I write contemporary middle grade fiction for girls, and as a result I read a lot of contemporary middle grade fiction aimed at girls 8-12. I’m always interested in discussing and thinking about antecedents. What sorts of books were girls reading in the 19th and early 20th century, and are any of the tropes that we see in those books still around today? I’m thinking about books like A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) by Gene Stratton Porter or Susan Bogert Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1859), a novel that Louisa May Alcott read. These books are examples of domestic fiction that influenced generations of readers. In both of these books, girls, who have been neglected and almost abandoned by adults, conquer their passions and find their place.
While sentimental fiction isn’t necessarily in vogue, and the term
domestic novel isn’t one you hear that much, I’d argue that it is still very prevalent in the middle grade category. However, it has taken a new form. While girls are not necessarily orphans they may be in a situation where a parent is absent through death, divorce, sickness or the demands of an outside job. The girl cannot rely on a constant mother figure out how to succeed. Instead, she relies on her own inner compass and learns from her friendships. Nature (much to my chagrin) doesn’t necessarily play a starring role (although it can, such as in the novel Ida B. by Katherine Hannigan). I’d like to call this sort of narrative– the neo-domestic middle grade novel. So just what is a domestic novel?
Donna Campbell in her text Domestic and Sentimental Fiction: 1820-1865 defines the genre this way:”a type of novel popular with women readers during the middle of the nineteenth century.” They were also called a “novel of sensibility.” These novels focused on the power of feelings and the triumph of the human spirit to overcome any struggle. This can be seen as a reaction against Calvinism, which viewed humans as inherently wounded.
According to critic Nina Baym, the basic plot involves a “the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world.” By the end, she has a heightened sense of self worth and she views the world very differently.
In the neo domestic middle grade novel, I’m not talking about an orphan making her way in the world, but about a (usually) girl or girls navigating life at home and at school. The emphasis would be on the protagonist’s relationships with her peers and friends and how that affects her well-being. Relationships with siblings and parents are also important but they are usually linked to peer relationships. Feelings are ultra important.
A prime example of contemporary domestic girls middle grade fiction would be The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall. Of course in this book friendships are found with siblings. The novel was inspired by Little Women, which is an example of domestic fiction in children’s literature which is still read today. Can there be domestic fiction for boys? Yes, but the majority of contemporary fiction written for boys would be adventure/action. However, I do believe that the humor genre, such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books would fall in a subset of the category in many instances.
In girl’s fiction, you’ll also want to check out the books by Lauren Myracle. Her Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen novels would fall into the domestic novel category. Also, check out books by the British novelist Hilary McKay. I would argue that all of the novels in the MIX imprint of Aladdin/Simon & Schuster where I’ve been publishing recently would fall into that category as well. I’d also suggest looking at Rachel Vail’s Friendship Circle books, and I highly recommend The Secret Language of Girls by Frances O’Roark Dowell as an example of what I would like to call neo-domestic fiction.