Tag Archives: middle-grade fiction

Middle Grade Books on Imperfection

My kids are blessed with many grandmas, one of whom has a wonderful habit with the younger grands of saying “Oops! I goofed!” at any mistake. I dropped a glass? Oops! I goofed! You stepped in dog poo? Oops! You goofed! She says it with a kind smile and an easy manner, showing that mistakes are part of life; something to smile at and shake our heads over rather than lose our temper about or try to hide.

I’m reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly right now, and so have been thinking a lot about how we respond to mistakes. You have probably heard of Brown. Her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, has been viewed more than thirty million times. She is a shame researcher and has written three books on the subject, with a fourth due out this fall.

Brown writes that it is essential to differentiate guilt from shame. We feel guilt over our actions. We feel shame for who we are. Thus, “Jen made a bad choice,” rather than “Jen is bad.” The former is something we can work on, while the latter is immutable.

When we make a mistake—a joke that falls flat, for instance—and we feel shame over that, we use it to carve out a new understanding of our identity. From then on, we hesitate to make a joke, because we just aren’t funny. We won’t sign up for a race, because we aren’t athletic. We don’t introduce ourselves to someone new, because we’re socially awkward. Shame makes us smaller—less willing to reach out, to be creative, to try new things.

All of this, of course, is the opposite of what we want for the kids in our lives. We want kids to be bold, unflappable, willing to try anything. So what can we do to encourage kids to be willing to take those scary steps? Talking the talk is not enough, unfortunately. To encourage the bravery that is essential for living a full and daring life, we must model an ease with our fallibility, and a love of ourselves that outstrips our size, our salary, and our spelling ability.

That means admitting that we make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are minor (oops!), and sometimes, they are devastating. Final. Cruel. And yet we must continue to live with our horrible, imperfect selves. We must strive to be open about our own infernal fallibility, so that the kids in our lives to know that they are good, and worthy, even when—especially when—they try and fail.

To help along this road, here is a selection of middle grade novels where the kids make mistakes. Big whoppers. I don’t want to spoil them for you, so I won’t go over what the mistakes are, or the ramifications of them, but each of these books shows a character having to come to terms with mistakes and shame. Because I am imperfect, I know this list is incomplete. Please comment with other books that would fit with this theme. All links, images, and descriptions are from IndieBound.

The Turn of the Tide by Roseanne Parry
When the biggest mistakes of their lives bring them together, Jet and Kai spend the summer regretting that one moment when they made the wrong decision. But there’s something about friendship that heals all wounds, and together, Jet and Kai find the one thing they never thought they’d have again–hope.

Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb, illus. by Diana Sudyka
From acclaimed author Tricia Springstubb comes a poignant and topical middle grade novel about the effects of an accidental shooting on family, friendship, and community. Perfect for fans of Rebecca Stead and Rita Williams-Garcia.

As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds
When two brothers decide to prove how brave they are, everything backfires–literally–in this “pitch-perfect contemporary novel” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) by the winner of the Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award.

Steering Toward Normal by Rebecca Petruck
Eighth grade is set to be a good year for Diggy Lawson: He’s chosen a great calf to compete at the Minnesota State Fair, he’ll see a lot of July, the girl he secretly likes at 4-H, and he and his dad Pop have big plans for April Fool’s Day. But everything changes when classmate Wayne Graf’s mother dies, which brings to light the secret that Pop is Wayne’s father, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother, who moves in and messes up his life. Wayne threatens Diggy’s chances at the State Fair, horns in on his girl, and rattles his easy relationship with Pop.
What started out great quickly turns into the worst year ever, filled with jealousy, fighting, and several incidents involving cow poop. But as the boys care for their steers, pull pranks, and watch too many B movies, they learn what it means to be brothers and change their concept of family as they slowly steer toward a new kind of normal.

Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder
A magical breadbox that delivers whatever you wish for–as long as it fits inside? It’s too good to be true Twelve-year-old Rebecca is struggling with her parents’ separation, as well as a sudden move to her gran’s house in another state. For a while, the magic bread box, discovered in the attic, makes life away from home a little easier. Then suddenly it starts to make things much, much more difficult, and Rebecca is forced to decide not just where, but who she really wants to be. Laurel Snyder’s most thought-provoking book yet.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
The book that took the world by storm….In his fifth year at Hogwart’s, Harry faces challenges at every turn, from the dark threat of He-Who-Must-Not-Be- Named and the unreliability of the government of the magical world to the rise of Ron Weasley as the keeper of the Gryffindor Quidditch Team. Along the way he learns about the strength of his friends, the fierceness of his enemies, and the meaning of sacrifice.


Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur
Elise and Franklin have always been best friends. Elise has always lived in the big house with her loving Uncle and Aunt, because Elise’s parents died when she was too young to remember them. There’s always been a barn behind the house with eight locked doors on the second floor.
When Elise and Franklin start middle school, things feel all wrong. Bullying. Not fitting in. Franklin suddenly seems babyish. Then, soon after her 12th birthday, Elise receives a mysterious key left for her by her father. A key that unlocks one of the eight doors upstairs in the bar . . .

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
It’s the start of fifth grade for seven kids at Snow Hill School. There’s . . . Jessica, the new girl, smart and perceptive, who’s having a hard time fitting in; Alexia, a bully, your friend one second, your enemy the next; Peter, class prankster and troublemaker; Luke, the brain; Danielle, who never stands up for herself; shy Anna, whose home situation makes her an outcast; and Jeffrey, who hates school. Only Mr. Terupt, their new and energetic teacher, seems to know how to deal with them all. He makes the classroom a fun place, even if he doesn’t let them get away with much . . . until the snowy winter day when an accident changes everything–and everyone.

As a bonus, here are a few lovely picture books on this topic:

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
Zoom meets Beautiful Oops in this memorable picture book debut about the creative process, and the way in which “mistakes” can blossom into inspiration.

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The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
For the early grades’ exploration of character education, this funny book offers a perfect example of the rewards of perseverance and creativity. The girl’s frustration and anger are vividly depicted in the detailed art, and the story offers good options for dealing honestly with these feelings, while at the same time reassuring children that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Katharine Manning lives and writes imperfectly in Washington, D.C. She was a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. She blogs here and at The Winged Pen and Kid Book List. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, and at www.katharinemanning.com.

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Interview with Debut Author Kristi Wientge – KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE

I recently got the chance to read a  new debut, KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE , by the talented Kristi Wientge. It’s a wonderfully funny, thoughtful look into a subject you rarely see —  female facial hair.

When 12-year-old Karma discovers seventeen hairs growing above her lip, she is mortified and determined to get rid of them. Karma’s path to hair  removal includes navigating shifting relationships with her parents, her  best friend, and her comfort level with being the only kid in school who brings sardine masala and chapatis for lunch.

This interview with Kristi was especially fun to do because my son and I read KARMA together, and he contributed a few questions:

How did you come up with the character of Karma? Is she modeled after someone you know? (From my son) (First of all, can I just say that I love that you read this and came up with some excellent questions!)

 Karma evolved as a character. She started off as just a name and a problem: her mustache. Slowly, she became who you read in the book. Her situations mirror mine and things that have happened to my girls, but really she’s very much her own person. Much stronger than I ever was at her age!

How did you first get the idea to write this book? (Also from my son)

 The idea for Karma has been bouncing around in my head since I was ten years old. I wanted to read a book about a hairy girl, but never found one. Once I had children of my own and saw them go through similar situations, I knew it was time to figure out how to make this idea of a hairy girl into a book.

Your main character, Karma, is so wonderful for so many reasons. She’s also very different from many of the tween girls in today’s children’s literature – facial hair and a dad who wears a turban are wonderful distinctions. Yet I also came away with the impression you intended to illustrate not just the lovely diversity in her family and life but also the commonalities that connect all girls this age?

Yes, you really nailed this! The world is so interconnected we can no longer remain ignorant to things outside our normal. The more we explore outside of our comfort zone, the more we find we have in common with everyone.

Madeleine L’Engle famously said that if a subject is too hard for adults, write it for children. You tackle some pretty heavy concepts in this book – karma, spirituality, what it means to be a good person. What are the themes you hope will most resonate with your readers?

 All of the threads in my book really evolved naturally. I didn’t set out to make a statement on diversity or spirituality. I set out to write a book about a girl dealing with facial hair and the rest just layered on organically. I hope that whoever reads this book walks away with a broader horizon and more empathy. I hope that Karma is a springboard into conversations about female facial hair, something I didn’t talk candidly about until I was in my twenties. My last hope is that more facial hair stories get out there so girls can feel comfortable in their own skin. My readers should definitely check out Harnaam Kaur who actually blurbed the book. She has embraced her facial hair and is a fabulous example of self-acceptance.

How will you be celebrating your debut on August 15?

 I’m delaying my celebration until November when my kids and I are traveling to the US. I hope to to meet my agent, Patricia Nelson—which will be a huge deal. Then, my kids and I are going to eat Chipotle like we haven’t had it in 2 years—which we haven’t! Oh yeah, and I can’t wait to down a jug of sweet tea from Chick-fil-a.

Have your children read KARMA?

 No! And they call themselves my children! I really should punish them, but I’m actually relieved in a way. I get so, so nervous when people I know well read it.

What’s next for you – will we be seeing another book about Karma or do you have another book in the works?

For now, Karma’s story is done and I like where I left it. I’m excited to tell more stories with other characters. I’ve got a few things I’m playing with. One I hope Patricia, my agent, and I can get out there.

Is there anything I didn’t ask but you’d really like us to know about KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE?

You guys did a great job with these questions! I’ll let you in on a little secret about the book. You asked if Karma was based on anyone and I said mostly no. That’s true. But Daddy… don’t tell anyone, but he is HUGELY based on my husband!!! There are some word-for-word quotes from him. A few times during dinner, I’d run and get my notebook and chuckle to myself as I scribbled down something he said as I imagined the perfect scene to add it to! I LOVE that secret! Very funny – adds a whole new layer of fun to that character.

Thank you so much to Kristi for this wonderful interview. And because we had so much fun reading her book, we’re giving away a copy to one lucky winner.

Enter the Rafflecopter below!! Note: Rafflecopter will accept entries until August 8 at midnight.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

courtesy of Kristi Wientge

Kristi Wientge is originally from Ohio where she grew up writing stories about animals and, her favorite, a jet-setting mouse. After studying to become a teacher for children with special needs, she spent several years exploring the world from China to England, teaching her students everything from English to how to flip their eyelids inside out. She’s spent twelve years raising her family in her husband’s home country of Singapore, where she spends her days taking her four kids to school, Punjabi lessons, and music. With the help of her mother-in-law, she can now make a mean curry and a super-speedy saag. Karma Khullar’s Mustache is her debut novel.

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

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