Middle Grade Goes to College

A unique comparative literature class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, uses the popular American Girl books as part of its assigned reading. Yes, the college students who are enrolled in the course read the very same middle grade books about Addy, Kirsten, and Kaya. Assistant Professor Brigitte Fielder’s course contrasts the American Girl stories with 19th and 20th century literature to explore the definitions of “American” and “girl.” It’s been a popular course each spring semester, attracting many nostalgic students who grew up with the iconic dolls and books.

The American Girl company (now owned by Mattel) is based near Madison and since 1986, has been selling dolls, accessories, and books focused on a wide range of historical periods and cultural perspectives. The company has long supported diverse characters and stories.

Students in Fielder’s class also read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, as these books offer a contrast to the content in the American Girl stories.

The professor frames the class around the notion of American girlhood — what it means to be American, to be a girl, and to be an American girl. She feels the AG books offer a broad example of the different lives of many girls over time who lived in America — whether or not they were considered “American” during their lifetimes due to slavery or being an immigrant. Fielder believes the books stimulate critical thinking skills about gender and race, whether they’re read by college students or middle graders.

Interestingly, after the course ends, some of the participants have rediscovered middle grade and YA books.  One student who took the course included such favorites as S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie as must-reads on her blog’s 2017 reading bucketlist.

Obviously, I’m a big champion of all things middle grade, but seeing MG books included as part of a college course just made me want to stand up and cheer. I firmly believe that reading MG lit can be life-changing, whether you’re 12, 18, or 45!

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Michele Weber Hurwitz
Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Ethan Marcus Stands Up (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin), The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold (both Penguin Random House). Visit her at www.micheleweberhurwitz.com
  1. Yay! Go MG!!

  2. My other job (besides working at an indie bookstore which I love!) is teaching children’s literature sections of the Masters in Book Publishing program at Portland State. My students are future editors and publishers. They tend think they want to work in YA books but I always make about half the course work MG books and they are always surprised at the breadth of scope for MG books. It’s a good for me, too, to keep current on the newest MG and YA books and the issues of the industry.

  3. Love hearing that MG is part of college courses! Wish we’d had a similar class at my university when I went to school 🙂

  4. Sally, I’m so glad the post resonated with you. Your son’s class sounds fantastic! I wholeheartedly agree!

  5. Thanks for your post! It’s so wonderful to see all ages embrace the coming-of-age inherent in middle grade.

    This resonated, as my son is currently taking a Children’s Literature & Film class at his university. So far they’ve read the Brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll, Peter Pan, and Nancy Drew– they are moving up into more modern works now. He is fascinated, and reflecting back on childhood in general, and his in particular. He says the students all love the class. We are having great conversations! (Everyone should read middle-grade!) 🙂