Thursday Thoughts: The confusion of MG books
The idea of middle-grade books, or MG books, shouldn't be a complicated one.
It's an age range above picture books, early readers, and chapter books, but below young adult (YA) and adult books.
The characters, shockingly enough, are usually in middle school. They can be dealing with a variety of issues, but school and friendships tend to play at least a small role.
The plots and writing styles are accessible to younger readers but can also be quite profound, tackling complex themes in nuanced ways.
There shouldn't be any confusion over what qualifies as an MG book. And yet, not only do I believe there is confusion, but I believe that confusion is emblematic of the ways in which the entire idea of an MG book might be flawed.
For me, the confusion began when I reviewed certain books that I considered to be MG, but that others didn't seem to think fit into the MG category.
Sometimes it's clear why this happens. Take This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. That should be an MG book—it tackles some extremely mature themes, but the entire point is that it's about middle schoolers grappling with adult topics for the first time, against their parents' wishes—just as tons of middle schoolers are doing.
But I guess nobody wants to get into some whole controversial thing, so rather than letting it taint MG's precious family-friendly image that it doesn't even have in the first place, or even saying it's between MG and YA, they just let it linger on the YA shelves where I'm certain it's not getting into the hands of the readers who need it.
Moving on from that mini-rant, sometimes it's not so clear where the MG-YA confusion comes from. Take my second-favorite book, The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen. It is marketed as a YA book, but why?
It's about a middle schooler, Tiến, having specifically-middle-school experiences. So that's MG.
It has multiple points of view, but so does Goodbye Stranger, and no one would argue that's YA.
So I can't fathom why The Magic Fish isn't considered MG, besides random bigotry and incompetence or something. (Or some kind of weird prejudice against graphic novels, since all of my examples of mis-categorized books are graphic novels—though I read so many graphic novels that all of my examples for anything are graphic novels.)
Now, here's the thing. It's easy to get all embroiled in the definitions of an MG book and trying to apply them properly.
But then I stop and think for a moment about the crucial question, the entire point of designating books as MG.
Will middle schoolers want to and be able to read books designated as MG?
And, often, I fear the answer is no.
Now, I'm not sure I'm the best person to answer that question. I am not a teacher or educator, so my primary experience with middle schoolers was actually being one.
Also, I attended a bizarre and terrible private middle school, so the middle schoolers (and teachers) I met there were likely not a representative sample.
Still, when I think back to middle school, I recall just two instances of kids besides me reading for fun outside of class. One was a kid reading Smile, and the other was a kid reading The Mysterious Benedict Society. And those kids were near the top of the class-grade hierarchy—the kids nearing the bottom could barely read a passage aloud in class (not that such an exercise was ever terribly useful anyway), much less actually navigate an entire book with chapters and a plot and, perhaps worst of all, themes.
I suspect there were a lot of reasons why this was the case. One of them was that a bunch of my classmates had poorly treated dyslexia, which obviously doesn't help with reading skills.
Another was that my middle school's teachers, who were usually not certified teachers (at least where I lived, you didn't have to be certified to work in a private school), didn't really know how to get kids interested in reading. If you think teaching Johnny Tremain will inspire a lifelong love of reading in modern-day kids, I have news for you—it won't.
The kids I knew in school had never been taught how to hear the words of a story in their mind, and the words must have looked like a jumble of squiggles they had to drag their eyes over, rather than the sparkling voice of a protagonist with big dreams and a brave soul.
Another issue: these kids' entire emotional capabilities were stunted, thanks to distant, unloving parents and a bizarre mix of high- and low-pressure environments. If you haven't developed any empathy, how are you going to feel what a main character feels? How are you going to learn about their life experience?
If your parents haven't encouraged you to learn and to understand, why are you going to care what authors and characters have to say about the world?
If you are so distant from your own emotions that you can't even relate to a protagonist's struggles and successes, then what joy are you even going to garner from reading?
|The aforementioned readers forming|
massive lines at book festivals