The Power of Empowered Kids (in middle grade lit)

The Power of Empowered Kids in Middle Grade Literature

Middle Grade Lit Empowers Kids

Can’t is a dangerous word. It’s one of those words that gets pulled out a lot by adults these days. You can’t say that. You can’t believe that. You can’t do that.

Can’t is a natural part of the language definitely has its role in our world, but it’s come to mean a lot of different things. Things it was likely never meant to be in the first place. More importantly, it’s an imprecise word that people use as a substitute for other, more meaningful words, like mustn’t. And in its imprecise form, can’t can be very dangerous when applied to kids.

Can’t is a limiting word. A word that takes something away from the person it’s used on. And in this world, we can’t afford to be taking things away from the coming generations.

Now, I’m not talking here about the word shouldn’t, another limiting word that’s sometimes used interchangeably with can’t. “You shouldn’t cross the street without looking both ways” is a far different sentence than “You can’t cross the street without looking both ways.” Because what the word shouldn’t takes away is an imperative to do something.

Can’t takes away ability. It steals the power to do a thing. And it’s that deprivation of power we’ve got to look out for when we’re talking to kids.

Disempowering Narratives Limit Everyone

I hear the word can’t a lot when people refer to kids in stories—especially middle grade adventure stories—and when I do it’s usually with a snicker, or a scoff, or a slightly curled lip.

  • “Kids can’t really think like that.”
  • “Kids can’t accomplish that much.”
  • “Kids can’t be depended on to make decisions like that.”

And worse, I’ve heard it applied to real world kids as well.

  • “Kids can’t lead their peers.”
  • “They can’t be trusted with that kind of responsibility.”
  • “Girls can’t…” and “Boys can’t…”

When those people say things like that, I believe that they mean it. They’ve bought into a fallacy that a thing is impossible, when really it’s just improbable, and what’s worse is that they’re convincing others, especially young people, that they really are that limited.

But I’m convinced that middle graders can do a lot more than society gives them credit for. I’ve seen kids in this age group accomplish some pretty amazing things. They’ve written stories and plays. They’ve organized campaigns to fight the global slave trade that still exists today.

Don’t believe me? Look up kids like Dylan Mahalingam, or Katie Stagliano, or Zach Hunter, or Ryan Hreljac.

There are countless others who’ve done things like these but never saw recognition for it, which to me sets them apart even more. I’ll never forget watching a young boy named Austen listening to and comforting a surly old guy after the man made a disparaging remark about him–responding to disdain with compassion. Just yesterday an 11-year-old girl named Becca bestowed on me the privilege of reading the book she’s started writing. I’ve watched middle grade kids challenge hate, raise beaucoup bucks for those in need of relief, lead bands, and survive hardships that would bring many adults I know to their knees.

If a kid feels empowered, they can do all sorts of amazing thingsKids who believe in themselves can shake the world.

At least, they can when we’re not telling them they can’t.

Figures like Anne Frank and Beethoven had a huge impact on culture, despite their youth.

We forget the fact that historically this was the age that kids started to be treated like adults. They learned trades. They stepped into responsibility. They made decisions to take care of their families. Some kids in this age group were queens and kings. Kids like these composed symphonies and led rebellions and kept diaries that reported on the horrors of war.

Middle grade literature gets this simple truth in a way that’s often all-but-forgotten in our culture today. When we read about the kids in well-drawn books we see a world full of wonder and possibilities, where kids battle injustice, or fight for the safety of their families, protect the hurting, even take over the world.

Stories like these are important, because they tell kids what can happen. I’m not talking about Harry Potter magic… I’m talking about making decisions. Taking responsibility. Stepping into the world to make it better, to make their mark, to show compassion. It’s not about whether you have a tiny dragon riding on your shoulder or whether you live in a town where words have a peculiar sort of power or have powers of your own—it’s about whether you will step into this world and take action.

The Difference between Natural Limitations and Imprinted Limitations

That’s not to say that these kids don’t have natural limitations. Their parents aren’t going to send them off into dangerous situations, nor should they. Their developmental state informs what they value. They’re unproven, untrusted, untested.

“When someone won’t let you in, eventually you stop knocking.”
– Ransom Riggs

And that’s okay. That they’re not allowed does not necessarily mean they are incapable. Just because they aren’t quite ready for something doesn’t mean they can’t do it. We humans can accomplish a great many amazing things when our options are limited.

That’s where we need to be careful. Kids this age are in a developmental stage where they’re finding their own limits, internally. They’re discovering just how far the world extends beyond the walls of their homes, and if that discovery is presented as only “for someone else,” they may never even attempt to take hold of it. We’ve imprinted our own thoughts about who they can be on them, and by doing so we’ve closed the door on what might have been, had they explored it on their own.

That’s the beauty of the world that middle grade literature provides. It shows kids what they could be, not just what they are. Through these exercises of imagination, a child can step into a universe of responsibilities, try them on for size, and learn what fits and what doesn’t.

In a world where everyone tells kids they can’t, it’s important to have a place where they can. Otherwise how will they learn what it means to take charge of who they’re going to be? How will they learn they can be responsible? That their care for others is valuable? That they’re smart, or that they really can stand up to the bully, or that they can survive whatever this world throws at them?

So believe in these kids, and give them starting points to believe in themselves. They won’t be this young for long, and if they can get it into their heads that they can bring good to the people around them, we will all be better off for it.

Books mentioned:

Jumping girl photo edited from 
Photo by Danka & Peter on Unsplash
Door photo with Ransom Riggs quote adapted from 
Photo by Viktor Mogilat on Unsplash

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Sean Easley on InstagramSean Easley on Twitter
Sean Easley
Sean Easley never could quite get it right. He spent his middle school years locking himself in lockers, giving the wrong girls teddy bears like a dork, and almost getting his eye knocked out in the halls at school. And here’s a secret… even though he managed to get a masters degree in education and spent over a decade counseling students, he never quite grew out of messing things up.

Now Sean writes crazy, mixed-up stories about crazy, mixed-up kids who, like him, just can’t quite get it right. His middle grade debut THE HOTEL BETWEEN HERE, THERE, AND EVERYWHERE is coming from Simon & Schuster in 2018.

Defining Magical Realism

I want to talk about magical realism, the genre that confounds so many authors and excites so many readers, publishers, and agents. What exactly is it, and equally important, what exactly is it not?

Perhaps the word “exact” is misleading, since “exact” is hard to pin down in this genre. The basic definition of magical realism is that it’s literary fiction grounded in reality – with elements of magic. But. There are conditions to that magic.

The magic in magical realism is characterized by the very real role it plays in the characters’ lives. Supernatural events are often so much a part of their world that they go unnoticed or unremarked. And if they are acknowledged, it is not with a sense of unfamiliar wonder or questioning, but rather an acceptance of this reality in life. A common example of this mystical-as-mundane phenomenon is in One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Ghosts are a common and accepted presence in this saga of a family and a town whose story parallels that of the emergence of modern, independent Columbia. In other genres, the ghosts would be identified, investigated, discussed, possibly feared. But in 100 Years, the ghosts are simply accommodated without any fanfare.

In Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, Tita is born in a river of tears that literally floods the kitchen – a moment of extreme magic that is told with a perfectly straight face.

This distinction – that these mystical elements are a part of everyday life – is critical to understanding what the genre is and also what it is not.

Why do we care? Because of late, the publishing/writing community has allowed its definition to drift and encompass all realistic fiction laced with a dash of subtle magic. For example, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me definitely has magic. But the stunning story of Miranda, some mysterious letters, and the laughing man on her New York City street is not magical realism. The same with Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King. Astrid, who’s struggling to define herself on her own terms, sends love to the passengers in the planes that fly above her. But Astrid never realizes she occasionally creates magic in the passengers’ lives, and never examines these supernatural events.The reason this still isn’t magical realism? The magic isn’t happening to her or her community and isn’t a natural part of the perspective of her culture.

So why does this matter? Isn’t it enough to acknowledge that there are many ways to embrace the fantastic in our fiction?

It matters because in addition to its unique structure, magical realism has important cultural significance. The literary giants who shaped and breathed life into this genre were Latin American – Isabelle Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They wrote about surviving colonialism and a culture of oppression. Weaving magic through their stories accented their despair and was key to surviving and interpreting a world more destructive than nurturing.

The fact that magical realism is grounded in this history doesn’t exclude non-Latin cultures from writing it. But it’s vital we remember that the genre evolved as an art form that could explore and cope with oppression. Threading touches of magic or even outright in-your-face magic through a contemporary story about non-oppressed cultures is not magical realism.

I love this quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez from an interview in the New York Times from 1982, when he was preparing his speech to accept the Nobel Prize: “It has to be a political speech presented as literature.” Pretty much sums it all up.

Want to read more modern magical realism? Try Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers or Nove Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

Heather Murphy Capps
Heather Murphy Capps has always had a deep appreciation for comfort and elegance. She and Claudia would have run out of money quickly together but would absolutely have been on the same page about taxis and nice restaurants. And of course, solving mysteries about beautiful art. That said, Heather also appreciates Jamie’s love of complication, which is why she spent several years living in rural Kenya and then became a television news reporter, which involved standing for hours in the middle of hurricanes and political battles. Now she’s raising middle grade readers and writing for them. She loves to read and write books with lots of great science, magic, mystery, and adventure. Heather is an #ownvoices author and committed to creating more diversity in publishing.

Putting It into Perspective: Multiple Points of View in MG

In a graduate writing program I did years ago, a highlight of each residency was the chance to pitch our manuscripts to attending agents. Once, I was nervously pitching my book to a Very Famous Agent. When I mentioned that it was written in three alternating viewpoints, Very Famous Agent interrupted and said, “Why’d you have to do that? Single perspective books are ALWAYS better, ALWAYS easier to sell!”

Umm, ouch…pitch session pretty much over! Afterwards I had a lot of doubt about my choice to show multiple viewpoints. But with the number of high-quality, successful multiple viewpoint MG novels available to readers—both then and now—I ultimately chalked up that pitch session to a lasting reminder that agents have individualized passions about books. Maybe a particular agent has sold more single viewpoint novels, but that certainly doesn’t mean singular POV is always better.

Like many elements of writing, the number of points of view you use to tell the story depends on the story you are trying to tell.

Certainly, writing a book in multiple viewpoints has some challenges you don’t experience with a single viewpoint:

  1. Each POV character must be made clear to the reader with every switch in perspective.
  2. Each POV character’s storyline must be memorable enough to the reader to “survive” the interruption of another viewpoint.
  3. Since your POV character is usually the one your reader gets to know most intimately through your careful character development, adding viewpoints tends to add characterization work for you.

From these challenges, it might seem like multiple viewpoint novels are harder on both the reader and the writer!

But there’s no denying that some stories just wouldn’t be as effective without multiple viewpoints. Sometimes you need to show an event that your main character doesn’t attend or info he/she wouldn’t know. Sometimes it’s important to show more than one side of the story, to demonstrate the importance of differences in opinion. Sometimes you might want your reader to be the only one who knows everything, giving him or her the chance to solve a mystery or identify a villain first—always a reader thrill.

Many excellent MG novels serve as examples of multiple viewpoints, and I hope you’ll offer your favorites in the comments. These titles each employ multiple viewpoints for different uses:

Sharon Creech’s The Wanderer. The narrative is divided between two first-person storytellers, Sophie and Cody. On first meeting Sophie, the reader finds her to be a vivacious, lighthearted dreamer, immediately likable in her innocence and intent to sail the Atlantic with family members. But when Cody picks up the story and shares his thoughts about Sophie’s behavior, the reader realizes that Sophie is a much more complex character than first assumed—that, in fact, she’s a girl not ready to face a past tragedy. Because Sophie cannot let her internal conflict rise to the surface of her own mind for most of the book, a second point of view character is used to give the reader the clues and information they need to see all true sides of Sophie, even before she’s ready to see them herself.

Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s. This book is a great study in tense as well as point of view. The book opens in main character Willow’s first person point of view, in present tense; consequently, we are already close to this very likable character on the afternoon she learns her parents have been killed. The author then uses past tense first-person to relay Willow’s backstory in the following chapters, but returns to present tense at the moment in the narrative that has led back to the accident, signified by a chapter appropriately titled “Back in the Now.” The really interesting thing, though, is that each of the other point-of-view characters who “chime” in to help tell parts of the story do so in third-person, and consistently in past tense. So even though each additional voice is clearly characterized and has a need to insert his or her part of the narrative at the given time, the reader remains closest to Willow and her first person immediacy. Each of those secondary voices confesses at various points the extent to which they care about Willow, in a slow build of compounded concern that ultimately parallels our own.

Rebecca Stead’s First Light.  In this example of multiple viewpoints, two characters alternate the telling of two seemingly distinct stories – they are in separate physical locations and don’t know each other. Peter and Thea each have their own concerns and conflicts, each trying to solve a set of mysterious circumstances. When finally the two meet—and their narratives align—about 2/3 of the way through the book, it’s a fulfilling thrill for the reader. The story ratchets up in intensity as the two begin a changed journey together.

R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. I think a lot of the genius of Wonder stands on its use of point of view. If we as readers had heard from no one but Auggie throughout the entire story, it would have been a beautiful and well-crafted book. But with the inclusion of other viewpoints – his sister Via and her new friend Justin, Auggie’s schoolmates Summer and Jack,  Via’s friend Miranda—the story is helped along by those around Auggie, some of whom have known him his whole life, others who meet him only once he takes the brave leap to attend school at Beecher Prep. The first time I read Wonder, I was so taken with Auggie’s voice that when it switched to Via in Part 2 I had a moment of “What? Wait! Go back to Auggie!” But as R.J. Palacio indicates on her website, we need to see inside those other viewpoints to truly understand the extent to which Auggie has left an impact on each of those characters.

Ultimately it may take a little more brainwork to write and to read a novel in multiple viewpoints, but the end result can be deeply fulfilling. After all, being able to understand and to follow more than one viewpoint on a topic helps to prep our kids for this challenging world in which we live. Once young readers understand that each character in a book sees plot events differently, it’s a quick connection to understanding that each of us in real life sees issues from a personal frame of reference. And comprehending one another’s viewpoints can be the first step toward acceptance, empathy, and kindness.

Jenn Brisendine on FacebookJenn Brisendine on InstagramJenn Brisendine on TwitterJenn Brisendine on Wordpress
Jenn Brisendine
Along with her MUF posts, Jenn can be found at jennbrisendine.com, where she offers free teaching printables for great MG novels along with profiles of excellent craft books for writers.