4/24/17

What makes a middle grade book one grown-ups will like?

I'm currently working a list for the Barnes and Noble kids blog of "recent middle grade books adults will love."  As usual, I thought at first it would be but the work of moments, but then I realized that I really should read all the best MG fiction published so far this year so I could make a really good list.  And then I realized that perhaps I was not quite the best person to make such a list, because of liking middle grade more that adult fiction as a matter of course, and so therefore finding the mind of the "adult fiction reader" a strange and unfamiliar place. 

There are some commonalities, of course.  Good books, whatever the age of the target audience, need to have good writing (I'm a vivid description sort of person myself), good characters (who act believably and make a place for themselves in the emotions of the reader) and interesting happenings (that don't rely on contrivance.  My sister, also a children's book reader, just read one in which an orphan and a pair of seals are dumped outside the same house on the same night by two different people.  She just couldn't believe in this coincidence enough to enjoy the book.  Although if people are going around dumping pairs of seals all over the place, perhaps a house that already had a baby orphan outside it would appeal as a seal dumping ground...). 

But the thing is, middle grade books are in fact not written for adults, and a mg book can have all the things mentioned above in it (except the seals) and still not appeal to grown-ups.  At least I guess that is true, and certainly books that rely on fart jokes aren't ones I'd recommend to an adult.  The middle grade books that don't work for me tend to be ones that have too much Wild Excitement and zip madly from one such excitement to the next.   The ones I love have excitement on a small scale--the girl finds the garden, and sees the plants are growing.  Some weeding ensues.  In any event, if you ever read in my reviews that a book "should appeal lots to its target audience" that means I didn't personally like it.  If I like a book, I say "I liked this book lots and lots" or something equally subtle.  

My doubts about my ability to predict which MG books adults will love are strengthened by the fact that I have been underwhelmed by books that adults have raved about.  The One and Only Ivan, for instance, just made me feel manipulated, though I was of course sorry for Ivan.  I take a little comfort from the fact that the adults who picked this year's Newbery Award winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, picked one I liked lots too.  I would include it on my list, except that it's no longer all that "recent" and it doesn't need an extra boost.

So in any event, here I am, frantically reading book after book with dead or dysfunctional mothers, and lots of mg speculative fiction that is fun but maybe too much "fun" and not grown-up enough? A children's book blogger, when thinking about a book, will have two trains of thought going--"what will kids think of this book" alongside "what do I think of this book"  (sometimes the trains collide).   Adding the third line of thought about "will grown-ups like the book for their own reading pleasure" is not something that comes as easily, because I have been a kid, and I love MG, but I have never been a committed reader of adult fiction (except of course for Dorothy Sayers, Mary Stewart, Jane Austen, and D.E. Stevenson).  Most grown-up fiction leaves me cold, mostly because it takes the books too long to get to the point, and the characters aren't likable, and then endings aren't as nicely resolved.  But I feel no desire to offer a list of children's books with those characteristics.

So getting to my own point--the books I like best aren't the books I'd necessarily recommend to your ordinary grown-up person, and I'm feeling flummoxed.  I have only one realistic one so far that I'm sure I'm going to include--Train I Ride, by Paul Mossier.  Which isn't a book I'd universally recommend to young readers.  It does what it sets out to do with no padding and it's a compelling story, but now I'm wondering if maybe the reason I liked it was the very small subplot elements of the main character finding ways while on board the train to get food which felt a bit like one of those fun survival type stories that I like very much......And I can't put that in the B. and N. post because it will probably just make the grown-ups look at me oddly.

It would be much easier to do such a list post for YA.

Please share suggestions and thoughts!

14 comments:

  1. Two things come to mind. One is stakes. It's very hard for me, at least, to get absorbed in a MG novel that doesn't have life-or-death stakes. I think that winning an awesome prize, or being the coolest kid in the school, are perfectly acceptable stakes for a child reader, but as an adult my attention will drift.

    Another is that there's a kind of humor in some MG that I call silly-billy-willy. Everything is played for laughs-- which is great! Humor is important, and humor that appeals to kids is of course very appropriate to MG. But if the humor is silly enough and persistent enough that no threat can be taken seriously, then I have a hard time taking the protagonist, the villain or the stakes seriously.

    Both of these may just be me, but I put them out there for what they're worth. In order to appeal to an adult (at least if the adult is me) a MG novel must have stakes that include a threat, and humor that doesn't negate the stakes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like your point about stakes! I am especially not interesting in a MG book in the stake being whether the main character's crush will turn into a relationships. I'm not interested in little kids (though at 13 they would bristle at that) thinking they are in love. And I do not like the kind of humor you describe either, and would be suspicious of the adult who did.....

      Delete
    2. I typed a reply to this but blogger ate it.
      A question I find myself asking with many MGs is "Why can't the protagonist just go home?"

      Delete
    3. I find myself asking Protagonist Me that question a lot at about 3 o'clock at work on a spring afternoon.

      Delete
  2. It's funny but I don't like a book for MG that comes off as one that adults should like, or is to heavy handed in its messaging. I also agree with Sage about the stakes and humor being important, I just want a book that we can share enjoyment in reading together. Something we can discuss.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. yeah, I totally agree that Messaging is a big turn off!

      Delete
    2. Yes, Brenda! I was just thinking about that this morning. I think I am more sensitive to books that are heavy-handed in messaging than kids are, because I notice it more. There are authors who I know mean very, very well, but who I can no longer read.

      I agree with you and Sage about stakes, too. As I approach 50 (!), I just can't care all that much about popularity or sibling rivalry or whatever.

      Delete
  3. Ooh. I'm probably not the person to make recommendations either, since Sayers is one of the few adult authors I like as well! Train I Ride was interesting to me as well. One of the big themes in MG lit is striking out on one's own... and since adulting requires that every day, we don't necessarily want to read about it. I think more adults would like survival books, actually. Books about other cultures are interesting for many reasons, so maybe some of those titles. Amina's Voice would be a good one. Have to think about this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Amina's Voice is in my pile....And it is true indeed that being independent is not a new and exciting thing to many of us....

      Delete
  4. OH, dear. I kind of hate when I come up with a title for a thing, and then it... doesn't pan out. This happens to me far too frequently. And, I, too, am the wrong person for this: I read far fewer adult novels, and certainly none of the ones "everyone" is talking about - Girl on the Train? Nope. Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest? Nope, and why was she that dumb? - etc.

    True crossover books - which is what I call YA which adults like - real, true crossovers are pretty rare. I think the narrative arc has to be pretty full of things for readers of both age groups to discover, yet also leave room for humor, intrigue, twists, etc -- Books like Hilary McKay's Exiles or Ursula Vernon's amusing lizard graphic novels work, or there's a touch of historical stuff you can react to as an adult while enjoying the kid's-eye-view of a thing (Rita Williams Garcia's ONE CRAZY SUMMER series or Wendy Mass' EVERY SOUL A STAR - those interstitial spaces in the narrative for the adult or the child to discover things make room for the crossover effect to happen. Those books are rarer than hen's teeth, though, and I haven't read a whole bunch recently published that struck me like that. Be on the look out for Sara Lewis Holmes' MG coming out this autumn, though. She's left the perfect adult/tween space.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! That is helful. I am vexed that R.W.G.'s new one isn't out in time....but I have Armstrong and Charlie on my stack, and maybe it will work. And I was actually thinking of Ursula Vernon's Hamster Princess books--why shouldn't bored restless grownups not get to enjoy those?

      Delete
  5. Interesting dilemma. I agree that the stakes have to be high and that humor is a great help. For humor the Clayton Stone books come to mind. Character is sooooo important. For stakes and character, any of Gary D. Schmidt's books. But I haven't read anything recently that pops to mind. I will be interested to see what you come up with.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is really interesting, Charlotte. Perhaps a panel topic for #KidLitCon?

    ReplyDelete

Free Blog Counter

Button styles