Three Middle-Grade Novels for Readers of All Ages
Any art form meant for children can also be applicable, and entertaining, for adults. Just because Peter Pan is for kids, doesn’t mean it’s message about valuing your youth suddenly disappears when you hit your twenties. Often, I find that these narratives we say are “for kids” actually have some of the most potent messages. Kids and teens and young adults feel deeply, and because of that, the stories they lead portray and explore these emotions with the same kind of immense depth.
I cringe when people tell me that as an “official” adult I should abandon reading middle-grade, YA, or even new adult. That I should move onto a mature story. I cringe because there are so many books out for kids that have mature stories mixed in with amazing writing that everyone should be reading. Here are just three that I always point to as examples of beautiful middle-grade fiction, and books that I keep reading over and over again.
1. Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate Dicamillo
To this day, I always say Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate Dicamillo is one of my favorite books, if not my favorite. If you want a good example of how to write a beautiful story that is a perfect balance between happy and sad, this is your book. Often as a writer, I sometimes have to remind myself that not everything is sad, and that your characters are allowed to have happy moments mixed in with the bad ones. Dicamillo masters that balance with Opal and Winn-Dixie, and all of the characters they meet in their town.
And that is where the depth comes into this—and what makes it for all ages. Every character Opal meets in this book has a relevant story about life. Gloria Dump tells the reader about addiction, and even though you have ghosts in your past, you can learn from them, and grow as a person. Otis, and ex-convict, shows Opal that you shouldn’t judge people for their past, and that you should always get to know the real them instead of what society says they are. Miss. Franny Block with her Litmus Lozenge explains that every story can be sweet and sad, but it will still be a good story. Even Opal and her father display the story of a father and a daughter learning to reconnect after the loss of a loved one.
These are stories and struggles we all face in our lives, no matter our age. The writing is gorgeous, the setting is engaging, and the characters—each and every one of them—are some of the most compelling people I have ever seen put to page.
2. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
I found this book in a new and used bookstore, and instantly picked it up. The Bone Sparrow is about Subhi, a boy born in an Australian refugee/detention center who has never gone outside of the chain link fences of the camp. On the surface, this story has engaging elements, including the Night Sea and the whales that come visit Subhi every night in his dreams, a talking duck named Shakespeare, and a girl named Jimmie who visits Subhi and brings him hot chocolate. The writing is poetic, the characters are realistic, and Subhi will engage and charm you throughout.
Though under the surface, this book is really about the Australian refugee situation. As the author says herself in the author’s note of her book, this is a book that needed to be written to help bring attention to the poor conditions of these refugee/detention centers in Australia. In the book, Subhi experiences truly horrendous living conditions: cockroaches crawling in ears, rats biting toes, only being allowed to have two or three pairs of underwear, people living in communal tents piled on top of one another, and protests and deaths inside the camp that are covered up by the camp, the government, and to an extent the media.
It is the fact that this book is a “middle grade” novel and told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy that makes this book that much more powerful. Because it is a child telling the story, and because his innocence and misunderstanding of the real horrors of his situation blankets his every word, that you as the reader really feel the true pain of his story. It is the voice of the child that sheds the proper light on this issue that is most certainly an issue not just for kids.
3. Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
I just finished this book and instantly passed it onto my friend and middle-grade writer Margot Nelson. Once she finished it, she instantly passed it onto her roommate. Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is just that good. Not only does this book take place in the amazing setting of Stagecoach Pass—a run down western theme park—but it follows the story of the refreshing protagonist Aven Green, a girl born without arms.
This book has a refreshing talk about disability in a way that everyone needs to hear. Bowling does not treat her disabled or “different” characters as token characters that need to be “fixed” or need to overcome their disability to be happy—as is the disabled trope. Her main character Aven lives a perfectly capable life without her arms, and proudly shows to those around her that having no arms isn’t something she needs to overcome. Her best friend Connor, who has tourettes that manifests itself in multiple ticks where he barks and spits his food, struggles to accept himself and his disability. Instead of convincing her friend Connor to swallow his ticks or go on meds, she shows him that he doesn’t have to change for society.
As Bowling vividly shows in her book, people have the tendency to act differently around people with disabilities, or will even go so far as to bully them. Bowling helps give the reader an important lesson about how we as a society need to break down our stereotypes and tropes and offensive behaviors surrounding disability. My own mother, who is a literacy teacher in a middle school, is going to use this book to teach her kids to be more accepting.
The message of acceptance is a story we all need to hear—always.
Just because the dust jacket of your book may say it’s for kids, that’s not always true. I always say to my writing friends that you should never be afraid to walk into the YA or the middle grade sections of the bookstore. You might just find a book that will make you laugh, cry, and think no matter how old you are.