The middle-grade years are a braid of contrasts: burgeoning independence and adventure combined with the complications of friendships, family troubles, and a growing shadowy awareness of “out there.”
A character in the middle-grade novel THE APPLE TART OF HOPE by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Holiday House) expresses this contrast beautifully:
"There's this one moment as you're growing up when the world suddenly feels more or less pointless--when the terrible reality lands on you, like something falling from the sky...And when that happens, there's no going back to the time when it hadn't landed on you."
Set in Ireland, THE APPLE TART OF HOPE is told in alternating voices of main characters and best friends Oscar and Meg (both age 14); it is a story of a missing boy, and so much more. But don’t let me mislead you into thinking this is a dark, dreary story; it is leavened with humor, magic, and tenderness. Oscar, who loves making the world’s most perfect apple tarts for anyone in crisis, goes missing—and is presumed dead. Meg refuses to believe it, and she teams up with Oscar’s brother to get to the truth. In reality, Oscar has gone into hiding. He’s bereft and hopeless due to a toxic mix of bullying, family trouble and feeling forsaken by Meg. A perceptive fellow, Oscar articulates these contradictions in this passage:
“As the days passed, I learned that there’s not much difference between pretending to be dead and really being dead. As far as I can see, both seem to amount to the same thing.
I learned that if someone you know disappears you shouldn’t automatically jump to conclusions. You should ask questions, and look, and search until you know for sure…Keep hope in your heart.”
Elements of dark and light are perfectly balanced in THE APPLE TART OF HOPE, which makes it a potent yet perfect choice for middle-grade readers. As I read it, I heard echoes of Maurice Sendak and his 1964 Caldecott speech (meaningful for middle grade writers!):
“…from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they can continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”
Despite his fears and shadows, Oscar is a kind-hearted sensitive soul whose apple tarts have an almost magical effect on others, an effect in which he has ultimate faith:
“It’s not an ordinary apple tart. It’s magic. It’s the apple tart of hope. After you’ve taken a bite, the whole world will look almost completely different. Things will start to change and by the time you’ve had a whole slice you’ll realize that everything is going to be o.k.”
There are so many things I love about this novel. Its depiction of contemporary Ireland, small town life, and engaging dialog is balm to the soul of anyone who is weary of a recent media overloads of green beer and leprechauns. Fitzgerald expertly balances dark and light—feelings of hopelessness are not skimmed over, but hope and the importance of friendship prevails. The skillfulness of the dual points of view highlights the missed signals and misunderstood motivations that are characteristic of so many middle grade friendships. And Fitzgerald’s language, her way with words? Beautiful, lyrical, fresh—but in a manner that serves and does not distract from the rich story.
In an interview in the Irish Times, Fitzgerald stated, “Most of all though, The Apple Tart of Hope is a love story and in it, I’ve tried to show how love can weather all manner of storms and struggles, and how kindness can make us strong and resilient in this unpredictable world.”
Reading this novel left me feeling as secure and grounded as when I am sitting in the kitchen of my family in County Cork, Ireland, polishing off a slice of apple tart (a less-overstuffed version of American apple pie, with components of crust and filling in perfect balance). It fed me, it satisfied my soul, and it left me with more than a crumb of hope.
ADDENDUM: Two bonus interview questions with author Sarah Moore Fitzgerald:
Sarah, how did you deliver such a balance of dark and light in THE APPLE TART OF HOPE? There's no denying the weightiness of these realizations that middle-grade characters (and kids) are wrestling with, yet the book delivers such a message of hope. How did you approach braiding this dark and light together so well?
I know that the books I loved as a young adult were those that didn't try to sugar coat the challenges of life and the difficult, dark times that every human being has to face, -- but you're so right, you can't survive if you only see the darkness, if you cannot laugh and love and if you don't have hope in your heart. And I guess it is those reflections that made me want to strike the right balance in THE APPLE TART OF HOPE. I'm so glad to see that readers have picked up on that.
And second, how have your young readers responded to this balance of dark and light?
I have had such lovely reactions from readers since the book was published, and almost all of those reactions talk about some personal experiences with grief or bullying or both. Some of my readers wish that Paloma (the novel's villain) had experienced more retribution at the end, or at least got her comeuppance - but others recognise that she has her own story of sadness and loss too, which might explain some of her darkness.
Thank you, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, for giving us added insight into your writing process!
Follow Sarah on Twitter at @SMooreFitz.
Sarah Moore Fitzgerald