What Makes a Middle-Grade Novel Timeless?

Some books you read once.  You laugh, cry, maybe even both.  You’ve enjoyed the journey, met some interesting characters and hopefully were able to view the world in an amazing new way…but will you ever pick up that book again? 

I’ve enjoyed sharing books I loved as a child with my daughters, and started reading books by Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary to my girls when they were way younger than the target audience.  The three of us laughed at the silly stunts Fudge pulled and couldn’t wait to see what kind of trouble Ramona caused next.  Growing up with a younger brother, I definitely related to the problems Peter and Beezus had with their energetic and extremely creative siblings.  The characters and worlds these brilliant authors created still feel real and endearing. 

As you can see, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg stayed in our member’s hearts through the years.  Who can resist reading a book where a spunky young girl and her brother stuff their clothes inside violin and trumpet cases, then hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art?  (If you peek at our bios, you’ll see some of the timeless gems that stuck with us the most.)

How can books like these remain popular, when society changes so quickly?  Nobody had cell phones or internet when I was in elementary school.  So how can books written at that time still appeal to today’s kids?  I believe the books that stand the test of time have unique characters readers can relate to, cheer for, and fall in love with, combined with situations that kids still have…like annoying siblings, school issues, fights with friends, and trying to see where you fit in our world.

I’ve asked several amazing authors what they believe makes a book timeless.  Here’s what they had to say:

IMHO, timeless books are ones that say to a reader, ‘Here. Look. This is YOU. And even if it’s not, you can relate, because the author has managed to capture those universal triumphs and struggles all tweens go through. And when you’re done with such a book? You feel empowered and ready to take on the world, girlfriend! As you should! —Lauren Myracle  

I believe the books we read at this age have a certain power. The characters can live on inside us and help us figure out who we want to be, and what we want to do with our lives. I wanted to write for this age to give something back to the next generation of readers the types of books that meant so much to me. Wendy Mass

A timeless book is one that touches the heart. It doesn’t really matter when or where the story is set, if the characters speak to you and draw you into their story. —Lisa Yee

Timeless books focus on emotions that everyone has felt – love, anger, disappointment, happiness, and fear. While some things change, like clothes and hairstyles, certain things never do. —Laurie Friedman

Certain books, like Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, or A Wrinkle in Time, just hit a nerve with the middle-grade reader and continue to hit that nerve with each new generation of kids. Why? These books have plenty of heart, a sense of wonder, humor in good measure, relatable characters, and a strong voice. By telling a specific story in an emotionally true way, they’ve managed to become universal. —Bruce Hale

There are so many wonderful middle-grade books that I hope will remain timeless.  One that I believe will be around for a long time is Rules, by Cynthia Lord.  It’s the kind of book that stays with you long after you reach the last page.  I’ll never forget when my younger daughter lost her voice, and her big sister created a communication book (inspired by the one Jason uses).

I asked authors to name one or two middle-grade novels that are close to their heart, and if there are any newer books they believe will remain popular over time.

Holes is one of my favorites from the past dozen or so years. And right up there with it are The Lightning Thief and The Wednesday Wars. These are books that may well stand the test of time, in my opinion. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is another upper middle-grade book that I love, but it’s too early to say whether the craze over its semi-graphic novel style will translate into long-range popularity. —Bruce Hale

 

Books like A Secret Garden and the All-of-a-Kind Family series, grabbed a hold of me. I can recall reading them as a child, then rereading them as an adult, and allowing myself the luxury of getting lost within their pages.  Some newer middle grade books that fit this bill include Masterpiece by Elise Broach, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, and Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy. —Lisa Yee 

 
Growing up, I loved anything by Judy Blume.  There are so many great new books.  I really liked Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath.   I think kids will be reading it years from now. —Laurie Friedman    

 

Tied with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?, my favorite book from the middle-grade years was Allegra Maud Goldman by Edith Konecky. Made me laugh, cry, and want to be a writer. As for newer titles, I hope the Penderwicks books continue to be appreciated for how wonderful and timeless they are. —Wendy Mass

I’d love to know why you think some middle-grade books remain popular for over thirty years, and which current books you believe will become timeless.

**Don’t forget to enter our second summer giveaway — one lucky reader will win three amazing middle-grade books!

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and is constantly inspired by her nine and twelve year-old daughters, adventurous sock and underwear munching puppy, and two stinky but adorable ferrets. Visit her blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

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Mindy Alyse Weiss
Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades.
37 Comments
  1. Great post, Mindy! As you mentioned, I think falling in love with characters plays a big part in making a book timeless. I think a timeless book can also perfectly tap into specific emotional needs you have at a certain age. My husband used to read Where the Wild Things Are over and over again as a kid and he still smiles when he talks about it. I think that book gave him a safe way to deal with feelings of wanting to be “bad” and to overcome feelings of powerlessness that all kids have.

  2. WoW! What a wonderful post!

    For me, a book becomes timeless when the reader wants nothing more than to swap places with one of the characters. I read From the Mixed Up Files just a few weeks ago and I wanted to be one of those kids wandering around the museum at night. I wanted to experience the thrill of the plot along with the era in which the novel was written. Not all books do that for me.

  3. Fantastic post, Mindy! My children and I have enjoyed many of these books together – most of them for their memorable characters, but also for the moments where we can relate to them and shout, “I’ve done that!” or blush, “I’ve done that.” or sigh, “I’ve done that.”

  4. Oh gosh. How could I have forgotten to mention Jerry Spinelli’s books? (Jerry should be named a national treasure, I think).

    I agree about the primacy of character, but there’s something else, too, about timeless books — the quality of the writing itself. E.B. White’s perfect prose, for instance.

  5. Wonderful blog post, Mindy. Judy Blume and E.B. White did it for me with Margaret and Charlotte. Kids love them because they are like permanent friends. And of course, once you get to know these characters, they are predictable so you can be 100% sure they will never let you down. I also love the All of a Kind Family books, The Bobbsey Twins (which my daughter likes too), and the Nancy Drew books. Thanks for your insights on timelessness.

  6. Excellent article, Mindy. And oh so true on the characters making the book timeless. My all time favorite…Anne of Green Gables. There is no one, for me, quite like her.

  7. Ack! One particular writer really always nails the um…nail on the head: Wilson Rawls. He only wrote two books: Where the Red Fern Grows and Summer of the Monkeys, but both stick with me to this day, and I’m not ashamed of saying I re=read them often. I love them. Timeless. 😀

  8. Thank you all so much for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad you enjoyed my post, and love hearing your thoughts about timeless middle-grade novels.

    So many of you believe it’s the characters that connect kids to these novels throughout time, and I agree. I love a great plot (and think plot and especially conflict are very important) but you already know what is going to happen the second or third time you read a book. Falling in love with characters definitely makes me want to read a novel again. And I love books that have wonderful details that you might miss on the first read or two…and it seems like every time you read it again you find something new.

    Thanks for sharing your favorite timeless and hopefully soon-to-be-timeless novels. You gave me a wonderful list of books I want to read (or read again).

  9. You and the other authors hit on so many books I love. And you also made me realize something: I’ve reread more middle-grade books than any other kind of book. I don’t reread as many YA or books written for adults, and I think it’s because middle-grade lives at the heart of who we are, no matter how old.

  10. This makes me think of the Great Illustrated Classics that I read last summer. I did a blog post about them today. Anyhow, some of these are my all-time favorites.

    To me, a timeless book is one that the reader can relate to and they become emotionally involved as they read it. Yeah, that’s it, a book that you can FEEL.

  11. Tuck Everlasting…Nory Ryan’s Song…Each Little Bird That Sings. These are some of the books I return to.

  12. Oh, the Moffatts! They are still happily on the shelf in most every library.

  13. p.s. I’m also running a contest (free books!) until Friday. 🙂

  14. I agree – books that last touch the heart – and make you believe you can… whatever it is. Anne of Green Gables would be the one that touched me the most, but there are so many great ones!

  15. You have ferrets?? What a cool mom you are! 🙂

    Artemis Fowl is a huge hit in our house – is it timeless? I would say yes – which is easier for the fantasy books to attain, because they are outside reality anyway.

    Thanks for the great post and recs! 🙂