What is the quintessential Middle Grade novel? Is it possible to quantify it somehow, or to even down-select from the thousands of titles out there to a handful of the best representative examples?
To find the best-of-the-best, you only need look so far as the list of past and present Newberry Award Winners and Honor recipients. Still, in looking at the list, you may wonder what Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary has in common with, say, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by John Paul Curtis. I recently re-read them both, as well as Sounder by William H. Armstrong and tried to distill their common essence:
The quintessential MG novel has the power to plant the reader, emotionally, in the time and space of the story. It does this through a single strong main character, typically a child between 8 and 12 years old. This child takes the reader by the hand and walks him through not simply a sense of place, but a reality of place, one with conflict, impact and importance to that child. The role of the supporting characters is to hold up a mirror to the main character, so that he can see something previously unseen about himself. No characters exist in this world unless they have a deliberate purpose for being. The main character’s world has richness and depth, and the world changes. Sometimes it changes in consequence to the main character’s actions in an age-appropriate way, and other times, the world changes because that’s what happens in the real world – whether or not the main character wants the change revealed to him. When events occur that are out of the control of the main character, he still suffers a consequence – but not for long. I would argue that there is a completeness to the MG novel which may not occur in the YA novel; I would argue that in the MG novel, the main character is never left to suffer at the end of a sad story. There is intervention, comfort given, or at very least, a glimmer of hope or trust. Not in the happily-ever-after way of picture books, but in a way that middle grade readers can buy into as a part of growing up and understanding what life is all about. Perhaps that is the unifying theme to the quintessential MG novel: that as the story unfolds, there comes to the main character an awareness of life, and of the part he plays in the world. It is, in essence, the job of the main character to impart this wisdom onto the reader.