Classic Fantasy for Middle Grades
**If you would like to skip my lengthy introduction, you can scroll to the applicable links to the author websites I have included further down the page.**
The first “real” book – that is, beyond Little Golden Books, where the volume of pictures were reduced to maybe one per chapter, and the pages numbered more than twenty – that I ever read was Trixie Belden: Mystery on the Mississippi. It was a gift from my mother, Margaret L. Noble, and I received it when I was around eight or nine years old. On the inside cover, in cursive writing, she had written:
I hadn’t yet mastered the art (soon to become a lost art) of cursive writing, and I had to ask her what the little phrase in blue ink spelled out. Throughout the years, and after the many books, articles, poems, and all other types of writing that I have consumed, as well as all of the pieces I have written, bad and good, I have come away with an understanding of the meaning of this quote.
This first book was the key to the most valuable gift my mother could have given me: literacy. This gift made up for all else that my childhood lacked. It provided a pathway through my childhood. Reading was my escape from my lonely and rough childhood, and writing was an outlet for my anger, sadness, and small triumphs. Without the escape and the outlet, I do not know where I would be, today.
I feel that it is imperative that children be offered this gift. The inspiration of a good fantasy story where the underdog girl or boy discovers he or she has special powers to rise above traumatic circumstances and come out on top can be valuable to the growth of any child.
The character’s journey in learning how to apply that power to his life becomes a journey that is shared with the reader. The lesson in persevering and making good decisions can become a valuable life tool. Through these stories, middle graders can identify with the characters' traits and can learn new ideas and problem-solving techniques to which he can apply to real situations in his own life. This can help to empower a child who feels powerless.
As a child, I read the entire collection of Judy Blume books. I read all of the Trixie Belden books, all of the Nancy Drew collection. But I was looking for something extra. Something magical, fantastic. Something that would elevate my imagination to another level.
The following authors offered me this magic. Their written works are suitable for both girls and boys. Not only are these books great fun to read, but they touched me on a much deeper soul-level. I consider them timeless classics.
Joan Aiken is described in Wikipedia as “. . . an English writer specialising in supernatural fiction and children's alternative history novels. In 1999 she was awarded an MBE for her services to children's literature.”
She was the author of many of my very favorites, such as books from The Wolves Chronicles: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, and Nightbirds on Nantucket, just to name three of this twelve book series. The particular books that I’ve listed fall into a combination of fantasy and “children’s alternative history novels”. (Incidentally, in reviewing Joan Aiken’s website, I felt the hunger to re-read this series, as I read them so long ago that I would like a refresher). Another book that I feel deserves mention that is not part of this series is Midnight is a Place, which is featured as a Young Adult offering rather than middle-grade, but it is appropriate for both.
These books address many issues that are still relevant, today: poverty, abuse and neglect, child homelessness, and slavery. They feature a colorful palette of boys and girls who come head-to-head with these situations in themes such as riches to rags, rags to riches, and riches to rags and back again. Joan Aiken had the ability to gracefully address the loss of childhood innocence through these situations, and to also emphasize the children’s strength, fortitude, empathy, compassion, and creativity in pushing through the darkness to come into a better place.
The website is one of the most fun that I've ever seen. It is attractive and full of interesting stuff for kids AND adults to explore. Yes, Joan Aiken wrote some moody mystery/thrillers as well as some period books for adults. And don't forget the supernatural short stories!
Joan Aiken passed away in 2004, but has left a rich legacy for anyone seeking good fiction reading.
Susan Cooper’s page in Wikipedia begins with the following:
“Susan Mary Cooper (born 23 May 1935) is an English-born American author of children's books. She is best known for The Dark Is Rising, a contemporary fantasy series set in England and Wales, which incorporates British mythology, such as the Arthurian legends, and Welsh folk heroes.”
The Dark is Rising series pulled me in from the first page. I eagerly sprinted through every book I had access to, and impatiently waited for the final book, Silver on the Tree, to be returned to the library so that I could burn through it, as well. As I recall, I read The Grey King first, which is actually Book 4. Then I hurried to go back to the beginning of the series and read the rest of the books.
This series features Will Stanton, who, on
his 11th birthday, discovers that he is the youngest and last in the line of a race called “the Old Ones”, who are endowed with “Light magic” and whose lineage stretches back to at least King Arthur’s age; and a set of siblings, Simon, Barney, and Jane, who are faced with the evil mystery of “Dark magic”.
The paths of the characters begin independently – Will’s, and the Drew family – and then converge toward the middle of the series. They find that they share a common goal: they must defeat the Dark and save the world from the cruelty and horrors of an evil rule.
Susan Cooper’s writing in this series is very moody, atmospheric, and descriptive, with a kind of attractive gloom. There are creepy, scary characters and incidents, and the suspense will leave the reader hungry to discover what the adventure holds, next.
While there are many awesome children’s authors out there, I remember Joan Aiken and Susan Cooper specifically for their abilities to ignite my imagination with possibilities and to weave mesmerizing tales with a seamless blend of both magic and reality. This is the kind of writer that I aspire to be, for young adult/middle grades, as well as adults.
If you have a middle grade reader in your family or circle of friends who enjoys this kind of writing, make a gift of a set of these books.
**Shout-out to Mr. Daly, one of my fifth-grade teachers in Lake George Elementary School. I don’t even know if he is still living, but I attribute my widened world of reading to him. He is the teacher who sat us kids down and read us these books out loud. He introduced me to both Joan Aiken and Susan Cooper. Next to my mother, he was the most influential to the continuation of my lifelong literacy.