Why Adults Should Read Middle Grade Books

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Tirzah Price

Senior Contributing Editor

Most of Tirzah Price's life decisions have been motivated by a desire to read as many books as humanly possible. Tirzah holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and has worked as an independent bookseller and librarian. She’s also the author of the Jane Austen Murder Mysteries, published by HarperTeen, and Bibliologist at TBR: Tailored Book Recommendations. Follow her on Twitter @TirzahPrice.

The TV show Ted Lasso was not at all on my radar until I started to hear about it everywhere — from friends, on social media, and even on my professional Slack network. I am not a sports person, but I do succumb to peer pressure when it comes to certain media, and like many I devoured the AppleTV show in a single weekend. One of my favorite episodes in season 1 is episode 3, “Trent Crimm: The Independent.” In it, Coach Lasso is working hard to connect to his new football team and inspire them to make some essential changes in how they interact with one another. In order to accomplish that, he gives them all books that he hand-picks for their various needs and personalities. To surly, gruff team captain Roy Kent, who resents Coach Lasso’s upbeat attitude, Lasso gifts a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

Roy and Keely from Ted Lasso standing side by side, Roy is reading a copy of A Wrinkle in Time

Roy reluctantly starts reading the book, which at first he dismisses as a book about a “little girl.” L’Engle’s classic is about Meg, a young girl whose father has disappeared. She learns that he is being held captive by an evil force on the other side of the universe, and she must rescue him with the help of three mysterious entities. In one of my favorite scenes in the entire first season, Roy is reading the book aloud to his niece when he comes across a passage that illuminates why Coach Lasso gifted him the book in the first place. “Fuck!” he yells when the realization hits, because he now understands what he needs to do next in order to bring his team together.

It’s one of the most relatable moments of the show for me, and I think it speaks to the subtle, quiet power of children’s books. Adults tend to view books written for children as childish or just silly entertainment, but those of us who write for kids (and teens) know that there is usually a lot more going on underneath the surface. We assume these books are childish, but that’s the deception: Children’s books tend to contain the same big, complex ideas about life that adult novels do…but they’re conveyed in such a way that a young reader can grasp them.

However, I don’t think that a children’s book has to contain a lesson or be emotionally complex in order to be valuable to child or adult readers. As adults, we read books that are entertaining or silly or simply fun escapes, and children’s lit can be that, too. The value in returning to these books as adults is in reminding ourselves what it’s like to be a kid, to gain a different perspective on the world, and to expand our understanding of different experiences and communities. And, of course, to be entertained.

The exciting thing about children’s literature is that it’s constantly changing, so if you’re an adult reading this, there are some amazing books that have been published since your elementary and middle school days, and children’s writers are constantly elevating the field with their incredible writing and stories. Even if you don’t have any kids in your life, there is no one stopping you from picking up some amazing children’s books that run the range from silly to serious and will help expand your perspective. Here is just a small selection of some amazing children’s books that adults should read, too:

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue

Yes, this is the same Emma Donoghue who wrote Room, Frog Music, and many other acclaimed adult novels. In her middle grade debut, she spins a tale that is a queer, inclusive update on the classic family genre novel. This is the story of two pairs of queer parents co-parenting their big family in an old Victorian house in Toronto, told from the point of view of young Sumac. Sumac’s life changes when the father of one of her dads must come to live with them, and he openly disapproves of their lifestyle.

Amari and the Night Brothers cover

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

For a fun fantasy escape about the true meaning of family, loyalty, and trust, this is a must-read about Amari, who is still reeling from the disappearance of her older brother. When she’s invited to join the same elite summer program that he attended, she discovers it’s a front for a magical world where her brother was revered as a legend. Amari sets out to find out what really happened to her brother, but her task is complicated when her magic is deemed so powerful that it’s illegal.

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Set in modern day Pakistan, this is a moving book about resilience and one girl’s pursuit of an education. Amal’s family is poor, and when Amal unintentionally insults the richest man in their village, he calls in her parents’ debt. Forced to drop out of school and become an indentured servant to the family, Amal never stops dreaming of becoming a teacher, and searching for ways to get back home.

Small Spaces cover

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

If you like horror novels, this is legitimately one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read. It’s about Ollie, who lost her mom before the book starts and is happy to keep her nose in a book and ignore the world around her. When her bus breaks down after a school trip to a farm, she gets a bad feeling…and she two classmates escape out of the back of the bus before their classmates are kidnapped by a malevolent force. Ollie must learn how to open herself up to friendship and connection in order to save her class.

Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

If you enjoy immersive historical fiction, then this book is definitely for you. Ellie’s family has lost everything in the Great Depression, so they take all they own and head up Echo Mountain, where they become homesteaders. But when a tragic accident gravely injures Ellie’s father and Ellie is blamed, the family’s tenuous grasp on stability is threatened. Ellie has a talent for reading nature and understanding its healing powers, and when she helps an old woman, rumored to be a witch, she begins to wonder if maybe she can somehow save her father.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

For an incredible book that looks at timely social justice issues, pick up this book about Zoe Washington, a 12-year-old aspiring baker who connects with her biological father, Marcus, on her birthday. She has always known Marcus is in prison, but when she begins a pen pal relationship with him she learns the circumstances that landed him there, and discovers that he’s maintains his innocence. Zoe decides that she’s going to track down a key witness who might be able to clear Marcus’s name…but convincing others in her family to give Marcus a chance might prove to be the real challenge.

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Set in England during WWII, this is an empowering novel about Ada, who has never once left her flat in London until the children of the city are sent to the countryside. Ada has a physical disability, and her mother’s shame has kept Ada hidden away from the world. As Ada’s world is transformed and expanded in the countryside, she must confront her anger at people who would underestimate her and the mother that rejected her, even as the country is fighting a deadly war.

Front desk cover

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read about how complicated “adult” issues can have a direct impact on kids. Mia and her family are Chinese immigrants trying to make a living in the U.S., but it’s incredibly hard. They seem to catch a break when Mia’s parents are hired to run a motel, but the cruel owner has tricked them into an exploitative situation and there doesn’t seem to be any way out. As Mia works at honing her voice, she discovers other immigrants are in far worse situations, and decides it’s time that they band together and speak up for their rights.

This is just a small selection of amazing kid lit out now, but if you want to explore more great reads, consider asking a librarian or teacher for a recommendation, or picking up a book you remember reading and loving as a kid!