I used to say I didn’t really read Middle Grade, until the exceptions kind of piled up and I had to start trying to sort out what kind of Middle Grade it is that I do read, an ongoing project.
Like, Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci books. Those are MG, right? Now, is The Power of Three MG, or is it Young Adult? How about Dogsbody? How can you tell?
I very much enjoy Merrie Haskell’s stories, which are MG. I happen to know that she wrote the first (The Princess Curse) as YA, but the manuscript sold as MG and she revised it to suit her MG editor’s expectations. And the Magic Thief series by Sarah Prineas (btw, did you know there was going to be a fourth in the series?), those are MG as well. Aside from getting cool little drawings in her books, an occasional perk of MG, what makes them MG rather than YA?
Agent Kristen Nelson says that to her, in a Young Adult story, by the end of the story, the protagonist(s) have taken inextricable steps out of childhood and toward adulthood – that they can’t go back to a child’s life. In Middle Grade, the protagonist(s) are still fundamentally children at the end of the story. I’m not sure that’s uniformly true, but okay, at least it’s a start.
Someone else (sorry, don’t remember who) posited that the protagonists of a YA story are fundamentally self-absorbed, that the internal emotional life of the protagonist trumps any wider plot events. This is the idea that conflates YA with stories that feature a central angsty teen romance. In contrast, MG stories are supposed to have more of a save-the-world plot and a lot less angst.
I don’t know, by the way. I’m just throwing these ideas out there.
As you probably know, my tolerance for angst, especially agonized does-he-love-me angst, is relatively low; unless it’s done extremely well, I greatly prefer a plot that pulls the protagonist out of him- or herself, not one that curls inward. So you’d think I’d prefer MG. But actually I seem to only like MG that is at the high end of that age range, the kind that intergrades into YA. Certain kinds of implausible worldbuilding; too many moments where the author substitutes handwaving for a real grasp of science, history, or realistic motivations; protagonists who are just plain silly and get themselves into embarrassing situations because of it — those things are all major turnoffs for me. I could name examples — should I? — because those aspects of some MG books aren’t necessarily defects. There is a legitimate place for stories written at the low end of MG, where none of that is going to bother the intended audience. I am just not in that audience.
It’s actually just like animated films. You know how “Up” is the kind of movie that adults as well as kids can enjoy, all that clever subtext that the tots are going to miss? “Up” and “Wall E” and “The Incredibles,” right? Compare those movies to the Disney version of “Sleeping Beauty” – there’s just not much there in the latter. Little kids are going to enjoy “Sleeping Beauty,” but adults sans kids are only going to line up to see “The Incredibles.”
Okay, now, with all that buildup, let me say that JINX and JINX’S MAGIC are, like Diana Wynne Jones, the kind of MG that anybody can enjoy.
For the same reasons, too: the characterization, worldbuilding and actual writing are all top-notch, and as icing on the cake, there’s a good bit of biting commentary on what I hesitate to call the human condition because doesn’t that sound stuffy, but still.
“What it [the Urwald, the enchanted forest] isn’t, good Jinx, is a nation. And that means it’s waiting to be taken over by anyone clever enough to try.”
That really caught me, because it’s quite clear from real history that one of the first and most important roles of a nation as it gets established is to defend its own people against conquest or slave raids by outsiders. I didn’t expect to see a line like that in a MG fantasy.
And let me just add that Reven is one creepy guy and I was personally rooting for the nixies, but we’ll see how that plotline works out, I guess.
Jinx himself is a great character with unique strengths and definite weaknesses – he’s interesting as well as sympathetic. I really enjoyed not only the way he can see people’s feelings, but also the way that this ability interfered at first with him learning to judge people’s intentions the way the rest of us do – by reading subtle body language and stuff. That was really clever.
The writing is clever, too, on so many levels.
So this was the Bonemaster! The wizard of horrible tales and bottle-shaped fears. He looked almost kindly. The things boiling in clouds around his head said he wasn’t, though. The pink clouds had knives in them. Jinx had never seen anyone whose feelings came out in cutlery before.
And later —
“But the Bonemaster’s evil,” [said Elfwyn.]
“I know that,” said Jinx. “But he can tell me what Simon’s done to me. I mean, he’d know if anybody would, right? He’s the expert.”
“But the Bonemaster sucks people’s souls out with a straw.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“He sucks the marrow from people’s bones and stacks them up crisscross.”
“He pries people’s eyeballs out and strings them to make necklaces.”
The Bonemaster really is evil. He actually does suck out people’s souls and stack up their bones crisscross, as you might guess since we already know he has thoughts like cutlery.
But is Simon actually an evil wizard, too? I mean, Simon is the wizard who saves Jinx from being abandoned in the forest and eaten by trolls . . . but *is* Simon evil? I love Simon; he’s my favorite character. He may or may not be evil, but he’s certainly brusque and irascible and self-absorbed. Also kind at unexpected moments, and the bit after Jinx falls off the cliff, well.
And I love Simon for the way he nails down uncomfortable truths: “Well, if you never in your life find yourself making excuses for things you know are wrong, wonderful.” And again, later, “What, you’d rather be admired than useful? Plenty of people are neither.”
There, you see what I mean about capturing truths about the human condition? Simon is cynical enough to deliver lines like that. Oh, yeah, I’m a big fan of Simon. Even though he may be a little bit evil. You know, I just realized, if Simon is evil, it’s something he knows about himself; if Reven is evil, it’s because he is totally oblivious to everything and everyone that doesn’t line up with his own personal ambition — Reven is totally the hero of his own tale because he’s never been wrong about anything in his life. I really dislike Reven, if you can’t tell.
You can see how interesting and complex the secondary characters are. Readers could debate for ages about the nature of evil after reading these books. Or the role of knowledge in a society — I haven’t even mentioned the world of Samara. I’m starting to think these books should be assigned in school; there are great jostling hordes of discussion topics embedded in the stories.
Did I mention everyone in this story seems to be suffering from a permanent curse of one kind or another? (I’m exaggerating … I think.) It’s obvious to the reader what Elfwyn’s curse is; hers is my favorite: she has to answer any question she’s asked, and she has to answer it truthfully. This could be played broadly, but in fact it’s handled with unusual subtlety. I just love how Elfwyn takes control of her curse and uses it to her own advantage. You probably know how much I like a character who is coolly practical. So it’s no surprise that I love Elfwyn, who is all, “Well, I have to get him used to taking a hot posset at bedtime in case I decide to poison him.” Hah!
I don’t want to belabor this because it would take forever to go through them all, but there’re a lot of important secondary characters in these books and they’re pretty much all well-drawn and complex and a real pleasure to encounter.
There are also an increasing number of loose threads as we go through the second book – the werewolf Malthus (entertaining name for a werewolf). Those spooky elves and whatever they’re up to. Reven’s plans are just really alarming. The Preceptress; is she really going to simply accept that Jinx shut the Urwald away from Samara? And MOST OF ALL, that thing with Simon. To me, that part reads as a cliffhanger – a rather slow-motion cliffhanger, granted.
My personal suggestion is, read the first book now to decide whether you’re going to like the stories (I bet you will). Then pick up the second book and set it aside until the third comes out, or else you will be fretting over that third book.
Do remember – I don’t want to harp on this – but please keep in mind that an intention to buy the second book later, once the third comes out, is perceived by the publisher as a straight-up failure to buy the second book. That drop off in sales kills series. It really is best, if you like the first book of a series, to make that clear to the publisher by picking up the second as soon as it comes out.