As a junior high teacher I’ve witnessed and engaged in my share of kerfuffles over the value of middle grade novels. A joke made at a recent writing conference I attended gets at the heart of the debate: “There’s high grade literature and then there is middle grade literature.” Many cases have been made, on this blog and others, in defense of middle grade texts. If I may, I’d like to add some slightly personal evidence affirming the value of this literature.
About six months ago my father passed away. Needless to say the last six months have been trying for me, my family, and especially my elderly mother. When tragedy hits, most of the world reads self-help books; English majors turn to fiction. Therefore, I attempted to understand and categorize my grief through the literary arts. I initially attempted to find a path through my grief by engaging with the the canon, relying upon what my collegiate studies and the literati consider “high literature.” I went through my Faulkner phase, and on a few occasions, put on Cash’s face, especially when dealing with the business side of death; as an only child, the loss of a parent brings more paperwork, phone calls, decisions, and meetings than is healthy. I went through my next phase of “high literature” and looked to poetry as I read or penned verse in my attempts to engage my emotions head-on. Frankly, this didn’t help much at all. None of my explorations into the literary cannon bore meaningful fruit and I found myself still adrift, feeling isolated, irrational, and impulsive.
I didn’t find any solace until I remembered a book. A middle grade book that, frankly, doesn’t bear the weight of hundreds of academics pressing its importance and relevance down on me. Maybe that is why it can speak so freely and deliver such individualized impact. In Walk Two Moons, Sharon Creech provided something that the literary giants didn’t bring to the table as I tried to process my grief—an honest and heartfelt exploration of what grief feels like in its rawest moments and what unexpected and personalized ways we find to cope with and make sense of it. For me, Faulkner, Whitman or Dickenson and their literary equals—despite the fact that I deeply appreciate their writing—offer predictable, academic, or metaphysical explorations of suffering. They explore the abstract concepts of human existence. But when one is adrift in an ocean of confusion and personal suffering, such musings lack an applicability. It’s difficult to connect to the intellectual when you are brought down to your own instinctual, confusing, and childlike yearnings for something out of reach that you can’t even seem to articulate. Finding myself amidst that experience only happened in the concrete realism of Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons.
Salamanca and Phoebe are two girls attempting to navigate their normal lives, but continually find themselves running into waves of fear, confusion, grief, and . . . at least one lunatic. Both girls have lost their mothers—one to death and another to abandonment. But the girls, in an attempt to deal with the pain, determine that Phoebe’s mother was really kidnapped by a lunatic, and they set off on a journey to find the lunatic and thus rescue the missing mother. Grief and loss are not philosophical investigations in this novel; they’re portrayed honestly, concretely, and as somehow simple in their complexity, because they bring us back down to the childlike impulses that drive us to do irrational and emotional things—the kind of impulses we all experience in times of trauma.
I’ve read and taught Walk Two Moons before, but it wasn’t until after my father died that I realized how logical Salamanca and Phoebe are. As adults we might try write off their response to grief as bizarre, juvenile, or irrational, but when one is in the midst of upheaval and loss, who is to say the juvenile response is not actually an appropriate reaction? Dealing with tragedy brings us all to the level of children, because we are once again yearning for someone to take us in their arms and tell us it will all be alright; we want someone else to fix it, and want to believe miracles can happen. Literature written for the middle grades has the ability to connect to the awkward, frightened, stumbling pre-teen in all of us. And like Phoebe and Salamanca, we could very easily find ourselves pursuing a mysterious lunatic or embarking on a journey across the country to find our lost parent.
So, to those middle grade nay-sayers and members of the real or even pseudo-intelligentsia, I suggest, as we read over and over in Creech’s text: “Never judge a man before you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins.” Don’t pass judgment on the value of any family of books until you’ve fully sampled from them. If “YA saves,” then I propose that middle-grade can heal.
Please let me know how middle-grade has mattered to you.
Bruce Eschler teaches junior high school students most of the year, writes speculative fiction for kids as much as he can, and is hoping he’ll soon be done with his pesky doctoral program. He has occasionally been spotted at www.bruceeschler.com.