All in the Family

As we shoot past the holidays into the orbital path of a new year, I am reminded of the recent time spent with family. Family…for better or for worse. Spending time with family can be one of the best, or most trying, of endeavors. Either way, I think most people will agree we can look at our functional and/or dysfunctional family unit as a central influence in most of our lives.

The value of a functional or dysfunctional family in middle-grade literature is one of its most inherently attractive parts of this age. The interplay between a MG protagonist and the family unit creates a dramatic backdrop that pulls us into the story. The reader can relate to the struggle of the MC as they move forward toward discovering who they are. They relate to the sometimes awkward struggle of the middle-grade years when kids have one foot anchored in the safety of the family while the other one steps in the direction of independence.

Families offer a selection of great creative tools for the middle-grade writer. We can use the family to set up plot, conflict, emotion. It provides familiarity. The family can help define the main character, the setting, and the backstory. As you can see, the family unit in middle-grade lit is powerful. The magnetic power of the family is like a tractor beam pulling us toward the story mothership.

In thinking about families as an integral part of the story landscape, what attributes do you like the best?

  • A loving, supporting family group like the Weasleys?
  • A despicable family unit like the Wormwoods in Matilda?
  • Maybe an attribute of not being a real family at all, but a “family-by-choice” family, like Tupelo Landing’s Mo, Ms. Lana and the Colonel?
  • Even animal families can get into the act. For example,  Bingo, J’miah, the raccoon brothers and True Blue Scouts of the Sugarman Swamp, along with their parents, Little Mama and Daddy-O, are one of my personal favorite animal families.
  • How about a supernatural non-traditional family like Nobody Owen’s ghost family in the graveyard? Or the Other Mother and Other Father that Coraline Jones was tempted to choose over her real parents?
  • Perhaps a sweet and kindly custodial relative like Count Olaf?

When you read your next middle-grade book, take notice of a family influence on the character and story arc. The family dynamic is powerful in all our lives; it helps mold the who we are, positively or negatively. The power of the family dynamic holds true for fictional characters, as well, where it also helps to mold the story.

In the true spirit of family, here is your chore for the day. Kind of like homework done around the family table, but a lot easier than algebra. Think about those favorite middle-grade books you have and share some of your favorite middle-grade lit families in the comments below.

Finally, as Dorothy Gale says in the Wizard of Oz film as she taps her ruby slippers, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like…”

Henri Gascar_John_III_Sobieski_with_his_family_1693

John III Sobieski with his family by Henri Gascar, circa 1693

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Mike Hays
Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded sports enthusiasts, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports related topics at and writer stuff at He can often be found roaming the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64.
  1. My daughter is getting straight As at a selective college and when she was home on break and we went to Barnes and Noble she squeeled with delight when she discovered a new Penderwicks novel, which she proceeded to buy and devour.

  2. I love Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gaither sisters, their cantankerous Big Ma, their liberated step-mom, their beleaguered dad, and in the last book their extended family. But most of all I love the relationships between the sisters themselves. I am a sucker for books about sisters!!!

  3. I’m very fond the the Applewhites in both the books by Stephanie Tolan. I have those relatives!

  4. I really enjoyed the unusual family dynamic (two aunties raising a young girl) in A Curious Tale of the In-Between. Like the Harry Potter series, where Harry makes his own family, I enjoy seeing non-traditional families that are just as loving and supportive as you’d expect from a traditional family 🙂 Great post!

    • Thanks, Julie. I also lean toward the unusual families. The quirkier, the better.

  5. I’m a loving, supporting family group like the Weasleys kind of reader, which I prefer to the dysfunctional families. A family dynamic I’ve been seeing in my reading is the Grandparent, which seems to be used to help understand the parent who is now absent.

    • That’s a great point, Brenda. The Grandparents-as-parents or as THE family foundation is on the rise. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. I love August Pullman’s parents in Wonder (very supportive and loving, struggling to determine when to push him and when to let him be) and I love Albie’s parents in Absolutely Almost (they love him but struggle with their disappointment/frustration over his learning disability). I tend to love families that are there and feel real – though they aren’t perfect by any means.

    • Oh yeah! As a parent reading WONDER, I empathized with the anxiety of Augie’s parents over every brave choice he made to jump into the mainstream. Thanks!