My fourth post in the Out of My Comfort Zone series! If you hadn’t heard about this before, it’s a series of posts in which I talk about my experiences with books/stories/formats I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.
This time I will be talking about an age range I rarely reach for anymore, middle grade.
My Long History With Middle Grade, and Why I Almost Never Read It Anymore
When I was the target audience for middle grade, I read a lot of it. A good part of it was Italian middle grade – I want to mention specifically the Fairy Oak series by Elisabetta Gnone because this series kind of shaped who I am as a reader (it’s an atmospheric story about witches with a lot of plants involved, of course I loved it).
I also read a lot of translated middle grade. Harry Potter was really important to me when I was in middle school, and so was The Golden Compass.
Then, from 2013 to may 2015 I almost completely stopped reading. I won’t go into what happened in this post because it would be off-topic, but anyway, in 2015 I started reading again. This time I was mostly picking up young adult books, because that was what I was drawn to – I wasn’t the target audience for middle grade anymore. But as I started following bloggers and booktubers (I started blogging in Italian at the end of 2015), I didn’t only see YA recommendations, but also middle grade ones. And the most loved middle grade series after Harry Potter seemed to be Percy Jackson.
I had always avoided Rick Riordan’s books because their Italian covers are hideous. In 2015, I tried two of them. And while Rick Riordan seems to be a great person from what I know about him, his books aren’t.
I hated Percy Jackson. The narration irritated me, I couldn’t visualize anything, and the book was trying so hard to be funny and quirky that it only ended up feeling fake all the way through. But as so many people loved it, what I thought wasn’t “maybe I don’t like this author”, it was “I think I’ve outgrown middle grade” – which was reinforced by the fact that I tried Cassandra Clare and Holly Black’s Magisterium series and thought it was mediocre at best, even though I had liked YA novels from both of these authors.
And that’s how I didn’t read another middle grade book until the summer 2018, in which I tried The House on Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson, inspired by the Russian stories about Baba Yaga. It was, again, mostly mediocre, and didn’t do anything to convince me I wanted to pick up more middle grade books. If anything, it reminded me that just because a book has a really pretty cover and an interesting premise, it won’t mean it’s good.
What I Read
I decided to try three books from three authors I already know I like.
City of Ghosts
I have had a complicated history with Victoria Schwab’s books, but I can sum it up as “she’s good, I’m glad she got popular, I don’t like how people criticize her female characters for literally everything, but some of her books are really overrated”.
I hadn’t heard a lot about City of Ghosts – probably because it’s middle grade – but it looked like it could be a cute and slightly creepy ghost story. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the writing style at all, which was a surprise.
If I had read this a few years ago, when I was the target audience, I think I would have felt like I was being talked down to. I understand that Schwab probably felt the need to explain more because she’s writing middle grade, but… I’ve always thought that authors should trust their readers. I can’t of course be completely sure I would have felt this way about City of Ghost when I was in middle school, but I know that at the time I felt this way about some middle grade books – and phrased it a lot less nicely. (“Does this book think I’m stupid?”). The only thing I’m sure about is that I’m unlikely to get anything out of this right now.
DNF at 25%
I… would have loved this one so much in middle school. I love it right now, too, but middle school me needed this.
I mean, this book features mischievous ghosts, adventures in space, a shapeshifting fox teenager who is trying her best and lying a lot (she gave me Lyra Belacqua vibes at times and she was my favorite character for so long). Of course the writing style isn’t Lee’s usual Ninefox Gambit-level of weird, it’s easy to read, but I never felt like it was explaining too much.
This book also has a lot of things I appreciate today that I don’t know if I would have noticed/cared about a few years ago, like the way the technology is tied to the characters’ beliefs and feels a bit like magic but also not completely. But the main difference between this book and the middle grade SFF I read in middle school is the diversity. It’s an ownvoices Korean-inspired space opera set in an unapologetically queer-inclusive universe, with non-binary side characters and mentions of polyamorous adults. I don’t think I read any non-western-based fiction until I was 16, and I definitely didn’t see even a mention of queer characters in the books I read. If there was rep, it was Dumbledore-style-rep, which is to say “useless, vaguely-hinted-at representation I didn’t even know was there”. And of course trans characters weren’t anywhere. It means a lot to me to see that now things are different.
But, more than anything: this book was so much fun. In a way adult and YA books often aren’t, and not in a I’m-trying-to-be-funny way either. I just love books about adventures like this one, they’re so full of wonder.
I wrote a complete review of this, here.
My rating: ★★★★★
Aru Shah and the End of Time
When I started reading Dragon Pearl, I was afraid that it would somehow sound like Percy Jackson because it’s a Rick Riordan Presents book. It wasn’t the case at all, as I hoped. Then I thought it didn’t make that much sense to worry about that in the first place, because Lee sounds nothing like Riordan, no matter how much he tones down the weird-and-somewhat-purple side of his prose.
As it turns out, it wasn’t that nonsensical, because Aru Shah and the End of Time had everything I dislike about Percy Jackson in it, and Chokshi didn’t sound like Riordan to me either, when I read her YA books. In this book, the narration is constantly trying to be funny but it doesn’t really work, the quirky (…annoying. I’m sorry.) chapters titles are here, and the result is unreadable – for me, of course; this will probably work for those who liked Percy Jackson.
I’m disappointed because I loved the premise and Roshani Chokshi’s previous novels, but I think I’m just going to stick to her YA books. (I still haven’t read The Gilded Wolves. How.)
DNF at 10%
Will I Read More Middle Grade?
…It depends? If some other authors I love start writing it, I might pick it up, and if Dragon Pearl gets a sequel I will read it for sure, but I probably won’t pick up much middle grade on my own.
I never like to say “I outgrew this”, but it’s also normal that most of the books written for an age range I’m not part of anymore don’t work for me. I’m just not the target audience. I don’t think they would have worked for me when I was in middle school either, but again, I can’t be sure.
What do you think of middle grade books? Have you read any good ones lately?