Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

The Sameness of Sheep

Once, when I dis­cussed my work-in-progress, mid­dle-grade nov­el with my agent, I told her the char­ac­ter was eleven. “Make her twelve,” she said. “But eleven-year-olds aren’t the same as twelve-year-olds,” I protest­ed. “Those are dif­fer­ent ages.” “Make her twelve,” she insist­ed. “The edi­tor will ask you to change it any­way.”

I didn’t fin­ish the book (don’t have that agent any­more, either). The age argu­ment took the wind out of my sails. I under­stood the reasoning—create old­er char­ac­ters to get the most bang for the mid­dle-grade buck by snar­ing younger read­ers. Bet­ter yet, stick the char­ac­ter in mid­dle school.

The true mid­dle-grade nov­el is for read­ers eight to twelve with some over­lap. Chap­ter books for sev­en- to ten-year-olds bisect the low­er end of mid­dle grade. “Tween” books, aimed at twelve- to four­teen-year-olds, strad­dle the gap between MG and YA. If my char­ac­ters are twelve, I hit the mid­dle grade and tween tar­get and every­body wins. Maybe not.

At our pub­lic library, I pulled more than a dozen new MG nov­els off the shelves. Opened each book, checked the age of the main char­ac­ter. Twelve. Twelve. Eleven! No, wait, turn­ing twelve in the next chap­ter. While the char­ac­ters and sto­ries were all dif­fer­ent, there was a sheep­like same­ness read­ing about twelve-year-olds.

It wor­ries me. Pub­lish­ers con­tribute to push­ing ele­men­tary school chil­dren as quick­ly as pos­si­ble into mid­dle school. Where are the mid­dle-grade books about a ten-year-old char­ac­ter? An eight-year-old char­ac­ter? Ah, now we’ve backed into chap­ter book ter­ri­to­ry.

Charlotte's WebSup­pos­ed­ly, kids pre­fer to “read up” in age. This assumes that, say, fifth graders want to know what to expect when they’re in eighth grade. (Lord help them.) Read­ing about a char­ac­ter who is two or three years old­er might gen­er­ate anx­i­ety in some read­ers. And they may dis­dain short­er, sim­pler chap­ter books.

In the past, before pub­lish­er and book­store clas­si­fi­ca­tions, age wasn’t much of an issue. Wilbur is the main char­ac­ter in Charlotte’s Web, although the book opens with Fern sav­ing him. Fern is eight, a fact men­tioned on the first page. Does any­one care what grade Fern is in once he lands in Zuckerman’s rich­ly-depict­ed barn­yard?

The Year of Billy MillerMore recent­ly, Kevin Henkes broke the “age” bar­ri­er with his ter­rif­ic mid­dle grade nov­el, The Year of Bil­ly Miller (2013). Fuse 8’s Bet­sy Bird com­pared it to Bev­er­ly Cleary’s Ramona books. Bil­ly is sev­en and start­ing sec­ond grade, a char­ac­ter nor­mal­ly found in a briskly-writ­ten, low­er-end chap­ter book. Yet Bil­ly Miller clocks in at a grand 240 pages. Bird prais­es Henkes, “[He] could have … upped his hero’s age to nine or ten or even eleven. He didn’t. He made Bil­ly a sec­ond grad­er because that’s what Bil­ly is. His mind is that of a sec­ond grad­er … To false­ly age him would be to make a huge mis­take.”

Tru and NelleAuthor G. Neri took on a big­ger chal­lenge. In Tru & Nelle (2016), the char­ac­ters are sev­en and six. This hefty MG explores the child­hood friend­ship between Tru­man Capote and Harp­er Lee. Neri chose fic­tion rather than biog­ra­phy because, as he states in his author’s note, “[This] sto­ry was born from real life.” He didn’t shy away from writ­ing a lengthy, lay­ered book about a first and sec­ond grad­er.

We need more books fea­tur­ing eight-, nine-, ten-year-old char­ac­ters that are true mid­dle grade nov­els and not chap­ter books. Chil­dren grow up too fast. Let them linger in the “mid­dle” stage, find them­selves in books with char­ac­ters their own age.

Let them enjoy the cycle of sea­sons, “the pas­sage of swal­lows, the near­ness of rats, the same­ness of sheep.” Soon enough, they’ll race away from the barn­yard and into mid­dle school.

4 Responses to The Sameness of Sheep

  1. Cynthia November 3, 2017 at 11:27 am #

    Well said! I couldn’t agree more– on the need for more books with sev­en, eight, nine, and ten year-olds AND the same­ness of 12-year-old char­ac­ters right now. I have a WIP with an as-yet-un-aged pro­tag­o­nist for this very rea­son– she isn’t twelve .… And as a for­mer librar­i­an, I always felt the hole there.

    • Candice Farris Ransom November 15, 2017 at 5:46 pm #

      Thank you for your encour­age­ment. I’m read­ing new mid­dle grade nov­els, but there are SO many angsty sev­enth-grade char­ac­ters. Of course this is what’s sell­ing, and I’m run­ning in the oth­er direc­tion.

  2. David LaRochelle November 3, 2017 at 4:47 pm #

    Here, here, Can­dice! Excel­lent insight!

    • Candice Farris Ransom November 15, 2017 at 5:47 pm #

      Thanks, Dave! There are oth­er kids out there that need to be reached!

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