Don't Judge a Cow By Its Spots, Or, You Know, a Book By Its Cover: Guest Post by Denis Markell

Don't Judge a Cow By Its Spots, Or, You Know, a Book By Its Cover: Guest Post by Denis Markell

“How to Explain to That Parent You Met at the Playground Why Middle‐Grade Is NOT Just for Tweens, in Five Books or Less”
or “No, (sigh), I don’t write YA”



If you’re reading this blog, perhaps you’re one of the happy people who have continued to read middle‐grade even as you’ve grown older . . . since you’re an open‐minded person who just loves good books. Or you’re a teacher or librarian or book blogger, in which case you kind of have to.

But . . . you might just be someone who has studiously avoided middle‐grade since you were, oh, thirteen or so. For you, it’s YA or nothing. Aha! Yes, I’m looking at YOU. Hear me out. You CAN still read middle‐grade . . . and like it!

Five reasons (of the MANY) you should read middle‐grade:

  1. You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover. There are many middle‐grade books about issues like who will win the school election or the talent show, which really only apply to the under‐fourteen set. Then there are the stealthy books that brilliantly tackle complex topics but hide them in bright shiny packages. Such as:

    The Origami Yoda books by Tom Angleberger
    This series touches on subjects as diverse as tolerance for those who are differently abled; kids working together to fight a common enemy; and the systematic problems in today’s test‐driven public school system. The books tackle all these things and more, in a funny and delightful format that uses different narrative voices and points of view to tell layered and timely stories in a deceptively simple way. There is MUCH more here than meets the eye. Truly the best middle‐grade series out there.

  2. You want scary? We’ve got scary. Okay, certain topics that gave you the shivers when you were eleven might not do it for you now. So if the three most terrifying words you can hear aren’t “The Killer Toy” but rather “Another Root Canal,” there are middle‐ grade books that can find that tap into your primal fears and really get you spooked, and none does it better than:

    The Nest by Kenneth Oppel
    You want three terrifying three words? How about “giant wasp queen”? No, that’s not a reference to Martha Stewart, but rather to an ACTUAL giant wasp queen, who alternatively comforts and terrifies the narrator of this unsettling and brilliant book.
    The Nest also features some of the sparest and most beautiful fantasy prose this side of Ray Bradbury. It will not disappoint you, I promise.

  3. Funny Is as Funny Does. There have always been funny middle‐grade books that seem pitched as much toward the older reader as to the children they are written for. For

years now, publishers (and older readers) have been looking for the next Lemony Snicket. The truth is, there’s been someone writing happily (and hugely successfully) right under our noses all along. He’s a god of middle‐grade, but adults will find him equally hilarious. Especially with his masterpiece:

The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung‐Fu Cavemen from the Future by Dav Pilkey
Pilkey, best known for his Captain Underpants books (which in their sly way hide among the fart and poop jokes messages of tolerance and inclusion and celebrate kids who learn differently), here not only takes on the threat of ecological disaster, but also actually teaches lessons derived from Eastern philosophy (and a few kung‐fu movies) in ways that will be simultaneously enlightening and stupidly silly to almost everyone. Okay, maybe you need a fondness for a certain kind of messy comedy, but there is joy in Pilkey’s love for bodily functions and how funny they are—a real harkening back to Chaucer and even Aristophanes. And if you’re excited to find Aristophanes and Captain Underpants mentioned in the same paragraph, then you’re my kind of reader.

4. This Book Is History. Perhaps you remember nonfiction in your middle‐school days as a simplified or whitewashed recitation of dates and events, told in dry‐as‐dust prose. Nonfiction has had a bum rap for a while. But if you haven’t looked at middle‐grade nonfiction in the last few decades, the extraordinary work being done today will come as a revelation. Today’s nonfiction writers take it upon themselves to uncover untold stories and uncelebrated people, adding new chapters to our national narrative. Especially welcome are stories giving a voice and face to cultures that, sadly, are often marginalized. Or taking a moment in history and really showing why we need to revisit it. One example is the masterful:

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve

This book has been widely praised within the teaching and middle‐grade community; it is essential reading for adults as well as children. Sheinkin traces the life and career of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and shows how our involvement in the Vietnam War not only influenced foreign policy, but began the culture clash that continues to this day. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that after reading this, the words “Secretary Henry Kissinger” will be as terrifying as “giant wasp queen,” but they might come close. Sheinkin has written other equally brilliant books, but this one is so timely and necessary that it begs to be read now.

And finally:

5. The Surprise Ending. You KNOW you want to reread them: The Phantom Tollbooth. Charlotte’s Web. A Wrinkle in Time. The list goes on. And of course, they are ALL middle‐ grade. Maybe they were written at a time when such classifications weren’t used (happy

days of yore!), but today they are certainly put in that category. The classics remain classic, and you needn’t wait to have children the right age to pick them up again.

And here’s another secret: there are new middle‐grade books being written even as we speak! Imagine that! And who knows? Perhaps one of them will be the next classic. (Full disclosure: My middle‐grade novel, Click Here to Start, is being published this summer, but I would never PRESUME to put it in that category. It is a trifle, a mere bagatelle!)

What I do know is that you can’t go wrong with the other books on this list. And these are just the beginning.

It’s important to point out that although the four books I’ve mentioned above were all written by white men (which was just coincidence), there are loads of fantastic middle‐ grade novels being written by women and people of color and every gender under the rainbow.

Just remember: middle‐grade is just a label, and unlike those hideous clothes you wore in middle school, you never have to be embarrassed to be seen with a good book.

Denis Markell can often be seen reading middle grade books with great pleasure.

His own debut middle grade novel CLICK HERE TO START (an Amazon Best Book selection for July 2016) comes out July 19th. 


Young fans of Ernie Cline's Ready Player One will love this classic video game inspired mystery filled with elements of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. 

What if playing video games was prepping you to solve an incredible real-world puzzle and locate a priceless treasure?

Twelve-year-old Ted Gerson has spent most of his summer playing video games. So when his great-uncle dies and bequeaths him the all so-called treasure in his overstuffed junk shop of an apartment, Ted explores it like it’s another level to beat. And to his shock, he finds that eccentric Great-Uncle Ted actually has set the place up like a real-life escape-the-room game!

Using his specially honed skills, Ted sets off to win the greatest game he’s ever played, with help from his friends Caleb and Isabel. Together they discover that Uncle Ted’s “treasure” might be exactly that—real gold and jewels found by a Japanese American unit that served in World War II. With each puzzle Ted and his friends solve, they get closer to unraveling the mystery—but someone dangerous is hot on their heels, and he’s not about to let them get away with the fortune.

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