Welcome back to Interleaves, a corner of The Shake for book nerds to congregate and geek out over books. All the lovely bookses … It struck me that we haven’t yet covered any children’s or young adult (YA) fiction here, and given the richness and depth of these markets, it’s probably about time we started. YA is THE big thing at the moment, so, as I am a contrarian, I‘ve decided to look instead at middle-grade fiction.
Middle grade fiction – the beginning of chapter books for kids
Middle grade fiction is, at its most reductive level, the vast and wonderful literary country that lies between picture books / early readers and YA. If you’re tagging it age-wise, it’s the kinds of books that can be successfully read and enjoyed by most readers in the 8-12 age bracket, although I’m not a huge fan of giving age ranges as a whole, given how differently kids develop as readers.
There is no general agreement on what characterises a middle grade novel. Most would say that such books feature characters who are themselves children, to whom their readers can relate; but then what do you do with The Hobbit, one of the most popular upper middle-grade books ever written; or the wonderful Watership Down and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, with rabbit and rat protagonists respectively? Some assert that middle grade fiction tends to be more external, action-driven and outward-looking than the often introspective focus of YA; I’d say this may often be the case, but that books like A Wrinkle in Time are very reflective and focused on inner growth and turmoil.
It is reasonable to state that middle grade books need to use language and style that’s accessible to younger readers, and that their treatment of some themes (notably romance, violence, sex and loss) is tempered by awareness of the cognitive stage their audience is likely to be at. However, I think it would be a great mistake to think of middle grade fiction as less complex, meaningful or capable of sublimity than YA or adult writing. If you ask many adults which books shaped them as readers, their heart’s darlings in terms of comfort reading and the joy of immersion in story, it’s not unusual to find several middle grade books on the list.
Partly this is because 8-12 is when most lifelong readers really hit their stride *as* independent readers, and are able to develop fully independent relationships with fictional worlds, not mediated via adults reading to them. The excitement of discovering a book, especially something that’s really unlike anything you’ve ever encountered before, is the most potent of the gateway drugs to permanent and irreversible book addiction. The books that opened that door and beckoned you in are never forgotten, not really, and lie within all your reading experiences thereafter.
So I thought I’d share the 10 middle grade books that shaped me as a reader and are still cherished favourites, and then 5 nominated by my own two middle-grade daughters, A (10) and E (8). Narrowing down lists was difficult for all of us, and there were lots that didn’t make the cut, but this is what we ended up with. I find it interesting that my eldest replicates two of my own beloved favourites – being The Silver Brumby and Anne of Green Gables – and my 8 year old has one crossover with my list but of a different title, The Little White Horse.
We’d love to hear in comments about favourites old and new that you loved or are loving.
My Top 10 Middle Grade Novels
1. J.R.R Tolkien, The Hobbit
There’s very little that needs to be said about this one. A pathway to reading, to fantasy and to epic for me.
2. Elyne Mitchell, The Silver Brumby (and all subsequent books in the series)
This is a wonderful Australian classic; beautifully written, engrossing and loving, it took me inside the High Country and the lives of brumbies in the most magical way. It even avoids complete anthropomorphism, although the horses’ emotions and thought processes are at times suspiciously human-like. I have re-read these to my girls and they are equally entranced.
3. L.M Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (and all subsequent books in the series)
There are Anne-boosters and Anne-haters in this world, and while Adult Me understands why the oftentimes oversweetness of these books doesn’t work for everyone, it worked extremely well for me.
4. Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising series
Before there was Potter, there were the Old Ones … one of the greatest fantasy series ever, for any age group.
5. Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse
I do not think I’ve ever read a more perfect story in many ways.
6. E. L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
You may not recognise the name, but I bet some of you will know what I’m talking about when I tell you this is the book about the brother and sister who run away from home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Yes, that one! And it is awesome. I wanted to run away from my happy home for years after reading it just so I could sleep in a museum bed
7. Richard Adams, Watership Down
All the kudos and all the tears.
8. Jean Craighead George, My Side of the Mountain
Another running away from home story that made me want to mimic it; in this case, Sam runs away to live wild in the Catskill Mountains. Centre of the city, middle of the mountains … it seemed to me that New York State kids did a lot of running away and having cool adventures.
9. All of the Trixie Belden books
Trixie Belden was to me what Sweet Valley High was to many of my contemporaries. I loved Trixie and I still do. Formulaic, yes; pretty naff, yes; addictive and exciting, YOU BET. Thus great preparation for series crime fiction, one of my favoured relaxation genres as an adult.
10. Robert C. O’Brien, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
I still remember reading this book for the first time, aged 9, and being overwhelmed by it.
A’s TOP 5
1. J.K Rowling, Harry Potter (books 1-4)
I have read the Potter books, naturally, and quite like them, but A’s devotion to them is fierce and unwavering. She’s about to start book 5 and firmly believes they are the best books ever written.
2. Lauren Child, Ruby Redfort books
A liked the Clarice Bean books, from which these spy stories spin off, but she loves the Ruby books much more.
3. Elyne Mitchell, The Silver Brumby books
4. Mike Mason, The Blue Umbrella / The Violet Flash
A said I had to write that these are “fun and different and inventive and creative”.
5. L.M Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables series
Another series that began as a read-aloud but turned into a journey of her own for A, who re-reads these whenever she needs comfort.
E’s TOP 5
1. Enid Blyton, St Clare’s and Mallory Towers books
E absolutely loves school stories, especially ones set in early 20th century English boarding schools. And Enid Blyton, for all it’s de rigeur to bag her these days, knew how to turn a phrase and keep a reader captivated.
2. Penguin Books’ Our Australian Girl series
While A has enjoyed these too, E has been particularly taken with them, especially the Poppy stories. Having read a few myself, I’m impressed with their research and accuracy as well as their lively writing.
3. Terry Deery, Horrible Histories (all)
Well. Enough said.
4. Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse
E found my battered old copy of this on the shelf and asked if she could read it. She loved it so much, with such intensity. It was a huge bonding thing for us.
5. Comtesse De Segur, The Fleurville Trilogy
E was given these books, translated from the original French, this year for her birthday and took to them immediately.
To see a more extensive list of middle grade favourites, you can check out the Top 100 list on School Library Journal, based on a poll conducted in 2010.