Recently there was a blog post on the Horn Book Blog by Jeanne Birdsall, author of the beloved Penderwicks series. In the post, Jeanne has this to say about middle grade books:
“…all children have to work out the role of creativity, fantasy, and learning in their lives, often at the same age I was when books saved me — nine to twelve, the years for reading middle grade books. This is when children are moving toward an identity apart from their families but haven’t yet submerged themselves in peer groups. For these brief and wondrous years, they are individuals open to and ripe for the very best we can give them, including those books written just for them, books that invite them into the world outside their families, their schoolrooms, their own lives.”
You can find the whole blog post here.
The beauty of middle grade fiction is that a child is free to explore his/her imagination, no permission required. Once a child hits eight years of age, she/he is under pressure from parents, peers, school–maybe even herself/himself–to become a grown-up, and to leave the elements of “babyhood” behind. While there’s nothing wrong with getting older and taking on more mature responsibilities, imagination and creativity are often sacrificed along the way.
So the child that loved Sesame Street is no longer allowed to watch her favorite characters, either because she’s in school or because her parents want to stimulate her with more mature material. Time that used to be spent playing make-believe is now used to master arithmetic and grammar, two arcane practices in and of themselves. Then, the child discovers a book; perhaps she/he receives it as a gift, perhaps a librarian recommends it, or maybe it was assigned reading. It could be any title, from the Island of the Blue Dolphins to Ramona Quimby, Age Eight to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and she/he not only gets to use her/his imagination all over again, she/he realizes that she/he doesn’t have to be a grown-up all the time.
Many children are pushed to grow up too quickly, in their life choices as well as their reading choices. How many kids do you know have the free time to just play outside with their neighborhood cronies? Most of the kids you know probably have a tight schedule of school, extracurricular lessons like dance or martial arts, and sports team practice. Gone are the days where kids have streetlight rules (you know, the rule where your mom doesn’t want to see your face inside the house in the summer until the streetlights come on). And many kids are also encouraged to skip ahead in their reading choices because they need more of a “challenge”.
But kids encouraged to skip ahead are missing out on important emotional and cognitive development steps. They miss out on the working through of issues kids their age face in a safe place–through a fictional character found in books. Instead they are being confronted with more “adult” problems found in the books written for young adults (kids age 13-16). Every teacher I know would tell you that there is a huge difference in maturity between a 6th grader (11/12-year-old children who haven’t hit their growth spurts yet) and 8th graders (where the girls could pass for 19 and the boys have deep voices and are sprouting facial hair).
Now, we are not saying that some 12-year-old children aren’t ready to face the YA challenge–some definitely are. And we’re not saying that some 14-year-old children should automatically get pushed into the next category. Most children will move up when they are ready; we just have to trust them.
But having that middle step–that middle grade level book–helps each child reach their full potential. Appropriate books are their life-saver, their escape pod, their secret garden, as they transition from being a child to being a young adult. It’s a big jump! Giving them books meant for them makes that jump a little less scary and makes them a little more powerful.
See all of our middle grade books by following this link.