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Find more The State of the Middle-Grade Novel
Although YA novels grab most of the media’s attention, what of middle-grade (MG) literature? We wrangled three MG authors for a discussion of 2016’s MG landscape and trends: Kelly Barnhill (The Girl Who Drank the Moon, 2016); Grace Lin (When the Sea Turned to Silver, 2016); and Tom Angleberger (Inspector Flytrap, 2016).
This has struck me as a particularly strong year for MG novels. What is something you’ve read this year that has really stuck with you?
BARNHILL: This has been a great year for MG. A couple of standouts for me: I absolutely loved As Brave as You, by Jason Reynolds, and I really wish I had that book when I was still teaching seventh-graders. And Claire Legrand’s Foxheart was wonderful. Also, I’m almost done with Heather Bouwman’s new novel, A Crack in the Sea, and it is wondrous and strange and magnificent.
ANGLEBERGER: [It’s been] a wild year for MG, with some books I’ve been looking forward to a long time: Ghosts [by Raina Telgemeier], When the Sea Turned to Silver, Matt Phelan’s Snow White. With Snow White, the story is so familiar, and yet, now it’s a thrill ride! How is that possible? Phelan is amazing.
LIN: I am behind on my reading this year, and I think a lot of it does have to do with that there are just so many great books out there. I just started Ghost, by Jason Reynolds, and it is so good. I also enjoyed Jonathan Auxier’s Sophie Quire.
I think there is a really lovely diversity in the genres in MG—there is a great variety from fantasy to friendship, historical to irreverent. We aren’t there so much with the actual characters of the books—I think it’s still pretty white—but it is so much better than even five years ago (I think!).
I was going to ask if any of you had noticed any impact from the We Need Diverse Books campaign, so I’m glad you touched on that. How are others feeling about this?
BARNHILL: I think the We Need Diverse Books campaign is one of the best things to happen to this industry. Publishing had gotten far too regional, far too typified, far too confident in its perceived largeness of its painfully narrow view. It was like Hamlet’s line about being imprisoned in a nutshell but believing itself to be the king of infinite space. WNDB has, in effect, broken the nutshell, and that is a very good thing. We still have a long way to go, but at least we can see the way forward. And the end result is gonna be awesome—books! Lots of them! And a vigorous, pluralistic community. This is my hope.
LIN: Yes, I agree with WNDB being great for the industry. I’ve been published for 17 years now, and it’s only since WNDB has come that I’ve seen or felt any change about diversity in the industry. We still have a ways to go and this is definitely an awkward growing period, but it’s so hopeful to see we are actually moving in the right direction.
However, I’m realizing more and more that, just like one book can’t be everything for everyone, a single book (no matter how amazing it is) can’t break down the white walls of the industry either. It’s going to have to be a concerted effort of many people and groups and many different books as well.
ANGLEBERGER: I realize Ghosts is taking some heat from the diverse-books community, but I wish we could all take a moment to enjoy a book flying off the shelves with two awesome, diverse characters on the cover! And inside, these characters are brought to life with respect, compassion, and joy.
LIN: I enjoyed Ghosts as well, though after reading some of the controversy, I did feel a bit uncomfortable; though perhaps this is just another example of how one book can’t be everything to everyone. Regardless, I really do appreciate that Raina used her incredible popularity to help put nonwhite faces into mainstream reading. That, I agree, is something to celebrate.
Grace touched on the diversity of genres in MG earlier. Does anyone think this impacts the types of stories MG authors are telling, or give MG an edge on “edgy” YA?
LIN: I always admire authors on the cutting edge of all genres—taking risks and pushing envelopes are all things that keep literature, and all art forms, alive and vibrant. I think in the last few years there has been a lot of admiration for things that are “dark.” I think we have somehow equated substance and quality with “darkness.” When something is “dark,” we assume it is deeper than its “lighter” counterparts. Yet one of the incredible qualities of children’s literature, especially MG, is how much depth and profundity can be found in lightness.
ANGLEBERGER: One of the great things about MG is that there is no limit on the fun you can have. I may be wrong, but it feels like YA authors aren’t allowed to have as much fun as we are. Yes, they can build worlds and break hearts, but I got to write a book about a raccoon and a talking tree brawling with animatronic versions of themselves at a theme restaurant.
LIN: That is true about MG! We don’t have to take things so seriously! Yes, we can approach heavy issues, but there is room for just plain fun and silliness—the latter a word not usually used to describe YA. So, really, MG is (to me) the best of children’s literature—where you can contemplate the adult issues in the world, but still be a child.
BARNHILL: When we write a MG novel, we’re not just writing one novel. We’re writing the novel for the kid, sure, but we’re also writing the novel for the adult that kid thinks they’ll be someday. And more, we’re writing for a young child with limited knowledge, as well as a slightly older version of themselves returning to the book a year or two later. A MG novel needs to have enough “soul stuff” in it for a kid to return, again and again, and make it new again.
For me, what I like about MG literature is its fundamental inclusiveness: they truly are “big tent stories,” where everyone, whatever their age, is invited to come and participate. Partially, this is due to the nature of middle-graders, who are preoccupied with understanding. I really like these books because they encourage kids to think broadly, think deeply, and to think critically about the whole wide world that they, whether they know it or not, are currently building.
LIN: As I said earlier, I think the beauty of MG is that there is (more) room for both ends of the spectrums. When we talk about “soul stuff”—well, part of your soul can be wacky, silly, ridiculous, too. For me, even above the ability to broaden a child’s mind, what I love about MG books is that they are change-makers. They are the books that change a child who can read to a child who loves to read.
BARNHILL: What I love so much about these books is that they are “both/and” books: light/dark; silly/sad; irreverent/soulful; philosophical/frenetic. I generally like both/and as a state of being: it is the soul of MG literature. MG, to me, means stories without limits—these books can go from meditations on the meaning of life to fart jokes to cool stuff in physics, all in the same chapter. Because sometimes we have to get silly in order to talk about serious things. Being silly is serious business. And being serious is a silly business.
ANGLEBERGER: Kelly, that’s just what I was about to say about The Girl Who Drank the Moon. It’s a great mixture of light and dark. And even though there is some very serious seriousness, there’s some of the downright silly stuff. But writing darkness and then just adding some more darkness—those are the books I can do without.
Have you noticed any trends in the past year?
LIN: I feel like this year there were a lot of sad books!
ANGLEBERGER: It’s funny, you’ve been seeing darkness; I’ve been seeing twee. While it’s true that I read and loved some twee books when I was a kid, I mostly give them an eye roll now. I think kids deserve a book with some punch to it, whether it punches them in the gut or just makes them punchy (with laughs).
Here’s a trend that I’m part of and my gripe about it: LP series, licensed properties. In my case, it’s Rocket and Groot books. Lots and lots of authors are writing Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Spirit Animals, and other titles. Some really good authors. And yet, the gatekeepers don’t seem to have noticed. They still seem to ignore these books as hack work.
LIN: I agree that gatekeepers should consider all books, and the best books should be recognized. I also think humor and lighter books are grossly overlooked. That said, as an author, I do appreciate that gatekeepers recognize books that are sometimes not the most popular.
ANGLEBERGER: You’re so right, Grace. Come Newbery announcement day, I’ll probably be rooting for some unlicensed, under-the-radar, quiet book to win!
LIN: I was thinking about what you said, Tom, about authors writing licensed books, and I’m starting to think the real trend is the blurring line between “literary” and “commercial” books. Not only are “literary” authors writing licensed books but the nonlicensed books are becoming much more high-concept, much more dramatic—easily transferable to a movie screen. It’s harder for an episodic book to find a foothold these days.
ANGLEBERGER: Always the concern of: Would The Secret Garden be published today? When you go to a big bookstore (and even some small ones), you have to pass so many toys to get to the kids’ books. And then when you get there, half of the books have the same toy characters on the cover! But, man, is it ever fun writing books about an insane raccoon and a talking tree that kids already know and love!
BARNHILL: I do remember this from my teaching days—the gravitation to books that are part of a known universe. It is all part of the same grand tradition of returning to the stories that leave deep grooves in the collective mind. How often do we return to tellings and retellings of Odysseus? Or “Little Red Riding Hood”?
[But here is] what I know in my heart to be true: that we are in the midst of a great age for children’s literature, and it just keeps getting better. Whenever I find out that kids are connecting with something, whatever it is, I think that’s a good thing. Because we need common metaphors and story lines to unite us, to help us make sense of our collective experience. And whatever that is—be it dark or sad or twee or thoughtful licensed material or really just written to advertise something—I think it’s all a good thing. Because we’re herd animals, and we need to share stuff. Even stories. Especially stories.
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