As 2020 wrapped up many of my friends across social media lamented that they had not read as many books this year as they normally do. I had this problem as well. Very few books held my interest for more than a few pages. Each time a friend asked for advice on what to read to help them through this slump I suggested reading a middle grade fiction or “chapter book”.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
I often pick up a chapter book when I need a palette cleanser between heavier books and this year that habit found me reading Front Desk by Kelly Yang. The Tang family recently immigrated from China and are struggling to find their place in Southern California in the early 1990’s. Mr. and Mrs. Tang take a job as live-in managers at a small motel while Mia starts fifth grade. The reason I always suggest middle grade fiction is in its simplicity.
Middle grade fiction touches on the topics that humans face on a daily basis like friendship drama, family relationships, physical changes, and encounters with a new grown up world, but in a simple, straightforward way. The main characters are children who (hopefully) haven’t learned the adult art of ignoring their own feelings just to appease others so while they may not express themselves with finesse, they do it better than some adults in novels do. Compare how Jane Eyre expresses her unhappiness by running away from Thornfield Hall in the night versus Ramona Quimby who simply shouts “Guts!!!!” as she swings at the local playground. Maybe we need more gut-shouting and less slipping away in the night. The guilelessness of young main characters is refreshing.
Authors of middle grade fiction have to express complex topics like poverty in simple terms that their young readers will understand. Even though Mia is very intelligent she is still a 10 year old speaking English as a second language. She is not going to use five dollar words like penury and indigence when worrying about the hospital bill after Mrs. Tang is attacked. “But we’re dirt poor!” she exclaims to the hospital clerk after they deny the family relief.
My absolute favorite thing about children’s books is how they end. All the themes of the book are wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end. I know that life doesn’t always end with a pool party, but it sounds better than some endings we are faced with in adult novels and especially life.