Saturday, April 19, 2014

In praise of Middle Grade

The books, that is. Not the ages/grades in school, as the middle school years were not my favorite at all.

But I wanted to take a moment to talk about the great middle grade novels that are out there. So often the attention in children's literature these days is on Young Adult novels, where there is a lot of activity and there are some incredibly good books being published (Code Name Verity, The Book Thief, and The Fault in our Stars, to name just a few.)

However, there are also some incredibly good books in middle grade that are worthy of attention by both grown-ups and children. I read almost exclusively in the MG and YA age ranges and have found there are some reasons why at times I prefer middle grade to YA. One primary reason is that while YA authors seem to be encouraged to, perhaps even required to by their publishers, push boundaries and hold little if anything back, middle grade authors are not trying to shock and awe. At least not in that way. They may like to throw in plot twists and turns that you didn't expect and thus find shocking, but not thematic boundary pushing as is the case in many YA titles these days.*

First, in case you were looking for a definition, the SFWA website has a decent cut at the way publishers look at MG versus YA.

For me, it's easiest to think of it in terms of grades and age ranges. Middle grade books are generally designed to be appealing to readers in 3rd or 4th through 8th grades, or about 8-13 years old. As an adult, though, I find the books plenty appealing and I suspect you will, too.

Here are a few recent favorites, in no particular order.

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen - I just finished listening to on audiobook and I really enjoyed it. I listened to it much faster than I usually get through an audiobook, having found many excuses to listen over this past week. My closets have never been this clean!

The Mark of the Dragonfly is a great steampunk-ish book about a girl mechanic in a strange world where meteors rain from the sky. My children attended a pre-publication event that featured this debut author and I'll have the opportunity to meet her this week when she visits their school. Jaleigh Johnson
has written a different kind of book than what I usually see in the middle grade range and it's tremendously appealing. A big story that manages to maintain it's focus on a small cast with big problems and achieve plot and characterization objectives many books can only reach at blindly.

Stoneheart (and sequels) by Charlie Flecher was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had reading middle grade. The reading experience was second only to the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pulman, known by the first book in the series, The Golden Compass. This is not a series for the faint of heart, as it touches on deep, deep themes of life, love, faith, loss. But the series concludes in such a satisfying way, even if the ending is poignant and bittersweet versus unicorns and rainbows.

Some authors we've been huge fans of for most of forever that you should totally look into:
- Shannon Hale
- Sarah Prineas (I've recently re-read The Magic Thief for maybe the third or fourth time. It holds up well to the re-reading.)
- Diana Wynne Jones
- Tamora Pierce (though some of her books start to reach into mature content…meaning some of her characters have "fade to black" sex or discussions of "women's matters." We find these great discussion starters at home, your mileage may vary. Libraries shelve her books in different areas - sometimes with children's, sometimes with YA.)
- Patricia C. Wrede
- Angie Sage (the Septimus Heap series)
- Jessica Day George
- Jenn Reese

You know…I was doing this off the top of my head and all the authors I can think of immediately here are female so I'm just going to leave the list as is because that's *awesome.* There are other great male authors of middle grade, both famous and up-and-coming (Rick Riordan, Curtis Jobling, ND Wilson, John Flanagan, Anthony Horowitz, Greg van Eekhout) but yeah, women are awesome.

So now you know my secrets - who are some of your favorite middle grade authors/books?

*Which, to be clear, is completely FINE with me, push those boundaries any which way you want! But as a reader there are certain areas I don't wish to explore in fiction, sexual violence for example. As a mother and a frequent book-recommender for children and their parents, I find it hard to recommend YA book titles to anyone younger than about 8th grade unless I've read the book myself.


  1. First of all, I apologize for posting my Q post from the A-Z challenge on The Prosers instead of on my personal blog. I was trying to hurry way too fast today I guess. I've fixed it.

    Second of all, you've caught most of our favorites. Brandon Sanderson is another one--he usually writes adult/YA, but his Alcatraz Smedry books are amazing middle grade. Also Brandon Mull, who writes Fablehaven.

    My favorite middle grade series right now is a crazy mishmash of totally famous authors--it is called Spirit Animals. Brandon Mull wrote the first one, Maggie Steifvater wrote the second, Garth Nix and Sean Williams wrote the third, and Shannon Hale wrote the fourth (it doesn't come out until July). My kids are in love with the premise and the world, and the video game that goes with the books. I believe there will be a bunch more books in the world as well.

  2. Good additions, Melanie! We've also enjoyed other multi-writer serieses in middle grade like the 39 Clues and offshoots, as well as the newer Infinity Ring series (I think James Dashner is the lead author on Infinity Ring. 39 Clues was Rick Riordan.)

    We're in <3 with Sanderson's adult stuff at the moment (the kids are old enough that we're crossing over sometimes) but haven't read the Alcatraz books before. His YA books (Steelheart, The Rithmatist) are favorites and as YA books go, don't push too many boundaries. I find them okay for ages 11 & up, depending on kid maturity (violence is the primary content area of concern.)

    I haven't ever read Brandon Mull if you can believe it. So many good books, so little time!

  3. MG is the best. I love everything by Louis Sachar, Beverly Cleary, and of course JK Rowling. I think MG is awesome also, because it's the genre that makes readers, so no matter what genre you write in, you should read MG to know what it is that hooked your readers.


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