Some of the most introspective and poignant, or just plain fun, books I’ve ever read were children’s books, specifically middle grade fiction. Young adult “novels” often try too hard to be “edgy” or immediately date themselves with slang and cultural references, or depict young adults and their plights as shallow and uninteresting. Middle grade fiction, on the other hand, could often function as adult books written in simple prose. This genre, geared towards readers in grades 4-7, is best defined by publisher, Laura Backes.
“Middle grade novels are characterized by the type of conflict encountered by the main character. Children in the primary grades are still focused inward, and the conflicts in their books reflect that. While themes range from friendship to school situations to relationships with siblings and peers, characters are learning how they operate within their own world. They are solidifying their own identity, experiencing the physical and psychological changes of puberty, taking on new responsibilities all within the boundaries of their family, friends and neighborhood. Yes, your character needs to grow and change during the course of the book, but these changes are on the inside. Middle grade readers are beginning to learn who they are, what they think. Their books need to mirror their personal experience.”
These books are important because they come at the formative years: they plant ideas and expectations for not just a person’s future reading experience, but on how they think about the world. The best ones (and there’s a lot) do not talk down to their readers, but gracefully immerse them into all of the best parts of literature in the best way possible. Here are some of my all-time favorites.
1) Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
In sixth grade, my favorite teacher pulled me aside and asked if I had read “Olive’s Ocean.” “I think you’d like it,” he said. “The narrator reminds me of you…she has red hair and wants to be a writer.” Because of this personal recommendation, I’ve always had an extra special connection to this book. It was inspired by a question posed to author Henkes – “what was it like for an author growing up?” It’s the story of a 12 year old girl Martha, haunted by the death of classmate she barely knew named Olive. Right before Martha leaves for her annual summer trip to her grandmother’s beach house, Olive’s mother delivers a page from her deceased daughter’s journal to Martha’s doorstep, all about how Olive admired and wanted to get to know Martha. Once on the trip, Martha struggles with the idea of Olive and both her beloved grandmother getting older, and her own coming of age, while working on her first story. So many writers have tried to tackle the grand themes of the meanings of life and death, but so many seem heavy-handed in comparison to this delicate and beautiful story.
2) The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
I read this book in my 3rd grade class, a bit young. It was frustrating at the time, because we often had to go back and re-read chapters so that the teacher knew we understood them, and do extensive vocabulary lessons on what we read. But it all paid off, because now, I think I owe half of my vocabulary and knowledge of wordplay and language to this book. It’s a very clever adventure story of an aimless boy named Milo who receives a, yes, phantom tollbooth, one day that allows him to travel to the Kingdom of Wisdom – a place where you can quite literally get stuck in the Doldrums, jump to Conclusions, or visit a Castle in the Air. It’s littered in puns – there’s a Whether Man, a silence loving Soundkeeper, and a Spelling Bee. At this age, it’s just plain great fun.
3) Regarding the Fountain by Kate Klise
This book was my first taste of a epistolatory novel – and I still love it. The story of Dry Creek, Missouri, and Florence Waters, fountain designer supreme, told completely through documents, letters, memos, news articles – any form of document. This was actually read out-loud to me in class, and I remember all of us scrambling to see the different forms of letters on the page. Best enjoyed in your own hands.
4) Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
This was kind of my childhood “Grapes of Wrath.” It’s the rags-to-riches story of a wealthy Mexican family and their forced immigration to California, where they serve as migrant farm workers during the Great Depression. The book doesn’t skimp in its detail, and gave me a great understanding of the conditions the workers faced, and also an appreciation of Mexican culture and traditions. This book doesn’t push – you care about it because the characters are so human and well-drawn.
5) Here Today by Ann M. Martin
Who would have thought that the author of the Babysitter’s Club would write such amazing, moving novels? (Honorable mention: “A Corner of the Universe.”) I still re-read this one to this day. “Here Today” takes place during the ’60s, a time when the U.S. was stretching and progressing, but abandoning old values to do so. The family in the book mirror this growth and dissolution. The protagonist is Eleanor Roosevelt Dingman, who is dealing with her flighty and irresponsible mother, Doris Day Dingman, who seems more interested in JFK’s assassination and becoming a movie star than being a mother. This story did for me what Franzen’s “The Corrections” and “Freedom” are supposed to do for everyone else – a lofty assumption, but I assure you, it isn’t in vain. I haven’t found such a great family study since.
6) Holes by Louis Sachar
Most people have read “Holes” – or at least seen the movie. As they should, because it is such a creative, fun, incredible story. I remember sulking in fifth grade because I didn’t want to read ” a dumb book about boys” – a few months later, my teacher had to ask me to stop rereading “Holes” and try something new. I still remember just the plain joy in reading this book, and the exact moment I read the part where the big twist is revealed (spoilers hidden, just in case you haven’t experienced this gem of childhood).
7. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
These books were, and still are, my lifeblood. “Harry Potter” is great – but this is the series I lost my mind for. Snicket’s narrative voice isn’t for everyone, with his long tangents and vocabulary definitions, but if it’s for you, then it’s the greatest thing ever. This series is another one I initially did not want to read, and another that fostered my love of language and literature as whole (Snicket is fantastic with the literary allusions – Esme Squalor, the Virginian Wolfsnake, Georgina Orwell, Principal Nero the violinist…it was a whole other game and education to figure out the stories behind these as a child.) The world of ASUE is distinctive and vivid – strange and lightly macabre, but filled with humor at the same time, kind of Victorian, kind of modern…it’s even been described as “steampunk.” As I explained to my father as an eleven year old, these books are about “moral confusion” – a pretty accurate definition considering I don’t think I had any idea what it actually meant at the time. The Baudelaire siblings will navigate through right and wrong for 13 books, and try to figure out: what is that VFD anyway?