'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Friday 10 February 2017

Middle Fiction: Treasures for 10 to 14 year olds

Everyone knows that children read above and below their reading age. It makes book shopping for the young a nightmare.

In recent decades, publishers have created children's book categories to guide both their publishing lists and prospective buyers. However fraught this act of pigeon-holing seems, it helps wonderful stories reach those most likely to be captivated by them.

The term Middle Grade Fiction, which refers to children from 8 to 12 years of age, is a no-brainer for the US market because children in Middle School are between these ages. But the Aussie literary landscape is more complicated than that. For a start, there is no middle school. As a result, Aussie children's categories don't quite match those in the US, although there is overlap.

Aussie bookstores often have a dedicated Junior Fiction shelf for 7 to 9-year-olds with a separate Young Adult section for 14 years and above. Nestled between these two is what Kids Book Review calls Middle Fiction for 10 to 14 year olds. In terms of market share, Middle Fiction is a gold mine. Quality books fly off the shelves in the thousands and are so treasured that international literary prizes like the John Newbery Medal, the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction and Australia's Readings Children's Book Prize are dedicated to honouring the best published each year.

What makes Middle Fiction so unique? Prepuberty: that crazy, awkward time where the hormones kick in, the world tilts out of control and high school looms. It's also the age when frontal lobe grey matter grows exponentially. In terms of thought processes, it's the wackiest phase of all when children test the boundaries between truth and lies, reality and fantasy and sometimes get lost in between. The following are features I treasure in Middle Fiction.

It's easy to read. This doesn't mean simple words are used. Challenging and rarely used vocabulary might abound but it's all about story flow. The best Middle Fiction compels the turning of just one more page then another and another. No wonder it's the age of torch-under-the-doona  reading  habits.

The action is fast-paced. Terrible, unimaginable things might happen. Think the Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker series or The Cut Out by Jack Heath. With more twists than a bowl of spaghetti, don't be surprised if you stomach is clenched from beginning to end.

Quirky, believable characters abound. This is what I love most about Middle Fiction. Whether the protagonist is lost without her glasses in Raven's Mountain, a detained refugee in The Bone Sparrow or a team of friends on a mission to save the world in Lian Tanner's The Keepers series, I get to really know how the characters tick. They make me care about them – even the unlikable ones.

More than the unexpected happens. This is the home of the weird, the wacky and the hilarious. Children in this age group are consummate out-of-the-box thinkers so the best middle fiction pushes to the edge of beyond. Take a look at any story by Andy Griffiths or a Timmy Failure story and you'll get the idea.

Despite the fact that almost anything goes in terms of themes, Middle Fiction content has limitations. The hero often faces a gruesome fate if all does not go to plan and characters do die, but graphic violent scenes are rare. Romance might blossom, there could even be a chaste kiss but sex scenes are definitely out and you'll be hard pushed to find a profanity in Middle Fiction.

Are you interested in hearing from those invested in Middle Fiction? Stay tuned for interviews with authors, agents, librarians and more to follow this first KBR Middle Fiction post.