Magic in the Middle
by Jeff NortonThe middle grade years are the inflection point of childhood. They are the make or break years for morality, empathy, and of course…reading.
For me, like a lot of middle grade boys, I loathed reading.
I wasn’t a strong reader, so I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t practice, and thus I didn’t get any better. Our culture teaches boys to only pursue things you can “win” at. And I wasn’t winning at reading. It was a downward spiral that consumes too many middle graders, especially boys, during this critical life stage.
Luckily, during this inflection period, I had both a dedicated school librarian and trained teachers (in a state school in Canada) watching my back. While certainly below my reading level, I devoured the interactive Choose Your Own Adventure book series. They weren’t great literature, but they were compelling enough to pull me away from video games. I must’ve read at least seventy of them. What I didn’t know then was that I was practicing at reading. Nobody had ever told me I had to practice at reading, as grown-ups tended to reserve that important tip for sports, music, and theatre.
I then discovered the comedic tales of an author called Gordon Korman, who was basically like the Jeff Kinney of Canada in the mid 1980s. He was a prolific writer of funny MG novels and I devoured them all! As I approached twelve, having practiced on Choose Your On Adventure and then established a reading habit with the funny stuff, my teacher gave me a book so chilling I still lose sleep over it. It was called After The Bomb, by Gloria Miklowitz, about the accidental explosion of a nuke over Los Angeles. I was a slow reader, but read the frightening pages long into the night; risking the wrath of my overtired parents who’d yell at me to “get to bed!” I didn’t like getting in trouble, but I desperately wanted to know what happened next. I learned then that a great story gets you in trouble!
As an author now, that’s my goal… to get young readers in trouble. I strive to write the kinds of stories that are addictive and compelling; tales that are competitive with video games or as funny as the best of Pixar. I want to keep kids up past their bed times, reading my books by torch light until their parents get fed up, storm into the room, snatch the torch, and tell them to “get to bed.” And what I tell young people now is to keep a spare torch under the bed to keep reading. Because once you get hooked in middle grade, you’ll never, ever stop!
Jeff Norton is the author of ‘Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie’ and the ‘MetaWars’ saga. He tweets as @thejeffnorton and is still a slow reader.