February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Embracing the Darkness in Middle Grade Fiction | The Upper Deck

Welcome to The Upper Deck, a new monthly column exploring versatile titles that have appeal factors spanning across middle grade and YA audiences. Finding titles for tweens seeking out something with depth and sophistication—yet still appropriate and accessible—can be tricky. This column will offer suggestions for upper elementary and middle school students reading above level as well as recommendations for teens not quite ready to tackle more mature YA. Whether you call them tweens, middle schoolers, upper middle graders, or some other term, this range spanning from roughly sixth to eighth grade is a growing demographic whose reading interests and habits should be cultivated and empowered.

Research tells us that young readers gain important emotional competencies by reading fiction that explores the complicated inner lives of characters. Characters that “disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes” help middle grade students to learn how to navigate the society they live in (“Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Scientific American. N.p., 4 Oct. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2015). Encountering complex emotions like guilt, grief, and fear in works of fiction can help prepare tweens for more realistic experiences with those same emotions. In several recent titles, dark themes are explored in a variety of ways, involving unique approaches to the structure of narrative and narration. The protagonists of these stories are faced with adult issues, such as death, war, kidnapping, and other catastrophes, but without gratuitous violence or disturbing language. Instead, these complex emotional issues are expressed through inventive techniques, often using elements of fantasy to exemplify the subjectivity of reality. Darker subject matter in several recent—and critically acclaimed—novels seeks to embrace the reality of trauma in order to shine a light on the ways that young people can adapt and take on significant challenges in life.

Middle school, as a character advises the narrator in The Thing About Jellyfish (Little, Brown MG_Benjamin_TheThingAboutJellyfish2015), is often considered the worst time, when kids are the least understanding towards one another. Friendships become strained when tweens attempt to figure out what kind of adults they want to be, and feelings are inevitably hurt. In Jellyfish, Suzy’s best friend tragically dies at a particularly painful moment in which their friendship was unraveling with the strain of social pressures. The protagonist tries to use her knowledge of science to find a reason for what happened to her friend, believing that this will bring her some form of absolution from the guilt she feels at the way their friendship ended. But Suzy ultimately has to face the idea of mourning head-on, and the concept that not everything happens for a good reason. This work deals with tragedy in a way that allows readers to go along with Suzy on her journey, offering tweens a safe place to test the idea of mourning a life as well as a friendship and learning to let go of the past.

Francis Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song (Abrams, 2015) centers on the character of Triss, a 12-year-old girl, but this title may appeal to tweens as well as teenagers, due to the violence and intensity of the MG_Hardinge_CuckooSong-RVplot. The story is ostensibly about a girl who wakes up and finds she is no longer herself, and her struggle to uncover an evil supernatural force that threatens to destroy her. But at the core of the tale is a family struggling to put itself back together in the wake of the immense tragedy of war and the loss of a son. The mystery of how the narrator has been transformed into a doll, containing only a fragment of her former self, is a physical embodiment of the dismantling of her identity in response to the tragedy her family has faced. Readers can vicariously experience how supporting one another can help ease the pain of loss and make it possible to live life again.



For a refreshingly non-conformist take on the YA trilogy, turn to Aaron Starmer’s “The Riverman Trilogy” (Farrar). Rather than being purely sequential, each book [The Riverman (2014), The Whisper (2015), and the upcoming trilogy capper, The Storyteller (Apr. 2016)] adds more layers toMG_Starmer_Thewhisper the story through the incorporation of multiple unreliable narrators. The premise is that a fantastical realm known as Aquavania is accessible (via water of some sort) to certain kids. Once there, these kids can create their own worlds by sheer power of imagination. A nefarious entity known as The Riverman stalks the creators, stealing their worlds and creations and causing them to disappear in the real world. It is hard to place these books firmly into one genre; each installment in the series will have readers questioning what is reality and what is fiction. Is Fiona Loomis telling stories to get attention, or as a cry for help? Is there really an Aquavania at all? These questions aren’t concretely answered, but the uncertainty gives readers a chance to feel the moral quandary that Alistair and his sister Keri feel when deciding what to do to try to help their friend.

In Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest, something is seriously wrong with Steve’s new baby brother, and it only compounds the preexisting fears and anxieties that Steve tries to keep secret from his overwrought parents. When in place of his usual MG_Oppel_TheNestterrifying nightmares, Steve is visited by a mysterious wasp-like being that says she can correct what is wrong and help his family be whole again, it seems too good to be true. As the wasp talks about “fixing the problem” by replacing his little brother, to remove the “mistakes,” he realizes that the intense industriousness of the strange creatures is an attempt to force Steve to define people only by their flaws and problems. The dream world begins to seep into reality, but Steve manages to triumph over both the physical and emotional battles. Steve’s voice poignantly reveals the kind of inner anxieties that are applicable to so many tweens, particularly those who struggle with anxiety or mood disorders. This book puts a human voice to the concept of mental as well as physical health issues, and younger readers will appreciate seeing Steve learn to see people as whole, rather than the sum of their less-than-perfect parts.

Whether it is through Suzy’s grappling with the heartbreaking reality of death, Triss’s loss of memory and self, the struggles of the kids of Aquavania to define their roles in an ever-shifting universe, or Steve’s fight to overcome crippling fear, each of these titles, though seemingly dark, underscore the theme that individual realities are subjective. These characters manage to transcend their blurred realities and focus on becoming the people they ultimately want to be, embracing a reality that they can truly control regardless of outside forces.

Tara Kron has an MLIS from the Pratt Institute, she currently resides in Denver and works at the Aurora Public Library.  

Tara Kron About Tara Kron

Tara Kron has an MLIS from the Pratt Institute. She currently resides in Denver, CO, and works at the Aurora Public Library.

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  1. Melissa Henderson says:

    Thanks for this new column. Ideas for good titles for younger kids reading ahead of their grade/age level are always welcome. I’ve read only one of the titles in this month’s column (Jellyfish), so it’s great to have leads on other titles that aren’t as familiar.

  2. Thanks so much for this! Almost all books classified as middle grade fiction end up in our Elementary Library as too young and not complex enough for our middle schoolers. So happy to find this to fill the gap!

  3. Kelly C Metzger says:

    I’m thrilled to see this column. Middle school mixes students at various points of reading ability, maturity, emotional maturity, exposure, etc., that finding the right books is difficult. That’s why ordering takes so long! I look forward to more from this column. Thank you!

  4. Gretchen Broadus says:

    I’m excited about this new column! Also, I’m excited for a few new “dark titles.” I read “The Nest” and LOVED it! I highly recommend it!

  5. Thanks so much for reading!