Monday, April 21, 2014

What Is Middle Grade?

Every middle grade author seems to get this question:

"Should my kid read your book?"

Of course the correct response to this is "Yes, yes, absolutely! Buy it at once. In fact, just to be on the safe side, buy a copy for every room in the house."

But really, we just don't know. We're not sure what you're asking.

Recently someone phrased the question in a way that made the issue clearer to me. "Would my kid like your books? You said you write middle grade. She's in 3rd grade. Is that middle grade? She reads at a 9th grade level, though."

Now I understand the question.

The "middle grade" label hasn't been around that long, and it's not clear to most people what it means. It's not clear to me, come to that. The books tend to have grade levels or age levels stamped on the jacket flap, leaving both children and adults with the impression that "middle grade" is a measure of reading difficulty.

I think that it is not.

Most middle grade novels are not easier to read than most adult novels. In fact, they may be harder. However, they are not too hard for most upper elementary children. Neither are most adult novels too hard for them, come to that. The Hobbit has a higher lexile level (whatever that is) than Cry, the Beloved Country.

Vaguely, the age levels on the book jacket might suggest interest level. But the suggestion is not exclusive. I hear from a lot of adults who read my books.

So I thought maybe what the parent was really asking was just what "middle grade" means. And here's the definition of middle grade fiction I came up with.

In a middle grade novel:

  • There may be some swearing, but it's usually limited and/or not spelled out on the page.
  • Romance may happen, but it's not the focus. There will be no sex scenes.
  • Bad things may happen, but despair is never permanent. Ultimately it turns out that life is worth living.

That's not a full and exact definition, of course. Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny is middle grade under that definition. (A book I loved at age ten, by the way.) But it's the best I can come up with right now.

Every time I try to add something to it, I either think of exceptions or realize that I'm trying to impose my own preferences.

After writing this definition, I started googling to see what other people think "middle grade" means. And I'm afraid I disagree with a lot of them. Here's what I think middle grade is not:

  • It's not a reading level.
  • It's not written with simplified sentence structure, easier vocabulary, or lower expectations for plot and character development.
  • The plot is not external-rather-than-internal. It can be either; it can be both.
  • It does not necessarily feature a protagonist who is between 8 and 13 years of age.

Anyway. My definition may be so much blather. But it's what I've got for the moment.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Were the Oz Books Girls' Books?

Before there was Harry Potter, there was Oz. There was a lot of Oz. There were 14 Oz books by L. Frank Baum published between 1900 and 1920, and there were dozens more written by other authors after his death.

Baum received thousands of fan letters. People lined up to buy the books. There was merchandising. There was probably fanfic too, but, you know, not online. 

Oz was big.

Oz wasn't the "just a dream" world of the movie. It was a real magical world that was visited by real children-- a girl named Betsy, and a girl named Trot, and a girl named Dorothy, and... maybe some other girls. I don't remember.

My grandfather read all the Baum Oz books as a child, while women battled for the right to vote and men battled for German trenches. There was nothing remotely similar being published at the time. Children's fiction was dominated by the Depressingly Moral (let's just say Little Eva has a lot to answer for) and the shoot 'em up action adventure. No one could die in Oz. This was a flaw as far as narrative tension, but a real innovation otherwise.

Given a choice between reading about brave little heroines wasting away from consumption and reading about the caverns of the Nome King, kids chose the latter. Early twen-cen kids loved the Oz books.

Many decades later, my brother and I read them. First we read all the L. Frank Baum ones, and then all the Ruth Plumley Thompson ones and the John R. Neill ones. Even as late as the 1970s, they were a large part of the extant body of children's fantasy literature.

Although the main character, Dorothy, was a girl, and the other main child characters (Betsy and Trot and Princess Ozma) were girls, and the only boy we saw much of in the Baum books (Button Bright) was kind of a low-watt bulb, nobody ever suggested to us that these were girls' books.

One of the Baum books does have a boy protagonist, Tip,  who ***spoiler alert*** near the end of the book becomes a girl. Permanently. If this traumatized my grandfather or my brother for life, they never mentioned it.
(Chances a middle grade author could get away with that nowadays: Zero.)

(Possibly slightly less than that.)

I've talked to my brother about this a bit over the years, as he's raised children and I've raised books. According to him, he never, as a child, experienced any failure to connect to a female protagonist because of her un-maleness. According to him, the only books he felt were off-limits to him were those that were clearly identified as being "for girls"...

...and that is what we're doing far too much of today.

I'm picturing how the Oz books might be published today... in a world where they weren't already classics, that is. Pink and lavender covers. Glitter, perhaps. Lots of emphasis on the Princess aspect.

After all, no one would expect boys to read a book about girls.