Some years ago, my son made a startling declaration: He hated to read. Once my shock subsided, I responded that I felt sure he just hadn’t found the right book. And so even though he was technically reading-proficient, we began to read books together again. When we encountered R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, the novel changed everything for him – and for me. He fully enjoyed the book, confirming there were indeed books in the world for him. Part of the story proved to be powerfully cathartic. Previously I had only published writing articles, essays, and blog posts for adults; but a seed was planted that I might attempt to write a similarly meaningful story for kids someday. A bonus was that our positive experience with the story brought us closer.
Fast forward to 2020, and the launch of my middle grade novel Now and at the Hour, a story that follows 12-year-old Albert Davidson over the course of a significant year when his mom is diagnosed with cancer. While the novel was not pandemic-specific, the timing of its entry into the world underscored a related benefit: helping kids navigate uncertainty. Albert’s inability to know what the future holds for his mom clearly mirrors the experience of kids dealing with a sick parent. However, readers facing similar tumult to their normal routines during Covid-19 could also identify with Albert’s struggle. And while Albert had to accept uncertainty as a part of life, his story also included empowering examples of service, friendship, and faith as a means to emerge from those hard spaces intact.
Middle grade fiction is uniquely positioned to provide these tools for families. While middle grade may deal with serious topics, this age category usually includes an optimistic framing that provides a soft place to land for empathetic readers. Kids may emerge with a real sense of empowerment as they follow fictional characters who draw upon their strengths to overcome difficult circumstances. Contemporary MG fiction may also serve as an enjoyable option for whole family reads, typically absent the grit (language, sex, mature experiences) found in YA and adult novels, while still exploring life’s challenges in an authentic way.
Many middle grade contemporary stories provide this kind of sensemaking opportunity for kids, and for the parents who read along with them. A couple of my favorites include:
*The Thing About Jellyfish, Ali Benjamin
Suzy Swanson grapples with the devastating death of her friend Franny, made even more unbearable by the timing of the tragedy – after an unresolved falling out between the girls. Suzy is at once inspired and tormented by her fascination with science, which leads her to a theory meant to explain exactly what happened in the freak accident that took her friend. In the end, though, she realizes that “sometimes things just happen” and that “might be the scariest and saddest truth of all” (302). But even as she comes to terms with that difficult aspect of uncertainty, she also makes peace with it. Her knowledge and ability to process information lead her to an empowering conclusion, “Humans may be newcomers to this planet. We may be plenty fragile. But we’re also the only ones who can decide to change.”
*Take Back The Block, Chrystal D. Giles
Sixth grader Wes Henderson learns that a developer is trying to buy his neighborhood, Kensington Oaks, and he is determined to fight for the only home he has ever known. But no one – his parents, neighbors, or friends – can agree on what they should do. Gentrification is a complex and insidious force that is certainly well beyond what any one child can control. But through his own hard work on an assigned social studies project, and a crucial piece of information it uncovers, Wes discovers a critical path forward. His persistence leads to personal and collective/community empowerment, and he notes “we have to work together to protect our history and glow up our own neighborhoods. That’s the only way to take back our blocks” (217).
MEET YOU IN THE MIDDLE
Middle grade contemporary fiction often provides an instructive experience beyond the specific subject of a story, and is a great resource to help kids navigate uncertainty in an empowering way. MG is an A+ choice for your next family read!
Bess Kercher writes creative non-fiction and has contributed to skirt!.com, The Charlotte Observer, and Huffington Post. Her debut middle grade novel Now and at the Hour is the winner of a 2021 IPPY Award and a 2021 Selah Award. She lives in Charlotte, NC with her husband and two sons.