I know a sure-fire way to depress myself – visit the young adult section of the local Barnes & Noble. I should explain. None of my favorite authors or books like the ones I want to write are out on the shelves; everything is far too market researched, too hip, slick, and cool for the likes of moi.
I made my semi-annual visit recently, and went through my usual chain of thoughts. Should I take a pseudonym and try my hand at vampire romance? Should I do like Marcel Duchamp and spend the rest of my life playing chess?
Sooner or later – in this case, the same day – I come to a solution that works. I stopped by the local library and went to the “middle-grade” stacks. For readers in this range, roughly older grade school through middle school, fantasy never goes out of style. Reading these books is like dipping into the fiction that really made me love fiction.
The YA/middle grade distinction is anything but exact. Harry Potter is usually found in the middle grade section, and in thinking about that, a few differences became clear. There is less introspection and more action, of course, but there is also a different quality to the characters’ introspection.
A middle grade hero like Harry worries that he is not adequate to take on Voldemort. A young adult hero worries that he is not adequate. They are just on different spots of the whole arc of coming of age, which I don’t think anyone ever fully outgrows. I’m sure that is one reason why people of all ages love Harry.
Here is a brief synopsis of three middle grade fantasies I have thoroughly enjoyed, and which you may as well.
The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley
Two years ago I drove to a nearby Borders to hear Michael Buckley discuss his popular middle grade fantasy series, The Sisters Grimm. Buckley was snowed in on the east coast and forced to cancel, but interestingly, there were five adults and two seventh grade girls waiting when the news came. The girls told us how disappointed they were, and gave a synopsis of the series. Both said they liked these books better than Harry Potter. When articulate young readers tell me they like something better than Harry Potter, I pay attention; I brought home the first three books of what has grown to an eight book series.
In book one, after their parents mysteriously disappear, Sabrina and Daphne Grimm are sent to live with their Granny Relda in the Hudson River town of Ferryport Landing. Suspicious Sabrina has no patience with the tall tale this “grandmother” spins – that the sisters are descendants of the famous Brothers Grimm, whose fairytales were actually case files of the activities of “The Everafters.” These strange and sometimes dangerous creatures of story actually exist in Ferryport Landing, where they were brought and contained by Wilhelm Grimm to ensure their survival. When Sabrina sees Granny Relda taken by a giant who almost catches her and Daphne, she can no longer doubt. The sisters must team up with Puck and Jack the Giant Killer to dodge the town police (the three little pigs), rescue Granny Relda, and get to the bottom of a shady real estate deal engineered by the foppish Prince Charming, the mayor of Ferryport landing.
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
When she is twelve, Meggie Folchart discovers that her father, Mo, is a “Silver Tongue,” a person with a dangerous gift. When he reads a tale aloud, characters from the book are drawn into our world, while people from our world disappear into the the story. Meggie learns that her mother, Resa, vanished when Mo read from a rare book, Inkheart, while the evil Capricorn came here from the story. He has since found his own Silver Tongue to read his henchman into this world, even as he seeks to destroy all other editions of the book, so that Mo cannot send them back.
Mo, desperate to rescue Resa, seeks out the author of Inkheart who still has one copy of the manuscript. Mo, Maggie, and the author, are captured by Capricorn, whose personal Silver Tongue is of the poorest quality. When Meggie proves to have the gift, Capricorn threatens to kill her mother unless she reads “The Shadow,” the ultimate evil, into this world.
Inkheart was made into a fun movie in 2009, starring Brendan Frazer, Helen Mirren, and Eliza Bennet as Meggie. There are two additional titles in this series. I have not read them, but a friend says each book is better than its predecessor.
The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
After his parents split up, Jared Grace, his mother, his twin brother Simon, and his older sister Mallory, find themselves in the broken down Spiderwick Estate. It’s a dump, and even worse, right on the edge of Faerie. When the Grace siblings find a mysterious Field-Guide to the nice and not so nice denizens of this other world, some very unsavory creatures are determined to get it back. At first, poor Jared, with a history of anger issues after the divorce, is blamed for the mischief. Later the whole family joins together in a fight for survival.
The Spiderwick Chronicles consist of five thin books. The edition pictured above contains all of them, because you won’t be able to read just one. I started the books after seeing an enjoyable movie version in 2008.
What I am reading Next:
I love libraries, where I am free to choose a book by its cover, or in this case, by its title. Next in my middle-grade book queue is The Faceless Fiend: Being the Tale of a Criminal Mastermind, His Masked Minions, and a Princess with a Butter Knife, Involving Explosives and a Certain Amount of Pushing and Shoving, by Howard Whitehouse. I’ll let you know how I like it.