Monday, April 16, 2012

What Are the Middle Grade Taboos?

Late last year, I was one of the first round judges for the Cybils' Awards and consequently read a slew of middle grade novels. (I was on the non-fantasy panel, so I didn't get to read any novels with wand-wielding wizards or even talking animals.) After it was over, I started to see various similarities in plot. For example, many times adults were absent through death or divorce. Or, if parents were present, they were  preoccupied. In a number of novels, children were bullied and often lonely. There were a number of main characters who were self-described nerds.

Being middle grade, there were stirrings of romantic love (first crushes), rather than all-out attraction. There was no smoking, drinking, or swearing--which for anyone who's spent any time around middle school students is a rather idyllic picture.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we middle grade writers people our novels with kids who curse or who otherwise have run off the rails. (After all, much of the middle grade audience is still in elementary school.) But it did get me to thinking whether middle grade novels represent the world as we want it to be, rather than the world as it is.

Here's a starter list of subjects which Middle Grade fiction deals with, and subjects which--at least to me--seem underrepresented. Can you lead me to novels which deal with underrepresented topics? Or conversely, can you add to either column on my list?

Subjects permissible in MG
Subjects Largely Unrepresented in MG

Death (especially parents/grandparents)
Life-threatening illness
Autism, dyslexia, ADHD
Physical disabilities

Supernatural, incl. ghosts and witches
Characters religiously observant
Being bullied


Dealing with Racism


  1. Interesting topic. I must say, though, that the middle schoolers I deal with don't drink or smoke, although I'm sure there is more swearing. I really don't have ANY students who specifically ask for books about people who are religiously observant, ever. There are more and more books about poverty, few on racism, fewer on obesity. I'll work on a list for you!

  2. I think part of the problem lies in the fact that most readers, especially if they read a lot, read up. So, for example, if a book is about people in middle school, it's mostly likely being read by people in elementary school. The readers who are in middle school generally want to read about characters that are older than them.

  3. I think it depends on whether a book is for lower middle grade-elementary level or upper middle grade like 5th-8th grade. I gravitate to the older age group. There you do have some death and heavier issues, like Percy Jackson & Harry Potter. Also like Matt said, some kids read up then. My daughter read Speak in middle school, which definitely dealt with heavy issues, but she was mature enough to handle them.

  4. Hmm. My current manuscript features religiously observant characters and racism. I wonder if that increases or decreases its chances of getting published...

  5. Mitali Perkins's books deal with race and culture. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think that middle grade readers are capable of dealing with some pretty big subjects, provided they are handled in the right way. I was impressed with Angela Cerrito's THE END OF THE LINE, which deals with big issues, including war and murder, but in a way that readers of upper MG can handle it. It's a fine line, but she walked that line extremely well.

  6. It's not surprising that Ms. Yingling is seeing more books on poverty. it's an issue. But so is racism, sexism, obesity, and drugs. But, I know from having lived in Baltimore city, that there are middle schoolers who face these issues. Generally, kids do like reading about what to expect, but there is also the desire to escape things that are not pleasant about real life. We read to dive into another world. Sometimes, a harsher world and sometimes a better one. And sometimes one with flying brooms and magic wands. Judy Bloom books and S.E.Hinton were hugely popular for MG readers. J K Rowling and Garth Nix are, too. Bottom line, if it's a great book, it will make people read it. And make people think.

  7. Interesting list and discussion! What about mental illness - e.g. parents with depression or another type of disorder? I don't think I've seen much in MG.

  8. Waiting for Normal comes to mind for poverty...and there is another that I cannot for the life of me was mighty powerful. WONDER is another {pretty sure you read it as I read your review then read the book, lol}. RULES has a boy in it with cerebral palsy I do has been a while but I wonder if WHEN ZACHARY BEAVER CAME TO TOWN would be good for MG on obeisity...have to go look it up, it might be more YA than MG...will think on this some more and come back. Right now, most everything I think of is YA!

    Just read THE HOP-the mc's grandma is battling cancer and it does affect their relationship.

  9. Sarah Dooley's BODY OF WATER was a fabulous MG that dealt with poverty, homelessness and Wicca. Great read.

  10. HUGGING THE ROCK is a MG verse novel that deals with a bi-polar mother. LOVE, AUBREY deals with death and depression.

  11. Back! The name of the other book on poverty is Cathy Cassidy's Indigo Blue...pow-er-ful and oh so heartbreakingly real. Here is the amazon link

  12. Life-threatening illness AND physical disabilities: FREAK THE MIGHTY (Rodman Philbrick, great book).

    Religion: CHOOSING UP SIDES (baseball book about "evil" left-handers, by John Ritter).

    Racism: JUST LIKE MARTIN (Ozzie Davis) and GLORY FIELD (Walter Dean Myers)

    Great post, MGG!

  13. A lovely mg book in which poverty, and, in an understated way, rscism, are dealt with is last years Where Do You Stay, by Andrea Cheng

  14. Interesting-I hadn't thought about the absence of some of these topics.
    The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz by Laura Toffler-Corrie has an important character who is a religiously observant Hasidic Jewish boy. It also revolves around a journal of a Jewish immigrant teen.

  15. Great list! Thanks for starting this discussion, Michael.

  16. Interesting categories, Michael.
    One book that comes to mind that addresses racism as one of the many themes in this rich tale is "Heart of a Samurai" by Margi Preus.

  17. The House on Dirty Third Street by Jo S. Kittinger deals with divorce, and needing to move in a downward shift with mom. They have little money to make their "new" messy old house livable, very much upsetting the daughter.

    I think this one hits poverty, divorce, and in a small way, religion.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!