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.
Kids 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.
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