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.



Where Do Ideas For Middle School Novels Come From?

This is a question that every writer gets- Where do your ideas come from? The truth is, ideas come from everywhere. Ideas can come from your own experiences, random overheard conversations, brainstorming or jottings in a notebook, and of course, like Neil Gaiman, from The Idea of the Month Club (it’s a joke).

Louis Sachar  says that the original idea for writing his classic middle school novel Holes, came from being in the Texas heat after returning from a vacation in Maine. The heat led to the setting which led to the story.

 J.K Rowling first got the idea for Harry Potter while she was delayed on a train. The idea grew from there, and she wrote for years, mostly in long hand, and planned out the whole arc of the series before she wrote the first book.

Katherine Applegate, who wrote The One and Only Ivan, based her story of a Gorrilla living in a mall, on an actual news story. The news story was just something to get her imagination flowing, and the characters and situation, the humor and all the emotions came from her.

The idea for Wonder by R.J Palacio, came when her 3 year old cried at the sight of a little girl with a severe facial deformity. She felt bad about the reaction, and her empathy for what it must be like to be a kid whose appearance is so different from others was the driving force to write the novel.

Rebecca Staid, the author of Newberry winner When You Reach Me, a delightful book about friendship and time travel, says her ideas start with the  character, and the plot developes naturally from there.

Paperboy by Vince Vawter, came from his memories of growing up in Memphis in the late 50s with a stutter. The novel talks about friendship, civil rights and how to understand adults, and the story builds on his personal experiences, and is all the more realistic because of this.

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Birkenshaw, is a moving novel about a young girl growing up in Hiroshima Japan during World War II, right before they dropped the bomb. The idea for the novel came from her hearing her grandmother’s stories  about what life was like then.

The idea for my first novel, a thriller, Living Proof, came from listening to an interview about Karla Faye Tucker, a women on death row who had changed her whole life and become a born again Christian while in prison. The novel had nothing to do with that, but it is what first sparked my creativity. The idea for Summer on Earth was a result of an image I remembered when waking up from a dream. In the dream, I was on a porch, looking in through a window at a television set. I started writing about that image, and came out with the concept of an extraterrestrial’s first glimpse of human life coming from a TV.

It is interesting finding out where authors get their inspiration, but ideas are just the start. Ideas are everywhere, it is the execution that makes the magic when the idea turns into a great novel.