Middle-Grader Road Grading

Why are middle-grade books my chosen writing genre? I’ve written middle-grade and young-adult fiction, and picture books (which I’ve tried to write; but can’t do it well). Somehow middle-grade plots, characters, and ideas are what populate my mind. 

Perhaps it’s because I did not have a typical high school (YA) experience: I was a loner and almost “outcast” in my small school. In early elementary (picture-book years), I was popular and it was also an outsized experience. But middle years were a mix of the two: I was evolving into a kid more sensitive to others, more aware of myself, and yearning to be like my peers whom I thought did not have my shortcomings. This is the classic oeuvre of most middle-grade books. That age range is a field of beautiful aspirations and dreaded fears.

Middle-Grade Books in My Purview

Though I mix it up catching up on early middle-grade books I’ve missed or wanted to read (recently I read Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright, Newbery Medal winner, 1939), for the most part I read contemporary middle-grade books. It’s typical for me to read at least three of them a month.

A recent read: Pie in the Sky by Remi Lai. Any fiction book that involves cooking is going to get my interest, especially in the children’s book world. This sweet story of two brothers grabbed me, especially because I had two sons. The three-generation broken family is healed, so to speak, by cakes. The characters are gripping (even the seldom-seen mother), and the young brothers are drawn exactly to real-world scale in how they interact, be it love or tension. I can’t wait for Remi Lai’s next, Fly on the Wall, released in May. It’s preordered on Amazon so I can snap it up on “opening day”!

Coming up on my to-read list (and waiting on my nightstand) are:

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu – This is not my usual subject milieu: there is fantasy, a forest, a woman made of ice. (Weird thing about me: I read the first 2.5 Harry Potter books and got bored.) But I kept hearing so much about this book, I had to put it on my list. Its many awards tell me I must give it a try.

You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly – Two kids who find common ground, though separated by a thousand miles, is an interesting premise. I’m into learning about “other” formats (types I don’t write) these days: alternating POV chapters, diary/letter formats, and such. 

Ban This Book by Alan Gratz – I heard Gratz speak at the fall 2019 SCBWI Carolinas conference and he was hilarious. The back cover of this book caught me, because I thought I knew most of the “banned” children’s books by various libraries–and there were some new ones to me. I remember the school-book-banning days that hit Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (child raised in a “communist” style), Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (talking animals being disrespectful to God), and Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (think about it). But Harriet the Spy? Matilda? I have to see what Amy Anne, the lead character in this novel, does about banned books at her school.

Story of the Negro by Arna Bontemps. I was startled to discover that Bontemps, an African-American author, won the Newbery Honor award in 1949 for this nonfiction title. It covers African-American history, and I’m still wondering why, with such a children’s book honored in 1949, has it taken so long for diversity in the children’s book field? Only in the past few years have we truly begun to have better representation of all people in children’s books.

If you have any recommendations for middle-grade books of any era, or your very favorite, please respond. When I hear a reason for someone loving a book, it often compels me to read it.

About Chuck Mall

Author of middle-grade fiction. Mizzou grad. Former writer for men's fitness magazines. Book "The Owl Motel: And Other Places Where You Are Not Welcome" available on Amazon. Avid cook and gardener.
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