When I started this blog I thought I was going to talk mainly about picture books. I had no idea that after a year of studying picture books, writing and illustrating my own picture books, and submitting multiple times with no tangible success, I would suddenly be inspired to write a middle grade novel. I’m still not sure how it happened, but maybe it was because I’d started to read a lot of recent middle grade novels, and I found I was enjoying them as much as any adult novel. And then I heard that publishers were looking for middle grade novels. And then I had an idea for one.
I’m still at the early stages of my novel, but I’ve already discovered that a) I love writing for this level, b) it’s extremely hard work but I don’t mind a bit, and c) all that hard work I put into learning how to write picture books has been an enormous help. I am still determined to get my picture books published, but writing for middle grade is easier in one respect: I don’t have to think about leaving imaginative space for the pictures! That means I can have enormous fun describing scenes and characters.
I have some favourite middle grade novels, dating from a long time ago right up to the present day.
When I was a child, there was no such thing as a middle grade novel. There were books for children that had a few pictures, and books for older children that had no pictures. Middle grade novels are aimed at 8 to 12 year-olds, and the children in the stories are usually aged 10 to 13. I’m not sure how old Moomin and his friends were supposed to be, but I lapped up the Moomin books when I was 8 or 9. I also enjoyed the Wind in the Willows, The Borrowers, The Little Grey Men (that made me cry) and the Hobbit, but none of these books were about children just like me.
I read some of the classic stories about children such as Tom’s Midnight Garden, the E Nesbit books and the Narnia books, but none of the children in these stories seemed contemporary.
These days there are more and more books that seem to be exclusively child-centred, and address a wealth of modern childhood problems from bullying to gender identity. There are fantasy books, sci-fi, magic realism and historical adventures, but most of them seem to feature child protagonists.
I have listed below some of my favourites so far. I don’t intend to cover all the genres, as I prefer semi-fantasies that are rooted in the real world over pure fantasy or realism. But in two of these books the real world is more dominant than in the others.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. Every middle grade author seems to love this one. It’s realistic, but the children invent a fantasy world to escape into. The realism is almost too hard to bear, but we know the hero will come through the experience and become a stronger person.
The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon. This is another book that contains harrowing realism, but there is a more ambiguous streak of fantasy in here that gives hope even in the darkest moments. The writing style is brilliant.
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold. The realism becomes a little far-fetched when the heroine goes with her scientist father to stay on a remote island in the Arctic circle, and then befriends a polar bear. But somehow you’re compelled to believe it all. And the bear is so lovable.
The Unicorn in the Barn by Jacqueline Ogburn. It’s very easy to believe in unicorns when a pregnant one turns up in the vet’s barn. But magic is not necessarily that helpful when you’re dealing with real life. This is a clever mixture of facing up to real problems and a magical adventure that nearly goes terribly wrong.
I will add to this list in future posts. None of these titles resemble the book I’m writing, but I found them all inspiring in different ways. I’d love to know if you have read some of these books and enjoyed them too. And can you recommend some to me?