Tag Archives: middle-grade readers

The Real Life of the Middle-Grade Reader

I love writing for the middle-grade reader.

There’s something very appealing about this audience. They’re old enough to understand humor and even sarcasm (in fact, some eleven-year-olds I know are Kings and Queens of Sarcasm).  By age nine, many children have mastered the mechanics of reading and they’re ready for challenging new vocabulary and themes that stretch their minds.

And best of all, middle-grade readers aren’t ready for all the angst, sexual issues, cussing, and violence that those Young Adult authors have to face head on when writing for teens. Right? I mean, the middle-grade genre is all about best friends and dogs and family vacations and…

STOP.

If you dig, even not too deeply, you’ll probably find an interview in which I’m quoted saying something very similar to the previous paragraph. But I now know that when I had those thoughts, I was thinking about the middle-grade books of my youth, not today’s middle-grade kids.

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My local school district has an “Intermediate” building for 5th and 6th graders. Last time I was there, I was surprised that most of the library books I saw being toted around by these ten- to twelve-year-olds were YA titles. They were devouring “The Hunger Games” and going ga-ga over “The Fault in Our Stars.”  Why weren’t they reading middle-grade books? Why weren’t they reading my books? Aren’t these the very students I (and other middle-grade authors) write for?

To find the answers, I think we have to look more closely at today’s nine- to twelve-year-old.  Here are some interesting facts* about the MG audience. Our MG audience:

In middle childhood, children might:

  • form stronger, more complex friendships and peer relationships
  • feel very emotional about those friendships
  • encounter higher levels of peer pressure
  • notice bodily changes and have unanswered questions about their bodies
  • begin to develop body image issues such as eating disorders
  • feel the pressure of harder classwork and academic challenges
  • begin to see themselves apart from their family unit
  • experience fears such as: fear of disappointing parents or parents finding out about negative behaviors or thoughts
  • experience anxiety over their social standing
  • become more aware of community threats and dangers such as violence

Whoa. That’s a heavy list for kids who haven’t even hit their teens yet. But it’s reality and it’s our audience. These are the children for whom we write.

So, what does this mean? No more dogs and best friends and family vacations? Of course not. But what it does mean is that we shouldn’t shy away from the reality that is life for today’s middle grader. Sometimes parents go to prison. Aunts and uncles can be alcoholics. Preteens think about their sexuality. Gangs and violence don’t suddenly appear after age 13. Nine- to twelve-year-olds sometimes live in homes or communities that are dangerous.

It’s okay to address the tougher side of preteen life. As storytellers, we can choose the right measure of tact, honesty, and humor to soften the blows of middle grade reality.

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What are your current favorite middle grade titles? I’d be willing to guess that beneath the general premise there are some serious issues which today’s middle graders understand all too well.

What do you think? Share your comments below!

*facts listed above come from:

http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/positiveparenting/middle2.html

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/liking-the-child-you-love/201402/the-hiddennot-so-hidden-fears-middle-school-students

Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. She shares The Mark Boney Promise with young people at school and library visits in an effort to bring more kindness to classrooms everywhere.  Find Michelle at www.michellehouts.com. On Twitter and Instagram @mhoutswrites and on Facebook as Michelle Houts.

 

Indie Spotlight: Curious Iguana, Frederick, MD

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I don’t know which is a greater delight to feature, a veteran independent bookstore that has survived the ups and downs and dire predictions of the last few years, or one that is new and also doing well. Today we’re talking with Marlene England, co-founder and co-owner with Tom England of Curious Iguana (www.curiousiguana.com) in Frederick, Maryland.
(Have you ever noticed how founders of independent bookstores like to give them animal names: Blue Manatee, Bear Pond, Flying Pig, Mockingbird, Velveteen Rabbit? )

MUF: Marlene, your shop has been open just two years, and already it is thriving! Tell us how you came to found Curious Iguana and what you think accounts for its early success?
Marlene: My husband Tom and I opened Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts in September 2000, and a couple of years ago we started dreaming about what a new curius iguana frontretail adventure might look like. Children’s books had been a consistently strong category at the Bear, so we originally planned to open a children’s bookstore. But the message we heard over and over again from our customers was how much downtown Frederick needed an independent bookstore for all ages, not just kids. When we found out a larger retail space was available around the corner from Dancing Bear, we relocated the toy store there in the summer of 2013 and opened the Iguana in the Bear’s former location just two months later.

Our local community, as well as out-of-towners who visit Frederick, has demonstrated so much love and support for the Iguana. I think it helps that Tom and I already had strong ties to the community—because of the toy store, we were a known entity and never the ‘new kids on the block,’ so to speak. We are also extremely fortunate to have a fantastic team of booksellers who are curious (of course!), passionate about reading, and dedicated to providing exemplary customer service.

MUF: The shop name is wonderful, as is the subtitle, “get to know your world.” In what ways do you encourage young readers to do that?
Marlene: We are very thoughtful in our selection of books, being sure to include titles that are diverse and globally focused.

MUF: How do you choose the books you carry at Curious Iguana?Marlene: It’s a team effort that involves staff (particularly Kari, our children’s book buyer), publishing reps, online research, recommendations and reviews from other indie bookstores, and lots and lots of reading!

MUF:As middle-grade authors, we’d love to know what titles old or new, fiction or nonfiction, you find yourselves recommending most to 8-12 year olds these days?  Crious Iguana CartwheelingCruous iguana echo
Marlene:
Although classics are always a staple, new midgrade fiction is flourishing at the Iguana. Kids seem to be really interested in strong, Curious Iguana revolution
character-driven stories—books that open their eyes to the experiences of others and help them understand the world around them. Wonder (RJ Palacio) is still a big hit, but also Echo (Pam Munoz Ryan), Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms (Katherine Rundell)Curious Iguana Butterfly Hill, El Deafo (Cece Bell), Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson), The Crossover Curious Iguana War(Kwame Alexander), I Lived on Butterfly Hill (Marjorie Agosin), Revolution (Deborah Wiles), and The War that Saved My Life (Kimberly Brubaker Bradley). We’ve been really impressed with our midgrade readers—their appetite for reading, their interest in heavier topics.

MUF: Have favorite middle-grade authors appeared at Curious Iguana? Do you have other activities or events designed to appeal to this age group?

Marlene: Last year, we hosted Tom Angleberger (of Origami Yoda fame) and were filled to capacity. I’m not sure we could have squeezed one more person in the bookstore! We’ve also welcomed Deborah Wiles (a longtime friend of our bookstore and toy store) and Grace Lin (who braved treacherous weather to greet 60+ fans on a very snowy Saturday morning).curious iguana Lin Several of our middle-grade customers attended a Q&A with a panel of authors from We Need Diverse Books, and we have hosted a Kids Go Global book club for ages 8-12, as well as several intergenerational book discussions at the Iguana and at our county libraries for middle-grade readers and their favorite adults.

SRO crowd for Origami Yoda

SRO crowd for Origami Yoda

MUF: Curious Iguana is a “benefit corporation.” Please tell us what that means for you, for your customers, and for the recipients of your donations.
Marlene: All benefit corporations have unique goals and objectives; ours is to be a successful business that also makes a difference in our world—that’s why we donate a percentage of monthly sales to global nonprofits that are making a world of difference. Recent recipients include Kiva, The Malala Fund, Room to Read, CamFed, and Children of Promise, Children of Hope, a nonprofit in the Dominican Republic that was started by a longtime customer and friend. This commitment to giving back helps us keep our priorities straight. It’s a constant reminder that helping others is a big part of why we do what we do. Our customers seem to respect our vision and appreciate that the money they spend at the Iguana is having a broad impact far beyond downtown Frederick.curous iguana interior

MUF: If an out of town family on a day trip visits Curious Iguana, would there be family-friendly places near buy to get a snack or meal? Are there other unique Frederick sights or activities they shouldn’t miss?
Marlene: Definitely! Our historic downtown is a thriving ‘Main Street’ community with all kinds of independent specialty stores and restaurants. There really is something for everyone. Of course, we’re just a tad biased and would encourage visitors to stop by our sister store, Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts, just around the corner from the Iguana. Many families add some history to their shopping and dining with a visit to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, which is also located in downtown Frederick. Two helpful websites to check out when planning a trip to Frederick are http://downtownfrederick.org and http://visitfrderick.org.

curious iguana round logoThank you Marlene, for telling us about your bookstore and its mission!  Readers, have you visited this popular shop? (Hmmmmm. I wonder if Curious Iguana is acquainted with Reading Reptile?  Seems like they might have a lot  in common. )

Sue Cowing is author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012}.

Why DO we love series?

So, which kind of reader are you?  Are you a lover of series, stand-alone books or something in between? For those who love stand alone stories, I agree: there is something exciting about meeting new characters, exploring new worlds, and coming to know the writing style of an unfamiliar author.

From many years in a preschool-8th grade library, I found lots to love for my students who craved series, too. Just what is it that makes them so appealing?

I recall these conversations overheard from my librarian desk at school:
“Dude, I wish he hadn’t stopped at just one book. I wasted my time because now I don’t know what to read that I’ll like as well.”
“I just love this author. I hope he never stops making books.”
“These books are just right for me.”

Here’s what I learned about middle grade students and their love of series.

Familiarity is safe, and repetition is good!  If I could reach a middle grade student searching for his or her reading home, it would very often be within a series. Once a student finds a book to love, why look any farther? From my many years of supporting reading in schools, I know that series books are very useful for helping young readers build reading stamina and confidence, and that this continues to be true well into middle school. Many pieces of research bear this out – more reading = better readers. Truly, level isn’t as important as volume in increasing a student’s facility with reading, though grbbing a student at a level of writing that fits certainly helps. The most important thing is that a student engaged with the content will work to grow to the level, or read more books because they are comfortable and easy. Both these things are fantastic!

Brand loyalty reigns supreme. Don’t insult a beloved series, or its characters or premise. I love series of books, but young people KNOW them, inside and out. And I’m not just talking about Harry Potter or The Percy Jackson series. A student who reads a series passionately – almost any series you can name – knows its characters and the constructs of the world told within its pages more intimately than I can even fathom. This is so much fun to observe!

Connections make enthusiastic readers. One of my main goals as a school librarian – and one I continue to fulfill now that I’m celebrating middle grade books and reading in other ways – is to find touch points with students in their reading lives. If I can share the experience of a book with a student, we have a connection. This means that I have an open door to that student in terms of recommending more, which maintains a student’s enthusiasm for reading long after they’ve left my library. I still recommend books to my students who started with me as middle graders and are now high school students! For many, those connections began when we shared our love of series. What could be better than that?

Here are a few middle grade series in a  variety of genres and styles I’ve shared over the years, with students ranging from 2nd grade to 5th grade. All synopses from IndieBound unless otherwise noted.

The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

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“Deliciously nostalgic and quaintly witty, these stories are as breezy and carefree as a clear June day.”
Theodosia Throckmorton, by R L LaFevers

9780618756384

“Theodosia Throckmorton has her hands full at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London. Her father may be head curator, but it is Theo—and only Theo—who is able to see all the black magic and ancient curses that still cling to the artifacts in the museum.”
Capture the Flag, by Kate Messner

9780545419741
“Anna, José, and Henry have never met, but they have more in common than they realize. Snowed in together at a chaotic Washington, DC, airport, they encounter a mysterious tattooed man, a flamboyant politician, and a rambunctious poodle named for an ancient king. Even stranger, news stations everywhere have just announced that the famous flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been stolen!”
Ranger in Time , also by Kate Messner

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This is a very new historical series  for the early middle grades – the second comes out this month.

“Meet Ranger! He’s a time-traveling golden retriever who has a nose for trouble . . . and always saves the day!” (from Goodreads)
The Jaguar Stones, by Jon and Pamela Voelkel

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These books might feature a couple of teenagers, but the content and writing are all middle grade, with great action and adventure, as well as historical content that is well-researched and presented.

“An epic adventure that brings together ancient history and modern adolescent angst – as it pits a pampered, pizza-eating, 21st century Boston teenager against the Death Lords of the Maya Underworld.”

The Underland Chronicles (Gregor the Overlander), by Suzanne Collins

9780756934804

“This irresistible first novel tells the story of a quiet boy who embarks on a dangerous quest in order to fulfill his destiny — and find his father — in a strange world beneath New York City.” (from Goodreads)

Guys Read, edited by Jon Scieszka

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I was able to cultivate a reader over almost an entire school year by letting him take a Guys Read to study hall every day and return it each afternoon without committing to checkign it out and worrying about it.  “Its here: Volume One of the official Guys Read Library. Jon Scieszkas Guys Read initiative was founded on a simple premise: that young guys enjoy reading most when they have reading they can enjoy. And out of this comes a series that aims to give them just that.” (from Goodreads)

The Imaginary Veterinary, by Suzanne Selfors

9780316225694

“When Ben Silverstein is sent to the rundown town of Buttonville to spend the summer with his grandfather, he’s certain it will be the most boring vacation ever. That is, until his grandfather’s cat brings home what looks like . . . a baby dragon? “

The list of great middle grade series is so long that it will surely be the topic of another post.

You can find some other info about series around the blog, like this one on  Series for Fantasy Fanatics, and here is another book list, because so many of us seem to love them.

As for me, I think I’m a little bit in between. I love stand alone stories, but investing in a series is a great way to feed the reader in me who just wants to hang out with familiar friends between the pages of a book.

In fourth grade, Valerie Stein touched an ancient artifact from an archaeological dig. Though she never got to travel the world in search of buried treasure, she ended up journeying to new and exciting places between the pages of books. Now she spends her time researching history, in museums and libraries, which is like archaeology but without the dirt. Valerie’s book, The Best of It: A Journal of Life, Love and Dying, was published in 2009.  Both her current work and an upcoming middle grade series are historical fiction set in Washington State. Valerie is Publisher at Homeostasis Press and blogs at The Best of It