Friday, September 19, 2014
Who Does Middle Grade Fiction Belong to? For Whom Do We Write? by Braden Bell
In addition to picking up a few bits of jargon and inflections, I noticed something I thought was profound. It’s one of those things that you know in your mind, but every now and then, the full import and significance hits you and you realize that you know—but don’t necessarily understand.
It hit me with renewed force that middle graders, like all humans, are incredibly unique. They are multi-dimensional in every possible way. They are walking bundles of contradictions. They can be mean and generous. They can be sensitive and clueless—and they can do that in the same day. Sometimes the same minute. In this light, a realistically written middle grade protagonist might strike an adult as being unrealistic.
As I pondered that, I thought about how much children’s literature—including middle grade—is controlled by adults. Written, edited, sold, purchased, and recommended by adults.
I remembered just how little autonomy and freedom adolescents have. Nearly every aspect of their lives are controlled by adults. Most of what they do is done for adults, and done the way the adults want it done.
Honestly, I think that’s for the best. Adolescents are, by definition, immature. They don’t have good judgment.
Still—very little of their lives are truly their own. And this is what led to my thought. Is the literature we call middle-grade really their own? Or, does it reflect the mores, desires, priorities, and agendas of adults? Is it a genre created for their joy and delight—or is it a vehicle for us to shape and guide them?
When I was a kid, I loved to read. I was fond of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and an obscure, sort of silly series about a pig who solved mysteries. It wasn’t high octane literary stuff. But I liked it.
My parents and teachers wanted me to read “quality children’s literature.” So we got a book list from the library and I read some of the books on the list. I hated them. The experts had identified these as being “quality children’s literature.”
Well, this child didn’t enjoy them. Who was right?
I don’t know.
Sometimes we need to tell children to eat their broccoli. A steady diet of ice cream isn’t healthy. But when do the kids get to decide what they like? What’s the balance? I can’t pretend to know. But it’s got me thinking about my own writing.