I few weeks ago I shared a link to a blog post by teacher Colby Sharp. In it he talked about picking up a middle grade book and feeling like he’d seen it all before. Then he read these words by author Linda Urban:
Reviewers say: “Not *another* sad animal book!” or “Had my fill of theme X!” You are adults. You have been reading a long time.
— Linda Urban (@lindaurbanbooks) July 31, 2015
Colby went on to say “middle grade books are not about you and me” (in other words, the adults out there).
I’ve thought so much about Colby’s and Linda’s words these past few months. They’ve helped me solidify some of my ideas about children’s literature, actually. While I will always, always, always believe a good book is a good book for everyone, regardless of age (though not all books are for every reader, which is another discussion entirely), Linda has reminded me that children’s literature is first and foremost for children.
Of course I know this, but I think sometimes I bring an outside perspective (as both reader and writer) that doesn’t always serve the work best. Rather, this is where I’d like my focus to be:
- If this book is for a young reader, what is it they’ll discover that will be meaningful and ring true?
- What am I willing to say as an author that might feel trite or old news to the grow ups but could be new and important to young readers?
- Am I willing as a reader not to have my needs met first when I am reading middle grade?
I’m curious what readers here think.
I feel like a jerk for having those thoughts. 🙁
NO, Colby. You voiced what I didn’t realize I’d sometimes thought myself. And in turn, you’ve got me thinking about the ways I want to approach my reading and writing. Thank you for that.
Always, always you bring it back to the children, which I so appreciate.
Faith Hough says
I think we all fall into this from time to time, and the more firmly the reviewer hat sits on our head, the worse it can get. Occasionally, on the other side of things, I’ll read a book I think is profound and beautiful and heartbreaking–and every kid I know hates it. It ends up feeling like it was written for the reviewers/award committees (in other words, adults) more than for kids.
BUT I have to believe there are young readers for those books, too. In fact, I know there are. I was that reader. (I promise this isn’t just my adult side talking).
Augusta Scattergood says
I have to agree a little with Faith. Yes, there are young Carolines in this world. But when reviewers rave about a book and it sits, unread, on your classroom or library’s shelf, despite best efforts to book talk, etc,, you do have to wonder: What book did that reviewer actually read?
🙂 (Had that happen often in my school library…)
Hmmm…I very rarely have thoughts like this about middle grade or young adult books. I go into reading them knowing that they are primarily for kids, and I think that helps me keep things in perspective. However, I did read a book recently that seemed overly hokey, and I just didn’t really like it. It was one of my daughter’s favorite books when she was a kid, and she had insisted that I read it. When we talked about the book, she said that she thinks that weird hokeyness had appealed to her younger self, and maybe if I had read it as a kid the same would have been true for me.
I’m not so sure. I think it’s more likely that I’m just the wrong kind of reader for that kind of book.
And I feel like I know this but perhaps don’t always translate this into my reading experience. Good for you for being aware.
I’m awfully glad Colby voiced those thoughts because we adults often DO think it’s about us…..just today I was talking about summer reading with another teacher in my school and I stopped and said, “let’s ask the kids”. We so often forget to ask the kids….to remember that their experience is unique and not tired or jaded. I think this is a wonderful reflection and very worth sharing.
Back to work………almost 3 pm on a Friday!
I’m going to come at this a bit differently. My daughter is 9 and likes exciting, imaginative, fun and adventurous books. She does not like sad, realistic fiction stories where parents or siblings die… at all. And I am not yet ready to intentionally expose her to other tough subjects (abuse, intolerance, war) except as it comes up naturally. So many middle grade books tackle difficult subjects and are lauded for doing just that. I know every middle grade book isn’t written for every kid, and some kids who have experienced “tough subjects” in their own lives find needed comfort in the pages of these books. Thankfully these books exist for them, but I cannot help but feel sometimes books are praised for dealing with difficult subject matter whether or not they are actually any good! I guess in a round about way I am echoing what Faith said above. But I also believe that writers write what they are inspired to write wherever that may lead — I would think it is too hard to write with an “agenda.” I just wonder how some of these books end up with a middle grade label.
I would say middle grade spans a huge range of time in a young person’s life. An eight-year-old certainly isn’t in the same place as a twelve-year-old. And no two children, even those the same age, have the same maturity level.
Middle grade, then, is “responsible” for a wide range of readers with different experiences and sensitivities. What’s good is a matter of opinion, of course, and what’s preferred is exactly the same (and is every reader’s privilege). What I like about books that deal with difficult subjects is the way they both allow children who have experienced similar things to feel validated and understood while providing other children with a glimpse into other experiences outside their world. Lois Lowry once said “reading is a dress rehearsal for life.” I’d add part of that dress rehearsal is reading about things we will one day experience and other things we hope to never experience — from the safety and distance books provide.
I will also say, as a former sensitive child, that though I would have been able to comprehend my own novels at a young age, they wouldn’t have yet been appropriate for me. My aim is to write a character’s story most honestly. For my first two books, honesty came with some heartache. I would have handled them better at eleven or twelve, not on the younger end of the mid-grade span.
I hope you and your daughter continue to find plenty of books that serve her both now and in the future.
Linda Urban says
I love this response.
I’m so grateful for the long-distance discussion your words started.
I agree with Linda. This is a beautiful response, Caroline.
(*heart swoon for all the middle grade*)
Genetta Adair says
Thanks for bringing up this discussion! It gives me much to ponder as I wrestle create kidlit for kids.
Caroline, Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply to my comments. Allowing a kid to view experiences, difficult or otherwise, that are outside of his or her world through a character in a book is a wonderful way to build compassion for and understanding of others. I knew this instinctively but you articulated it in a very helpful way.
R.J. Anderson says
I often come across MG books that don’t appeal to me as an adult reader — either the prose and/or characters are flat or the story seems predictable or both. Sometimes I conclude those books just aren’t that well written. But now and then I think, “I bet my kids will love this one, even if I didn’t,” and more often than not I’m right.
Yet many of the MG books that I love best — even the ones I loved as a kid — don’t interest my boys at all. The very same qualities of lyrical writing and seemingly deep insight that made those stories outstanding to me are irrelevant or even annoying to them.
I think there is definitely merit in being able to separate the qualities that make a book appealing to a widely read adult from those that captivate the mind and heart of a child — and that MG reviewers and awards committees need to keep that uppermost in their thinking when they decide which books are most worthy of praise and support. A literary tour de force which makes teachers and librarians gasp in admiration can still bore the sneakers off every twelve-year-old who picks it up, and make their parents groan in frustration because their kid just doesn’t seem to like reading anymore.
Jennifer Rumberger says
These are some very good points that I definitely plan to keep in mind. I enjoyed reading through the comments above, too. The biggest takeaway is to remember who children’s books are for – the kids!
So many great things being said here. Linda Sue Park has added her two cents on her blog. Be sure to click through. http://www.lspark.com/news/not-for-you-or-me/
Stacey Riedmiller says
I read MG more than any other age group during the year. Here’s the thing… Almost every time I read, I have a reader in mind. It might be a kid that I had two years ago, a shy fifth grader that joined our Mock Newbery club this past school year, a friend’s son or my own current kids.
There’s no right or wrong way to be a reader. I love that this conversation is thankful for Colby’s original comment, because I know most of us have been there. Especially those of you that do more reading or have served on award committees. Linda came in and brought everything back to the kids. The resulting dialogue has made me even more appreciative of this community. A community where we support each other and talk about things that matter. It helps us turn around and do the same with our kids.
Elana K. Arnold says
I write both middle grade and YA novels, and I approach them from different angles. When I am writing a YA book, my mantra is, “It’s none of my business who reads this book,” and I am very clear that I am writing ABOUT the teenage experience rather than FOR a teenage audience. When I am writing a middle grade novel, I DO keep my audience in mind. I am writing the book FOR a middle school aged kid. I am not writing to teach a lesson or impart a personal belief I want the reader to accept as truth; I’m writing to explore territory important to middle grade people… which, it seems to me, isn’t that different from the concerns of middle aged people. In my first two middle grade novels, I cover pretty heavy territory–loss, the concept of souls, right to die, marital uneasiness, death. But as I explore these topics, topics that interest ME and have interested me as far back as I remember, I am constantly aware that I hope a kid will hold the book.
It is important not to forget that the tastes of the middle grade readers are as wide ranging as the tastes of the adult audience. For example, I learned a long time ago that my reading tastes, generally speaking, do not match the tastes of the NY Times Bestsellers list. It will be that rare middle grade book that has a wide audience appeal, just as it is rare for a book written for an adult audience to have that same wide appeal. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in the wide range of subjects and styles that are out there. The skill is in helping these middle grade readers learn about themselves as readers, and then teaching them to match that knowledge to the books and authors who will resonate with where they are and what interests them at the present time. Just as a writer is drawn to certain themes, readers are as well. The only thing that matters in a book is the connection between the author and the reader that opens up new ideas and ways of thinking. If that connection is achieved, then the book is a success, regardless of popular opinion. Conversely, no matter how well reviewed a book is, if it does not connect with a particular reader then it was the wrong book for that person. Some kids will always want reality based writing, some will always want fantasy. Neither is either good or bad, as long as it fulfills the needs of both the writer and the reader. Know thyself, and teach the kids the same thing.
Very well said. Just because a book’s popularity isn’t across the board (and what book truly is?) doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its readers.