I write contemporary middle grade fiction for girls, and as a result I read a lot of contemporary middle grade fiction aimed at girls 8-12. I’m always interested in discussing and thinking about antecedents. What sorts of books were girls reading in the 19th and early 20th century, and are any of the tropes that we see in those books still around today? I’m thinking about books like A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) by Gene Stratton Porter or Susan Bogert Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1859), a novel that Louisa May Alcott read. These books are examples of domestic fiction that influenced generations of readers. In both of these books, girls, who have been neglected and almost abandoned by adults, conquer their passions and find their place.
While sentimental fiction isn’t necessarily in vogue, and the term
domestic novel isn’t one you hear that much, I’d argue that it is still very prevalent in the middle grade category. However, it has taken a new form. While girls are not necessarily orphans they may be in a situation where a parent is absent through death, divorce, sickness or the demands of an outside job. The girl cannot rely on a constant mother figure out how to succeed. Instead, she relies on her own inner compass and learns from her friendships. Nature (much to my chagrin) doesn’t necessarily play a starring role (although it can, such as in the novel Ida B. by Katherine Hannigan). I’d like to call this sort of narrative– the neo-domestic middle grade novel. So just what is a domestic novel?
Donna Campbell in her text Domestic and Sentimental Fiction: 1820-1865 defines the genre this way:”a type of novel popular with women readers during the middle of the nineteenth century.” They were also called a “novel of sensibility.” These novels focused on the power of feelings and the triumph of the human spirit to overcome any struggle. This can be seen as a reaction against Calvinism, which viewed humans as inherently wounded.
According to critic Nina Baym, the basic plot involves a “the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world.” By the end, she has a heightened sense of self worth and she views the world very differently.
In the neo domestic middle grade novel, I’m not talking about an orphan making her way in the world, but about a (usually) girl or girls navigating life at home and at school. The emphasis would be on the protagonist’s relationships with her peers and friends and how that affects her well-being. Relationships with siblings and parents are also important but they are usually linked to peer relationships. Feelings are ultra important.
A prime example of contemporary domestic girls middle grade fiction would be The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall. Of course in this book friendships are found with siblings. The novel was inspired by Little Women, which is an example of domestic fiction in children’s literature which is still read today. Can there be domestic fiction for boys? Yes, but the majority of contemporary fiction written for boys would be adventure/action. However, I do believe that the humor genre, such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books would fall in a subset of the category in many instances.
In girl’s fiction, you’ll also want to check out the books by Lauren Myracle. Her Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen novels would fall into the domestic novel category. Also, check out books by the British novelist Hilary McKay. I would argue that all of the novels in the MIX imprint of Aladdin/Simon & Schuster where I’ve been publishing recently would fall into that category as well. I’d also suggest looking at Rachel Vail’s Friendship Circle books, and I highly recommend The Secret Language of Girls by Frances O’Roark Dowell as an example of what I would like to call neo-domestic fiction.
Hillary Homzie is the author of The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009). She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page.
The sequel is THE KIND OF FRIENDS WE USED TO BE, which I really enjoyed. And, JG, yes, I think Deborah Wiles would fit 🙂
What a thought-provoking post.
At the moment, alas, I am not up on my new middle grade fiction.
But my writer pal & neighbor Ann lent me THE PENDERWICKS over the Holidays so I’m totally thinking about how they are quite the ticket. I wish I had read this long ago. A secret passage. A boy in the window. An estate and cottage for the four agreeable girls in the back. I hope everyone reads this National Bk. Award winner.
The Neo Domestic label. Hope you continue thinking along this trope. Can understand how this came out of the adventures of Taffeta (THINGS ARE GONNA GET UGLY) & Sophie (THE HOT LIST). But what about the school story moniker fitting, too at the same time.
If can mention girl book titles that are not spanking new, but may fit your ND idea: A SUDDEN CHANGE OF FAMILY (Auch) and the one I recommend the most, CROSSING JORDAN (Fogelin) which is about a blue-collar girl, Cass who makes friends with a neighbor girl, Jemmie. The MG books of Deborah Wiles are usually ensemble stories (boys and girls equally if I remember right) but they may also fit, doyathink?
Hmm… I like the secret language of girls. I heard there is a sequel.
Smart move about getting rid of parents and phones. Some younger middle grade definitely chronicles the child/parent or child/guardian relationships but…I confess that I’m usually more interested in how a child navigates her or his independence shuffle the most. Okay, this is the second vote to read DIRT DIARIES. This means I need to go and order it pronto!
Hillary, I’m a fellow Aladdin Mix author and the first thing I do when coming up with a plot is figure out how to get parents and cell phones out of the story- since either makes solving problems way too easy for my characters. I really hadn’t termed it domestic fiction though and this post is so interesting! i guess the idea of shifting interests for girls this age from family to peers is a truth universal:) Thanks for the post! (Oh, and agree with Louise. DIRT DIARIES- along with all of Anna Stan’s books- is fantastic!)
Bobbi, I’m glad you enjoyed this. Rani, well, I don’t think most editors would use this term. But…then again there might be quite a few who’ve read the antecedents and think along the same lines…
Louise, thanks for telling me about the DIRT DIARY. Now I’m really excited to read it. Of course, the comedian in me is having all sorts of fun varying the title into something that my tween sons would get a giggle at. This is what comes from raising three boys–plus, all of their friends!
Thank you! My MG novel has this basic plot, but NOBODY told me that it was ‘Domestic’ MG. Interesting reading. Thank you!
A VERY interesting discussion. Thank you!
Really interesting post, Hillary. I have to agree with you, this trope is alive and well and still resonates with girls. I just finished Anna Staniszewski’s wonderful THE DIRT DIARY, in which a girl’s father has basically abandoned her and her mother is so locked in her own coping mechanisms that she’s very little help at all. The MC, Rachel, pulls strength from her sense of humor and passion for cooking, as well as from her best friend. It’s a delightfully funny, yet heart-rending read. I really recommend it.