Why Middle Grade books need to explore dark themes
Rarely has there been a time in history when there wasn’t something dark and serious looming in the future. Some generations lived through war or grew up living with the threat of nuclear annihilation. Now, our children are facing a climate emergency and a fractured political world. So why should Middle Grade books hide any of these dark realities?
As a child who loved reading, I rarely gave much thought to the content of the books I pulled off the shelves. My parents on the other hand had one main rule: no Harry Potter. They thought it was too dark for me to read (poetically, I was finally allowed to when I was 11).
It was dark and, as we know, it only gets worse post-Prisoner of Azkaban as the books transition from Middle Grade to Young Adult. But is a challenging storyline a bad thing in writing for young people?
What are Middle Grade books?
In publishing, Middle Grade books are aimed at readers aged eight to 12. Physically, these books are the next step for readers from early chapter books.
Middle Grade characters are on the cusp of teenagehood, but dealing with more complex experiences and emotions than those in children’s fiction.
This distinction is still widely unknown outside the publishing world. I’m sure I’d have no idea what Middle Grade books were if I wasn’t blogging, although I’m an avid reader.
Editor Reka Simonsen told Publisher’s Weekly there’s a degree of disrespect in that lack of identification. “I think there’s still a lot of condescension toward children’s books from the world at large and even from within the book industry,” she said.
“So for those people who don’t take our entire category of books seriously, it’s not surprising that they can’t be bothered to figure out the differences between middle grade and YA.”
However, writing for a younger audience does not mean the topics covered in adult fiction are out of bounds. No, there aren't graphic sex scenes but there are Middle Grade books about everything from the death of a parent to transgender rights.
It was celebrated author Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard which first taught me about the refugee crisis in Australia of the mid-2000s.
Gleitzman told ABC young people need stories now more than ever and that books were “a bit like vitamins”.
They are not a substitute for lived experience, but because they are so good for young people at developing empathy and insight and resilience and understanding of how problem solving strategies work and how we learn from failure, they allow that lived experience to be that much more fulfilling and satisfying."
'A tribute to keeping the darkness contained'
When I thought about writing this discussion, I knew I wanted to include some recommendations for thoughtful Middle Grade novels. The problem is I’ve only read two I felt fitted perfectly into this description.
So I asked my friend Danielle, whose Instagram feed is pure delight, to share her thoughts and favourite recommendations. Here’s what she says.
“The world can be a dark and mean place, and it is just as dark and mean for children as it is for the rest of us. Certainly the darkness may come in different forms – the physical absence of light might not bother us in our twenties the way it did when we were five – but it is there nonetheless.
“Alongside their joys and fantasies and passions, children have fears and anxieties and big unanswerable questions just as we do. And while books full of sunshine and starlight can offer a bright way to re-route thoughts into a new pathway, children also need carefully-written, thoughtful and sensitive books that grapple with hard and difficult ideas, that explore challenging themes, that look bravely and wisely at darkness and demonstrate that it can be survived.
“Books are powerful because they can give voice to voiceless fears, give form to formless terrors. Sometimes we must learn to recognise the monster before we can slay it. But books are a safe way to explore darkness and sorrow. You can close a book. You can walk away from a book. You can even throw a book into the garbage.
“The very tangible act of reading a book is a tribute to keeping the darkness contained because at any given moment the story can be stopped, or paused, or put away entirely.
“Books about difficult things provide kids with pictures through which to view concepts we often shy away from or feel unable to comprehend. They lend language to subjects which are tricky to talk about. They remind children going through tough times that they are not alone in that space, and they build compassion and understanding for children who might not know darkness personally. More than that, while giving kids the context through which to understand the brokenness of the world, great children’s books also offer the hope required to endure it.
In the best children’s books, there’s a belief in an essential goodness and rightness, a life-giving honesty without despair.”
Middle Grade recommendations and the topics they explore with grace and gentleness
- The Elephant by Peter Carnavas (depression and bereavement)
- The War That Saved My Life by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley (abuse, foster care, prejudice, disability, and war)
- The Little Wave by Pip Harry (grief, depression, loneliness, and bullying)
- The Secrets We Keep by Nova Weetman (trauma and denial)
- Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee (abandonment, abuse, and terminal illness)
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (anger and loss)
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (broken families and racism)
- Ugly (Children’s Edition) by Robert Hoge (disability)
On Danielle’s suggestion I read The War That Saved My Life. I can wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
I’ll also add another recommendation for What Momma Left Me by Renée Watson. This heartbreaking novel delicately explores grief, abuse, religion, race, and class.
Let me know in the comments what your favourite middle grade books are or get in touch on Instagram and Twitter.
GIFTED: Both What Momma Left Me and The War That Saved My Life were provided by publishers Bloomsbury and Text Publishing respectively.