An illustration from Nicobobinus
I have been reading a lot of middle grade (MG) fiction lately, that is, books intended for kids roughly 8-12 years old. MG books are also called chapter books, because they generally have short chapters with nice, big illustrations. The idea is that readers 8-12 years old have brief attention spans, relate well to fast-paced, suspenseful stories, and need to have their imaginations bolstered by pictures. At age 34, I fit this profile a little too well.
MG is not the same as Young Adult (YA) fiction, which is written for kids 13 and over. The Harry Potter series long ago made it socially acceptable for grown-ups to read YA.
Middle grade books aren’t as universally read. The only ones I can think of that come close are The Chronicles of Narnia. With other MG classics like Winnie the Pooh, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Charlotte’s Web, you don’t find yourself picking them up again unless you’re introducing them to a young person in your life. Unless you’re me, that is.
I can’t say why, but I’ve developed an appetite for these books recently. I’ve been hanging out in the MG section of bookstores and the New York Public Library. I realize that sounds a little creepy, but my love for these books makes me too unself-conscious (is that a word?) to care. There is just so much going on in the MG section. Not physical activity, mind you. It’s actually quieter than the rest of the book store, which is full of grown ups yakking on cell phones. In the MG section there is silence, because the level of concentration and focus that young people direct towards their books is intense. When they read, it’s like these kids go into a trance. They are beglamoured, and lost deep in other worlds.
What is going on in the MG section is the books themselves. Their covers are full of bold colors and crazy, beguiling illustrations. There are no embossed brand-name author covers or subdued designs that an adult would be unembarrassed to hold on the subway. Instead there are these little windows into other worlds: kids running down pathways to the sea, mythical beasts, ghosts, explosions, dinosaurs, magic, darkness, outer space, princes and princesses. These covers aren’t afraid to make you feel things just by looking at them, and they actually give you a hint at what the story inside is about. Unlike the covers of grown up books, MG covers don’t have anything to hide. They are for little people who don’t have the time to decode subtle social cues. What you see is what you get.
And the stories themselves are totally uninhibited flights of the imagination. Kai Meyer’s Dark Reflections series is about two young girls who help defend a magical Venice from the undead army of a resurrected Pharaoh. Lloyd Alexander’s Timecat is about a cat who leads a young boy on a multi-millennial time travel tour of how cats spread across the world from ancient Egypt. A Wrinkle in Time starts on a dark and stormy night when three witches (fates? norns?) arrive at the household of a set of siblings and whisk them away on a four book tour of other planets, other times, and other earths. Are you intrigued yet? And all of these books actually deliver on their promises, or else they’d never make it with their demanding audience. You can’t promise monsters and magic to an 11 year old and then give him metaphors. Like their covers, these books are honest. Good is good, evil is evil, magic is magic, wonders are promised and wonders are seen.
Why do I love MG fiction so much? Perhaps because I relish the art of the chapter cliffhanger, and MG books don’t disappoint in this department. I also love the power of great illustrations to fire the imagination. But most of all, I love them because it was MG books that forever hooked me on fiction. There is a long-out-of-print chapter book called Nicobobinus that my father read aloud to me when I was a boy. I reread it every year and it still thrills me. It’s about Nicobobinus (“nik-oh-bo-bean-us”), a boy who lives in Venice whose leg gets turned to gold in a marvelous, magical accident. He has to go to the land of dragons to find a cure and is assisted in his quest by his brave and brash best friend Rosie. They meet some wonderful folks along the way, including a mad abbot, a sailor who sails on waves of dirt and rocks, and a shadowy figure named Basilcat, who commands a black ship with a mind of its own. Every few pages there is an illustration by Michael Foreman, whose lush watercolors still go straight to my heart. If you ever see a copy, snap it up. It’s a lost classic.
I also love the masterpieces of middle grade horror by John Bellairs, starting with The House with the Clock in its Walls, illustrated by no less than Edward Gorey. Bellairs’ books collided with my coalescing personality just in time to turn me into an Anglophilic, ghost story loving, tea drinking, mystery loving, bookish little guy. Or perhaps they just affirmed what I was already becoming. In 1990s suburban California, I was a weird little dude much in need of some affirmation.
I cannot stress enough the power these books had over my imagination. I remember straining my eyes to finish the last pages of Bellairs’ The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull in the fading twilight of a drive with my parents, somewhere between Santa Fe and the mountains of western Colorado. I don’t think I’ve felt the same primal hunger to get to the resolution of a story with quite so much force since then, nor have I felt so totally transported by mere words.
Follow up: What were your favorite books when you were 8-12?