I am done with my first semester of grad school! It doesn't feel like I'm truly done done, because in almost three weeks I'll be headed back and I have a lot to do to prepare for semester two, but for now I have a slight break in which I hope to process and catch up. Also, something unexpected happened these past six months.
I fell in love with middle grade novels.
For years (six, to be exact), I've written this blog and I have been ALL YA, ALL THE TIME. I've thrown in a healthy mix of classics and adult fiction, but my go-to was always YA, and I was fine with that. When I was accepted to Vermont College of Fine Arts' MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults, my friend (and fantastic almuna/author) Cori McCarthy said to me, "You know, you should prepare yourself for your advisor making you read a ton of middle grade fiction, especially since you're so knowledgeable with YA."
I thought, Okay. I can do that. I can read middle grade. Even if...even if I can't think of a middle grade novel I've read that I really, really enjoyed. No matter. School is for broadening my horizons. I made my peace with having to read a lot of middle grade fiction for the next two years, but I didn't expect to like it.
And honestly, I didn't at first. Mine was not a love-at-first-read relationship. While my fantastic advisor (Rita Williams-Garcia, and author of the awesome middle grade novels One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven) didn't make me read anything, per se, she did steer me towards some good stuff. She asked me what I liked when I was a kid, and she got me thinking about the sorts of things that kid-me would have liked, and I thought a lot about what adult-me likes. Somewhere in the middle of the semester, I began thinking of books kid-me liked and adult-me likes as a Venn diagram, and soon the intersection of that Venn diagram had a lot of excellent books.
I've loved, loved, loved reading these books. I've loved discovering new authors, new worlds, and new writing styles that I never would have considered, that I never would have thought possible. I never read The Westing Game as a kid. When I read it this past October, I was shocked by it. Not necessarily by the story, or the content, or the way that Ellen Raskin brilliantly told the story. What shocked me was that that there were hardly any kids in the book at all. Two. And they don't play the largest roles in the story, either.
I came to realize that everything I'd foolishly thought about middle grade novels wasn't true. (I'm not sure how I came to my conclusions--before July, I'd read approximately four middle grade novels in the past eight or so years.) And when I began to read more, I started to get the tiniest bit upset. First, at myself for not reading more middle grade before this year, but also at others...people who didn't understand middle grade, or looked down upon it.
As I started paying attention to middle grade books at my job at the bookstore, I became upset at the fact that for years, we only have stocked Newberry winners and middle grade fantasy (something I changed quickly when I impulsively decided to rearrange the entire children's section in one weekend to make more three times the shelf space for middle grade). Parents who come into the store want recommendations, and instead of selling books I heard were good, or books that other kids and parents liked, or books on bestseller lists, I was trying to sell Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, Bigger than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder, Rebecca Stead's books. But instead of being excited about these books, parents were apprehensive. Instead of telling the customer all of the things that I enjoyed about these excellent books, I found myself explaining to worried adults all of the reasons why these books were not too dark/sad/unhappy/hard for their kids. And that makes me terribly sad.
Luckily, this has not been my experience every time I've hand-sold a book to an adult. Luckily, a LOT of kids come in and once they get over the sight of an excited adult wanting to bother them while they're browsing, we've had a lot of great conversations. Which is excellent, important, and it has made me a better bookseller and a better reader. But I still am saddened by the adults who leave the store empty-handed, usually frustrated because the children's books they remembered from their childhood aren't the rose-tinted happy memories they thought they were coming in for.
Thankfully, we have authors and teachers and librarians and parents and booksellers who are so, so passionate about middle grade and want to change these perspectives. I've been delighted to get to know many names and authors over the course of this last semester. I particularly enjoyed this blog post written by Anne Ursu about darkness in children's lit, and I am grateful for my classmates at VCFA who remind me that sometimes the best stories aren't the ones with happy endings, and those books are for children, too.
Some of the best books I read this semester: The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff, Bigger Than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder, Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead, and The Secret Tree by Natalie Standiford. Watch the blog for a full list of middle grade I read and loved this past semester!