The student who asked the question was pretty observant—I do like writing about the fourth grade. In fact, three of the five middle-grade novels I’ve written so far star fourth-grade protagonists. But I’d never really thought about why.
“Why is fourth grade so important, Miss Graff?”
Fourth grade was a big year for me. It was the year I got my first big crush (on floppy-haired Josh B., who made me swoon when he picked me as his social studies partner). It was the year of my first traumatic friend break-up (with Jenn H., who had the best Barbie collection). And it was the year I made what would turn out to be one of my strongest lifelong friendships (with Leah S., who made up for not having a Barbie collection by owning a stunning number of trolls). It was the year that both of my parents got re-married (double the flower girl dresses!), and the year I gained three stepsiblings, a dog, and a new home. It was the year I got my tonsils removed, the year I barfed pink-frosted cake at my ice-skating birthday party, and the year I discovered The Baby-Sitters Club (talk about lifelong friends). It was also the year my older brother, Ryan, almost died of a kidney disorder and I responded by developing a severe case of hypochondria—an incident which served as the inspiration for my third novel, Umbrella Summer.
And all of these things, I’m sure, inspired me to become a writer, and to write about the fourth grade in particular. But perhaps the most important thing that happened to me in fourth grade was that I discovered a book.
My class was in the library one day, and I was scanning the shelves, deciding which book I wanted to check out, when I saw it—a beat-up old book (brown, no dust jacket) by some guy I’d never heard of named Jules Verne. I flipped to the front. No one had checked the book out for seven years.
I was intrigued.
From the moment I began reading Around the World in Eighty Days, there was no turning back. The book was amazing. It had action, adventure, humor, and surprise. I couldn’t put it down, not for meals, not for bedtime, not for anything. I built a fort in my room, with a red blanket stapled to the wall and pillows all over the floor, specifically for reading it. The fort was the only place I would read the book, and no one was allowed in there unless they read it with me. The day I finished reading the book, I tore the fort down.
Looking back, it’s funny to me that such a book would be the one that turned me into a real reader. Around the World in Eighty Days was a far cry from the books I typically enjoyed at that age, and it’s not something I would ever suggest to a nine-year-old now. But I think what I enjoyed about it was that it was a book I had discovered all by myself. As far as I was concerned, the book had been written specifically for me. Reading it, I could imagine that somehow, some old dead guy named Jules Verne knew exactly the book I would want to read in a fort one day. And that was why he wrote it.
So I that’s why I write middle-grade, and for fourth graders specifically—because that was the year I fell in love with books. And because I hope that one day, even if it’s when I’m long dead and buried, I can make just one kid feel as special as I did the day that I discovered Jules Verne. And if that kid builds a fort to read my book, so much the better.
Now it’s my turn to ask you guys: What’s the book that made you fall in love with reading?