Mike Jung is the author of Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities. You can find him online at http://captainstupendous.wordpress.com/
I wasn't familiar with the industry term "middle-grade" before I became a children's author. I'd spent a few years working with kids, so I knew they had a massive range of developmental levels, interests, and abilities, but the industry's specific breakdown of recommended reading ages was new to me. I knew I wanted to write for kids, and it was interesting to eventually realize that the stories I feel most compelled to write are for the middle-grade audience.
It's an odd thing to be aware of that, because my own reading habits have never fallen within such concretely defined boundaries. I started reading Stephen King's very adult horror novels when I was 12, but I also continued reading Anne McCaffrey's fantasy novels (which I think of as middle-grade) in my twenties and thirties. McCaffrey's HARPER HALL trilogy still has the power to instantly, stunningly evoke the sensations of the summer when I first read it, during the summer between fourth and fifth grade.
The MG years were when my love of books was permanently embedded into my psyche, and my future as a lifelong reader was indelibly cast. The books I read as a middle-grade reader were the most important books I've ever read, and one of the many joys of starting my career as a published author has been discovering the abundance of contemporary MG books with the same potentially life-altering power.
Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee
Millicent Min, Girl Genius won the inaugural Sid Fleischman Humor Award, and deservedly so – it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It’s no one-trick pony, however. Millicent is indeed a genius in the intellectual sense, but psychologically speaking she’s one of the least self-aware characters around, and the inverse relationships between those characteristics creates very real social and emotional barriers for her to overcome. Millicent’s struggles are funny, painful, real, and very relevant to all MG readers, geniuses or not.
Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. LaFevers
These days Robin LaFevers is deservedly celebrated for the success of the His Fair Assassin trilogy, but my case of LaFevers Fever was fully diagnosed while barreling cheerfully through the Theodosia Throckmorton books. The eponymous Theodosia is one of the most appealing protagonists in middle-grade fiction. The child of two very distracted Egyptologists, Theodosia possesses the ability to detect curses on ancient artifacts, but her innate sense of responsibility is what puts her in the middle of an increasingly hair-raising series of adventures, and her perseverance, quick wits, and refusal to be intimidated see her through those adventures. Theodosia rocks.
Neil Armstrong Is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me by Nan Marino
Tammy Simpson, the protagonist of Neil Armstrong is My Uncle, is self-absorbed, occasionally unkind to the other kids in her neighborhood, and overly hostile toward Douglas “Muscle Man” McGinty, a foster child who recently moved into the house of her former best friend Kebsie. The loss of a best friend who no longer appears interested in being friends at all has devastated Tammy, but Muscle Man’s inability to stop telling exaggerated lies about himself masks a much greater tragedy, and it’s a mark of the author’s skill that sullen, crabby Tammy finds redemption for her regrettable behavior in a way that wins the reader’s respect and affection without being untrue to her thorny persona and difficult circumstances.
8th Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Reggie McKnight’s school year has begun in hideous fashion, illustrated by his new, unwanted nickname, “Pukey,” and his family is coping with financial uncertainty. Reggie has big dreams, however, as well as an equally big conscience and sense of community belonging, and it’s easy to root for him as he willingly grapples with a growing set of responsibilities and challenges. There’s a scene in which Reggie cracks a joke about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in response to a mock threat from his friend Ruthie – when I read that scene my head spun, because in that moment I understood Reggie’s life with utter clarity – his parents’ backgrounds, his daily family interactions, and the kind of communities he engaged with. Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich does a remarkable thing with 8th Grade Superzero; she takes heavyweight topics like social justice, faith, and civil rights activism, and blends them into a story that’s as funny and light as it is serious and profound.
Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta
I read a lot of Matt Christopher’s books while growing up – Catcher with a Glass Arm was a personal favorite – so it was a great pleasure to discover Kurtis Scaletta’s debut novel Mudville, which takes place in a town where it’s been raining for 22 years straight. The onset of the rain interrupted a legendary baseball game that the adults of rival towns Moundville and Sinister Bend still regard as unfinished business. Kids who are either baseball players or fans will be quickly drawn in by the author’s unabashed devotion to the game, but it’s also a thoughtful examination of the complex relationships between boyhood friends, fathers and sons, and local communities.
The Boneshaker by Kate Milford
There are so many things I love about this book that I’m having trouble deciding which of them to point out. I’m not the first person to describe The Boneshaker as “Bradbury-esque,” but I am the only person describing it that way in this blog post, har de har har. Set in 1914, The Boneshaker features a bare-knuckled, take-no-crap protagonist named Natalie Minks, a mysterious and tragic antagonist named Jake Limberleg, a traveling medicine show, creepy clockwork automatons, deals with the devil, high-intensity showdowns between good and evil, small-town entanglements, family histories…yeah, there’s a lot of great stuff. The author juggles all those elements with aplomb, creates an atmosphere that I want to describe as “mythical” as much as anything else, and brings it all home in rushing, terrifying, exhilarating style.
The 14 Fibs of Gregory K by Greg PincusGregory K. is a poet, an aficionado of fresh-baked pie, and utterly incompetent at math, which is problematic when you’re the middle child in a family of mathematical geniuses. The 14 Fibs of Gregory K is bursting at the seams with charm – readers will be thoroughly taken by the devoted friendship between Gregory and his best bud Kelly, and the bakery owned by Kelly’s mother will instantly give those readers a new standard for ideal afterschool hangouts. On a deeper level, I suspect most (if not all) kids will relate to Gregory’s struggle to reconcile his own interests and abilities with the conflicting interests and abilities of his family. It’s no easy feat to make math and poetry this appealing, but the author manages it nicely, and if his readers are anything like me, this book will get far enough under their skin that before long they’ll start writing “fibs” (poems structured according to the Fibonacci sequence) of their own.