Middle Grade fiction for adults

So, Charlotte is certainly a leading expert in MG fiction as far as I’m concerned. Recently she did a post for Barnes and Noble: 8 New Middle Grade Novels Adults Will (Also) Love.

If you read her blog, you already know that she routines qualifies book reviews with lines like: “I think you have to be nine or ten when you read [The Moondial] the first time…” or “I’m not sure [A House Without Mirrors] will work with 9-12 year old readers, who I think prefer more active resolution of problems than this offers. I have a feeling, though, that lots of grown-ups might find it very moving…”

In other word’s she clearly distinguishes between books she loves herself, books that she feels would work better for adults, and books that she believes would work well for young readers.

Here in this post, as stated, she’s picking eight MG titles that she thinks might be a good choice for adults. Checking them out, I see that one is SF, one historical, one contemporary fantasy, two contemporaries, and two fantasies. Plus one I’m having trouble categorizing: (The Goat).

Now, you probably all know that it’s primarily Charlotte who got me reading MG (with some nudges from other bloggers). Plus naturally I tend to reach for fantasy in preference to anything else. But I have to admit, it is not super-clear to me why one MG title works fine for me and others don’t. The best I can do is just list MG titles that worked for me, and note that a good many Middle-Grade fiction just does not, and thus conclude that the MG titles I like might tend to be more adult-pleasing than average.

Here are a handful of MG titles that I definitely enjoyed and still re-read today, in no particular order:

Everything by Diana Wynne Jones

Tui Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series

Merrie Haskell’s Princess Curse and Castle Behind Thorns

Sage Blackwood’s Jinx trilogy

The earlier Harry Potter books, which were clearly MG

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede

Holes by Louis Sachar

Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman, which is an historical

In order for a MG title to appeal to me, the actual writing must be good — but that’s the case with lots of popular MG titles that don’t actually work for me at all.

For me, the protagonist(s) have to be intelligent, competent, and not too ridiculously impulsive. In The Lightning Thief, all the characters seemed so blindingly stupid, for example. When I read it, I was all, “So … you’re the daughter of Athena, goddess of wisdom? Really?”

Also, the worldbuilding has to be plausible, or feel plausible. When I read Maximum Ride by Patterson . . . is that MG or YA? . . . anyway, I couldn’t believe how many superpowers Patterson handed his main character. I kept hitting yet another superpower: “So you can also breath underwater? How nice for you!” Also, the bad guys magically showed up over and over when there was just no possible way, just the need for a fight scene so there they are.

I think an author can make practically anything seem believable, btw. I know it’s very much individual taste, the things any reader trips over, and for me Patterson didn’t pull it off.

I’ll end by adding, I always open a book hoping to love it, not looking for reasons to put it down. Here are a few MG titles that I’m looking forward to trying in the near(ish) future:

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon — I have loved everything I’ve read by her so far, but it’s all been her adult work

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

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14 thoughts on “Middle Grade fiction for adults”

  1. Top of my head middle grade recommendations (none of them new books):

    Chasing Vermeer/The Wright 3/The Calder Game by Blue Balliett

    Theodosia books by R.L. LaFevers

    The Circle of Magic books by Tamora Pierce

    Ranger’s Apprentice and Brotherband Chronicles books by John Flanagan

    Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

  2. The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex is one of my absolute favorites. That’s one that I have trouble passing up whenever I see it in a library sale bin or something.

    Other ones that spring to mind:
    Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander
    The Westing Game
    Bone by Jeff Smith (graphic novels)

  3. We’ve read Castle Hangnail (the Teen and I) and both prefer it to the adult novels we’ve tried, all of which are pleasant enough to read once, but only hit the ‘ok’ mark. Somehow they lack that special something. I know in Bryony we were both yelling at the narrator to figure it out already. Even though I can intellectualize why she wasn’t figuring it out – she’s a gardener, plants are plants, not magic – it still made the read less enjoyable.

    Except for Digger . that’s excellent all around.

    Did you notice Vernon has a post at Tor.com about writing fairy tale retellings?

  4. Castle Hangnail is great. Though I stayed up entirely too late reading it. Also her Harriet the Invicible books.

    I also recommend

    The Cloak Society by Jeramey Kraatz and its two sequels.

    Shelby Bach’s Ever After with its four books starting with Of Giants and Ice.

    Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

    Frogkisser! by Garth Nix

    The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman

    A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz

  5. Thanks for all your recommendations and comments! Everyone certainly seems to vote for Castle Hangnail. Elaine, have you and the Teen tried Nine Goblins? I got such a kick out of the veterinarian …

    Also, thanks for the link to the post; I’d missed that one.

  6. Frogkisser is great, I agree. As always, I have to plug Arthur Ransome ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series as classic, and my favorite as a child.

  7. I wanted to like Maximum Ride so badly if only because the characters had wings and WEREN’T angels . . . but I burned out for good when he had second graders with homemade Moltov cocktails and rocks going against international criminals who mysteriously didn’t have guns and won’t hurt children. The stupid, it burns . . . (Thankfully, I found Martha Wells and the Raksura did everything right. But if anyone knows anything else in that vein I’d love a rec!)

    Some of my favorites:
    – Sarah Prineas’s The Magic Thief. I also liked her Winterling trilogy but Magic Thief was better.
    – Philip Reeve’s Larklight trilogy (think sci-fi British penny dreadfuls . . . alternate-history and alternate-science).
    – Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of Lost Cities, which goes in so many unexpected directions.
    – Same with Henry H. Neff’s Tapestry series. The Hound of Rowan is definitely more of a MG book, but the series grows up, and I could not BELIEVE the end of book two.
    – Lian Tanner’s Museum of Thieves is also MG, and is the only series I’ve read featuring a female berserker.
    – Magyk by Angie Sage, although this is a series I liked a whole lot at first and gradually lost steam as the family dynamics started to get less healthy. But the first book is still a lot of fun.
    – Evil Genius, by Catherine Jinks. The only book I have read that NAILS a genius-level protagonist. And it’s so very funny.

  8. I heartily second the recommendation for Sarah Prineas’s Magic Thief series – it has interesting rules for its magic and the POV character has tremendously fun voice.

    And yes to Catherine Jinks. How to Catch a Bogle was a delight. Imagine a Victorian England where boogeymen are real and children are used a bait to trap and dispose of them. But the conflict is that in most cases the children WANT the job because other than the intermittent danger, being a bogler’s kid is a good way to make a living in a stratified society.

  9. @Megan, I have to add that I had the same reaction to Magyk you did. And you’ve made me want to check out Larklight!

  10. Oh, yeah, I forgot Sarah Prineas’ Magic Thief series! I liked that quite a bit.

    Now I also want to look up How to Catch a Bogle and Evil Genius.

  11. Oh, I forgot about When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Really nice story that incorporates its sff elements in a way that approaches magical realism.

  12. I second the vote for True Meaning of Smekday, which is hilariously funny and (as my daughter would say) on-point.

    And I third (fourth? fifth?) the vote for Castle Hangnail. I just read her latest adult story, Summer in Orcus, and loved it, too.

    Amazon recently recommended Frogkisser to me; I hadn’t known Nix had a new book out, and this one looks quite funny (I wouldn’t have pegged him as a humorous writer, but I’m willing to give it a try).

  13. I’ve picked up Smekday, along with several others you all recommended…looks like a lot of MG in my future!

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