I grew up in a family with an unwritten rule: there was no such thing as boredom so long as there were books.
And there were always books, because every Friday night we piled into my father’s Chevy Impala and drove to the local library, which at the time was located in our town’s old railroad station. Each of us filled a sack with at least 4 or 5 books.
The Old St. Croix Public Library, St. Stephen, New Brunswick
How cool to have your library in an abandoned train station, huh?
I didn’t realize until adulthood the rarity of having two parents who read voraciously and encouraged voracious reading. Now it seems the most precious gift I could have received.
Those books took me everywhere: on a wagon train to the west, back and forth to Narnia, to a faraway planet to search for my lost brother, through a phantom tollbooth. I sailed to a small island in Britain and camped out. I solved mysteries. I was certain small people lived in my bedrooms walls.
It wasn't all adventures. I sobbed when beloved characters died - my eyes still sting thinking of Matthew Cuthbert, Beth March, and Charlotte the Spider. But in a tangible way, those literary deaths in middle grade fiction prepared me for real-life deaths and loss.
My daily voyages made me want to try bottling that magic myself, and I began to write to make sense of the world around me. I still have many of the stories I wrote when I was young, and while they lack a certain technique, they make up for it in sheer enthusiasm, although I feel great sympathy now for my 5th grade teacher, who read them all!
Every book had a lesson, and those lessons were personal and universal all at once. No, I wasn’t an orphan like Anne of Green Gables, but I knew what it felt like to be an awkward outsider at times. No, I didn’t live in the 1860s, but it turned out children who lived then also loved their families or felt petty or were frightened, just like me.
I wish I had this copy...
Is it wrong to covet?
Yes - I thought so...
While other books from my childhood were precious to me, there was some unspoken acknowledgement that my middle grade books were the most precious of all. I hauled them from one end of the country to the other when I grew up.
Even pulling a few out for a picture made
me want to stop and read them again!
And in times of stress and great need, they were the books I turned to for comfort. I reread the entire Betsy-Tacy series during the week I sat by my dying mother’s hospital bed. I took Anne of Green Gables with me to the nursing home when my Dad passed away.
Middle grade is when we dip a toe into the world of independence while staying connected to our families. We read for pleasure and we read to find the truth of ourselves in the truth of others. The books can take us to the inner-city, or help us escape from it. Middle grade fiction authors weave worlds of wonder, worlds of understanding, worlds of caring. It is an awesome responsibility.
A few years ago, I decided to begin to write again after a long and self-imposed hiatus. I’d never stopped reading middle grade fiction, thanks not only to reading to my own children, but to the prodigious talents of authors like Neil Gaiman, Kate DiCamillo, Kevin Henkes, Tim Federele, Patricia Wrede and my own recognition that good fiction is good fiction regardless of the age of the protagonist.
Each time I thought of a new story to tell, I seemed to naturally filter it through the lens of a middle grader, the person whose changing world is magical and terrifying and strange. I worried that it might be difficult to conjure up those emotions and feelings again as an adult, but surprise: they’d never left me.
I suppose in life we never forget our first loves. I read everything and anything I can get my hands on. I may write in other genres. But one thing I know for sure: I will always write middle grade fiction.