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.
Consider 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.
For 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.
So 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.