Thursday, May 11, 2017

"GRAY AREA" STORIES: NOVELS FOR OLDER MIDDLE SCHOOL READERS by Laurie Morrison

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

In Friend’s most recent middle grade book, thirteen-year-old Anna moves in with her dad and his new family as her mother recovers from a suicide attempt, and she finds herself stuck at the misfit lunch table after her former best friend dumps her. I ran a book group for 5th-8th grade girls who had read this book, and it was a hit with all of them. It’s more about family and friend dynamics than any kind of crush or romance, but, as one of the younger readers in my book group gleefully pointed out, there is some occasional “bad language” that doesn’t commonly appear in MG books but feels true to life, and the eighth graders in the group agreed that they felt like they were reading about an actual eighth grader, not reading about a character who is supposed to be in eighth grade but seems younger.

Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail
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!



Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert
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.

5 comments:

  1. I think that Sarah Dessen and Jordan Sonnenblick are good examples of "older" middle grade titles. I appreciate how they keep the language clean, the alcohol drinking to a minimum, and don't include anything instructional about health class issues. I am really tired of sad middle grade books. The studies I have seen indicate that MG readers prefer humor, and there's not as many books that deal with those topics, mainly because all of the middle grade parents are apparently dead! I'll look forward to reading your two books.

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  2. Thanks for being on Project Mayhem today, Laurie! GOODBYE STRANGER is one of my very favorites in this categories. For whatever reason, the ones that are coming to mind right now as fitting here are graphic novels - DRAMA by Raina Telgemeir, AWKWARD by Svetlana Chmakova, and SUNNY SIDE UP by Jenni Holm all have some more mature romance or themes, but aren't all the way to YA.

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  3. I love your article! Yes a thousand times to everything you said! I also write for 5th-8th graders (gap books/bridge books/upper MG...I like how your agent refers to them as 10+ MG.) I'm also a former middle school English teacher, and my experiences with my students match yours--they want books that reflect their experiences, too, with all the terror and thrills. More than that, they deserve them. Your recommendations have been added to the top of my TBR list, for sure! Thank you!

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  4. There is such a need for books in this age range! I wish that publishers and librarians weren't averse. We are otherwise missing the real experience of middle schoolers and pushing them into the older books they may not otherwise prefer.

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  5. First of all, I'm so glad to hear about the publishing of your novels. Second, what a great list of books, Laurie! I read Rebecca Stead's book. Do you think Jenny Han's Shug fits this category?

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!