The Care and Feeding of Middle Grade Readers

Currently the ccbc-net discussion group is considering the following topic:

Rebirth of Middle Grade Fiction:  Yes, young adult literature continues to outpace middle grade in terms of numbers, but we’ve noticed lately that tucked between the seemingly endless volumes of y.a. angst, dystopias and romance (supernatural and otherwise) is a growing number of solid middle grade novels. During the first half of July, we’ll talk about middle grade fiction on CCBC-Net: inviting you to share how do you define it, what makes a great middle grade read, and some of your recent favorites.

Since I have been an elementary classroom teacher for decades now, I figured I’d weigh in on this beginning with the question of definition. Already some have suggested (go here to subscribe if you are interested in following or participating in the conversation) that these readers include early teens while others suggest those just moving into chapter books should also be considered. That is too broad for me. I see middle grade readers as those in grades 4-6, so approximately ages 9-12. These are kids who have the nuts and bolts of reading under their belts and are now able to focus more exclusively on content; kids who are working out the sort of readers they are, exploring different genres, seeing the pleasure of reading; kids who are heading we hope toward a lifetime of reading.

This being a time when children are often dealing with the complications of friendship, cliques, mean peers, and other relationship situations, these young readers often gravitate to stories involving these issues. Some of these can be quiet and interior-focused while others can be loud and very much out in the world. For some kids, contemporary stories, often school-centered, are what appeal while for others it is those set in other worlds, say a fantasy one or one set in the past, that are the attraction. Most prefer strong pacing and plots, be they about kids dealing with a bully in school, a sad family situation, or saving the world from something highly evil. Humorous books, graphic novels, and even picture books for older readers are all highly successful ways of engaging this age group.

As for the next question, what makes a great middle grade read? —- for me it is great writing. Unique and engaging plots, well-developed characters that encourage empathetic responses, and well-crafted sentences all figure into what I admire most in works of fiction for this age group. And the best of the best for me is that iconic American children’s book E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (#1 on Betsy Bird’s latest chapter book poll). I’ve written realms about this book so won’t go on about it here other than to say that years of rereading and teaching it has me considering it one of the most perfect children’s books ever written. What it and other great middle grade readers offer are not only great plotting, characterization, and writing, but themes that are compelling, moving, and age-appropriate. That is, kids of this age are contemplating death, the circle of life, friendship, changes, growing older, and the other ideas so beautifully considered in this wonderful book. In fact, White features some of these in his other two books for children, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan, along with another important topic for this age group, family.

And then there is the final question –what are some of my recent fictional favorites?  (To see some of my 4th grade students’ recent favorites please check out this post filled with them.) Here are ten of many more.

Five from last year:

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright. This was a great hit when I read it aloud to my fourth graders last year. Writers often reference people, ideas, and such as Easter eggs for adult readers and indeed this book is full of clever Dickensian bon motes, but they stand alone as clever bits of writing all by themselves. Take the opening, introducing the cat hero, “He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.”  You don’t need to know the reference to enjoy it and my students certainly did.  A grand romp with a heart and delightful writing.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. I never wrote a proper review of this one (although I did suggest it as a possible Newbery winner), but after reading it aloud to my class this past year many of them included it in their summer reading suggestions. One wrote that it “…is an fantastic book for kids that are interested in adventures, laugh-out-loud, exciting books. Jack Gantos puts himself in a child character, who goes on throughout a classic plot story, including gripping chapters, amazing twists, and possibly murder? It also gives your imagination a boost, and makes you want to relate to it after.”

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. I tend to be wary of verse novels, but was taken in immediately when reading this powerful story of immigration based on the author’s own childhood. From the first page set in 1975 Vietnam to the last in Alabama, I was utterly engaged throughout as were my students.  It was one of several books they chose from for a unit on immigrant historical fiction and it ended up being so popular I did not have enough. Several children were so eager to read it they bought their own copies rather than selecting one of the other available books. One child was so inspired by the form that she used it when writing her own work of historical fiction.

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami. I was charmed by this Bollywood-inspired tale. In a review I wrote “Young readers will delight in this upbeat and entertaining tale, identifying with Dini as she meets new friends, gets to know her new town, and solve a mystery as well. Along the way they will get a taste of life in one small part of India, complete with monkeys, movie lore, and some absolutely scrumptious-sounding curry pastries.”

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. In a blog review I wrote, “As  he did with the Caldecott winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret … Selznick uses a unique mix of text and images to create a singular reading experience for children. There are two separate stories here, one told entirely in illustrations and the other in words. Set in different time periods, these tales of a mysterious girl and an unhappy boy twist and twirl around each other in nature, in museums, in New York City, finally coming together in a dramatic, moving, and satisfying ending.”

Five from this year:

Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey.In this post I wrote that “Egg [main character] tells his own story with humor and a  likable lack of self-pity. There is adventure galore as he goes from one cliffhanger (one is literally a cliffhanger) to the next and wit as well. For it is Rodkey’s writing that made this rise for me above the others of its type — a dry sense of humor, the sort of throw-away lines Dickens does so well, great pacing, and excellent world building.”  The first in a series (something this age group loves).

Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger. From my blog review: “So wacky this is (as another beloved Angleberger character might say) in the best way which is no easy feat. For funny is incredibly hard to pull off; what has me guffawing can just as easily leave another reader cold and vice versa. As someone who too often has been left cold by silliness I was wary when I started this one, but within pages I was completely won over.”  My students fought over the copies of this one.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. On goodreads I wrote, “Completely and utterly charming!” while one of my students wrote that it  “…is about Mo, a girl who loves mysteries. So when a strange detective comes to town, and an old man is murdered, she’s on the case with her friend Dale. This book is great if you adore action. Three Times Lucky is one of those books that has big parts that you know something’s going to happen but you don’t know what.”

Wonder by R. J. Palacio.  On goodreads I wrote, “I went a bit kicking and screaming into the reading of this one because I thought — yet another soppy sad story of a kid with a serious problem. Not to mention realistic school stories too often feel forced to this veteran classroom teacher. But as I read further into it I was completely taken in. This is a truly lovely story and beautifully, beautifully told. The movement between different characters’ points of view is nicely done. The children and adults all seem real as can be, not a one seemed a straw man or someone pontificating a moral. There were moments when I was brought to tears, but they were genuine moments, not a one felt overly sacharine or manipulative. Nothing, in fact, is the slightest bit manipulative in this book.”  Kids and teachers love this one for good reason.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead. I wanted to stick to books already available, but this one is out in a few weeks and to my mind exemplifies the best of what a middle grade book is so I’m putting it here anyway. The main character is in 7th grade, but in my experience, 4th graders like reading about those a bit older than themselves. The writing here is spare, elegant perfection; the characters well-developed and sympathetic; the plot a fascinating mystery. More when the book is out, but trust me — this is one gorgeous middle grade read.

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21 Comments

Filed under Charlotte's Web, Children's Literature, In the Classroom

21 responses to “The Care and Feeding of Middle Grade Readers

  1. Herein lies the hard part of being a middle school librarian. I agree that most MG books are intended for a grades 4-6. My school covers grades 6-8. Hard to find books for all!

    • I can imagine that this is challenging. Especially, as others have pointed out, not all kids fit neatly into this definition and will want to read older, younger, and whatnot all at the same time.

  2. I wanted to mention two verse novels for middle graders about immigration – and many other things – that I love. Both are by Maria Testa: one is Becoming Joe DiMaggio, and the other is Something About America. I find both powerful and beautiful, but they didn’t get a lot of attention when they came out. I wonder if you and your students might find them engaging.

  3. This is how I define MG books as well. There are kids, of course, who get there earlier and stay there longer than the age parameters so I like the way you worded the definition in your first paragraph. Perfect.

  4. What a fantastic article. I couldn’t have explained middle grade and what is so great about it any better than you have here. Thanks a bunch. I’ve read some of the books you recommend, but I need to run and read the rest now.

  5. I totall agree that Charlotte’s Web is the perfect middle grade book. E.B. White was an amazing writer. Have you ever read his essays written for adults? Also perfect!

  6. This is great inside information! I am a middle grade author, and it’s incredibly helpful to get these insights into what makes a compelling 4th-6th grade novel. Thanks!

  7. I tend to think of middle grade as 4-8, for no particularly good reason. It’s always a definition in process, and even individual students may be middle grade one day and switch to something else the next. Good try at pinning it down a bit!

    • I guess I feel that things start to really change of kids at around 7th grade. At least that is my experience. I’m in a 4-8 middle school and the 7th and 8th graders are pretty separate in many ways from the younger kids.

  8. Hi! Wonderful post. I also think Charlotte’s Web is the most perfect children’s book ever written. In fact, I think it is the most perfect book ever written in the whole English language! One thing that distinguishes middle-grade literature for me is that it is the only literature that always puts its audience above its own ego. A great book for children is wonderful, because it so clearly had a child in mind. Whereas, a book of contemporary adult literature, for instance, is trying to comment on society in general, or express of a sense of self, and it is so easy, if the writer is not careful, for the waters to be muddied! When we write for a child, truly, there is a jewel at the center of the work.
    (Oh, I wrote a post about Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, which is kind of an odd piece of children’s literature, because it also has a “message”: I’d love for you to take a look.)

    Best,
    Jewell

    http://www.laneshasays.com/2012/07/10/definitions-of-historical-fiction-sadakos-paper-cranes/

    • Jewell, thanks a million for this really thoughtful comment. Loved your definition of middle grade as “…the only literature that always puts its audience above its own ego.” However, I do have to stay that not all of the works for this age group do this successfully. While I’m not sure where I stand on Charlotte’s Web being the best in the English language (as there are others I also love), but do think it is one of the best of all American literature. I will check out your post. Thanks again, for this.

  9. Ditto to everything! I, too, think Liar & Spy near perfect…. have big hopes for that one. I liked Wonder, but think L & S is better. I think Gary Schmidt’s books stand out for the upper end of this age group–more the 11-13 category maybe. That might be a direction for those serving slightly older middle grade audiences. Can’t wait to read his latest offering.

    • I completely agree with you about Gary’s works. I was on the committee that awarded a Newbery honor to The Wednesday Wars which I still adore unreservedly (even more than Okay for Now much as I like it). In this case I tried to feature books for those in the lower and middle of this age group as I feel they often get forgotten with the overfocus on kids at the upper end.

      • You’re right–I love that 4th-6th group of works and I’m pleased to see shorter works like Liar & Spy continuing to grace the scene. So many times we see such LONG books published. Incidentally, I think Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a good fit for this group and can’t wait to see what Lin’s newest is like. It’s a nice break from the usual “fantasy” fare.

  10. Thank you for a great article … very motivational for an aspiring middle-grade author. I agree that good writing at the sentence level is so important, even in the presence of good characters. I also like how you acknowledge that even illustrated books can still be relevant for this group, in addition to graphic novels, novels and the other forms and genres you mention. Certainly, for me at that age, I found that even collections of newspaper-type comics could be very compelling when there was the occasional extended storyline that told me something new about a character.

  11. Pingback: Coming Soon: Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy | educating alice

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