Children’s book editor Taylor Norman weighs in on the importance of middle grade, and why you shouldn’t overlook or underestimate the age category.
Want experimental fiction? Read middle grade.
I mean it. Middle grade is where I turn for the most interesting, different, and wide-ranging ideas in children’s literature. It’s the most crucial genre—but it’s also the least definable. So aren’t you glad the point of this letter is explain what the heck is middle grade, and why it’s important?
Technically, middle grade is an age category. First, we have picture books, which are read to children. Picture books are like strollers. Early readers are when kids are first learning to read on their own—they are tricycles. Chapter books put training wheels on the bike. But middle grade is where the training wheels come off, and kids are pedaling all on their own. They can go all the way to end of the block by themselves, to their friend’s house, or wherever they want. They can say they’re going one place and actually bike somewhere else. They can ride on the road; they can race down the sidewalk; they can do tricks on half-pipes. Middle grade is similarly variable.
So, why? Why is middle grade able to comprise so many different stories for so many different kids?
Part of middle grade’s variability is purely logical. It spans a wide age group—it’s for readers as young as eight and as old as 12 or 13—and in between those ages you, any single individual, go through a lot of different versions of yourself. So the books for you, specifically, you alone, just within that span of time, have the potential to be very different.
When I was nine years old, I was obsessed with RAV4s. In particular, blue 1998 RAV4s. Do you know what a RAV4 is? It is a fairly generic, small SUV that Toyota debuted in North America in 1995, and when I was a kid, right in the thick of my middle grade years, the only car I ever wanted was a royal blue RAV4. I wish I could, but do not, remember what in particular it was about them that so appealed to me. Something about their shape, something about that color blue, screamed TAYLOR about them, and I was committed. A RAV4 would be my first car. Definitely. My sweetly wily mother even managed to rent one on a family vacation as a surprise for me: joy upon joys.
But when I was ten, I kind of forgot about RAV4s. They ceased to send a spark up my stomach. When I saw them on the road, I felt a memory of a past joy, not a future self. When I was eleven, I stopped even noticing them. In fact, when we drove behind one, I would have to actively notice, “Huh. That’s a RAV4.” Maybe it was because they changed their shape around then, got a little bulkier and mommy-er; maybe that was just my perception.
And when I was twelve, I had an epiphany. I knew what my actual dream car was: a black VW Beetle, one of the new ones with the little vase in the front, and mine would have red, orange, and yellow flames painted up the front, like I was driving into a fire! Yes! This was me. This was my car. I knew this to be true. I would see plain black VW Beetle on the road and pity their normalcy. I would have the only car just like my car, ever. Four more years. That’s all it would take.
Of course, I came to my senses. My mom, having retained hers, never indulged me with a rental this time. And my first car was, of course, none of these. It was a 1984 Ford F-150 that I named Captain Ruby because she was red and I was obsessed with pirates. That was the first car I was going to end up with, all along, no matter which parts of myself knew it—the inevitable future that the past leads up to.
And this is why middle grade is important. Because middle grade must give each of those versions of myself the perfect books. They’re not the same books for every kid, and they’re not the same books for me at every age. Middle grade’s strength, and its importance, resides in its fluidity—its inclusion of Hilary McKay along with Brian Jacques. Middle grade can give a kid a RAV4 one year and a Beetle the next, and because it doesn’t tie you to your past self, it allows you to figure out which self you want to be.
Here’s the thing: people will tell you that the great thing about middle grade is that they are books about coming of age, and coming of age is so important and such a big, beautiful part of every kid’s life. And yes—this is true. Coming of age is a major theme in a lot of middle grade novels, no matter what genre. Harry comes of age; Alanna comes of age; Charlotte comes of age. Innocence is lost and confidence gained; selfhood attained. Yes, this happens to be a common theme in middle grade.
But explain to me Dealing with Dragons. Explain to me Redwall, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Golden Compass, The View from Saturday, Frindle. What are these books about? Who are they for? Give me your log-line—they’re what meets what? I challenge you to explain The Giver in terms a Hollywood exec would understand.
Middle grade is important because its readers may not all be coming of age. But its readers are all fluid. The middle grade era in a kid’s life is a time of experimentation and difficulty. One day you’re one kid, and one day you’re someone else. Many of us cycled through several different versions of ourselves every day. It’s extremely hard to be a kid; I think often how thankful I am that I’m not one any more. Because it’s exhausting not to know yourself very well. It’s exhausting to have to wonder how you should react to things, rather than just react to them. There’s no right answer, and that in itself is exhausting.
So what answers do you give?
Middle grade gives you every answer you could conceive of. Over the course of the books you read during these ages, you figure out the selves that feel right and the selves that feel wrong. Kids are experimenting with becoming different humans; every middle grade book provides a path to a different future self. Unlike even Young Adult, the themes, characters, ideas, and stories of middle grade don’t follow a set pattern. It’s an ouroboros: because the genre is for kids in an experimental phrase, it needs to be experimental; kids this age turn to books as a safe laboratory, wherein they can become every possible version of themselves.
The genre gives kids answers. Kids can try the answers on for size, and in so doing, figure out which ones are truly their own. Middle graders are Schrodinger’s cat: because they can’t see their own future yet, every future is their own, and middle grade fiction is their closed box, full of everything, because everything is uncertain.
And only such a chock-full, experimental genre could allow me to edit two novels that are different as they come. Tiny Infinities is essentially the platonic ideal of middle grade: family troubles, difficulty deciding whether to occupy one or both sides of the kid/adult line, a weird new friend, an intense new crush, and an overarching challenge that feels somehow even more important than everything else. The Language of Spells, though, is about a girl and a dragon who become friends, in a version of Vienna where dragons still exist. As the friends grow closer, Maggie and Grisha realize that dozens of dragons have gone missing, and only the two of them can find them.
And that’s why it’s so important that middle grade gives a kid every answer she could conceive of. Only through exposure to something truly free of any constraints can we learn who we really are and what we really need. Without the fluidity, the experimentation, the incredible variability of middle grade, our books would provide too much guidance, would leave too many kids feeling still isolated.
Kids this age need books that are as weird and difficult and interesting as they are—we need many books for every kid. By creating middle grade as a space for experimentation in children’s literature, we create the space truest to a kid’s experience. We do no more important work than this.