My 30 Days of Middle Grade Project

About a year ago, I noticed I wasn’t reading enough middle grade. I’m a children’s book buyer for an indie bookstore, and it’s my job to know the market. But like a lot of kidlit readers, I was being sucked into the drama and thrill of YA instead of its more mild younger sister.

So I decided to devote one month to reading middle grade. It’s like Lent, because I give up all other genres. Newspapers are allowed, and yes, I did indulge in the Vanity Fair article about Channing Tatum, but that was for research purposes.

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This is the 2nd Annual 30 Days of MG project. Books are stacked at my bedside, and I’m working my way through them. How did I choose what to read from my boxes of advance copies?

Books By Writer Friends like Sarah Sullivan, Kristen Kittscher, Greg Pincus, and Caroline Carlson
Books by Authors I’ve Loved in the Past including Kate DiCamillo, Polly Schulman, Neal Schusterman, Gennifer Choldenko, Blue Baillet, and Catherine Fisher
Books That A Sales Rep Gushed Over like BEHOLDING BEE and TWISTROSE KEY

I didn’t expect to have such a wonderful time reading these books and now I feel quite silly for not reading them earlier. I’m not done, but here are some of the things I’ve loved the most about this project.

Wonderfully wacky fun. A squirrel sucked into a giant vacuum cleaner is reborn as a poetry writing superhero in FLORA AND ULYSSES by Kate DiCamillo. A boy demands that a mad scientist transplant a cat’s 9 lives into his body in THE 9 LIVES OF ALEXANDER BADDENFIELD by John Bemelmens Marchiano, a Charles Addams flavored story. MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT, the first in the adorable VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES, sets an escapee from a girl’s finishing school and her magic gargoyle on a pirate ship with hilarious results.

Poetry. In THE 14 FIBS OF GREGORY K, by Greg Pincus, an aspiring writer in a family of math geniuses finds a way to finally connect with his family through his tender, perceptive and funny 20 syllable Fibonacci poetry. FLORA AND ULYSSES is the only middle grade book I know that quotes from both a poetry-writing squirrel and Rilke. And Blue Baillet spotlights Langston Hughes in her tender, often lyrical mystery HOLD FAST as the poetry provides comfort and clues to a young girl whose librarian father goes missing.

Main characters to love. I fell in love with Early from HOLD FAST, Moose from AL CAPONE DOES MY HOMEWORK and Arlo from ALL THAT’S MISSING, and I sense it’s because all three assumed more responsibility for their families than they should have at their age. It’s not fair that these characters carry the burden of a special needs sibling or a parent in trouble or falling apart, but the stories were richer for the very real challenges these characters faced.

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Diversity. I get tired of middle grade books with an all white cast. In HOLD FAST the family is mixed race, part of the working poor who become homeless when the father disappears and thugs invade the family’s apartment. Sarah Sullivan’s lovely ALL THAT’S MISSING is set in a small Southern town with a mix of races and generations that enrich the story as a boy’s grandfather becomes infirm and he tries to connect to a relative he’s never met.

Physically or mentally challenged characters. In AL CAPONE DOES MY HOMEWORK by Gennifer Choldenko, Moose’s sister Natalie is most likely autistic, and while she’s portrayed as difficult, at times it is her unique power of observation that saves the day. In ALL THAT’S MISSING, Arlo’s grandfather succumbs to Alzheimer’s and we see Arlo trying and failing to hold their family of two together. In WILD BOY by Rob Lloyd Jones, Wild Boy is covered with a thick coat of hair damning him to a place in a freak show.

Intriguing settings. The fantasy THE TWISTROSE KEY has its roots in Norway and its snowy, magical landscape of Sylver is populated with trolls. Choldenko takes us back to the unique community of Alcatraz where normal life for the guards’ children is and isn’t normal. And in HOLD FAST Baillet takes the reader behind the doors of homeless shelter.

Wordplay. I laughed at the cat named Shaddenfrood in THE 9 LIVES OF ALEXANDER BADDENFIELD and all the other silly references that adults will especially enjoy. FLORA AND ULYSSES is full of lines you’ll want on a tee shirt. (Do not hope. Observe!) And MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT is full of the kind of twisted, Jane Austin-like quips you’d expect when a governess forces her way onto a pirate ship.

I hope this inspires you to do your own 30 Days project. While I’m collecting books for post-project reading, I’m tempted to expand my project longer so I can get to the gems I’ve missed.

10 thoughts on “My 30 Days of Middle Grade Project”

  1. Lyn Miller-Lachmann says:

    Hey, Catherine! Can I hit you up to support a fellow VCFA’er and give my new novel, ROGUE, a chance? It’s older MG, crossing into YA, and it presents a character with disabilities/differerence. The main character is on the autism spectrum, and she’s based on my own experiences as someone diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult. Thanks!

    1. Catherine Linka says:

      Hey, Lyn–
      I always try to support my VCFA alums. Will add ROGUE to the pile!

  2. Ann Jacobus says:

    Thanks for this enticing middle-grade round-up, Catherine. Your recommendations have been added to my summer reading list.

    1. Catherine Linka says:

      Hi Ann,
      Well, you’ll have to wait for fall for most of these titles, but you can read HOLD FAST now. Enjoy!

  3. Peggy Eddleman says:

    This is such a great idea! I love it!

    1. Catherine Linka says:

      I’ll be reading lots of historical fiction after this, because I’m speaking about how kids HF is alive and well at SCBWI-Cen Cal Writer’s Day in the fall. That should be fun, too.

  4. A.B. Westrick says:

    So cool! I’m a VCFA alum, too, and want to put another MG on your list, especially if you’re going to talk about HF this fall. My debut, BROTHERHOOD, is about a boy who gets caught up in the KKK in 1867, and struggles to protect a friend (an African American girl) who is threatened by them. The ARC is now available (release date is Sept. 12).

    Meanwhile, you’ve given me some awesome titles for my To-Be-Read list. Thank you so much for this post! It came through my Facebook feed via the VCFA group. How do I love “Through the Tollbooth?” Let me count the ways…

    1. Catherine Linka says:

      Actually, BROTHERHOOD is already in my reading stack. One thing I sense HF writers need to do to get published now is to offer a unique, and dramatic story. I picked up BROTHERHOOD, because I had not seen another book that deals with the KKK. Good luck with your launch and thank you for loving the Tollbooth!

    2. Lyn Miller-Lachmann says:

      I read the beginning of BROTHERHOOD in workshop and can’t wait to read the rest! I love historical fiction, and this one is on an unusual and important topic.

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