Caught in the Middle: Middle Grade Books that Break the Mold

In Children's by Dennis Abrams

Middle grade buzz books from BookExpo America

By Dennis Abrams

Like the proverbial middle child, middle-grade books often find themselves a bit neglected, trapped between the world of beautifully illustrated picture books and the more grown-up, sometimes fantastic, sometimes controversial world of YA fiction. Yet at this year’s BEA, the editors of five middle-grade books made the case that these are books worth knowing about, that these five very different titles are going to be all the buzz.

Alvina Ling, editorial director of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, introduced Starry River of the Sky, by Grace Lin, whose 2010 book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, was a recipient of a Newbery Honor mention. Ling, who it turns out was childhood friends with Lin, described the book as “gorgeous and layered.” Lin uses centuries of Chinese myths and literature going back to the 2nd century B.C.E. to tell the story of a young runaway and his adventures in the remote Village of Clear Sky.

Virginia Duncan, v-p and publisher of Greenwillow Books, sang the praises of Stefan Bachmann’s The Peculiar, described as a “gothic/steampunk/fairytale/fantasy set in an alternate Victorian England.” But almost as interesting as the story itself is the story of Bachmann, the 18-year-old American-born, Swiss-raised novelist. For Duncan though, his age is immaterial. “It’s really a good story told by a really good storyteller who just happens to be 18 years old.”

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children Executive Editor Kate O’Sullivan raved about W.H. Beck’s Malcolm at Midnight. The story of a pet mouse at McKenna School and the secret society of classroom pets known as the Midnight Academy, it was a slush-pile manuscript read by O’ Sullivan’s intern who told her, “I think you should read this one.” According to O’Sullivan, by page 28, she was convinced her intern was correct.

Jason Rekulak, creative director of Quirk Books, delighted the crowd with his presentation of cover art that morphs before your eyes for the first title in a 12-book cycle: Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #1: Professor Gargoyle. Described as “the only book inspired by an amusement park ride,” while drawing heavily on master-storyteller H.P. Lovecraft, Rekulak promises that “each book in the series will cover a real fear experienced by middle-graders.”

And finally, Steve Geck, editorial manager of Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, spoke of the difficulties of being the third editor to work on Marissa Moss’s Mira’s Diary: Lost in Paris. A time-travel story from the author of the popular “Amelia” series, Geck described it as a younger version of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, as Mira goes back in time in search of her mother.

Given titles like these, it seems unlikely that middle-grade books will be “middle-child” of children’s publishing this fall.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.