Tuesday, February 18, 2014

So You Want to Read Middle Grade: Angie Manfredi

So … you want to read middle grade.

Probably you should start by knowing what it is, right?

Only problem is, there’s no one simple definition of it. Middle grade is the literature for those in the middle: the middle of so many changes and the middle of their school careers. But middle school can be different grades by districts and middle grade titles can appeal to ages 9-14. That’s a pretty broad range and that makes middle grade, almost by definition, ephemeral.

So, where can you begin then?  Where can you, as a librarian, a writer, a reader, where can you start if you want to explore this genre, come to understand what it means and its impact? There are so many places you could dig in...but why not start with the best?

To me, the genre best example of middle grade fiction comes from Gary Schmidt; the writer who brings structure, definition, and yes beauty to all that is ephemeral about this genre.

In a handful of novels (several well-known and a few not-as widely known) Schmidt makes middle grade soar and exemplifies what the genre is all about.  Schmidt’s work illuminates how middle grade is not just stories about kids in middle school, but narratives about what it means to transition from childhood to adolescence. Schmidt’s middle grade books also, without fail, contain a quintessential hallmark of the genre: children coming to understand their parents - and the adults in their life - as humans with faults and desires of their own. It’s these transitions and these awareness that make middle grade different than children’s literature, different than young adult literature.  And it’s Gary Schmidt’s talent that makes these middle grade books so special.

It is no coincidence that one of Schmidt’s titles, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (2004), was both a Newbery and a Printz honor book - indicating that this was a book that straddled the worlds of young adult and children’s fiction that exemplified the very best of both and ended up as a benchmark middle grade novel.

It’s hard for me to sum up what makes Gary Schmidt’s work so amazing but if I had to narrow it down to just one thing it would be that Schmidt never talks down to his readers.  His books are rich with symbolism, historical world events, struggles with faith, and allusions to great literature, art, and sports.  Schmidt’s books challenge middle-grade readers to go farther - to think about Vietnam, racial prejudice, gentrification, abuse, and healing.  It is in these challenges that we see the fullest realization of what middle grade is.

Oh, and they’re very funny too, with occasionally slapstick humor and always featuring a frank, narrator whose honesty makes you smile. Schmidt’s books have a very solid voice and this translates well: they sound good read outloud. There are wondrous things in them in the most literal sense of the word.  This wonder is, for me, another middle grade staple: wonder at your first kiss, your first strides into independence, your ability to go beyond what you ever expected, your first losses, and the moment you know you’ll stand up for what you believe in. All of that, and even more, is in Gary Schmidt’s books.
So … you want to read middle grade.

Where could you possibly begin?  With the works of Gary Schmidt, who challenges middle grade to be all it can be and then more.

Recommended Titles Anson’s Way, 1997 - OOP but WORTH TRACKING DOWN!
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, 2004
The Wednesday Wars, 2007Okay For Now, 2011
What Came From the Stars, 2012

Angie Manfredi is the Head of Youth Services for the Los Alamos County Library System.  She loves middle grade fiction and all it represents with a fierce passion and can’t wait to see where the genre will go next.  You can read more of her writing at www.fatgirlreading.com or follow all her smallest thoughts on Twitter @misskubelik

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