Springtime YA Feature
The YA (young-adult) genre is notoriously murky waters for Christian parents.
First, there’s the spectrum of ages represented. Books considered “middle-grade” (some tagged J for junior and others YA for young adult in a library system) are aimed at kids from age 8 (third graders) to age 12 (seventh graders), a wide range of sensibilities. Which do you hand to your third grader? Which ones do you save for a few years later? And then, when a child’s reading ability soars past the material written for this age, what do you feed your reading-hungry child? The books he or she is now able to read often include mature themes not suitable for a 10 or 11 year old.
Compounding this, we face the unknowns of a book’s content. We know enough not to trust the suggested age ranges provided by a publisher. Yet, a voracious middle school reader may be hard-pressed to stick within the bounds of what you – the parent – have pre-read and approved.
Facing this hydra of a dilemma, what is a wise parent to do? Thankfully, resources abound which provide trustworthy book recommendations. But there is no substitute for your own thoughtful decision-making. If your child is reading – rather than engaging in screen activities – your family is already succeeding. As you encourage reading, though, never yield to the maxim “At least he’s reading.” Be a zealous gatekeeper of your child’s mind. If your child asks to read a book that a friend or neighbor suggests, pick it up yourself. Read one chapter. It won’t take you very long; I promise. Or, flip to the middle and read a few pages. (I did this at a bookstore recently with a popular graphic novel series. The page I opened to, at random, featured a character in the background of the scene singing “If you’re happy and you know it, poop your pants.” That’s all I needed to see.)
With this in mind, here are a few “middle grade” books that I recently found charming and safe.
I read Beauty by Robin McKinley three years ago, so I can’t believe it hasn’t been recommended here yet. It’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast written in 1978. For a kid who grew up on Disney’s take (and it’s a great take), this rendition lifted the story out of animation and into literature. This version of the fairy tale is told from Beauty’s first-person perspective and while there is no dancing candlestick or Mrs. Potts serenading in the ballroom, the charm is still rich. Additional side characters give the story depth while the story’s main arc remains familiar. I recommend this book quite heartily!
City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau sets its characters in a place of total darkness. The only light sources are electric flood lights which are turned on for the day hours and turned off for nighttime. And lately, they’ve been flickering. Lina and her friend Doon, twelve-year-olds, take it upon themselves to find out if Ember’s survival is as precarious as it appears, and what can be done if it is. This is an entry-level “post-apocalyptic” tale, but without the violence that often accompanies more mature stories in the genre. It’s simple: Ember’s heroes are pure-hearted, villains are easily identified, and circumstances work out conveniently for our heroes. But it’s just right for kids reaching up for those first higher-level stories. (The sequel is also good!)
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones abounds with mistaken identities. From a pair of characters who swap appearances to a girl cursed to take the form of an old woman to a main character who can shapeshift at will, no one is what they seem. Yet like many fantasy stories, it’s not the plotline itself that the author intends to leave you with, but the bigger questions (along with their answers) that hover over the story. Will Sophie realize her own value? Will Howl learn how to care about others? The story is filled with whimsical fantasy details and the themes of faith, hope, and love.
At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald would probably be unlike anything a typical 2023 middle schooler has read before. The story is about a small boy in an impoverished London family and his encounters with North Wind, a magical lady who takes him flying at nighttime. It’s also filled with digressions and rabbit trails that seem to drag the story away from its main thoroughfare. Yet, as a friend who read the book said so poignantly, “The plot is not the point.” The story explores the nature of love, the mysteries of fear and bravery, and other spiritual truths. Any child educated in the classical tradition should be familiar with George MacDonald. He was a primary literary inspiration for C. S. Lewis. If your child reads North Wind, consider reading it with him or her and discussing along the way while George MacDonald wrote this child’s fairy tale.
The White Mountains by John Christopher is set in a futuristic dystopia. The main character, Will, about to face his “capping ceremony” is approached with an alternative option – and an alternative perspective on the “Tripods” who seem to reign in this updated version of planet earth. With his new path forward, the external risks are great and the internal risks are equally fierce. Selfishness and the petty irritations of friendship rise to the surface in a believable way making Will feel like a close-to-home hero. The book is not great literature, but for the voracious reader, hungry for a new world to explore, this story is compelling and though-provoking.
An opinion about a popular series: Having just exhorted you to sample your child’s reading selections before approving them, I offer this critique with the caveat that it’s simply my opinion. If you haven’t had a chance to form your own opinion, I warmly invite you to do so. But here is my take on the first book in the Percy Jackson series.
They say you can read “100-minus-your-age” pages to assess a book’s value. After 64 pages, I had no trouble making a call on Percy Jackson.
Our narrator and “hero,” young Percy, is an underdog, a troubled kid from a messy home who hasn’t managed to succeed yet anywhere in his young life. True, an underdog hero can be the best sort. But Percy’s attitude is calloused and sarcastic, everything with a tinge of smirking, disrespectful in his narration even as he paints himself as a kid who’s trying to be good and stay out of trouble. Rather than earning his readers’ affection, he demands it.
The potty humor, or just shy of it, sours the story even further. Chapter 3 is titled “Grover Unexpectedly Loses His Pants” and Chapter 6 is called “I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom.” And those are just chapter titles.
The plot in Percy Jackson is compelling. Were it done well, it could be a wonderful introduction to Greek mythological characters, an effective rags to riches story of a boy who thought he was a nobody coming to grips with his deep significance. Instead, it’s a weak imitation of a true hero story told in language meant to appeal to the masses. When there is so much good literature to read (and re-read!), books like this one can easily afford to be skipped.
curated by Brittany Mountz
English major and unsuspecting English educator at ALC