On an impulse, I bought not one, not two, but four middle-grade books to give to a younger friend for their birthday. As any reader would, I read them first.
And, well, they and the near book-a-day that followed changed the way I think of both books in general, and middle graded as a genre.
Before getting into this, I need to say that I in no way mean to represent middle-grade books as just one type--there are many, but having read six vastly different ones over the past few weeks, here are some traits about them that have made this my favorite genre again.
In fourth grade, I read The One and Only Ivan from a point of view of a gorilla finding the difference between a home and a cage; in sixth grade, Fish in a Tree about a girl with dyslexia; in seventh grade, The Thing about Jellyfish, which handled raw grief with more care than YA ever has. I could go on.
Here these books are, for kids--and this is what I read in elementary and middle school. It was hope through trials, but the trials were there.
Recently, I picked up Free Verse (a book lesser-known than the ones above) about a girl who loses her family--and somehow, the book felt more real than any YA realistic fiction (not to bash YA).
Middle grade is a genre that goes out of its way to deal with complex matters, such as LGBTQ+ identity, grief, disability in a kind way. Honestly, at this point--I’m tired of the YA representation of issues as this near end-all-be-all, I’m tired of the traumatic backstories that justify the character’s every feeling.
Give me more, give me these characters with a thousand conflicting thoughts, and this clashing steady childhood conviction.
Realistic fiction YA, after getting back into middle grade, doesn’t cut it. I’m tired of hating characters and with YA, I’m tired of everything seeming to be taken to the extreme.
Middle grade is terrifying, makes me cry, which it didn’t before--but now I realize how young these kids are, and it makes it worse. Maybe it’s because I’ve only just started my teenage years, and I expect myself to be as mature as Katniss when I hit 16, but what these kids feel sometimes makes more sense than the maturity YA pushes at you.
I stepped away from middle grade as soon as I decided I was just too mature for these little kids and their happily ever afters. But honestly--middle-grade endings are their own league.
Too often, I see YA trauma glossed over the slightest bit, such as in the Simon vs. series (what happened to Simon genuinely horrifies me, and I hate that we don’t see how it affects him long-term.)
Middle grade almost… doesn’t do that, though? They have their happy endings, but often, the lessons come with baggage--and middle grade generally seems to try harder to establish support systems for their young protagonists.
House Arrest gives us an unfair world, gives us this beautiful main character who goes through what is technically fair punishment (he gets put on house arrest for a crime he committed with good intentions), but makes us hurt.
And it doesn’t end happily. But it ends okay. And I’ve seen that a lot. Where there is hope at the end, and everything is a little okay. It’s nice, these easy, often shorter reads, where things end up okay, but not tied with a ribbon. Sometimes, they’re a little ambiguous too. And that’s fine, of course--these characters still have so far to go.
The themes of hope go past the endings, though. It’s these young kids often, and their achievable goals. Front Desk, where a ten-year-old girl faces issues too big for her and creates change.
And it’s not Ship It, or any realistic fiction YA, where the main characters feel too good (or bad) to be real--it’s fair. Middle-grade change-makers are empowering--I think the last time I rooted for a character as much as I do for these literal children was when I got into Kristin Hannah’s adult books on family and womanhood.
YA, you root for characters, wish them happiness and love them, yes, but it’s not… it’s not this. It’s not the genuine childhood in these books.
A Short Note on Middle-grade Fantasy
Fantasy was my jam in middle school, and a revisit to the Serafina series as well as reading through the Aru Shah series has reminded me how hard middle-grade fantasy hits.
Less so with Aru Shah, but again, we see these kids be kids, but the books still maintain this fantastic air of secrecy--sometimes making you feel like you and the protagonists are in on a secret (since these kids often don’t tell their parents what they’re up to.)
And, I guess it’s just nice--seeing your childhood through this mature lens and seeing these heavy, heavy emotions and unflinching hope coexist.
If this post has convinced you, be on the lookout for a post later this month recommending middle-grade books by genre.
I truly love this genre, and I can’t wait to share my favs with y’all!
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.