This week, I'm so delighted to welcome my friend Laurie Morrison to Project Mayhem. She's a fellow member of the Electric 18's and will debut with EVERY SHINY THING, co-written with Cordelia Jensen. Recently, her solo MG debut was announced and it sounds AMAZING!! I invited her to talk about why she wrote the book.
The Importance of “Gray Area” Stories: Middle Grade Novels for Older Middle School Readers
By Laurie Morrison
This week, I got to share the exciting news that my new novel, Up for Air, will be published by Abrams/Amulet in spring 2019. Up for Air is about thirteen-year-old Annabelle, a star swimmer and struggling student, who is thrilled when she gets called up to the high school summer team and has a chance to shine. But when she attracts the attention of an older boy and finds herself alienated from her closest friends, she has to figure out what her true strengths are and where she really fits.
One of the reasons I am most excited about this novel is also the reason I was worried, for a while, that it might be tough to sell. You see, it’s an upper middle grade book that delves into some topics that middle grade novels don’t often address: a pretty intense crush on an older boy, the thrill of having a new kind of body that attracts a new kind of attention, and the temptations and pressures that come along with having older friends.
I started writing Up for Air three years ago, but I abandoned it a few times along the way because I was concerned that it might fall into the unmarketable gray area between middle grade and young adult fiction. In the meantime, one of the projects I worked on was Every Shiny Thing, a book I wrote with my friend Cordelia Jensen, which will be published next spring. Every Shiny Thing is also upper middle grade, and it tackles some pretty heavy topics, but I didn’t worry about that one’s marketability in the same way. I think that’s because I’ve rarely heard anyone say that middle grade novels shouldn’t deal with hard, sad topics; that seems to be okay, but certain language and certain kinds of crushes and romances are a no-go, many people think.
In the end, though, I couldn’t let go of Annabelle’s story. It was a story I had to tell, in part because of my own memories of middle school and the books I loved back then, and in part because of my work with middle school students. I’ve taught middle school English for the past ten years, and most of the 7th and 8th graders I know, and even many 6th graders, read more young adult books than middle grade ones because middle grade books feel too young to them. And yes, kids like to “read up” about characters who are older than they are, and that’s great. But there’s also something powerful and validating about having books that are closer to what they’re currently going through. Because what does it tell them about the experiences they are having right now if they can’t find any books that delve into those kinds of experiences in all their giddy, painful, glorious messiness?
One of my favorite books that is boldly situated in the upper middle grade gray area is Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger. Stead’s novel does not shy away from “untouchable” middle grade topics; it explores a girl’s experience of coming into her sexuality and deals with the topic of slut shaming. I read the novel aloud to a class of seventh graders a couple of years ago, and the students’ enthusiasm and impassioned discussions validated my belief in the importance of gray area stories and sparked my hope that there might be room for more of these books in the market after all.
I know, I know. Rebecca Stead is Rebecca Stead, and she’s earned the right to break some rules. But I think we’re seeing more and more of what my agent calls “age 10 and up” middle grade these days: more books that feature crushes, body image, and peer pressure, and maybe even characters who are fourteen, an age that has often been considered off limits, as Dianne Salerni posted about on Project Mayhem in the past. Here are a few recently published books that appeal to the older end of the middle school crowd.
Where You’ll Find Me by Natasha Friend
This funny retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac is about eighth grader Gracie, who falls for a boy named A.J., who likes Gracie’s best friend, Sienna. Gracie helps the flustered Sienna figure out how to handle her interactions with A.J. and ends up posing as Sienna over text. This is a delightful romantic comedy that captures the awkwardness and excitement and sort of crowd-sourced dynamic of adolescent relationships, and it delves into some rich family dynamics, as well. Plus, Gracie turns fourteen in the course of the story!
Annabelle refuses to let any of her friends come within five miles of her house because her mom is a hoarder. This funny, poignant novel is about the summer her dad takes off and her grandmother jumps in to try to fix the family’s problems. There’s a sweet storyline with the boy Annabelle likes, and Annabelle’s spot-on upper middle grade humor will make her story appeal to older middle school readers and younger ones alike. (Also, apparently there is something about the names Anna and Annabelle that scream upper middle grade for some reason!)
I’d love to know about any other upper middle grade novels you love that would appeal to older middle school students and that might break some of the commonly accepted “rules” for middle grade, especially if you know of any diverse, own voices books that I can add to my list!
Laurie writes books for kids and teens, reads voraciously, and teaches middle school English. When she's not writing, reading, or teaching, you can often find her taking long walks even when it's cold or rainy, making fancy pizza, or cheering on an odd blend of New York sports teams she grew up rooting for and Philadelphia teams she's adopted since settling in Philadelphia. She loves iced coffee, just-out-of-the-oven pastries, the ocean, and TV shows that make her laugh or gasp out loud.
You can find Laurie on her website: lauriemorrisonwrites.com or on Twitter at @LaurieLMorrison.