in which i start venturing into middle grade realism

I’m trying to reacquaint myself with middle grade, because I’ve forgotten what it’s all about. It’s funny; I’ve taken a picturebook class, so even though those are never things I will be super interested in, I feel I have a pretty decent grasp of vocabulary, issues, history, etc. And my realism class this semester is essentially a what-is-YA class, so that’s neat, because I’m very interested in all those issues.

But middle grade. Hmmm. I think now that YA is such a thing, and especially now that laypeople at certain places like The Atlantic think that they are inventing the idea that YA is good, and they also think that characters like Matilda are YA characters, middle grade is falling by the wayside. It’s also getting harder to define. Traditionally for 8- to 12-year-olds, and hence about roughly 8- to 14-year-olds, it’s there, but it’s also bumping into younger YA and it’s getting harder to tell the difference. YA, when not being conflated with all things Dahl, is actually tending towards the upper part of the 12-18 age bracket, which makes it even more absurd when you consider that the people who barely read it are thinking that it is simultaneously about people getting ready for the prom and also fourth graders. So what’s middle grade, and where is it?

It is, at least, in two books I’ve read recently. Interesting, both fit into another area of middle grade and YA “issues:” books for guys. Secret Saturdays by Torrey Maldonado and A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar both feature middle schoolers in New York, those in the former dealing with the drama that comes from living in Red Hook, and those in the latter dealing with crushes and a tiny bit of homework. Also, as a perk, Maldonado’s book features two boys who are mixed (hence my reading the book, since Torrey came to my session at the YALSA symposium and told me about it), while Farrar’s is about a white boy who has a crush on a Haitian girl. So yay, mixed stuff and your non-status quo characters!

I liked both. I can say that. I certainly can appreciate that Secret Saturdays is not the type of book I would have picked up in late elementary or middle school, but I probably should have (if, you know, it had existed when I was there). It feels like real kids, I think. And so does A Song for Bijou. But somehow that’s also what I find unnerving about both of them. Secret Saturdays, not bad in any way, is at least the obvious sort to piss off those people who think that any book not about the utopia that is white upper middle class WASPland is going to either corrupt or just really ruin the happiness of their nice children. But Bijou is a bit harder to pin down.

It’s basically a school story about figuring out the best way to impress a girl. That the girl happens to be Haitian allows for a) some racism stuff, b) some intercultural conflict stuff, and c) some learning of music. As the boy, Alex, gets to know Bijou and her totally different world a block away from where he lives, he, you know, sees how strange it is to live a block away from someone and yet live a world away. My issue with it at the beginning was that it was so plainly stated that it almost felt fake and ridiculous, but as I was thinking about it more, I thought that maybe it was fair. Who am I to say what it’s like to have your first real understanding that the world is not all white? I never had one of those, so… The other half of the book is narrated by Bijou, and it didn’t seem totally off, either, at least emotionally. (Every time her dialogue was presented with a “how do you say,” I wanted to hit someone. If I had, there would be a lot of people with shiners walking around.)

If I look at my old journals from middle school, I can see how both Maldonado and Farrar did a great job in capturing the simple and blunt (in language, not in intellect) way that middle schoolers make connections and thoughts. I think these books work. And they’re both worth a look. But I can’t say Farrar’s story is actually all that compelling to read. It reads like a Disney Channel Original Movie, with all the plot points and characters in a can ready to go.

Actually, that could make for an interesting exploration: how middle grade novels equal movies about high school. But that’s all for another day.

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