I’ve read some sad middle-grade books lately.
I mean sad. Books about war, separation, poverty, judging, death.
It’s no secret that today’s middle-grade books tackle some serious topics, that authors aren’t afraid to stare down the very same monsters our readers face every day. After all, if children must be brave enough to travel life’s imperfect road, we must be brave enough to write about their journeys.
I used to believe that sad subjects were okay in middle-grade literature as long as there were happy endings. You know, all’s well that ends well.
But some of the books I’ve read lately didn’t have happy endings. And, since some of the books I’m going to talk about are very new, I won’t say any more than that in an effort to avoid spoiling anyone’s reading experience.
Just last week, I finished Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow.
Not since William March’s The Bad Seed have I met a child antagonist as deceptive and wrong as Betty Glengarry. Like anyone caught in the web of a narcissist’s lies, the narrator Annabelle can do little to break free of Betty’s ever-worsening cruelty. As I read, I found myself pleading for justice, fairness, and for Annabelle and others to prevail. But literature – and life – doesn’t always deliver justice and fairness and good over evil.
I also recently finished Pax by Sara Pennypacker.
Okay, let’s talk sad. The book was passed along to me by an author friend I was visiting in Kansas City. I started reading in the airport and started crying on page six. Six. The heartbreaking separation of a boy and his pet (Pax is a lovable and loving cross between man’s best friend and the most adorable house cat you can imagine – but he’s a fox) at the very beginning was enough to make any reader believe that redemption would eventually come at the end. But literature – and life – does not always offer redemption.
So, does that mean I didn’t like these books? Or that I didn’t like their endings?
Not at all. There’s more to a “happy” ending than joy. More than joy, I believe an ending must offer hope. And it must ring true.
Above all, it must ring true.
I can clearly remember having detailed discussions with my editor Claudia Gabel (then with Delacorte Press, now with Katherine Tegan Books) as we worked out the ending of my first middle-grade novel, The Beef Princess of Practical County. It’s a story about Libby, who raises cattle to show at the county fair. In the end, Libby’s beloved steer boards a livestock trailer for the slaughter house. It’s not the hoped-for Charlotte’s Web ending. But it has all the truth in it of a Midwest farmer’s daughter’s experience growing up on a cattle ranch. It rings true.
I promised not to talk about the endings of Wolf Hollow and Pax, so I won’t – except to say that both endings ring true.
And when we, as authors, pledge to traverse life’s imperfect road with our readers, offering truth is – in the end – the best that we can do.
Michelle Houts has written four books for middle-grade readers. Her books have garnered an International Reading Association Award, Junior Library Guild selection, and inclusion on the Bank Street Best Books of 2014 List. She’s currently completing the first three books in a new science-minded series for younger readers, titled Lucy’s Lab (2017, Sky Pony Press).