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  • Jan Flynn

Tiptoeing Into Wonder

My middle-grade literary journey

Of late, my posts have been awfully serious.

And you may have guessed that the majority of them have been doing double duty, appearing as articles in various publications on The world, especially the country I call home, has been too much with me, I’m afraid, relentlessly drawing my attention to the pandemic, our abysmal failure to deal with it proactively or even rationally, the corruption and racism and burgeoning authoritarianism at our highest levels of government . . . all that I call, for short, The Awfulness.

Writing in response to The Awfulness is one thing I can do, a small thing but mine own, like the sparrow in the story who is discovered on his back, feet up, holding up his tiny part of the sky. But it strikes me that readers of this blog may grow weary of my stridence, and besides, I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir.

So if you’re interested in my latest polemic on The Awfulness, I am happy to provide you with a link. I think it’s pretty good, and whether or not that’s true, I have no doubt that the point I make in it is valid and important.

But there’s more to life than righteous outrage.

As I’ve pointed out before, mostly to remind myself, one has to face and acknowledge The Awfulness, but unless you have no other option, there’s little point in marinating in it 24/7. It’s too easy to distort the lens through which you see the world until it looks like it’s nothing but Awful, and that simply isn’t true.

So to keep myself in some semblance of balance as we totter toward November and all that will bring (flu season, election season, a pandemic-impacted holiday season, oh my!), I am embarking on a sojourn into middle-grade fiction, particularly fantasy.

Why middle-grade? And what, exactly, does that even mean? There’s no law about this, no Board of Genre Criteria that I am aware of. But in the publishing world, middle-grade fiction means books aimed at readers of between eight and 12 years of age, while “young adult”, commonly known as YA, is for readers from 12 to 18. That doesn’t mean books in either category hold no appeal for other ages: The Hunger Games, maybe the most famous YA title in English these days, is hugely popular among adults. Same with the Harry Potter series, which is regarded as middle-grade.

Generally speaking — very, broadly, generally speaking — a reader can expect to find a bit less darkness, little or blunted violence, and a lot less sex in middle-grade literature compared to YA. The themes can be just as epic and easily as meaningful: Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, for example, explores the concept of immortality and its possible, inherent problems, while the magic in Katherine Paterson’s A Bridge to Terebithia is grounded by mortality. But for the world-weary soul seeking a worthwhile adventure while escaping for a few hours from The Awfulness, middle-grade fantasy, done well, offers a life-affirming respite.

Middle-grade literature shaped me as a reader

And I know I’m far from alone. When I think of the books that truly transported me, that kindled my sense of wonder and formed the pillars of my imaginative architecture, they’re the works I read in those tween years: Tolkien’s The Hobbit; T.H. White’s The Once and Future King; of course The Lord of the Rings; Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. A bit later on I discovered Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books and rarely came up for air for several months.

Reading aloud to my kids was one of my deepest pleasures as a mom, and books like these and others (the Chronicles of Narnia got both of them most of the way through the fourth grade) were bedtime adventures my young sons and I could enjoy together, even as they spent their days venturing further afield into a land beyond my ken, the wild and rocky territory of boyhood.

Then I stopped reading middle-grade stories

I didn’t mean to, in the same way that Wendy eventually had to tell Peter Pan that she’d somehow grown up. My boys were beyond their bedtime-story years, and I was incessantly busy in the way American adults feel the need to be, and when I read books they were for a purpose. Even the novels I read were mostly because I had to teach them to my English students or they were that month’s selection for whatever book club I belonged to at the time.

And there is the reality that assails all who love to read: so many books, so little time.

Nowadays, I work at a middle school

And sometimes — when there’s not a raging pandemic and we can actually gather together on campus, that is — in the course of my job I find myself in the library. Here it’s always a challenge to keep my focus on my job, which while many-faceted does not include dreamily surfing through tempting volumes. And I keep thinking to myself, there’s so much delicious-looking literature here, especially the kind of fantasy that I once adored; why don’t I read it?

Here we are, with a weird and unpredictable school year lurching toward us even in the midst of our summer COVID surge in California, and The Awfulness is both everywhere and nowhere. That is, it’s certainly out there and as fully operational as George Lucas’s Death Star, but from here it’s invisible and I can’t do a whole lot about it.

I need to reconnect with wonder. I need to access again the function of all fantasy, folklore, and fairytales, which is to give both instruction and hope in the art and practice of meeting life’s tests. Therefore, I am diving into the rich and abundant trove of middle-grade fiction that has arisen without my paying adequate attention. I’m starting my journey with Kelly Barnhill’s luminous, Newbery Award-winning The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and already I’m transported into wonder and danger and humor and magic and deep whole-heartedness.

The world spins on, I deal with it as best I can, and I look forward to tucking my PJ-clad self into bed for storytime. It might just save my sanity. I’ll let you know.

What’s keeping you afloat these days?

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