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Growing Stronger Children
through Quality Middle Grade Fiction

by Susan Thogerson Maas

When people ask why I write middle grade fiction, I sometimes say, “Maybe because I never grew up.” While there is likely some truth to that, there is also a deeper reason. As a child, I was constantly reading, retreating into worlds I couldn’t visit on my own—whether wilderness settings as in My Side of the Mountain, British manors as in The Secret Garden, or mysterious, magical worlds such as The Children of the Green Knowe. Horse books were my very favorite, and I consumed every book Walter Farley (The Black Stallion series) and Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague and others) wrote. From there I moved on to other nature-based books, and eventually to most of the books on the children’s shelf of our local library. I’ve forgotten the plots and even many of the characters in these books. What I remember is how they made me feel. When I finished the last page of a good book, I felt like I was a better person than when I began—a little stronger, a little wiser, a little more committed to doing what is right and good.

In The Help by Kathryn Stockett (and in the movie), Mae Mobley is a little girl whose mother dislikes her because she is a bit chubby and not what her mother considers beautiful. Aibileen, the maid, does all she can to counteract the mother’s influence by assuring Mae Mobley that she is special. Every day, Aibileen tells the little girl, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important,” and has Mae Mobley repeat it back to her, so she will remember. That is what a good children’s book does—it lets children know that they are important and makes them feel that they can make a difference in the world.

As a child, books about nature increased my love of God’s magnificent Creation and the many plants and animals that inhabit it. Books set in distant lands opened my eyes to different ways of living. Books about children with problems and difficult lives grew my compassion. And books about kids like me made me feel that I mattered and that I could overcome my little challenges just like the kids in the books did. Sadly, books in my youth were rather limited. Most had protagonists a lot like me—white and middle class with few major problems. Now there are so many books to choose from. Books about children from all ethnic groups, children with physical and mental challenges, children in different countries or different living situations. Every child has a chance to imagine himself or herself as the protagonist of the story, to identify with the difficulties presented, and to find hope that they, too, can overcome the hurdles they face.

Finding hope. That, to me, is the most important aspect of any book, but especially books written for children. As children watch the news and hear the adults around them talk about the issues in today’s world, they may feel discouraged. If adults see only darkness and despair, how can a child look forward to the future? A good middle grade novel can be an escape from the problems, as the child vicariously lives another life. But even more, a book that ends in hope can plant a seed of encouragement and give the reader a reason to keep believing—in God, in the future, and in themselves.

Sometimes I hear general market writers say they should write whatever they want, that it isn’t important to worry about theme or what message the book sends—just be true to yourself. When writing for adults, that may be true, but when writing for children, I feel this attitude is short-sighted. As children grow, they absorb the attitudes around them. Everything they see, hear, and do makes an impression on them and helps to shape them into the adults they are becoming. Today’s world is filled with negative influences, including bad language, violence, racism, and other negative attitudes and practices. If children are to grow up to be “kind, smart, and important,” they need positive influences—which definitely includes quality children’s books. Books can help children cope with life and its myriad difficulties. Good books can give them hope that, in the long run, justice and mercy will prevail. And the best books will inspire children to do what is right and to help make this world a better place for all.

By Susan Thogerson Maas

Middle Grade Fiction from WhiteSpark