Picture books are traditional, and YA is new and glamorous, but the area of literature I consider to be “classic children’s” is that big glorious milestone middle—the golden years between, say, eight and twelve, when you were old enough to hop on your bike and seek adventure in the neighboring woods and vacant lots, when you still got along with your parents, when there was no end to the projects you could concoct with your pals and cousins, and angst and self-doubt of adolescence were yet undreamed. It’s an amazingly short time, but those years, I would guess, are most of us think of when we recall “childhood.” It was also, for me at least, the age when kids are awakened to the love of independent reading, and have plenty of time to indulge it. Most of my novels, published and not, fall into the “middle grade” or mg category; part of me still lives there. So when it comes time to recommend books for middle-grade readers, I’ve got a little list:
In the smoky prehistory of ancient Britain, a young warrior covets the power of the elderly chief and will sacrifice anything to get it, including love and esteem. Under pressure, the village mystery man begins fashioning a charm that will grant this power, and strikes from a shapeless hunk of flint a heart-shaped stone, as perfectly formed as though it were waiting in the rock to be released. The flint heart turns an ambitious young blowhard into a ruthless warlord whom everyone fears and no one loves, all the way until his unlamented death.
Centuries later, a Dartmoor farmer named Billy Jago uncovers the charm while digging for artifacts. After only minutes in Billy’s pocket the flint heart seeps its hardness into him, turning a simple, kindly man into a tyrant. His children don’t know what to do, so Charles, the middle son, and Unity, the wondering daughter, volunteer to seek advice from the local pixies. A fortuitous decision, for only magical creatures can direct them to the Zagabog, the wisest of beings, who has an answer for everything. But before it’s finally subdued, the flint heart will take a tour through other pockets and packs, working its malignance through other souls.
This is one of the most heralded books of the year, especially for the age level, so I’m going to join the parade. “The Flint Heart” was originally written by Eden Phillpotts, a prolific English author of the turn of the 20th century who settled in Dartmoor and made it the setting for over twenty novels and fantasies. I’m not familiar with his work, so I don’t know how free the Patersons’ adaptation is, but he couldn’t have asked for more capable adaptors. Katherine Paterson is probably the dean of children’s literature today: author of two Newberry award novels and many other honored books and stories (see our review of Brother Sun, Sister Moon). Her husband John is a (now-retired) Presbyterian pastor who has always been her head cheerleader, as well as an author in his own right. The full-color illustrations by John Rocco, formerly a computer animator for Dreamworks, have the depth and luminosity of N.C. Wyeth and look almost frame-ready for a Pixar film adaptation (I say that as a compliment).
Though the subject matter sounds grim, it’s no spoiler to say that all ends happily, with the reader happily acquainted with several winsome characters on the journey: the intrepid Charles and wondering Unity, the comically self-important DeQuincey, the likeably pathetic Marsh Galloper, and Bismarck, the tragic hot-water bottle.
Is there a moral? If you insist, though the Zagabog understands that stories have their own integrity without the weight of a “lesson.” The Patersons hint at a political message, to which I say, Let’s give that a rest. Here’s what I get out of it: 1) Anybody can be rotten, depending on their circumstances (note the Zagabog’s story about the tortoise and the hare and point of view). 2) Rottenness is a matter of the heart (see Jer. 9:17). 3) Self-respect is a thing worth having, but self-importance (especially of the O.M., “Oberve Me!” sort) can become quite tiresome. 4) Evil has no character of its own, but only as a parasite and perversion of the good (see Augustine). 5) “Everybody is somebody and I challenge anybody to deny it” (the Zagabog again, on why his volume of Who’s Who includes everyone), 6) “A woman’s wit, as I have remarked on former occasions, will often solve a knotty problem when the Profounder Male Mind utterly fails to do so” (the Pixie king, which must be one reason why he’s king).
The story is rather episodic, but the rich cast of characters, gentle humor, and lilting language make this a great read-aloud for all ages.
And here are my other top picks for middle-grade readers:
Heart of a Samurai – The true adventures of Manjiro, a teenaged Japanese sailor rescued from shipwreck by an American whaling ship; his life in America and his eventual return to his native land. A Newbery honor book that fully deserves it.
The Year Money Grew on Trees – The quiet but nonetheless compelling account of a remarkable achievement by six kids who range in age from 9 to 13.
On the Blue Comet – Rags to riches, time travel, historical cameos, and train rides: what more could a kid want?
The Charlatan’s Boy – A journey to identity in the smoky swamps of an imaginary land, with a Mark-Twain accent.
The Brixton Brothers series – Steve Brixton follows his detective dream in the footsteps of fictional heroes Shawn and Kevin Bailey: far-fetched, good-hearted, and lots of fun.