What, exactly, is the ever-elusive “middle-grade” novel?
Oh sure, that seems like an easy question, doesn’t it? It’s a novel written for middle-school audiences. But middle-school isn’t even the same everywhere. In my community, middle-school is seventh and eighth grade only. This is a great example of the larger question: where does “middle grade” fiction begin anyhow? Where’s the bright-line?
Is it a book where the main characters are 12? If they’re 13 is it automatically a young adult book? Is it a book where the main characters are in middle school? If they are still in fifth grade is automatically children’s fiction?
This, of course, ends us back up at the most basic question, the one that’s really at the heart of it all. Why are we using “middle grade” anyhow? Isn’t it basically either a young adult novel or children’s fiction?
Yes, these are the questions we librarians and teachers struggle with all the time, as we attempt to hold on to our readers crossing out of children’s fiction but not quite ready for the young adult world.
“We have something for you,” we want to shout to them as they drift away, “don’t go! We have a whole genre of books not quite this one thing and not quite the other but they’re exactly perfect for you – just for you!”
To me, that’s what middle-grade should be, what middle-grade can be. Middle-grade, the best middle-grade, should be a story that takes just the right parts of children’s fiction and young adult fiction and creates from them something that spans that gap – that reaches out to hungry readers looking for a story that is about the complications and challenges of their life as it changes.
To me, that’s why we keep promoting middle-grade, why we keep talking about it, why we keep asking for more and more of it. Because when we find the right one, when we find a truly special one, that’s what it does.
See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowlesis that unicorn, that rarest of creatures: truly great middle-grade fiction.
What I Love About This Book
See You At Harry’s is one of my favorite books of 2012. It’s well-written, tightly constructed, and doesn’t waste a single word. It sneaks up on you and hits you with an emotional wallop that you won’t soon forget. It’s enormously moving without being maudlin and it’s deep while also still being accessible. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see this book come up in Newbery discussion, in fact, it will be a shame if it doesn’t.
Knowles’s command of craft is superb: she mixes the mundane and profound with grace and clarity. This is a book where the way you feel about going to your first middle school dance and dealing with the embarrasment of your parents is treated with the same gravity and insight as the biggest tragedies and losses life can throw at you. There’s something brave about that and, moreover, there’s something honest about it too. That’s what life is actually like when you’re in middle school, when you’re figuring out the middle ground of who you were as a kid and who you are going to be as an adolescent and, even farther than that, who you’re going to be as an actual grown-up and how both those experiences (childhood, adolesence) shaped you.
See You At Harry’s is a book unafraid to throw big concepts and big thoughts at middle-grade readers. If there is one thing I know about that elusive middle-grade novel it is THAT’S the most important element of all: middle-grade, maybe even more than young adult fiction, should contain the challenge, and the promise, of more. It’s THE time, after all, for these readers to start wrestling with those concepts and for fiction to start tackling it in an honest way. See You At Harry’s not only does that, it does that with an amazing amount of heart. This is a book you feel in the deepest and truest sense: it’s a book that wrings out the reader’s own sorrows and losses while also reminding the reader of the deepest and truest loves in their lives.
See You At Harry’s is a story about Fern. It’s a story about her family and her family’s business. It’s a story about how embarrassing her father can be, how awkward it can be to be the daughter of someone who owns a well-known business in a smaller town. It’s a story about Fran starting middle school, sorting out her new feelings for her close friend Ran and what that will mean for all her friendships. It’s a story about all the aches and pains of being 12 and everything that goes along with that.
But, most of all, I think See You At Harry’s is a story about siblings. It’s the story of how Fern aches along with her older brother Holden, who is bullied at school and trying to figure out his own changing life. It’s the story of how Fern resents and is puzzled by how her older sister Sarah seems to be drifting away from the family as she gets older. And it’s the story of Charlie, the youngest sibling, the surprise, a two year old who sticks his fingers up his nose, clings, whines, pesters, and is frequently dirty and sticky in that way only two year olds can be. Charlie is a realistic child, a realistic toddler, in the way that so rarely exists in fiction written for older readers: he’s that little kid readers will recognize as their younger sibling, cousin, neighbor, the toddler that 9-12 year old readers find themselves wanting to shout at as patience wears thin. Knowles’ perfectly captures that believable frustration: the way Charlie wears Fern down simply by being Charlie, by being her younger brother who loves her so.
I don’t want to delve too deeply into the details of the plot because one of the pleasures of See You At Harry’s is Knowles’ pacing. Just like in real life things happen in See You At Harry’s that you can’t be prepared for. I won’t ruin those surprises, because part of Knowles’ real gift in this work is the plotting. It’s hard to stop reading See You At Harry’s because it feels to readers like real life, immediate and unpredictable.
See You At Harry’s is a work of astonishing grace, a heartbreaker and tear-jerker that’s also full of hope. It’s a story about the resilience of love and the gifts of family and memory. This book is highly recommended as a first purchase for public and school libraries. You should buy a copy or go check it out from your local library today. If your library doesn’t have a copy, request they add it.
This is a perfect middle grade novel, a novel that bridges that gap, reminds us as librarians why fiction for this age group exists and what it can do better than any other. Thoughtful readers, middle grade readers, will be immediately drawn to the realism, the emotional wallop, and the strong writing in See You At Harry’s. It’s a story that will stay with you a long, long time. And you’ll be grateful for the visit.
(reviewed from an ARC generously provided by the publisher.)