I recently started a discussion in a writing group about children’s books (middle-grade, specifically). It was really interesting. The basic gist of the poll I put forward was:
Most people said that for MG, avoid dark, and take the more familiar option. I thought this was interesting.
Middle Grade books are typically for the age of middle school students, and since we don’t have middle school in Australia, I’m not sure what the exact age demographic is. I think it’s (broadly) ages 10 to 14.
It struck me as interesting that in Young Adult (aimed at ages: 14 to 18), people usually love dark, creepy, and thought-provoking. I’m not so much into creepy myself, because I get freaked out. I adore thought-provoking, though. But it seems the thought is that kids’ books shouldn’t have any of that. I thought it weird.
Why shouldn’t kids have books that really make them think and ponder? Why do people assume they shouldn’t?
I thought for a bit about my favourite books when I was 10 to 14. And I thought about what I liked about them. And I thought about famous ones. I pondered and wondered how they stacked up against these ideas.
Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan was a set I loved. I could almost read a whole one in a day, and they’re not skinny books. They were exciting and adventurous, and on the heavy-content level, definitely not violence-free. But they weren’t at all thought-provoking. Will never thought twice about all the people he was shooting or the morals of spying on half the kingdom. At the time it didn’t matter to me. (What kid wants to read a moralistic adventure story?) But now I’m older, I feel like Will exhibited some symptoms of psychopathy.
Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins is a book I read this year (so not really while I was the target demographic, but anyway). And I noticed how when creatures (talking ones) died because of Gregor, he felt awful! And it didn’t detract from the book. He just had realistic guilt repercussions which didn’t weigh him down for the full book, but he did acknowledge the emotional side of things. I really appreciated that. (Also, yes, people-like things died in a kids’ book. It’s by Suzanne Collins. What do you expect?)
What about The Hobbit? It was written for kids. Not teens. Not adults. Kids. And I wouldn’t say it’s dark… and definitely not creepy… and not the most thought-provoking…. But J.R.R. Tolkien obviously wasn’t above killing his darlings. (No spoilers, though, not with the movies coming out.) But it’s the prose more than anything. Like most classic-y books, such as Seven Little Australians or Peter Pan, they’re not written to patronize the kid. The writing style is tricky and sometimes distracting, but that doesn’t make them un-age appropriate.
And that brings me to my favouritest book of my age 11 to 14 years. I read this series about once a year. A Series of Unfortunate Events! Can I just say rather dark, very creepy, and wholly thought-provoking? I learned most of my random facts from those books, also most of my big words. I learned a whole new side to humour and why it’s important to be well-read. And Lemony Snicket never once assumed that his books were above the intelligence of even the child who was born yesterday (which he greeted, in book 12).
Whether it be too heavy, too sad, too difficult, to scary… pfft. It’s not like kids are never confused, or sad, or scared. It’s nothing new. I think this applies to a lot of situations in life, too, not just books.
My motto for writing is, “Always assume my reader is smart. Assume they’re precocious.” There is nothing worse than being dumbed down.