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What Makes a Middle-Grade Novel Timeless?

Book Lists, Miscellaneous

Some books you read once.  You laugh, cry, maybe even both.  You’ve enjoyed the journey, met some interesting characters and hopefully were able to view the world in an amazing new way…but will you ever pick up that book again? 

I’ve enjoyed sharing books I loved as a child with my daughters, and started reading books by Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary to my girls when they were way younger than the target audience.  The three of us laughed at the silly stunts Fudge pulled and couldn’t wait to see what kind of trouble Ramona caused next.  Growing up with a younger brother, I definitely related to the problems Peter and Beezus had with their energetic and extremely creative siblings.  The characters and worlds these brilliant authors created still feel real and endearing. 

As you can see, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg stayed in our member’s hearts through the years.  Who can resist reading a book where a spunky young girl and her brother stuff their clothes inside violin and trumpet cases, then hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art?  (If you peek at our bios, you’ll see some of the timeless gems that stuck with us the most.)

How can books like these remain popular, when society changes so quickly?  Nobody had cell phones or internet when I was in elementary school.  So how can books written at that time still appeal to today’s kids?  I believe the books that stand the test of time have unique characters readers can relate to, cheer for, and fall in love with, combined with situations that kids still have…like annoying siblings, school issues, fights with friends, and trying to see where you fit in our world.

I’ve asked several amazing authors what they believe makes a book timeless.  Here’s what they had to say:

IMHO, timeless books are ones that say to a reader, ‘Here. Look. This is YOU. And even if it’s not, you can relate, because the author has managed to capture those universal triumphs and struggles all tweens go through. And when you’re done with such a book? You feel empowered and ready to take on the world, girlfriend! As you should! –Lauren Myracle  

I believe the books we read at this age have a certain power. The characters can live on inside us and help us figure out who we want to be, and what we want to do with our lives. I wanted to write for this age to give something back to the next generation of readers the types of books that meant so much to me. Wendy Mass

A timeless book is one that touches the heart. It doesn’t really matter when or where the story is set, if the characters speak to you and draw you into their story. –Lisa Yee

Timeless books focus on emotions that everyone has felt - love, anger, disappointment, happiness, and fear. While some things change, like clothes and hairstyles, certain things never do. –Laurie Friedman

Certain books, like Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, or A Wrinkle in Time, just hit a nerve with the middle-grade reader and continue to hit that nerve with each new generation of kids. Why? These books have plenty of heart, a sense of wonder, humor in good measure, relatable characters, and a strong voice. By telling a specific story in an emotionally true way, they’ve managed to become universal. –Bruce Hale

There are so many wonderful middle-grade books that I hope will remain timeless.  One that I believe will be around for a long time is Rules, by Cynthia Lord.  It’s the kind of book that stays with you long after you reach the last page.  I’ll never forget when my younger daughter lost her voice, and her big sister created a communication book (inspired by the one Jason uses).

I asked authors to name one or two middle-grade novels that are close to their heart, and if there are any newer books they believe will remain popular over time.

Holes is one of my favorites from the past dozen or so years. And right up there with it are The Lightning Thief and The Wednesday Wars. These are books that may well stand the test of time, in my opinion. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is another upper middle-grade book that I love, but it’s too early to say whether the craze over its semi-graphic novel style will translate into long-range popularity. –Bruce Hale

 

Books like A Secret Garden and the All-of-a-Kind Family series, grabbed a hold of me. I can recall reading them as a child, then rereading them as an adult, and allowing myself the luxury of getting lost within their pages.  Some newer middle grade books that fit this bill include Masterpiece by Elise Broach, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, and Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy. –Lisa Yee 

 
Growing up, I loved anything by Judy Blume.  There are so many great new books.  I really liked Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath.   I think kids will be reading it years from now. –Laurie Friedman    

 

Tied with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?, my favorite book from the middle-grade years was Allegra Maud Goldman by Edith Konecky. Made me laugh, cry, and want to be a writer. As for newer titles, I hope the Penderwicks books continue to be appreciated for how wonderful and timeless they are. –Wendy Mass

I’d love to know why you think some middle-grade books remain popular for over thirty years, and which current books you believe will become timeless.

**Don’t forget to enter our second summer giveaway – one lucky reader will win three amazing middle-grade books!

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and is constantly inspired by her nine and twelve year-old daughters, adventurous sock and underwear munching puppy, and two stinky but adorable ferrets. Visit her blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

37 Comments

37 Comments

  1. Andrea  •  Jun 23, 2010 @5:11 am

    My secret wish is not just to get a book published (though that’s would be a big step along the way) but to create one of those unforgettable books that stays with the reader. It’s great how different people have different books that speak to them and create that memorable experience for them.

  2. Kristina  •  Jun 23, 2010 @6:02 am

    Thanks Mindy! That was very inspiring. I feel a deeper appreciation for what we do as middle grade authors.

  3. julie  •  Jun 23, 2010 @6:36 am

    I look forward to reading this blog every day. As a librarian and as a mom with a middle grade reader, I’m getting lots of good titles (old and new) to pass along to my readers and your target audience. Thanks!

  4. June Morgan (chorkie)  •  Jun 23, 2010 @7:28 am

    I love, love, love you website! Keep it up!

    As usual, please enter me in your giveaways.

  5. Kimberley Griffiths Little  •  Jun 23, 2010 @7:54 am

    I really enjoyed this article and love seeing those timeless titles as well as the wonderful quotes by the authors.

  6. Karen B. Schwartz  •  Jun 23, 2010 @8:14 am

    I think your article is spot on, Mindy. I think it’s the characters that connect to kids regardless of the generation. I feel such a strong tie to the Judy Blume books, especially Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and my son enjoyed it just as much. I think Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker has a strong character that will be appealing in a timeless way.

  7. Aimee Bartis  •  Jun 23, 2010 @8:21 am

    Books that become timeless show us a part of ourselves. Or, as is the case with middle grade books, who we want to be. Harriet the Spy is my all time favorite novel. I wanted to be Harriet. Harriet was a smart girl who knew what she wants. She worked hard to meet her goals. She suffered and she loved. I still want to be Harriet.

  8. Jodi Moore  •  Jun 23, 2010 @8:36 am

    Great article, Mindy! It’s depth of character that stays with me, the ones that I can relate to, the ones that are so believable that they become real, living, breathing creatures for me. Favorites that come to my mind are “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret”, “Holes” and “The Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian”. I think these will be enjoyed for a long, long time to come! Is “The Giver” considered Middle Grade? If so, I definitely must add that one!

  9. Robyn Gioia  •  Jun 23, 2010 @8:50 am

    Great article Mindy. You brought to light many of the endearing books that live on.

  10. Laura Pauling  •  Jun 23, 2010 @9:30 am

    I def. think Holes will stick around. And I believe Because of Winn Dixie and other of Kate’s books. When You Reach Me – Rebecca Stead. Of course, HP.

    It’s a combo of heart and humor and believable characters. It’s magic. Really hard to put a finger on.

  11. paula  •  Jun 23, 2010 @11:02 am

    A Wrinkle in Time is getting such a boost from When You Reach Me… and so is Harriet the Spy. I’ve been passing out lovely old books from Edward Eager and Roald Dahl at the library to kids searching for followups to Percy Jackson, but I couldn’t pick just one book by either of those authors to call timeless. I think they all are!

  12. Joyce  •  Jun 23, 2010 @11:41 am

    My daughter who is 10, just finished reading Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? She loved it because she connected with Margaret. She told me the character is strong, brave, interesting, kind, and caring: all the things she wants her friends to be.

    I read it when I was 10 and we spent some time talking about all of the things Margaret experienced. The book generated great questions from my daughter and we discussed issues that needed to be spoken about.

    Great middle-grade reads are those that transcend time and continue to be pertinent decades later.

    Thanks for the great blog article.

  13. Kimberly  •  Jun 23, 2010 @11:49 am

    Great post! Looking through the eyes of my boys, so many of the above books have captured their attention and their hearts. The new crop of books that I know are going to stick with them are the Harry Potter books and the Percy Jackson series…OK…I love them too! <3

  14. Joanne Prushing Johnson  •  Jun 23, 2010 @2:05 pm

    Great post, Mindy. I love books that have unforgetable characters. At times I worry that the constant focus on rapidfire pace outshines the importance of a well-developed and identifiable character. Now on to the challenge of keeping my plots moving at the same time. You’ve given me of a great list of inspirations that find that magical balance!

  15. Elissa Cruz  •  Jun 23, 2010 @2:27 pm

    I love this post. You’ve done a fantastic job, Mindy.

    I am also trying to find that balance between a fast-paced plot and memorable characters in my own writing. Like Joanne says, I think we do sometimes focus more on the pacing than the characters. But the characters matter, too.

  16. Susan Kaye Quinn  •  Jun 23, 2010 @6:01 pm

    You have ferrets?? What a cool mom you are! :)

    Artemis Fowl is a huge hit in our house – is it timeless? I would say yes – which is easier for the fantasy books to attain, because they are outside reality anyway.

    Thanks for the great post and recs! :)

  17. Jemi Fraser  •  Jun 23, 2010 @6:02 pm

    I agree – books that last touch the heart – and make you believe you can… whatever it is. Anne of Green Gables would be the one that touched me the most, but there are so many great ones!

  18. Susan Kaye Quinn  •  Jun 23, 2010 @6:02 pm

    p.s. I’m also running a contest (free books!) until Friday. :)

  19. Tricia Springstubb  •  Jun 23, 2010 @6:36 pm

    Oh, the Moffatts! They are still happily on the shelf in most every library.

  20. Laurie Beth Schneider  •  Jun 23, 2010 @8:59 pm

    Tuck Everlasting…Nory Ryan’s Song…Each Little Bird That Sings. These are some of the books I return to.

  21. Melina  •  Jun 23, 2010 @10:26 pm

    This makes me think of the Great Illustrated Classics that I read last summer. I did a blog post about them today. Anyhow, some of these are my all-time favorites.

    To me, a timeless book is one that the reader can relate to and they become emotionally involved as they read it. Yeah, that’s it, a book that you can FEEL.

  22. Tracy Abell  •  Jun 23, 2010 @10:26 pm

    You and the other authors hit on so many books I love. And you also made me realize something: I’ve reread more middle-grade books than any other kind of book. I don’t reread as many YA or books written for adults, and I think it’s because middle-grade lives at the heart of who we are, no matter how old.

  23. Mindy Alyse Weiss  •  Jun 24, 2010 @12:21 am

    Thank you all so much for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad you enjoyed my post, and love hearing your thoughts about timeless middle-grade novels.

    So many of you believe it’s the characters that connect kids to these novels throughout time, and I agree. I love a great plot (and think plot and especially conflict are very important) but you already know what is going to happen the second or third time you read a book. Falling in love with characters definitely makes me want to read a novel again. And I love books that have wonderful details that you might miss on the first read or two…and it seems like every time you read it again you find something new.

    Thanks for sharing your favorite timeless and hopefully soon-to-be-timeless novels. You gave me a wonderful list of books I want to read (or read again).

  24. JKB  •  Jun 24, 2010 @8:50 am

    Ack! One particular writer really always nails the um…nail on the head: Wilson Rawls. He only wrote two books: Where the Red Fern Grows and Summer of the Monkeys, but both stick with me to this day, and I’m not ashamed of saying I re=read them often. I love them. Timeless. :-D

  25. Deb  •  Jun 24, 2010 @9:14 am

    Excellent article, Mindy. And oh so true on the characters making the book timeless. My all time favorite…Anne of Green Gables. There is no one, for me, quite like her.

  26. Holly Boker  •  Jun 24, 2010 @1:31 pm

    Wonderful blog post, Mindy. Judy Blume and E.B. White did it for me with Margaret and Charlotte. Kids love them because they are like permanent friends. And of course, once you get to know these characters, they are predictable so you can be 100% sure they will never let you down. I also love the All of a Kind Family books, The Bobbsey Twins (which my daughter likes too), and the Nancy Drew books. Thanks for your insights on timelessness.

  27. Laurie Beth Schneider  •  Jun 24, 2010 @5:04 pm

    Oh gosh. How could I have forgotten to mention Jerry Spinelli’s books? (Jerry should be named a national treasure, I think).

    I agree about the primacy of character, but there’s something else, too, about timeless books — the quality of the writing itself. E.B. White’s perfect prose, for instance.

  28. Amie Borst  •  Jun 24, 2010 @8:19 pm

    Fantastic post, Mindy! My children and I have enjoyed many of these books together – most of them for their memorable characters, but also for the moments where we can relate to them and shout, “I’ve done that!” or blush, “I’ve done that.” or sigh, “I’ve done that.”

  29. brian_ohio  •  Jun 25, 2010 @6:46 am

    WoW! What a wonderful post!

    For me, a book becomes timeless when the reader wants nothing more than to swap places with one of the characters. I read From the Mixed Up Files just a few weeks ago and I wanted to be one of those kids wandering around the museum at night. I wanted to experience the thrill of the plot along with the era in which the novel was written. Not all books do that for me.

  30. Diana Murray  •  Jun 25, 2010 @8:15 am

    Great post, Mindy! As you mentioned, I think falling in love with characters plays a big part in making a book timeless. I think a timeless book can also perfectly tap into specific emotional needs you have at a certain age. My husband used to read Where the Wild Things Are over and over again as a kid and he still smiles when he talks about it. I think that book gave him a safe way to deal with feelings of wanting to be “bad” and to overcome feelings of powerlessness that all kids have.

  31. Diana Murray  •  Jun 25, 2010 @8:18 am

    Also, I second “Anne of Green Gables”!

  32. paula  •  Jun 25, 2010 @9:27 am

    Ooh! I forgot the Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. I swear those books taught me to have an imagination, and I re-read them every few years, just like Tolkein. I can’t wait for my kids to be old enough for them!

  33. Mary  •  Jun 26, 2010 @2:58 am

    My son just finished Where the Red Fern Grows. It was the first book he actually sat down and read every night at bedtime until he was done. It is so wonderful to see my ball of energy just sit and devour a book. I read the first two chapters aloud and he took it away to savor on his own. He’s now reading the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede because he told me he didn’t want to listen when I was reading them aloud with the girls, but snuck over and listened anyway and now wants to do it himself. I also loved the Dark is Rising series, but my girls haven’t as much.

  34. Cindy  •  Jun 27, 2010 @8:56 am

    What a great blog post, Mindy!
    You interviewed one author who has a wonderful, timeless quality to her books—Wendy Mass is amazing. I think Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, A Mango Shaped Space, and Every Soul a Star are all timeless classics.

  35. Mindy Alyse Weiss  •  Jun 27, 2010 @10:23 am

    Cindy–I agree 100% about Wendy Mass having a wonderful, timeless quality to her books. They definitely stay with you long after you finish the last page. I’d add 11 Birthdays and Finally to that list, too.

    I love the way you describe timeless books! Some of the ones that jump at me the most are:
    A book you can FEEL.
    Books become timeless when a reader wants to swap places with a character.
    The characters are like permanent friends
    It taps into emotional needs.
    Memorable characters and moments where we relate to them and shout, ‘I’ve done that!’

    Thank you all for sharing your favorites! Some I haven’t read in a while and can’t wait to dig into again. Others I haven’t read yet and can’t wait to explore. I probably could write a book about this–there are so many wonderful timeless and soon-to-be timeless books out there. I agree that Jerry Spinelli is amazing and his books are here to stay. Some others that I had thought of including that you mentioned are must-reads are:
    Charlotte’s Web
    Harry Potter
    When You Reach Me
    Harriet the Spy
    Clementine
    Because of Winn Dixie
    Definitely check out the amazing books of the authors I interviewed. I absolutely love their writing, and believe all of them wrote books that will be enjoyed for a long, long time!

    Jodi–I double checked and even though The Giver has a twelve year-old MC, one of the book sites has it listed as YA. It’s so hard to know where the line is sometimes, but I agree that it’s a fantastic one to add to a timeless list.

    I love how some of you are sharing stories of books your children fell in love with, especially when they weren’t avid readers before they found a timeless gem that really spoke to them. There were several that my daughters fell in love with. In addition to an instant love of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Rules, I’ll never forget reading My Teacher is an Alien by Bruce Coville with my older daughter when I was at an appointment and had to stop mid-chapter. She grabbed the book out of my hands and said, “I’m sorry Mommy, but I have to see what happens next.”

  36. Cindy  •  Jun 28, 2010 @11:40 am

    I just have to keep adding to the list here… two other modern MGs that feel timeless to me–A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban and Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff. I just read the latter with a 4th grade literature circle of eight girls, and every single one of them absolutely loved it. A couple girls said it was their favorite book.

    I completely agree with the Giver as well… it’s now in my 10-year-old’s favorite top few books.

  37. Bobbie  •  Jun 29, 2010 @12:29 pm

    I would also add Because of Winn Dixie and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
    and Shiloh.