There is quite a bit of discussion among writers about the role of parents in middle grade fiction, but not so much about the presence of other adults. We know that readers generally want the main characters to drive the action, but sometimes trying to avoid letting your characters have help from adults can make the story fall flat.
I realized this when my daughter and I were listening to an audio version of a recent middle grade book. I don’t want to mention the book title, because overall the story was well-written and very imaginative. However, I heard the dreaded “I don’t get it” several times from my daughter as we were listening. She’s a smart girl (says her completely unbiased mother), and it bothered me she wasn’t understanding things. One chapter in particular stumped her. It was a discussion between two adults about a political situation with some very Machiavellian undertones. Now kids early on understand good and evil, and good guys and bad guys, but not necessarily the subtle maneuverings of crafty politicians. I’m an avid follower of political news and I often can’t figure out the actions of real life politicians!
As a writer I tend to analyze other people’s stories to figure out what isn’t working and how it could be fixed. I realized this particular story would have worked better if there had been an Obi-Wan in it, a knowledgeable elder who could have explained the world to the main character, and therefore explained it to the reader as well. There’s a long tradition in fiction of the Sage character. Joseph Campbell describes the wise old man or old woman, the Mentor, as appearing throughout history in storytelling, drama, and mythology.
A recent middle grade book I very much enjoyed that did have a Sage character is the historical The CROWFIELD CURSE by Pat Walsh. The story is set in a medieval abbey, and Brother Snail is the Obi-wan character, who explains some past events to the main character, Will, a boy who lives at the abbey. I think these sorts of characters are useful in all kinds of books, but particularly in historicals and fantasies, where there may be complicated backstory that needs explanation.
And there’s another good reason to add in some important characters who aren't kids – it can add in a new voice that breaks up the sameness of kid voices. I added in an elderly actor named Cecil to WOLF STORM. He’s not much of a sage, but getting in a different perspective added in more layers to the story, and while Cecil doesn’t know how to do anything practical, he can at least quote Shakespeare and make hot chocolate.
Dumbledore in Harry Potter is a mentor character, in a way, until we discover at the very end of the series he was using Harry for his own purposes. Can you think of any other Sages in middle grade books?
~ Dee Garretson
~ Dee Garretson