Middle Grade Saved My Life

Bad things were done to me when I was small. Lacking adequate physical defenses, I escaped into my imagination, where I could be all-powerful and the scariest monster was the witch in my closet. Imagination expands when exercised; mine grew strong and wily, 
and a pleasure to me, too, when the bad things were in abeyance.

It was noticed — my imagination — and praised until I was nine or so, when my mother started rebuking me for having too much of it. Perhaps I’d provoked her, paradoxically, by wandering in my chatter too close to truths that needed to stay secret. Whatever her reason, this was a blow to me — an attack on my best protection, and my joy.

I could have given up right then and withered away, and might have if it hadn’t been for books. Whatever else my family’s faults, they read. My mother took me each week to the library, where I was encouraged to wander freely through the children’s room, choosing whatever pleased me. On one wall were picture books for little kids; on the other walls, the books with chapters — “real” books, to my mind, or what we now call middle grade books. I flew through those middle grade books, six or more a week, finding solace and hope.

borrowers1 Middle Grade Saved My LifeConsider one of my favorite series, Mary Norton’s Borrower books, about people so tiny they could live under the floor, surviving on the gleanings of humans. Stacked matchboxes became a chest of drawers, a hatpin a weapon against threatening bugs, a potato enough food for weeks. What vast imaginations the Borrowers needed, to see a cutlery box as a possible boat, or a boot as a home. And even better — I understood this early on — what a vast imagination Mary Norton had needed to create the Borrowers. Or E. Nesbit the Psammead, Noel Streatfeild the Fossil sisters, C. S. Lewis the wardrobe, Norton Juster the tollbooth — the list was long and laden with riches.

My decision was made. Since splendid imaginings were too much for the real world, I threw in my lot with the authors and their creations, and stayed there until I grew up and no longer needed the shelter. By then, however, living without books had become impossible — the act of reading was as natural and essential to me as eating or sleeping. And so I read and read, and eventually I wrote a middle grade book of my own, but that is another story.

Not all children are treated as badly as I was, and for that we can be grateful. But all children have to work out the role of creativity, fantasy, and learning in their lives, often at the same age I was when books saved me — nine to twelve, the years for reading middle grade books. This is when children are moving toward an identity apart from their families but haven’t yet submerged themselves in peer groups. For these brief and wondrous years, they are individuals open to and ripe for the very best we can give them, including those books written just for them, books that invite them into the world outside their families, their schoolrooms, their own lives.

The list of middle grade books available these days is immeasurably longer and richer than when I was a child fifty years ago. Frank Cottrell Boyce, Christopher Paul Curtis, Kate DiCamillo, Polly Horvath, Grace Lin, Hilary McKay, Louis Sachar, Laura Amy Schlitz, Jerry Spinelli, Rebecca Stead, N. D. Wilson, Lisa Yee — these are only some of the authors writing superb books for middle graders. Into the midst of such treasure, however, creeps a troubling trend. The immense success of young adult books, written for teens and known to everyone as YA, has been overshadowing the quieter middle grade category and, in some cases, threatening to subsume it.

harriet the spy Middle Grade Saved My LifeFor example, a list of “The Greatest Girl Characters of Young Adult Literature,” published online by The Atlantic Wire in 2012, was made up almost entirely of middle grade stalwarts like Meg Murry, Harriet M. Welsch, Claudia Kincaid, and, even worse, those marvelous young girls our seven- and eight-year-olds read about: Ramona Quimby and Pippi Longstocking. I’m happy to say that a great outcry ensued, leading to a mea culpa from The Atlantic Wire, plus an excellent discussion of what exactly YA is (among other things, books written about and for teens, not children). Another example: a 2012 NPR online poll, “Best-Ever Teen Novels? Vote for Your Favorites,” got into a mess when it — correctly — rejected all the votes for middle grade books. Much complaining followed, which led to further explanations, which led to…more complaining. And still the mix-ups come, though not all are so public. Just ask any middle grade writer when was the last time he or she had to run the so-you-write-YA gauntlet. Then hold onto your hat.

Some of this confusion is understandable. Long before YA was dreamt of (most say sometime in the sixties), children’s books were written in which the characters grew from childhood into adolescence and even adulthood. To name a few: Little Women, the Anne of Green Gables series, the Betsy-Tacy series, and the Little House series. So should we now re-categorize them as YA? No. The children’s book world, if not the general public, is certain of that. Those books were written for children, are safe and appropriate for children, and would probably bore the socks off any teenager reading them for reasons other than a nostalgic return to her own childhood. Then there’s the more recent Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling’s behemoth, which brought on further category confusion by starting out in middle grade, then aging into YA as Harry himself aged into adolescence. On top of all that, not only is there the sad fact that middle grade is not as snappy and memorable a term as YA, it is also too often seen as a synonym for middle school, which is another thing altogether.

pippi goes on board Middle Grade Saved My LifeSo is all this confusion really a problem? Does it matter? Not in terms of teens or adults reading children’s books, or even of children reading YA books (the less sexual and violent ones, that is). But in terms of maintaining the boundaries of the middle grade category — so that children know where to go for books that address their particular lives — it matters a great deal. Not just to the children who are, like I was, unprotected and floundering, desperately in need of an imagination-filled haven. No, it matters to all children. As Monica Edinger wrote in response to the NPR brouhaha (“Stop Calling Books for Kids ‘Young Adult,’” November 2012 on the Huffington Post), “Those adults who enjoy reading young adult books today like to reminisce about their favorite teen reads. But when they include children’s books among them and call them YA, they are marginalizing the true readership of these books. My fourth grade students are children. They are not young adults.” Exactly. And, besides, claiming Ramona for YA is like your older sister borrowing your favorite sweater to go out with her boyfriend while you have to stay home with the babysitter. It’s just not right.

Those of us who write middle grade books are a proud bunch, certain that our work is important, that we’re building lifelong readers, maybe even saving lives. And we’re absolutely certain that we’re not a part of YA. Please help us keep the boundaries high and childhood safe for children. They need it, and we owe it to them.

From the May/June 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Jeanne Birdsall About Jeanne Birdsall

Jeanne Birdsall is the author of the acclaimed Penderwicks series. She spoke on this topic at the New York Public Library on February 2, 2013, as part of a panel moderated by NYPL children’s librarian Elizabeth Bird.

Comments

  1. Anne of Green Gables was written for adults, though, and I would hold that the latter eight Betsy-Tacy books were YA–written as YA, originally read as YA. In particular, Emily of Deep Valley, Carney’s House Party, Betsy and the Great World, and Betsy’s Wedding have little to offer the child reader. Thanks for the interesting piece, and for sharing a little about your life. I liked your latest book best so far, and look forward to your next offering.

  2. As an author of middle grade fiction, this essay inspired me. Growing up in Philadelphia, the middle grade books on the shelves of the Northeast Regional Library were my salvation. They are the reason I decided to become a writer when I was the ripe old age of ten. Of course, I didn’t sell my first novel for children until I was forty. Thanks for this essay, Jeanne Birdsall!

    • Joanne Friedman says:

      How nice to read your post about the positive influence that the NERL had on your life The Bushrod branch was the first place where I went by myself, since I walked to school in a group. The Betsy Tacy series and all the other books that I borrowed there were wonderful, and so was getting there and back home on my own. Thank you.

  3. Robbyn Riviere says:

    Thanks for this article. I have a middle school library. I have the difficult job of spanning the levels from middle grade fiction to YA. I was just feeling bad about the tenth student to ask me for 13 Reasons Why and having to explain that it was a high school book, when I saw your article. Thanks so much for reaffirming the value of children’s literature for children and really, for every reader. Why is it that the tragedies, violence, and sex of the YA world just seems so much more appealing for my sixth graders, not even to say my eighth graders? It is difficult to have a balanced collection that meets the needs of my readers from 6th through 8th grades. However, your words have reassured me that balance is important and the needs of the reader still immersed in the world of Ramona and the Penderwicks is just as valid as the needs of the reader looking for Pretty Little LIars.

  4. Joan Kane Nichols says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve written a novel that I know is upper middle grade, suited, I’d say, for ages 10 and up. My protagonist ages from 13-14 in the course of the story. An agent was interested. You’ll have to make it longer, she said, so we can sell it as a YA.

    It’s not a YA. Despite what the how-to-write-for-young-people books and blogs say, it’s not the protagonist’s age that define a novel’s category, but its plot, themes, and emotional/psychological concerns. I’ve looked at books in both middle-grade and YA categories in libraries and bookstores. Some books designated YA have protagonists as young as 12. Some middle-grades have protagonists who are 15.

    As to why children gravitate to YAs, I suspect it’s a combination of marketing and TV. The lure of pseudo-sophistication is hard for a ten to twelve-year-old to resist. Which is a shame. As you say, middle-grade novels are a richer source of inspiration and consolation for the issues children their age must contend with..

    By the way, I recently read the Penderwycks and loved it!

  5. Katherine Emmons says:

    Thanks for this. So important, and provides motivation to hold true!

  6. I couldn’t agree more! I am immensely proud to call myself a writer of middle grade novels, and to share with children in that most special time of life between childhood and adulthood.

  7. I’ve had acquaintances urge me to add swearing, sexual language, and the temptations of alcohol and drugs to a story I’m writing (which they haven’t read) because “it’ll broaden the audience.” When I point out that my protagonist is 11 and 3/4ths (as she herself would firmly point out) and that it’s not the kind of story that has a child that age dealing with those “audience broadening” topics, the acquaintances say that I must then add poop, vomiting and fart jokes. Sometimes I tip toward despair, but articles like yours bring me back to myself and the need to tell my story the way it’s meant to be for my particular 11 and 3/4ths character. Thank you for posting this.

  8. Yes, it’s about time someone said it. Are we forcing our children to grow up even in their cultural life? Children of eight years longing to read “Hunger Games”? The problem is incipient in middle grade children, however. They stand like Janus, looking back and forward at the same time. Their perception of adult issues is more acute than we often realise. Perhaps the really good middle grade writer is adept at translating those issues into their world, a kind of pre-teen think tank. We can’t stop middle grade children exploring anything out there, however. Perhaps they have their own filter system. Meanwhile, we must write on for this wonderful age group. An interesting post!

  9. Izzy S. says:

    I spent many afternoons in the middle grade section of my local library, browsing for books and discovering new authors. It’s so good to hear that people care about making sure there are good, separate middle grade novels. Thanks for the lovely essay.

  10. As a middle grade author and editor I think one of the reasons middle grade is becoming a little over shadowed in the reading world is because it is harder for middle grade authors to reach their intended audience. Most middle grade readers don’t hang out on Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites where authors are vying for attention. But we are there because we hope to catch the attention of those people that can get our books into the hands of these children: educators, librarians, parents, etc.
    Also, let’s face it, most of us won’t be reviewed in Kirkus, put on Ophra’s book list, or licensed by Scholastic for their book fair/book club collections either. The few blog sites that are dedicated to middle grade book reviews are overrun with requests for reviews as well. So maybe what we should be asking ourselves is not why is middle grade being lost in the sea of YA, but what is the best way to get middle grade books in the hands of middle grade readers?

    • I think the only way to grab middle grade interest in your book is to take it to middle grade schools, read the most exciting chapter and dramatise a bit of it with volunteers. It’s exhausting but very rewarding if you can do it. I’m an ex-teacher, self published, so I have to do all my own marketing. A striking cover helps and a self publisher controls the text and cover. I also give away copies to libraries. Let’s face it, it’s an up hill battle and you feel like Sisyphus most of the time but there are magic moments when children write a comment for your website.
      http://www.eknightbooks.com

  11. Kevin B says:

    I hope that this gets to you, Jeanne. My daughter has enjoyed your first three Penderwicks books and we can’t wait for book 4 even though she’ll be 15 when it’s released and 17 – 18 when the fifth book comes out. It hurts to think that “bad things” were done to you as a child and my heart goes out to you as I know what it takes to trust and love again. It’s your determination to create not only a positive message and characters, but rich and complex characters that we love. We, as a family, keep checking your website to know when the next story will be out. It’s OK, take your time. We’ll wait but know that there are people who appreciate you and your talent very much and can’t wait to share in what your imagination will create.

  12. Kevin B says:

    I hope that this gets to you, Jeanne. My daughter has enjoyed your first three Penderwicks books and we can’t wait for book 4 even though she’ll be 15 when it’s released and 17 – 18 when the fifth book comes out. It hurts to think that “bad things” were done to you as a child and my heart goes out to you as I know what it takes to trust and love again. It’s your determination to create not only a positive message and characters, but rich and complex characters that we love. We, as a family, keep checking your website to know when the next story will be out. It’s OK, take your time. We’ll wait but know that there are people who appreciate you and your talent very much and can’t wait to share in what your imagination will create.

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