Tuesday, October 22, 2013

So You Want to Read Middle Grade: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock is the author of several young adult and middle grade novels. Her most recent novel, Heaven Is Paved With Oreos was released in September. You can find her online at http://catherinemurdock.com

I've been thinking a lot about Christopher Healy's post (GreenBeanTeenQueen August 27, 2013) on how lame the term "middle-grade fiction" is, how it should be called awesome-grade fiction. Now I feel really silly for never getting the double entendre of "middle grade." Perhaps that explains the blank looks I get at cocktail parties. Ah. 

I agree that “middle-grade fiction” is lame and that "awesome-grade fiction" is awesome. But I'm thinking even bigger. I've heard that jazz musicians don't call what they play "jazz," they call it "the music." There's "the music," and then there's all the other kinds of music that all need qualifiers: classical, hip-hop, folk . . . In that vein — so I'm thinking — why can't "middle-grade fiction" be, simply, "fiction"? Because that's what it is: it's fantastic stories. It's the stories that people have been telling each other since people could speak: myths and fairy tales and epics and fables and that great human arc called growing up. Everything else is simply a variation in need of a qualifier: adult fiction, young adult, picture books, early chapter . . . 

I am, of course, hopelessly prejudiced on this subject. I write [middle-grade] fiction, and I mainly read [middle-grade] fiction. I have always read [mg] fiction — from the time I could read chapter books up until the point when high school and college beat the love of reading out of me. It took me twenty years to recover from higher education and return to my true love: FICTION. Not the depressing grown-up stuff, but good stories with defined arcs and satisfying endings — usually happy, but certainly resolved. Or a cliff-hanger for the next book. But definitely a sense of completion. And tucked inside, like the yolk of an egg, is a tangible lesson (but not preachy; heaven help us, no) about how to be better at this thing we call life. 

FICTION is the center of the Venn diagram of reading: it's what everyone who can read can read. Clean but not prim, suspenseful but not terrifying, positive but not gooey. As I write this, my seventeen-year-old son is taking a break from college-application essays to read Jonathan Stroud's Ring of Solomon; my freshman daughter for her birthday wanted only the third Mortal Instruments book. My kids are readers. Just like me, they read fiction. 

Here’s my list of good FICTION, culled from three bedrooms’ worth of shelves. I don’t have a clear-cut sense of the boundaries between fiction and young-adult, or the boundaries between fiction and chapter books. Many of these books are probably labeled one or the other. But I leave to others the task of parsing borderlines, and say only that many kids between 5th and 8th grade will enjoy these. And many other ages will, too. 

Watership Down by Richard Adams
An epic story about rabbits. It's long and broad and deep, and great for earnest middle-schoolers weary of normal fare. 

Larklight et al. by Philip Reeve
Witty as only the British can be — robots and Queen Victoria. For younger readers, but clever enough to attract clever older ones too. 

The Bartemeous Trilogy and now The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud.
Again, is this middle-grade or YA? How many demons can dance on the head of a pin? My son read them in middle school, ergo they're FICTION. 

Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster
This book is over 100 years old, but gosh it doesn't show. I think this was the favorite book in our mother-daughter book group, and a neat window into history, too. 

How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks
I don't do scary books, but I did this one (it's not that scary, but so taut!). Another great window into history, and into the hardscrabble yet adventurous life of Victorian orphans. 

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
This time it’s a history of the Dark Ages of the 1970s, way back when kids could cross the street by themselves. Fantastic, fantastical story. 

Which Witch by Eva Ibbotson
Again: Middle Grade? Chapter Book? I’m thinking it depends on the reader. (I will add that my son, inspired by the book, dug a bottomless pit in our backyard that we kept for many years.) 

Half Magic by Edward Eager
I’m sensing a theme here, at least for me: clever stories attract a range of ages. 

Leviathan et al. by Scott Westerfeld
Ten pages in, my son announced that this was the best book he’d ever read in his life. 

Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer
I love the setting, I love the history, but most of all I love the voice — an orphan girl disguised as a boy working on a British man-o’-war. 

Oh. My. Gods. Tera Lynn Childs
I have not read this, but my daughter, who is extremely picky, read it five times. A California girl finds out she’s the daughter of a Greek god — what’s not to love? 

Cinder et al. by Marissa Meyer
Another daughter favorite about a cyborg Cinderella. Now my daughter’s waiting breathlessly for the third book in the series. 


  1. Excellent list! And you are so right, it's just good fiction. I had a friend say to me a few years ago (after I had her read several YA books and some MG (or AG) books), "I LIKE reading again!" No more boring "book club" books for her, she was going to read what made her happy to read!

    1. I felt the same way when I started reading YA and MG again as an adult. I didn't want to read the boring adult lit and book club books and when I found YA, I felt relieved to find books I enjoyed and wanted to read! It was a big factor in why I became youth services librarian too!

  2. Great list! I especially like the inclusion of Reeve and Westerfeld - I think their books are gateways to the wonder of fantasy and sci-fi. Thanks for sharing!

    1. So true-I love great gateway books to genre!

  3. A couple of my favorite series are on this list. CINDER is fabulous and clean, to boot. The Bloody Jack series is more YA (because of content), but it's also wonderful. All writers should study the way L.A. Meyer brings Jacky to life. She's one of my very favorite YA characters EVER.

    Fun post!

  4. This is such a fantastic list of novels :) There really are so many phenomenal middle-grade and YA fiction books out there amongst the rubbish. I am always looking for posts with recommendations for my daughter and there are a few on here that I will add to our "must read " list.We recently read the YA book, "The Riddle of Prague" by author Laura DeBruce (http://theriddleofprague.com/about/). It is a YA thriller with so much going on I won't even be able to skim the surface. Hana Silna, the very likeable and witty main character, has gone to Prague to settle some family affairs and reclaim her ancestral home, "The Rockery." I think Hana says it best, "The good news is we have The Rockery back; the bad news is I’m being chased all over Prague by an immortal psycho killer.” She has not been given an easy task at all and soon finds her family home is linked to the grand experiment of immortality. There is murder, kidnapping and edge of your seat suspense that makes this an extremely enjoyable read. Not to mention she meets a charming and handsome friend named Alex to help her solve the mystery :) Every book needs a little romance! Hope you will give it a read!


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