Monday, September 24, 2012

MEANWHILE...MIDDLE GRADE: The Importance of Middle Grade

I well remember my middle school years. It took me a long while to be able to remember them with any fondness. I was the shy girl. I was the good girl. I was the girl who didn’t fit in with the popular crowd. Looking back, I am glad to have been all of those things. It is precisely those traits that form what I am today: a rather shy dreamer full of tough questions about people and life--questions that I attempt to answer through writing.

Rest assured I was not always so content to be me. Back in middle school I’d have given my right arm to have rid myself of what I considered personality flaws. The "flaws" caused me much trouble. I was teased. I was the butt of many jokes. I had one best friend, equally an outsider, instead of a large group of friends-of-the-minute. My BFF and I heard the whispers behind our back—whispers that were usually a little too loud to be termed a whisper. Still, we endured. We stayed true to ourselves. We survived.

No one is going to deny that middle school is a rough time for most kids. Middle schoolers are searching out and discovering social boundaries, making and losing friends at a high rate of speed, grasping to uncover who they are inside and what that means—both to themselves and to those around them. It is an unpleasant experience in the best of circumstances; it is downright unbearable in the worst. There were many times—too many times to count—I felt like throwing in the proverbial towel, crawling into a dark hidey-hole, and staying there until h*** froze over. What kept me from doing just that? (Other than my parents.)

Books. My salvation came through losing myself in rich stories inhabited by living characters, characters experiencing the same trials and tribulations as me. If they could make it, so could I. If they could put on a brave face each and every day, so could I. And if they could muster up enough courage to stand up for themselves...well, I could dream, couldn’t I?

Perhaps even more important than giving me characters I could relate to, books presented me with viewpoint characters eerily similar to the kids that snubbed and sneered at me on a near daily basis. They gave me a glimpse into what very well could have been the backstory of those kids’ lives. They gave me the “whys” for the way my peers acted when no one else could. Books built me a pathway to feel empathy for kids that had none for me. I think that is an exquisitely beautiful gift, and one for which I am deeply grateful.

Bookseller Cordelia Jensen said the following in her critical thesis and grad lecture at VCFA, and I think it perfectly sums up the significance of middle grade books:

Stories help us escape. Stories soothe us. They scare us. They keep us awake. But, as Middle Schoolers, they do something even deeper: they let us try on a new identity. In this time of Identity Versus Role Confusion, stories can help students play out behavior they might not dare to do themselves. Or maybe might help them feel validated by showing characters make similar choices to the ones they have made already.”

That is what middle grade books did for me. Reading them gave me a sense of empowerment, normalcy, and escapism that I couldn't get anywhere else. Books offered laughs when I felt blue, hope when I had none, and far-off places when I needed to get away. They offered answers to hard questions, and served as my guideposts as I stumbled through those tough years.

Just how important to me were the guideposts otherwise known as middle grade books? How much stock did I put into their stories, their characters, and their themes? Again, Cordelia says it best:

I remember reading Go Ask Alice in sixth grade and being absolutely terrified of the main character’s drug addiction. The scene where she pulled her eyelashes out haunted me and I slept with socks on my hands at night for weeks, thinking that way I wouldn’t pull my own eyelashes out. I was not on LSD but I was so immersed with the character, I was scared of becoming her in the night. So scared I remembered her story years later when friends offered me acid. Go Ask Alice is not written for middle schoolers, it is really a young adult book. And it was written as drug propaganda (which apparently worked on me), but this memory is really important. It shows how profoundly middle schoolers can take on the emotional worlds of their characters. How easy it is, really, to pretend to be someone else while you are reading and, through that, locate some truth about yourself. I knew, after reading that story at age 12 that I never, ever wanted to do LSD. And I didn’t. And now I am 36. And doubt I will change my mind. Stories matter. Stories help us define our lives. Stories give us dreams to cling to and nightmares to drive away. This is the case at 5, 11, 27 or 75, but the lessons we choose to take from the book often directly reflect the psychosocial crises we are struggling with at the time we read it.”

There is a quote in Spiderman (yes, for all the middle schoolers, and middle schoolers at heart, I am going to include a quote from Spiderman) that I feel is relevant to this post:

With great power comes great responsibility.”—Uncle Ben to Peter (A slight variation of this quote is originally attributed to Stan Lee.)

Books written for children don’t always receive the recognition or credit they deserve. Vicky Smith, Children’s & Teen Editor at Kirkus Reviews, wrote a blog post in which she revealed that her acupuncturist referred to reading an adult book as reading a “real book.” Oh, my. Regardless of the opinion of the general public, we writers of children’s books know we hold great power each time we put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. We have the power to move, inspire, and grant hope to kids in ways we never dare to think. The books we write contain unimaginable influence over the developing thoughts, convictions, and even actions of children everywhere—children who are the future of our world. Our books will be our legacies—legacies capable of changing the world through young readers. Writing for children is indeed a great honor and a great responsibility. And that, I believe, is deserving of great respect.

Laura Golden is the author of EVERY DAY AFTER, a middle grade novel about letting go and finding your own way. It is set to release from Delacorte Press/RHCB in the spring of 2013. You can find out more about Laura and EVERY DAY AFTER by visiting her website or following her on Twitter.


  1. A wonderful post! Thank you for putting the importance of middle grade books into words so eloquently.

  2. " Reading them gave me a sense of empowerment, normalcy, and escapism that I couldn't get anywhere else." I couldn't agree more. What a thoughtful, beautiful post, Laura. Thanks for this.

  3. Books built that same pathway to empathy for me that they did for you. It is an invaluable gift. Great post, Laura.

  4. This was me as well, Laura. Strong stories give us the power to write our own stories--both the fictional kind and the live-action, as-you-live-it stories of our lives as they unfold. Thanks for writing this!

  5. Woah! Cori was my camp counselor!! Love this post and although I'm not a huge middle grade reader, I think this can resonate with all stories (no matter what genre/age group)