Middle grade fiction is the important bridge from reading picture books in early childhood to reading edgy YA as teenagers and beyond. It is a lifeline of reading for young people around ages 10 and up and helps shape their understanding of themselves and others. Studies of children's preferences reveal their love of stories about friends and friendship, mysteries, and survival stories. They are figuring out their place in the world and who they will be apart from their family circle. In addition, as children move into reading these longer novel-length works, sustaining interest in more complex narratives, we seek to provide books that function as "windows" or "mirrors" for their consideration (Bishop 1992). That is, books can offer a mirror, holding up their own experiences for thoughtful scrutiny or a window into other ways of being, a vicarious experience of life outside their own particular norm, fostering empathy for others. Since individual readers come to particular books at different moments in their lives, books may help children discover insights they might otherwise not have experienced in their personal lives. Barbara Kiefer reminds us, "Childhood is not a waiting room for adulthood, but the place where adulthood is shaped by one's family, peers, society, and most importantly, the person one is becoming" (2013, p. 397).
And since young readers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and cultures, we need diverse literature to provide those "mirrors" of identification and "windows" of understanding. Fortunately, more and more titles of contemporary realistic fiction are by authors of color telling stories that come from their own growing up experiences. These "own voices" novels are so important in presenting authentic fiction by insider authors sharing about their own cultures. They give us a more authentic view of life with accurate cultural markers such as character description, home life, family circle, language patterns, dialect, names and forms of address, as well as issues and concerns that grow out of the characters and their particular cultures. Are these modern characters you could imagine meeting or people who seem to have lived long ago or far away? Is there variety within the culture depicted? Even within a single micro-culture, there can be major cultural differences, class distinctions, and even prejudices. One quickly begins to see the complexity in representing diversity properly. It's a task that challenges us to keep learning, reading, and growing with an open mind. But, I believe it is so worthwhile because you will find that these are some of the most memorable books being written for young people and particularly pivotal in the lives of kids as they mature. Contemporary diverse fiction offers young readers a literary experience that validates their own searching and honors their questions, concerns, and crises.
Some of the most talked-about fiction of the year focuses on diverse characters in lively and relatable ways. Here are just ten of the "hot" middle grade fiction titles of 2018:
- Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed
- Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi
- Front Desk by Kelly Yang
- Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
- Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender
- Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
- Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
- The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis
- The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
- The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor
If you look to the Newbery medal books for book talking recommendations, you'll find many "own voices" books showing characters of color, characters from countries outside the U.S., and characters living with disabilities. Luckily, the Newbery list is not the only source of quality fiction for young readers. Don't forget about these important awards that expand our reading world:
- The Coretta Scott King Author Award recognizes outstanding books for young adults and children by African American authors that reflect the African American experience.
- The Pura Belpré Award is presented to a Latino/Latina author whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience
- The ALA Schneider Family Book Awards honors books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.
- The Batchelder Award honors an American publisher for an outstanding children's book originally published in a foreign language in a foreign country and subsequently translated into English.
- The American Indian Library Association (AILA) award identifies and honors the very best writing by and about American Indians. Books selected to receive the award present Native Americans in the fullness of their humanity in the present and past contexts.
- The Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature promote Asian/Pacific American culture and heritage and are awarded based on literary and artistic merit.
But, there's room for even more diverse authors sharing their experiences in fiction for young readers and more "nuance regarding diversity," according to a recent article, "Diversity Front and Center." North Carolina bookstore owner Mary Ruthless noted, "I can't express how much impact it makes on these kids to have books about characters that are like them, written by authors who are like them. It can help turn a reluctant reader into an avid reader when they find out that there are stories where it's easy to see themselves as heroes." Fortunately, the We Need Diverse Books movement (https://diversebooks.org) continues to grow and offers guidance in seeking out "own voices" stories through the "WNDB™ in the Classroom" initiative as well as their app, "Our Story." The free app offers help in searching for books and the subscription-based version, called OurStory Pro, is a great tool for educators to access "WNDB-themed curriculum and content." To educate oneself about feminist perspectives, don't miss the KidLitWomen podcast initiated by author and illustrator Grace Lin. It's full of "interviews and essays focusing on women's and gender issues, including non-binary and gender fluidity, in the children's literature community and all its intersectionality."
As the long-running TV public service announcements remind us, "the more you know," the more educated and informed you'll be. As "gatekeepers" and "door openers" to the world of literature, we hold the keys to choice, access, and even motivation. As we learn more about the diverse fiction created for the middle grades, we can serve our young patrons better—matching books and readers, sharing our own responses and experiences, and reading and learning right alongside them.
Green, Alex. "Booksellers Navigate New Trends in Middle Grade." Publishers Weekly (September 14, 2018). https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/78041-inside-indie-bookstores-selling-middle-grade-books.html
Bishop, Rudine Sims. "Making Informed Choices." In Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K–8 edited by Violet Harris. Christopher-Gordon, 1992.
Kiefer, Barbara Z.Charlotte Huck's Children's Literature (Tenth Edition). McGraw-Hill, 2013.