Guest Blog: Tara Gilboy on Why Adults Should Read Middle Grade Novels

Why Adults Should Read Middle Grade Novels

by Tara Gilboy

I don’t read adult books.

Most people give me strange looks when I say this. I’m an author, after all.  And a grown up. Why wouldn’t I want to read adult books?

I think my friends and family assume it’s a phase. They are always trying to give me books after they’ve finished them. This one will convince you to read adult books again. Nope.

Now don’t get me wrong: there are many adult books I like. I have a few favorites, and from time to time, I will reread them. I love Jane Austen, Stephen King, and Amy Tan. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a favorite, as is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with adult books. It’s just that I like middle grade books better.

As I sat down to write this blog post, I realized I’d never really considered closely why I prefer middle grade over adult novels. Whenever anyone asked me, I’d always given the easy answer: “well, it’s because I write them.” (Which seems like the very responsible, professional, “adult” answer.) Or even worse: “ I don’t know. I just like them better.”

But middle grade books are important. For children, yes. But for adults too.

There’s been a lot of crossover in the young adult genre in recent years. Adult readers devour YA books like The Hunger Games, but the same sort of crossover is not seen as often in middle grade. Grown-ups who wouldn’t think twice about purchasing books like Divergent or Children of Blood and Bone are less eager to pick up books like Holes and Ella Enchanted.

I think there is a myth that because middle grade is shorter and written for younger readers, it must be simple or unsophisticated, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than making it simple, middle grade’s brevity simply means it is concise, distilled down to its most essential elements with everything extraneous stripped away. Most middle grade books are short enough to be read in one sitting, allowing you to hold the entire story in your mind in a single afternoon.

Middle grade is unpretentious, but not unsophisticated. This is its charm.

Middle grade is all about storytelling. Writing middle grade forces the author to disappear, to remove his or her ego from the writing. Readers don’t want paragraph after paragraph of all the wonderful historical research you did. They don’t care if you can write fancy poetic sentences that are grammatically correct even at a mile long. They don’t want pages of beautifully written exposition. There is a reason that middle grade books are so beloved, the books that often turn many children into lifelong readers. It’s called the “golden age of reading” for a reason. Middle grade draws on traditional storytelling forms. Heroes and quests. Magic. Evil villains.

They can be highly literary but in a way in which the language does not draw attention to itself.

Middle grade readers are old enough to be able to explore complicated and difficult issues but are still young enough and unjaded enough that they do so in a hopeful way. Middle grade answers universal questions like: “Who am I?” “What is my place in the world?” It explores questions like friendship and where we fit within our family structure. (And if exploring these themes were unique to middle grade readers, a lot fewer people would be in therapy.)

Middle grade is pure story, unobstructed by ego or long asides. The focus is on plot and character.

There are few characters more complex than Cecile in Rita Williams Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, a flawed character and negligent mother, but one whose motivations we understand entirely.

Or Anna, in Sarah, Plain and Tall, who sums up her complicated feelings about her younger brother with the simple words “Mama died the next morning. That was the worst thing about Caleb.”

I often think children have much more sense than adults, who come with so much baggage. They cut right to the heart of the matter.

My favorite thing about middle grade, though, is the point of view. I often grow frustrated with adult books. Adults are often jaded. Pessimistic. Disillusioned. One of the reasons I feel so good after I finish a middle grade novel is because I have spent a significant amount of time in the mind of a child narrator. Middle grade narrators are hopeful. They are curious. They care passionately about things. Their characters are not settled—they are still finding their own identities. They are curious and have an infinite capacity for wonder. To spend an afternoon lost in a middle grade novel is an afternoon spent reconnecting to these qualities within ourselves. These characters are not distracted, like adult narrators, by work, romance, sex, and the dull minutiae of life. There are parts of ourselves we lose as adults – hope, wonder, creativity, playfulness, even the importance of friendship – and middle grade novels present an opportunity for us to reconnect with these parts of our childhood selves and reexamine our own identities.

When we are the age of middle grade readers, anything is possible, the future unknown. We don’t know what profession we will have, who we will marry, or where we will live. That part is still unwritten.

 Let us all be open to the adventure.

Middle Grade author Tara Gilboy holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, where she specialized in writing for children and young adults. She teaches creative writing in San Diego Community College’s Continuing Education Program and for the PEN Writers in Prisons Program. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.