Mad For Middle Grade: It’s All About Character!

Inspired by the Lucky 13’s “Meanwhile… Middle Grade” series, we the MG authors of 2014 have banded together to create an unstoppable league of superheroes… or… erm… we decided to create a similar series. Welcome to MAD FOR MIDDLE GRADE!  We’ll be here the first Monday of every month! Stay tuned as we discuss the process of middle grade writing, chat about our favorite middle grade books, introduce our own middle grade titles, interview middle grade professionals, and generally obsess over everything middle grade! And if there’s any middle grade topic you’re interested in, we’d love to hear it in the comments!

We’re kicking off MAD FOR MIDDLE GRADE by going old school… back to our middle grade years!

Question: Who is your favorite Middle Grade character, and why?

Rebecca Behrens
WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE
SourcebooksWesting Game
My fifth-grade class read The Westing Game over the course of a few dreary winter weeks. Mrs. Gerlach would have us read a chapter a day, and in pairs and small groups we’d discuss the topsy-turvy plot, collect clues, and try to solve the mystery ourselves, before any of the characters. And what characters they were—all so distinct and real and interesting. But Tabitha Ruth “Alice” “Turtle” Wexler definitely was the best. I wanted to be her: determined, whip-smart, and unafraid to kick people in the shins if they really deserved it (or touched her precious braid). Turtle’s character has real depth, too—her difficult relationships with her mother and sister and her insecurities about her looks make her sympathetic and relatable. Even if I couldn’t solve the Westing mystery, I always knew that Turtle would. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I love writing about daring girls now—there’s a hint of Turtle in many of the protagonists I write. Twenty years later, she’s still my fave.

Tara Dairman
ALL FOUR STARS
Putnam/PenguinMatilda2
Roald Dahl’s Matilda has to be my favorite middle-grade character of all time. A girl who 1) adores books and 2) uses her prodigious smarts to get her own back at the adults who abuse her and her friends–what’s not to love? As a kid, the humor was probably my favorite aspect of the book, but looking back now, I also appreciate that the parents never reform and that Matilda never learns to accept their authority over her. It’s the rare MG book that acknowledges that parents, principals, and other powerful figures in kids’ lives aren’t necessarily forces of good and may not deserve to be obeyed.

Ryan Gebhart
THERE WILL BE BEARS
Candlewick Press11387515
To be perfectly honest, when I was a little middle grader myself, I wasn’t reading much in the way of MG novels—I’d gone straight from Go Dog Go to Stephen King and Michael Crichton. Okay yeah, so there was a little more of a transition period, but I dramatize for effect. I didn’t start reading MG novels until I reached my late twenties (a better time than never, in my opinion) and the one that most captivated me was Wonder by R.J. Palacio. The main character August was really just an ordinary kid with an extraordinary physical appearance. He had the same insecurities and wants and fears as any other kid his age, but was up against an impossible challenge—surviving middle school (the most judgmental of all places) with a facial deformity. A lot of kids would have folded under the intense barrage of humiliation and stares, but August persisted. And the way he overcame these obstacles—by just being himself, by finding genuine friends—was a really touching and universal message.

Beth Hautala
WAITING FOR UNICORNS
Philomel/Penguin
My life was forever changed that fateful afternoon I stumbled through the wardrobe door with Lucy into Narnia. Being a rather imaginative child, like Lucy, my grandiose tales of adventure were rarely believed by those around me, and so I identified with her. But more than that, I wanted desperately to be her. In The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, the real world and Narnia were both fraught with danger, and yet Lucy remained resolute. She believed in the Beautiful. The Good. Hers was the first story that introduced me to this idea—the idea that bravery is not the absence of fear, but rather the choice to believe in beautiful things though circumstances dictate otherwise. Now, rereading Lucy’s story as an adult, I love her even more—brave, faithful, determined, ever-full of hope: a child of light. And as a result, my daughter now bears her name.

Tracy Holczer
THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY
Putnam/Penguingillyhopkins
One of my favorite kid’s book characters is Gilly from Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins. She is a lean, mean, fighting machine, but deep down, just wants to be loved (don’t we all?). She fights valiantly to protect herself from the unpredictability of life by hardening her heart against it. Watching her find out, in dribs and lovely drabs, that there’s a different way to live, has stayed with me. She comes to understand that courage isn’t about not being afraid, it’s about doing it anyway, and that a hardened heart doesn’t just keep out the hurt, but the people who might love you through it. It’s also one of those stories that I love because even though the ending isn’t necessarily happy, it is inevitable. Gilly handled her ending with grace and dignity and I have never forgotten her.

Lauren Magaziner
THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN WITCHES
Dial/Penguinimgharry potter and the prisoner of azkaban2
I hope you’re pleased with yourselves. We could all have been killed—or worse, expelled. If you don’t know whom I’m talking about yet, then SHAME ON YOU. These are the most famous words from middle grade’s most famous know-it-all: Hermione Granger. I was part of the generation that grew up with Hermione—from the time I picked up the Harry Potter books when I was seven (she was eleven) all the way to the time her journey ended when I was 17 (she was seventeen too). Growing up with Hermione was truly something special because Hermione made it cool to be a bookish, bossy smarty-pants. Because of her, I always felt comfortable shooting my hand in the air and eagerly jumping out of my seat whenever I knew the answer to a question (I may have been a bit insufferable in school. Oops.). I’ve never read a character more like me, and yes, true to form, I’ve always thought that being expelled was totally the WORST THING THAT COULD POSSIBLY HAPPEN EVER.

Michelle Schusterman
I HEART BAND
Grosset & Dunlap/Penguin9780440416791_custom-6fab7ad5758e13ecb01abb4c3c920e0ac9f83db3-s6-c10
I first read Harriet the Spy in fourth grade, immediately fell in love with Harriet, and began carrying around a black-and-white composition notebook everywhere I went to record my own observations (and yes, I still have that notebook!). I should probably mention that I lived in New Orleans and I read the book in February, so my decision to become a spy like Harriet coincided with Mardi Gras. And let me just say that a kid who decides to go all cloak-and-dagger at Mardi Gras sees some pretty wild stuff! That little notebook was filled with all sorts of blackmail material. Erm…I mean, story ideas.

And what about you? Who’s your favorite middle grade character?  Leave us a comment!  And remember: be sure to mention any MG topics you want us to cover or MG questions you want us to answer!

Thanks again for joining us! We’ll be back on May 6th! Catch you on the flip side!

Lauren Magaziner is a 4th grader at heart, watches entirely too much TV, and loves to steal people’s toes to make Toecorn, which tastes like very chewy, meaty popcorn. Only one of those things is true. (Okay… you caught me. They’re all true.) Her currently titleless MG debut—about a boy who secretly becomes a witchling’s apprentice in a town full of dangerous witches who love Toecorn—is forthcoming from Dial/Penguin in Summer 2014.
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14 thoughts on “Mad For Middle Grade: It’s All About Character!

  1. heck yes to everyone one of these characters. my favorites are ella of frell and salamanca tree hiddle. although…i’m halfway into reading SHUG for the first time, and i already think annemarie wilcox may be a favorite 🙂

  2. HARRY POTTER, THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, and MATILDA are some of my absolute favorite middle grade books, specifically because of their awesome characters. Great choices!

  3. This is an awesome round-up, guys! When I was in 4th grade, my role models were pretty much Harriet M. Welsch and Anastasia Krupnik. Actually, they still are.

  4. Oh, I love this post. I love these characters! As for my own hero, I know Meg Murray is technically a YA character in a YA book but I read “A Wrinkle In Time” for the first time in elementary school and over and over repeatedly through my middle school years and beyond… Her fierceness in the face of other people’s teasing was a shield I stood behind; her courage and love were astonishing to me. I wished I could be her. I wanted to live in that book. To this day, it is THE book that changed my life.

  5. How fun! Michelle, I too have my old black and white comp notebook from the summer I read Harriet and then became a spy. Unfortunately, living in a suburb full of mostly elderly people wasn’t nearly as exciting as Mardi Gras!

  6. Wonderful post, OneFour KidLit MG writers! It’s great to see all of you. Personally, I loved Claudia Kincaid of FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER. She’s so brave and daring–and I so wanted to spend the night in a museum like her!

  7. This is wonderful. Gilly and Harriet! Those girls have been carrying my heart around for years. How exciting is it that a whole new crop of MG writers will be adding to their legacy? Rock on, yall.

  8. I’m a huge fan of Opal Buloni from Because of Winn-Dixie and Ida B from Ida B – Love those voice laden girls!

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