Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In Defense of Middle Grade

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I used to want to be a teacher.

It made sense. I’d spent years working with kids, first at a summer camp outside of Orillia and later as volunteer mentor of a group program run by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto.

And the age I wanted to teach, I told anyone who came asking about my career aspirations, was middle school.

Those years, I would say, are amazing. Those kids are old enough to have some idea about who they ultimately want to be, but young enough that their shell of teenage cynicism hadsn’t hardened completely and they can still, on occasion, get very, very silly.

Ugh, the person I was talking to would invariably say with a shudder, I hated middle school. Those were the worst years of my life!

Right, there was also that.

Amidst all the growing and feeling and figuring out that happens in middle school, a lot of people have a hard time.

I mean, seriously, a lot.

It was comforting, when I started high school, to find that thing all my news friends had in common was that we’d had a hard time getting through grade eight. We felt weary and wise in a way that only fourteen year-olds can. Those middle-schools years? We were lucky just to make it out alive.

And we weren't wrong. In my former life as a camp counsellor, I failed to intervene as one of my campers was bullied to the breaking point, lashing out violently at her tormentor during an overnight camping trip that I can pretty honestly say was one of the worst nights of my life. This kind of bullying was extreme, but in no way uncommon.

Working with the in-school group program through Big Brothers Big Sisters, I saw girls who felt beaten down and stretched beyond what they felt they could cope with. But still, they kept showing up for school. Because, well, there was no other way around it. It was difficult to provide comfort at those times, but we did what we could.

So the reasons that I wanted to be a teacher, are the very same reasons that I write. And while I got my start writing young-adult fiction — and am excited to return to it with my next book, Under the Dusty Moon, due out in January 2016 — writing middle-grade fiction feels, in many ways, more important.

While adult readers are now, and maybe have always been, a major component of young-adult fiction’s readership, middle grade doesn’t have that same cool factor. It requires a lot more explanation at parties.

But the very fact that middle-grade fiction isn’t experiencing the same wave of attention as young adult is part of what makes it so crucial. Middle-grade readers are kids. And they’re kids who are still figuring it out, often while contending with changing friend groups and family dynamics that can make it feel like they’re not going to make it out of grade eight alive.

I want to write for those kids. If for no other reason than to prove to them that getting through the mess of those years isn’t impossible. And that there’s great stuff on the other side.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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