Realism in Middle Grade Lit

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, both published in 2009, reveal important concepts and trends in American literature through their comparison. Primarily the author’s choice of using sci-fi/fantasy or American Realism in children’s literature from the protagonist’s point of view as a resolution to the conflict is a crucial trend with important implications in literature and society.

Sci-fi, fantasy and dystopian are the hottest selling books in the children’s market. The Hunger Games, Twilight, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, attest to the fact that fantasy dominates the young reader market. Authors who study literary trends see the reaction in agent’s bio’s. Some agents write, please send dystopian, others write, I’m tired of vampires and wizards.

I love these fantasy/sci-fi books. I think in part they speak to a frustration with technology. The Hunger Games reflects a greater mistrust of power and technology, an angst about where the reliance on technology is leading us, and an important reminder that perhaps in the future, what will matter to our survival is truly more of pre-tech abilities; Katniss makes her way with only a bow and arrow, good nature, wits, and moral integrity.

After reading these books I am desirous of books that look at similar concepts through a realistic lens. I think, dystopian literature imagines a world where we may have lost the battle against problems like global warming, hunger, poverty or war. How can I create books that look at these issues realistically and empower people way before the worlds dystopian literature imagines? How can we create literature that empowers readers to confront the world as it is today understanding our history?

When I speak to children, I think some are unrealistically informed by video games. They play characters in games that have no real limitations. They can fly, jump, transform and so forth. In the actual world, this obviously is not the case. I think the preponderance of fantasy and sci-fi in literature unchecked can serve to reenforce a learned helplessness in reality.

That desire inspired the writing of my books “The Home Run That Tours America” and “How to Build An Impossible Bottle.” In these books, I try to reveal how magic, fantasy or sci-fi literary elements are actually possible through attitudes toward Realism. In “The Home Run That Tours America,” the characters have only the limitations of the actual world and they overcome these challenges and become superheroes of a sort. The same is true for “How to Build An Impossible Bottle.” These characters have no greater power than the world in which we actually live in. Nothing that the children in my books accomplish is impossible for any child anywhere.

In The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, eleven-year-old Calpurnia Tate discovers her love for nature and an ambition to become a scientist.  You can’t help but fall in love with Kelly’s character Callie, her Texas charm, spunk and determination. This book is truly moving and inspiring; when you put the book down, you feel inspired to learn more about nature and imagine that Callie is also pursuing a love of science in her future.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead also features a protagonist in the same age group, Miranda. Like Callie, Miranda is learning to negotiate independence in her environment. This negotiation demands she learn new strengths and hone existing talents. Miranda has a different type of spunk: New York street smarts.  My cousin grew up in New York City close to the same year during the same age, and I immediately recalled our own adventures in the city and how we imagined science-fictional properties in our environment, even the elevator.

A main difference between the two stories is “Calpurnia Tate” is written using American Realism while “When You Reach Me” uses science fiction and fantasy to drive the story.

One reason these stories interest me is my opinion that: Realism presents opportunity for the impression of science-fiction and magic without actually requiring any fantasy elements and this impression is what moves and reveals human nature.

In my book “How to Build An Impossible Bottle”, I use only American Realism, but there is a constant impression that something fantastic or magical might happen at any moment. The anti-climactic fact that nothing magical ever happens, and that only the children interpret realism with magical or fantastic properties in my opinion is what is most moving. The third act of “Impossible Bottle” is a let down near the beginning from one point of view, because there is no magic at all. However, though the reader is disappointed by this lack of magic despite the hint of magical properties, this makes the ending far more emotionally resonant. When Lucas lands a Monday on Monday in the story is my dramatic description of this concept. From the beginning of the story, there is the hint of some otherworldly magic, but there actually isn’t any at all. When Lucas’ grandpa dies and the children think it is from “mayday” there of course is actually no causal relationship, but this is my opinion of how children make sense of the world.

Great books to look further into this concept are “Half Magic” and “The Magic Treehouse.”

to be continued . . .

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