I have an interest in writing middle grade novels. A good book can be a childhood survival tool, and there is a decent market for it, and I work with kids, so this should be easy, right?
I might work with kids on the daily but I have been an adult in control of my own destiny for far too long. And my job is helping kids solve problems in the context of their caregivers, when there are caregivers capable of this.
In middle grade novels, kids themselves are the catalyst, the one who changes and overcomes the problem, usually without an adult or with very little help from one. This is the piece that I struggle with when thinking about a plot for this age group. Kids have very little power!
The child protagonists in the three middle grade novels that I read for this post all are the agents of change. One has evil adults and two have pretty normal adults who are kept in the loop as much as they can be without getting involved. Because, you know, parents are ruiners. And they are all decently dark, which tends to be what I read. Grief is a serious motivation for more than one main character.
Liesl & Po, Lauren Oliver
I have also reviewed Rooms on here, another Lauren Oliver, which was not intentional. Liesl and Po is supernatural, marginalized children combating evil adults. There is a mixup of a common object and each of the children need the object in order to achieve their own means. Oh, and Liesl is helped out by a ghost, Po. Just to add something. They escape from their adults because they have to, and ultimately defeat them. Adults can make this world a scary place and make a pretty good story out of it if they choose to.
The Creek, Jennifer Holm
When I finished this book I went back to be sure it was a middle grade novel, and sure enough, it is. It pushes the boundaries of the genre, however, with some of its events and themes. People die in this one. It involves a loss of childhood innocence in a lot of ways. A girl turning 13 who spends the summer running around the neighborhood with her male friends is upturned by a boy returning to live in the neighborhood after a stint in reformatory school for killing people’s pets. And then, pets go missing and other macabre events, and the neighborhood is blaming the returned boy, but the protagonist knows it is not him but is afraid to tell the adults how she knows he is not responsible for the recent events. She solves the mystery on her own, to her credit, and can keep up with the boys.
I had one major issue with this story, though. There is a part where she is cornered by the reformatory school boy, Caleb, and he nearly rapes her, and doesn’t only because he is interrupted. Okay, that happens to kids. The part that really bothered me about it is she starts to like it and crave that kind of attention/relationship with a boy. She has an age appropriate first kiss earlier on, which is sweet, but then she gets a taste for bad boys from this one who imposes himself on her and is like six years older. She starts to relate to her friend who is a year older and desperately trying to be an adult, smoking and dressing sexy. Because a 14 year old dating an 18 year old boy like that and showing off her body is completely well adjusted and happy, and it makes total sense that an innocent girl who gets a taste of that at 13 would want more of it. No. There is a reason that statutory rape is a thing. Because both of the girls are victims, and at least in the protagonist, I feel that it is made sexy. Gross. I don’t know, this one pushes a lot of middle grade boundaries.
The Day the Angels Fell, Shawn Smucker
This is a biblical story and I did not realize it until I got a decent way in. A grieving child falls victim to an angel’s plot to resurrect the tree of life, and a huge battle of good vs evil ensues. It is made more relatable than that, but that’s the gist. The battle between good and evil in the child reminded me of that battle in the other book Rooms by James Rubart where a man is deciding if he is going to follow Jesus Christ or not and the devil rolls onto the scene to tempt him. The self doubt and the impulse to go for the short term payoff is similar, the insidious nature, the choice that looks good until one really thinks through the consequences. The devil is such because he can present a tough choice without you really knowing the extent of the negative consequences. I imagine he really does show up as everything you have ever wished for.
Reading down my middle grade novels has been helping me shape my thinking further about writing for children. And reminds me of a child’s perspective to keep it fresh at work.