Magic, Space Aliens, Time Travel and Wonder in Middle School Novels

The best middle school novels, like any great fiction, transports readers to a totally new reality. This new reality can take many forms. It might be a world very close to theirs, with characters like people they know, but dealing with a new situation, where they can picture themselves in the story. If you have great, realistic characters with real emotions, the classroom down the hall can be a fascinating place. It may be a historical fiction where the story deals with people not that different than the reader, but in an entirely different time and place. Reading these books is a way to see how life might have been like in ancient Egypt, or during the American civil war, and to see that no matter when and where, people are still people underneath it all. Or, it could be in a fantastical new reality, where magic is real, animals talk to each other and anything is possible. Seeing the fantastical become real is , for me, one of the joys of reading middle grade fiction.

A lot of books, such as the Harry Potter series, are true fantasy’s which  immerse the reader in a magical world. In these novels, everything about their universe is different from normal life, except for the kid’s emotions and personalities, which are real and believable. This is true for so many books, including Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley, the Lightening Thief and the other books in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, and Artimis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, to name just a few. These books are wonders to read and take the reader on a journey where the rules are different and absolutely anything is possible at any time.

There is another type of novel that has some kind of magical or otherworldly element, but the rest of the world is rooted in reality. In this type of story, it is the arrival or introduction of one thing that changes the world of the
characters, but the focus is still on the characters and their problems. One name for this is Magical Realism, and Joy McCullough-Carranza at the Project Mayhem Blog has a great run down of how this differs from outright fantasy. She refers to Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo (I am a fan of Kate’s books, but I haven’t read this one yet) about a squirrel that writes poetry, and When the Butterflies Came by Kimberly Griffiths Little, about a young girl dealing with grief and the magical butterflies that follow her, as good examples of this type of story.

Another category is almost magical realism but based on a sci-fi concept. I don’t know if this category has a real name, but I have heard the term science-fictiony. Unlike hard core science fiction which is more technology based and is often set in a world distant in space or time, these stories take place in a normal, often familiar setting, The characters are real kids, facing their own issues but the sc-fi element upends things, and changes their world.  When You Reach Me, takes a young girl in New York City and focuses on her real life problems with friendship and finding out about the world, with time travel. The novel works great builds suspense and the time travel element feels real and adds urgency, but we never find out how the time travel works, only that it does. Another good example of this type of story is The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm. The book is about how eleven year old Ellie’s scientist grandfather achieves immortality by changing into a thirteen year old boy. The story is funny and and deep, and while it talks about science, it never tries to explain how the Grandfather transformed, it just takes it as a fact that he does. I’d include my book, Summer on Earth, as a science-fictiony book. The story is about how a alien creature comes to earth, takes on human form, and forms a friendship with a young farm boy, but you won’t have to be a fan of science fiction to appreciate the humor as the alien, Will, tries to make sense of human culture, and be touched by his connection to Grady, the boy, and his earth family.

For me finding stories that surprise and delight you is one of the joys of reading middle grade novels. And some of the best are those stories that go beyond everyday reality to give you a better feel for our real world.



Why Do Adults Read Middle School Novels?

My book, Summer on Earth, which will be released later this year, is a middle school novel. The funny thing is, I didn’t realize that when I wrote it. I had never even heard of the category at the time, and was just writing what I considered a great, moving story, and one that I thought readers of all ages would enjoy. The market categorizes everything though, and because my hero was an 11 year old boy, this was squarely in middle school territory.

I quickly found out I was in good company. Some of my favorite books of all time are middle school novels. Holes by Louis Sachar, and The Giver (both were recommended to me by my kids when they were younger) – middle school novels. To Kill a Mockingbird – a classic, but absolutely a middle school novel. And of course Harry Potter, the first four books at least – all middle school novels. I could go on, but you get the idea.

What do all these books have in common? First they are all great stories, and second they all have a young protagonist. It has been a trend for a while for adults to read young adult books (the Twilight series and The Hunger Games, for example), and there has been some cross over to middle school books too (Wonder). The target for a middle school novel is readers ages 8 to 12. That is a wonderful age. Kids this age have that sense of curiosity at life and believe anything is possible for them and their future. They are still children, but they are looking around the corner to that next stage in their lives. To borrow from the title of an old TV show, these are the true wonder years. Magic is real, and anything is possible. The best books middle school books don’t talk down to their audience, but meet them where they are and give them a ticket to a new reality. For adults, reading these books helps them to recapture what it was like at this age.

Why do you read middle school books? What middle school novels resonate with you? Let me know in the comments.