III. Middle grade… and the complexity of a human being
22 Sunday Jul 2012
Middle grade literature is everything stripped down to only what needs to be there. No fancy words. No elaborate metaphors. No self-indulgent descriptions caught up in how beautifully you can portray the surface of a lake or the fog one Sunday evening. Usually no dumb teen hormones making up for believable relationships. (Although inexplicable romances still happen.)
Just story, and characters.
I think that people change more significantly throughout middle school than they do at high school. It was always the biggest leap, from the same class every year of elementary to something so much bigger. Likewise, going from picture books to middle-grade literature is an equally large leap in terms of growth.
Gary R. Schmidt won a Newberry honor for books like The Wednesday Wars or Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, but I think that his latest book is his real masterpiece. It has an unassuming title—Okay For Now, an incredibly lame cover, and an unexpected protagonist: Doug Swieteck, a young delinquent who plays a minor role in The Wednesday Wars.
Okay For Now is terrific.
This book demonstrates that you don’t need to write in an overly detailed or sophisticated way to create something complex, moving, and very funny. Doug’s first-person narration is unmistakably that of a thirteen-year-old boy. He’s anything but charming at the beginning; he’s stubborn and he doesn’t show his soft side too often lest people start to think he’s a chump.
Doug isn’t like me at all; he’s obsessed with baseball, he has an alcoholic father, older brothers who torment him, and, oh yeah, he’s illiterate. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that sometimes you don’t need to share superficial similarities to relate to a character. One of the many things that this book does flawlessly is create a compelling voice. I still connected with that skinny delinquent because he felt like a real person—not someone I idolized, not someone I wish I could be, but someone that I cared for nonetheless.
There’s a moment near the middle of the book where something beautiful and subtle happens. It’s a moment that changes everything without having to explicitly shove a message down your throat. Up to that point, Doug has never referred to his brother by name. Heck, even in its previous companion book, The Wednesday Wars, Doug’s brother makes a few appearances throughout but he isn’t named, either.
Although these books should be mandatory reading for middle-grade students, it’s just as good for teenagers and adults. I read Okay For Now first, but The Wednesday Wars uses Shakespeare to parallel the protagonist’s journey through middle school.
I find it strange that some of these books for younger readers can say so much to any person, regardless of age. I just read Okay For Now and although I make it sound like a lot of Tough Stuff award bait with abuse and the importance of literature and all that jazz, it’s never preachy or contrived.
It’s also worth mentioning that no book has ever made me laugh and cry so much at the same time. The thing is, it wasn’t always because I was feeling sad; it was probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever felt, crying because I was just so… happy. That book did strange things to my heart.
Now, onto that fancy ‘complexity of the human being’ part.
The are characters who make Doug’s life difficult. But what matters is that these same characters undergo just as much growth as Doug. The brother who bullies him struggles with his own problems, the gym teacher who humiliates him is recovering from his time in the war, etc, etc. Everyone has some good and bad in them: this is something that I’m convinced applies to everyone even outside the fictional world, and I’m glad that there are books, aimed at younger readers, who work this into their stories.
Another middle-grade masterpiece that tackles some difficult truths is A Monster Calls, byt Patrick Ness. In this case, the telling of stories becomes the backbone of the entire book itself.
It’s a book about a boy, Conor, whose mother is dying from cancer. Every night, at exactly 12:07, a monster appears at his bedroom window. A great big creature in the form of the ancient yew tree in his backyard, who gives Conor a warning and an ultimatum. He’ll tell him three stories, but, after the third one, Conor has to tell him a story in return. Not just any story, but his own story: the one that tells his truth.
And although it’s painful to see his mother suffering, the real conflict in the story is within Conor himself. The monster’s stories all deal with fables where there’s no clear line between who’s good or bad; the evil queen in one story is only trying to help her country, and other tales feature people who do bad things without being completely bad themselves. When the feelings that Conor was struggling not to think are revealed at the end of the story, I saw that it didn’t matter if I couldn’t directly identify with his grief—what I did recognize was that a person is filled with a million different contradictions at any moment of time. It’s all just a part of being human.
“Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”
Sometimes stories are meant for us to escape from the everyday mundane and fulfill our fantasies, but sometimes stories are there to help us make sense of life. It doesn’t matter if you think things that are terrible, if your emotions are a big conflicted mess of possibilities, if right seems wrong and wrong seems right. What matters is what you ultimately decide to do. And that is one powerful story indeed.