Thursday, February 10, 2022

In with the New, Out with (a lot) of the Old

The world has changed so much since I was a middle grade reader. I was a ten-year-old over thirty-five years ago. (I know, I just dated myself. Don’t do the math.) In that time, gender roles have become much more acceptably fluid, as has gender itself. Books with stereotypical gender ideas now feel dated. Books are also easily dated that have racist content. For this reason, it’s hard for me to pass a lot of books I loved as a kid on to my daughter. 

For example, I began reading Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary to my girl. I adored all things Ramona when I was a kid. But I’d only gotten to page 9, when I came across this line where Beezus complains about Ramona’s taste in books. “Why did she have to like a book about a steam shovel anyway? Girls weren’t supposed to like machinery. Why couldn’t she like something quiet, like Peter Rabbit?” 

I had to pause in my reading to have a discussion with my daughter that girls didn’t have to like quiet things and could like machinery if they pleased. In a lot of ways, the Ramona books hold up, and I wish someone would go through them to edit out this kind of content. And this could probably be said for a lot of older books. 

My favorite ‘old’ book that I think holds up beautifully is Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It’s one of the few books I reread every few years, and a book that sets the standard for me of a perfect middle grade novel. I didn’t actually read this book as a kid. I discovered it when I taught 7th grade, because I inherited a class set with my classroom. When you look at the cover, you can guess why kid me didn’t pick this up. Yikes. 

Despite the cover, The Giver remains a classic for good reason. The utopian novel is rich with thematic themes for classroom discussion, including the value in remembering the past.

Most recently published middle grade novels are well edited for content that might be concerning. I am extremely grateful to my editor Susan Dobinick for picking up my mistakes writing middle grade. In my recent novel Birdie's Billions, I had Birdie’s cousin use the word ‘lame’ as an adjective to describe something. Susan wisely pointed out that this is ablest language unkind to the disabled, so of course, I changed it. 

Thanks to editors like Susan who help today’s published books be the best they can be, so I can read them to my daughter without worrying. And there are so many wonderful new middle grade novels. The wonder bar seems to rise each year. It’s hard to pick just one to recommend. But since you asked, I chose Long Lost by Jacqueline West.

Talk about a gorgeous cover. A story within a story, this mystery features a magical book that Fiona finds in a haunted library. The book tells the story of two sisters, one who went missing. Fiona is a sister herself living in the shadow of her older sibling, an ice skater training for the Olympics. I enjoyed the relationship between the two parallel stories. I loved the setting, the spooky tone, and the exploration of sisterhood.

Edith Cohn is the author of middle grade mysteries: BIRDIE'S BILLIONS (Bloomsbury) and SPIRIT'S KEY (FSG/Macmillan). A former 7th grade English teacher, she loves writing for kids. She was born and raised in North Carolina and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and young daughter.