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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Middle Grade Novels

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.

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The Crossover

The Crossover Kwame Alexan­der Houghton Mif­flin Har­court From the moment I began read­ing this poet­ry col­lec­tion, I knew it was a dif­fer­ent type of book because the rhythms, the cadence, were infused with ener­gy and aware­ness. The Crossover is pri­mar­i­ly free verse, with a few hiphop, rhyth­mic poems that change up the action. The nar­ra­tor, […]

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Gifted: Up All Night

My moth­er had the knack of giv­ing me a book every Christ­mas that kept me up all night … after I had opened it on Christ­mas Eve. I par­tic­u­lar­ly remem­ber the “oh-boy-it’s-dark-outside” year that I received The Lord of the Rings and accom­pa­nied the hob­bits into Woody End where they first meet the Nazgul, the […]

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Discussing the Books We’ve Loved: Déjà Vu

As I ready this arti­cle for pub­li­ca­tion, I am sit­ting in the cof­fee shop where I first met Heather Vogel Fred­er­ick, now a much-admired author of some of my favorite books. I still enjoy get­ting caught up in a series, accept­ing the like­able and not-so-like­able char­ac­ters as my new-found cir­cle of friends, antic­i­pat­ing the treat […]

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Reading Ahead

A Streak of Gold in the Reading Pile

There are times when the read­ing pile pro­vides a streak of can’t-put-the-book-down read­ing. It gets me all whipped up about read­ing, writ­ing, authors, illus­tra­tors … and I respect all the play­ers in this equa­tion, the cre­ators as well as the read­ers who get to play in the words. I’ve just recent­ly been on such a […]

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Farm livin’ is the life for me

If you rec­og­nize that quote,* you might have a some­what warped idea of what liv­ing on a farm is all about. It’s the first day of the Min­neso­ta State Fair, which lasts for 12 days, and began 147 years ago as an homage to farm­ing and all the ways we depend on The Land. In […]

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A reading path from Japan to America

My explo­ration began when a young man, aged 7, rec­om­mend­ed that I read Ship­wrecked! the True Adven­tures of a Japan­ese Boy (Rho­da Blum­berg, Harper­Collins, 2001). The title sprang imme­di­ate­ly to his mind when I asked him what he’d read late­ly that was good. Find­ing a copy, I opened it and began read­ing, real­iz­ing that this […]

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Writer’s honor

I’m read­ing Heather Vogel Frederick’s newest book, Pies & Prej­u­dice (Simon & Schus­ter), the fourth book in the Moth­­er-Daugh­­ter Book Club series. The girls are four­teen in this book. Their book club is read­ing Jane Austen’s Pride & Prej­u­dice this year and a num­ber of excit­ing plot devel­op­ments make this a page-turn­er. Near the end […]

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The Nature of Humor

I’ve been pon­der­ing the many ques­tions I have about the nature of humor as the Chap­ter & Verse Book Clubs pre­pare to dis­cuss next week the book Fun­ny Busi­ness: Con­ver­sa­tions with Writ­ers of Com­e­dy, com­piled and edit­ed by Leonard S. Mar­cus (Can­dlewick Press). Wher­ev­er we go, teach­ers and librarians—and parents—ask for more fun­ny and light-heart­ed […]

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Baseball Crazy

Yup. I admit it. I am base­ball crazy. I have been since my mom took me to games at Met­ro­pol­i­tan Sta­di­um in Bloom­ing­ton, Min­neso­ta, to see the new­ly arrived Min­neso­ta Twins. And this year the Twins have out­door base­ball for the first time since 1982. It’s no won­der “base­ball aware­ness” is height­ened at this time […]

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Jordan Sonnenblick

Some­times it’s about being behind in my read­ing. I’m final­ly get­ting to the lev­el in my read­ing pile occu­pied by Jor­dan Sonnenblick’s Drums, Girls, & Dan­ger­ous Pie. In truth, I’ve moved the book down a few times, not feel­ing strong enough to read a book about leukemia. I’m sure you understand—there are cer­tain times when […]

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