In case you didn’t catch the The Middle Grade Reread Challenge post, here’s a little TL;DR. Last month, I challenged myself to read five book that I hadn’t read or even thought of since my middle grade years, and I gave myself a month to do it. The books I chose are as follows: Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen; The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart; The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale; Inkheart by Cornelia Funke; and The Tales of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. That is also the order that I read the books in.
Now, somehow, I managed to actually read five books in a single month. Presumably, because they were middle grade, they were a little easier to read, and, considering the margins on some of them, probably had fewer words per page anyway. I’ll start the blog off by delving into each book to explain why I did or did not like it, but then I’d like to discuss some common themes that I saw in the books and consider whether they might feel out of place in novels written for older readers.
1. Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen
Published: September 2006
Series: The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica
Number of pages: 324
Genre: Steampunk Fantasy
Rating: 4 stars
The book wasn’t quite as great or cool as I remembered. It definitely had a few problematic depictions to separate the “good” characters from the “evil” ones. Still, there were a lot of references to other stories, mythical heroes, and real people from the past that make it fun to read.
Further reading–> Setting Study: Here, There Be Dragons
2. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Published: April 2008
Series: The Mysterious Benedict Society
Number of pages: 485
Genre: Mystery/Contemporary Sci-Fi
Rating: 5 stars
This story was just kind of wholesome and cute. The main characters were all very clever, but they were also good kids. They also each had some aspect of their character that set them apart–Kate couldn’t sit still, Sticky could remember everything he read, etc.–that probably makes those characters relatable to many young readers who might normally not get featured as a main character of a story.
Further reading–> Story-Beat Study: The Mysterious Benedict Society
3. The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
Published: May 2005
Series: The Books of Bayern
Number of pages: 383
Genre: Epic fantasy
Rating: 4 stars
The book had a slower start and a rather predictable ending, but I loved that the main character got the chance to earn her crown by learning about the needs of the lowest and most looked down upon group of people, that her upbringing and her isolation helped prepare her for the role to some capacity, rather than have the more expected “royal must get her hands dirty but she’s so high and mighty she doesn’t know the first thing about it.” The magic wasn’t necessarily new or groundbreaking, but it was pretty, and the world-building wasn’t without its flaws, but it was still developed enough to feel realistic.
Further reading–> Setting Study: Bayern from The Goose Girl
4. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
Published: May 2005
Number of pages: 534
Genre: Urban fantasy
Rating: 2 stars
Naturally, this was also the longest book on my list. I had a feeling this would be my least favorite book, but I did not expect to hate it as much as I did. A large part of it was that the villains are made out to be really scary and dark and dangerous, but the worst that any of the characters get is a scratch to the head. If you don’t want to make your character kill anyone, fine, I get it, it’s a MG book, but at least fit your villain to match expectations. Maybe not everyone is scared of him, maybe he doesn’t have the police in his pocket. But maybe he’s a threat to the main characters in other ways. Also, it just kind of grated, the assumption that everyone thinks authors are all dead and old. That kind of spits in the face of modern authors, and is especially weird because… obviously… the book was written by a modern author.
5. Tales of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
Published: September 2008
Number of Pages: 270
Genre: Epic fantasy
Rating: 5 stars
I don’t know if this is supposed to read as a fairy tale or not, but that’s kind of how it was written. It was beautiful and amazing, and while I’m glad the narrative was not drawn out to make the book longer, I do also wish it did not end so quickly. If such a thing as a “perfect book” exists, this would be it.
First, I suppose I should offer a quick disclaimer. As you probably noticed, the genres of the books were varied. It wasn’t intentional, but I’m glad that is how it wound up; I can say I dipped my toe in a couple different pools, got a better feel for its overall temperature, if you’ll forgive me a somewhat shaky metaphor. But my discussion below isn’t really going to be discussing middle grade as a whole, or even middle grade SFF. Rather, it was enlightening to read books meant for younger audiences, and I’m going to be discussing elements that worked well enough even for me, an adult reader, that perhaps these recurring themes could be adjusted to fit older audiences and darker narratives.
The Impractical and Fantastical. I’ll start with an easy one. Whimsical narratives like The Tale of Despereaux may not relegated to the MG genre or to kids books, but they are certainly harder to find with books aimed at older audiences. The modern trend in YA/ adult fantasy is realism, of which fairy tale stories are not exactly the antithesis but are at least a close second. YA books that follow this trend are the Night Circus and Starless Sea (both by Erin Morgenstern) but I don’t think either of them quite capture that wholesome feel of DiCamillo’s story. It could even be aged up to include darker elements, made less predictable, in a similar vein to the stories Ani told in The Goose Girl.
Small Moments vs Tragic Backstories. As in YA/ adult books, the villains of these MG stories relied on what made them turn evil in the first place. Capricorn (Inkheart) did not have a compelling sob story, and while it’s implied that he’s unpredictable and dangerous, there is not enough evidence to prove as such, destroying any respect I might’ve had for his character. The Winter King (H,tbD) at least feels dangerous because of his past and current actions. Selia (Goose Girl) and Mr. Curtain (tMBS) both have enough of a backstory to make them relatively compelling villains, but it is Roscuro (ToD) that wins the soup. He is a rat who wanted to be good, but one absolutely devestating incident left him certain that there is no place in the world for a good rat. The path he turns down makes sense, but it also ultimately is a path that offers the chance to step off of it, and that is ultimately what makes him so compelling.
Character ages. It may not be a surprise that some of these protagonists do not match the ages of their readers; that happens with many other books too. That said, for obvious reasons, most MG books are written by adults, who must then write their characters to appeal to a younger audience. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work. Ani (Goose Girl) and Reynie & co. (tMBS) are characters that are close enough in age and mental maturity to match their intended audience and expected behavior for their characters. Despereaux is a mouse, too, so his age doesn’t really count. But the protagonists in Here, There Be Dragons were all adults. It was jarring every time John mentioned his wife. Considering the timeline of real history, it makes sense why they are all older, but their actions and behaviors are still written in a childish way. The opposite was the case for Meggie (Inkheart), who I swore was 15+, but who was actually 12 yet read like she was a little younger even than that, which did not quite pair up with her actions, ways of speech, or her being well-read.
I think that determining a character’s age is one of those tricky factors that you don’t really expect to make a huge impact on the story, but it can. And while I think that YA/ adult fantasy could likewise have stories about characters who do not match their intended reader’s own ages, etc., I should think that the narrator be able to bridge that age gap between character and reader not by speaking like the character, which could alienate the reader, but rather by deftly reminding the reader how being older/younger might’ve changed the character’s decisions.
Take a Risk, Follow Through. Lastly, something that is not dependent just on the MG target audience: no matter how I felt reading them now, all of these books stood out in my memory because they had tried something, and held some amount of success in their attempt. Even with Inkheart, Funke knew her audience would be young kids like Meggie who would hear that reading characters out of a story was possible and would wish themselves capable of the same. Even with The Goose Girl, a retelling, Shannon Hale makes the world her own and adjusts the magic from the original to fit her narrative.
Sometimes we read a book and think the concept is good but its execution ruins the concept. Inkheart is as good an example as any; Capricorn as a villain makes no sense, not in the “real world,” anyway. But not all books can be read and enjoyed both as a kid and as an adult, and I think it’s enough that Funke had a pretty good concept of her target audience. Capricorn’s failings hadn’t stood out to me as a young reader. I probably didn’t even think about it. What did stand out was the magic system, which, whether you consider it an original idea or not, was magical enough to enjoy thoroughly when I was younger. And, sometimes, that’s enough. I think that if it wasn’t, people wouldn’t bother to get creative, and we wouldn’t get masterpieces like The Tales of Despereaux or others like it.
I left links to my finished blog posts on the individual books above, but I haven’t yet had a chance to do anything with Inkheart or Tales of Despereaux. Not to worry; I just wanted to get this blog post out now since the reading challenge technically ended yesterday. Surprising probably no one, I may not do anything formal for Inkheart and instead opt to do a bit of a long rant, but we’ll see. I rented the Tales of Despereaux movie, and I’m planning on doing some sort of book/movie comparison, so that will be fun. I think both blog posts will be out in a week or so, so keep an eye out for them 🙂