Love Is in the Air—Or Is It? Should There Be Romance in Middle Grade?
As Valentine’s Day approaches, our minds turn to romance, and mine is no exception. Okay, most people aren’t contemplating the role of romance in middle grade, but we all know middle-grade writers are just a little odd :) Recently I was remembering the Children’s Lit class I took my last semester in college. The professor, while very fond of Charlotte’s Web, hated how romantically-minded little Fern became by the book’s end. In the last chapters, it’s clear that Fern has lost interest in Wilbur, her once-beloved pet pig. When Wilbur wins first prize at the County Fair, her mind is instead on the new objection of her affection, one hunky Henry Fussy. She even runs off to ride the Ferris wheel with Henry instead of staying to see Wilbur presented with his special award, completely missing Wilbur’s long-awaited “Hour of Triumph.” Weeks after the fair, riding the Ferris wheel with Henry is still on Fern’s mind: “The most fun there is,” she tells brother Avery, “is when the Ferris wheel stops and Henry and I are in the top car and Henry makes the car swing and we can see everything for miles and miles and miles . . . . I think about it all the time.” Lovesick much, little Fern? Many of you may remember, little Fern is all of eight years old.
My prof, who had daughters near that age, found it completely unrealistic that an eight-year-old girl would choose a boy over the pet pig she had saved from death and lovingly raised. His girls still thought boys had cooties—they’d be more interested in an adorable animal any day. He further commented that he would never let his eight-year-old daughter ride a Ferris wheel with a boy and would wallop any Henry Fussy who came near her.
All of which brings up a good point—what role should romance play in middle grade? Are middle graders simply too young to have (or to should have) any real interest in matters of the heart?
I personally think romance has a lot to offer any story, even a middle-grade one: tension, conflict, emotional investment, the possibility of an emotionally satisfying ending for your reader (or a really bittersweet one). Come on, you know part of the reason you eagerly devoured every new Harry Potter book was to see if Ron and Hermione finally got their stuff together and confessed their feelings for one another. And even as an eight-year-old, I got an immense amount of satisfaction when Laura Ingalls won the heart of Almanzo Wilder over that awful Nellie Oleson.
However, I don’t think romance should be the main focus of a middle-grade novel. Or, if a love story is at the core, then there needs to be plenty of other enticements (humor, adventure, colorful secondary characters, a fantastic setting, etc.) to hold a young audience’s interest. (Many animated movies based on classic love stories/fairy tales go this route.)
Many middle graders simply don’t have an interest in romance yet—and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Middle graders will have their teen years to go hormonal, and the rest of their lives to ponder and experience the trials and tribulations and mysteries and wonders of love. I like to think of middle grade as a time when kids should just enjoy being kids.
And I certainly think any romance in middle-grade novels should be suitable to the age of the characters. I always wondered at books that portrayed the very young falling head over heels.
Charlotte's Web may have put Noodle to sleep, but I'm a fan!
I do love Charlotte’s Web, but I must confess—I, too, was a little heartbroken when Fern abandoned Wilbur for Henry Fussy. Wilbur was “Some Pig”—surely he deserved a little better.