Over the summer, I came across this tweet that resonated deeply with me. As a writer of children's fiction, I am often asked if there is a difference between Middle Grade (MG) and Young Adult (YA) literature. Besides the technical distinction in the age of the protagonists in both categories, I thought the quote below described it beautifully.
Even if you are not an active part of the children's writer community, you have probably heard that YA literature has taken the country by storm. The success of recent YA-based books-turned-to-films such as The Fault in Our Stars, The Hunger Games, Divergent, and If I Stay indicates that currently, YA rules the world.
I do love YA literature. I read a lot of it. I recently finished reading Ava Dellaira's Love Letters to the Dead. I highlighted the living daylights out of that book on my e-reader. My enjoyment of YA lit does not extinguish the fact that my first love was MG lit.
Judy Blume, Wilson Rawls, and Beverly Cleary were my first literary heroes. I know Judy Blume also writes YA, but it was her MG fiction, including the masterpiece that is Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret which sealed the deal for my life-long bibliophilia.
Given my love for MG lit, it is no surprise that my books fall under the MG category. I will be so bold as to say that my books can be enjoyed by children, teens, and adults of all ages. However, The Iris of Issoria falls under MG lit because the protagonist is twelve-years old. I honestly think I set out to write it as a YA book, but in the end, I returned to my first love. Here are the reasons why I think MG lit totally rocks and why I am proud to contribute to its body of literature. I hope these features also serve as motivators for you to read MG lit, no matter what your age.
1. Ingrain a love for reading early in life. Just as the eating and sleeping habits that a child develops early in life are taken into adulthood, reading and literacy habits do too. One of the reasons I had my children in Montessori school before leaving the US was precisely because the curriculum encourages independent learning early on and much of it is done by reading. I want to write books that spark a love of reading to younger children. If they do not love books by the time they get to high school, maybe even middle school, I fear that igniting that spark may be an uphill battle. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a policy statement on promoting literacy in office-based primary care practices. When I was training as a pediatrics resident many years ago, we did give out books and encourage reading during well-child check-ups. I am glad that the AAP finally wrote a policy statement validating what most pediatricians (and parents!) already knew: There are many benefits to encouraging young children to read!
2. Celebrate childhood. I think one of the reasons YA literature is so popular is because that mystical time between childhood and adulthood known as adolescence is laced with a series of "firsts": first kiss, first date, first love, first heartbreak, first time you got into a major fight with your parents...As humans we tend to be nostalgic, therefore it is no surprise that even as adults we enjoy books (and movies!) that center around such a dynamic & transitional life stage. While that is all well and good, I prefer to write about the prime of childhood that is filled with the comforts of the familiar. I love the life stage before the hormones kick in and when children still have an optimistic view of the world and the people around them. The friendships during this age are deep, innocent, and free of prejudice. When I was practicing as a pediatrician, my favorite patients were those between the ages of 8 and 11 or 12. I love this age group. They are old enough that you can have an insightful conversation with them but not too old that they think adults are stupid. Here are some of my favorite middle-grade reads that celebrate childhood:
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
Junie B. Jones
3. Empower children to confront their external fears. Kate DiCamillo (the current goddess of middle grade), Roald Dahl, and Beverly Cleary have taught me one thing: Kids kick ass! As a child, reading many of the classic MG lit books empowered me. I could defeat the dragon! I could beat the evil step-mother or other mean relatives! I could save the prince or princess! The hope, of course, is that when faced with their everyday fears, the empowering lessons children learn from MG lit will help them face the daunting homework assignment or peer pressure. The list of MG books that depict a young person overcoming their biggest fears, saving the day, or completing the dangerous quest is long indeed. That is MG lit's purpose! I wrote The Iris of Issoria to teach my teen and tween readers that they are stronger than their fears and that strength does not only refer to a physical quality. Strength of the spirit and mind is more impressive than strength of the body. These are other books that illustrate to their young readers that children are strong and powerful:
The Tale of Despereaux
James and the Giant Peach
4. Prepare children to battle internal demons. As the quote above delineates, YA owns the characters with internal struggles of the mind. MG lit, however, paves the way by presenting situations of internal conflict that may not be as treacherous as those found in YA lit. For example, in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, our protagonist worries about her relationship with God and whether or not her body is developing appropriately. In Because of Winn-Dixie, Opal faces her father's depression and a neighbor's alcoholism, therefore learns that adults have internal struggles that are as scary as bullies and monsters.
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
Because of Winn-Dixie
5. Inspire families to read together. The first recommendation in the AAP policy statement on literacy is that pediatricians in a primary care setting should:
[Advise] all parents that reading aloud with their young children can enrich parent-child interactions and relationships, which enhances their children’s social-emotional de- velopment while building brain cir- cuits to prepare children to learn language and early literacy skills.
MG lit as a category provides many books that parents can read to their children. YA often does not meet this criteria if your children are of varied ages. While I love My Darling, My Hamburger, and it is on my thirteen year-old daughter's To Be Read list, I do not want to read it to my seven-year old son. I want families to read my books together. I hope that when they do, they engage in conversations about the challenges of family loyalty, the value of sacrifice, and what it means to be courageous. My children and I read together every night. While all of the books mentioned in this blog are wonderful family reads, these are some of the books I have most enjoyed reading with my children because they made us either laugh or cry a lot.
Where The Red Fern Grows
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
What are your favorite MG lit books? Let me know in the comments section.
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