’s literature that I learned there is an entire dynamic market of books written for eight to twelve-year-olds. Unfortunately, I went into the course assuming, incorrectly, that middle grade books were simply like easier, even dumbed down versions of Young Adult novels. Without fully realizing it, I presumed that because they were written for a younger audience, middle grade works wouldn’t really deal with complex or heavy themes and characters, that they would stick to narratives such as getting your first bad grade in a class or transferring schools and being the new kid. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Since then, I have taken another class on children’s literature and interned at Pine Reads Review; these experiences have shown me what the middle grade market has to offer today, and it’s much more than playground and first-crush narratives. I have been pleased to discover that this MG literature is full of depth in its characters and the themes it explores, as well as replete with wonderful writing. For reference, I’ll describe some of my current favorites. The protagonist in R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is a kind, disabled boy who faces the cruelty of those who don’t understand people who are different. In The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson, the main character grapples with her identity as a Yaga, being tethered to a constantly-moving house, and the death of her parents when she was a baby. The Turnaway Girls is a fiercely feminist book with wonderfully lyrical writing and mystical mood throughout. Almost Paradise is a quirky novel that deals with complicated family dynamics, incarceration, and the meaning of home. Bridge to Terabithia, although not as current as the rest, is a wonderful novel that explores true friendship and adeptly navigates grief from the perspective of a child.
In high school, I loved YA and although I still really enjoy it, I now find myself connecting more with MG. In an interview with the author of The House with Chicken Legs, I asked Anderson what draws her to writing MG, and I believe her answer shines light on why I have started to appreciate it in college: “I do think I have perhaps found my place in Middle Grade. I love that time of life when you are first learning who you are and what sort of person you want to be. I am over forty but still feel like this inside!” Much like in your early twenties, from ages eight to twelve you begin to question how you fit in with and differ from others—parents, siblings, classmates, friends—as well as who you are as an individual. Although YA also explores themes of identity, I feel that middle grade does so from a perspective that still holds so much innocence and hope. Also, MG narratives don’t usually have threads of romance, sex, drugs, or physical which, although valuable in YA, can sometimes distract from other threads and themes.
I am excited to read more middle grade books and learn more from this pseudo genre that explores identity in such a refreshing and approachable manner.
PRR Writer, Alessandra De Zubeldia