By Alana Joli Abbott
In 2020, my social media feeds were full of adults who were struggling to read. With everything going on, it was hard to focus. Readers who could read were looking for comfort. Readers were looking for shorter reads that were likely to have happy endings. So it didn’t surprise me to see a lot of adults turn to middle grade as a way to escape the chaos of the real world.
You’ll see articles about once a year about why YA and middle grade (MG) books are—for some bizarre reason—lesser than adult novels. Those pieces are usually published in large periodicals, but despite that, their click-bait titles seem designed to provoke outrage among those who disagree and a feeling of smug superiority from those who like to look at others. To those articles, I say phooey. I read MG books as a kid. I kept reading MG books through high school and college, on through my years as a young publishing professional working part time at bookstores and libraries to make ends meet. I continued reading MG until my kid caught up with me, and now we share the books and fight over who gets to read them first (sometimes literally).
Why? Because MG books are good. Right now MG fantasy is going through an incredible period with so many good titles, it’s hard to keep up. The surge in diverse fantasy, particularly, is inspiring: middle graders (and adults) have an opportunity to see through so many windows—and some, for the first time, to see mirrors of themselves represented on the page—that the MG fantasy genre is clearly thriving. These books are going new cool places, telling stories we haven’t seen published before—or taking old stories we love and giving them a twist that shows us more about where we’ve been and where we’re going.
If you haven’t been reading MG fantasy all along, it’s not too late to start. Here are my current top five MG fantasies you should read.
Amari’s brother is missing, and though the police have written him off (so many young men from neighborhoods like theirs get involved with bad elements, after all), Amari is determined to find him. When she receives a mysterious briefcase from her brother, it opens a huge new magical world—one that reveals her brother’s secrets and opens new doors for her to find him. He’s recommended her for a spot at magical summer camp in the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. When she arrives, she quickly makes friends with her roommate, Elsie, a were-dragon who hasn’t been able to shift—who’s also a genius inventor. But things start looking bad for Amari when she’s tested for her supernatural ability, only to find out that her own gift is considered illegal in the magical world, and that everyone expects her to become a supervillain. Despite the difficulties training for Junior Agent (and in being paired with golden boy Dylan Van Helsing, who might just become a friend, but whose sister Lara hates her guts), Amari’s not going to give up on her brother. And as she works on finding him, she might just end up saving the supernatural world.
Why adults should read it:
The comparisons of Amari’s adventures to a certain wizard’s adventures at Hogwarts are easy to make: B. B. Alston’s world has the same whimsy that I loved when I first read the Harry Potter series. (There are talking elevators, each with their own personalities; Yetis are known troublemakers and environmental activists; aliens had to help tow Apollo 11 to the moon.) As many adults who grew up with that familiar and famous series are angry about the author’s transphobic statements, a lot of us have been looking for new books that capture the same magic we felt when we read her works. Amari’s not a repeat in any way—she’s her own unique person in her own unique world—but the feelings I got from her world exactly filled that need.
Better still, Alston’s world reminded me of Anton Strout’s Department of Extraordinary Affairs in his Simon Canderous series (which has frequently been compared with Men in Black). We only get glimpses of the adult world where Amari’s brother worked, but the sense of the Bureau being a department that manages human interactions with the supernatural, and the campers being trained to directly become a part of that world when they’re adults, felt like a really sensible way to mix the normal world with the supernatural one. Anton was an Outland contributor who passed away last year, and we’ve deeply felt his loss (you can still help his family here); to read a book that so positively reminded me of what I’d loved about his works was a kindness from the universe I didn’t expect.
While these comparisons are all positive, Amari and the Night Brothers is more than just a book that reminds me of things I loved about other books. It’s a great story with a strong-voiced young narrator who struggles against the expectations of others. In the human world, she faces prejudice from her schoolmates at a private school because she’s a scholarship student (poor) and because she’s Black. In the Bureau, she faces similar prejudice because of her supernatural abilities. Alston doesn’t shy away from showing us her struggle, or her resilience. He also surrounds her with a caring community: her family, her mentors, and Elsie (who is a great character in her own right). It’s a truly enjoyable read, and while this one stands alone, I’m looking forward to seeing future episodes of Amari’s adventures.
Pong, a boy born in prison, believes that once he turns thirteen and is released, he’ll have a bright future ahead of him. Perhaps one day he’ll even work for the Governor, the man who brought light back to Chattana after a fire destroyed the city. But when he meets the Governor, he realizes his faith is misplaced, and if he wants true freedom, he’ll have to claim it for himself. Nok, the prison warden’s daughter, always follows the rules; when she accidentally discovers Pong years after his escape, she’s determined to catch him, restoring her family’s honor and proving herself to everyone. But as she journeys through the darker side of Chattana, she makes discoveries that force her to question her own beliefs about right and wrong, and who deserves to have light shine on them.
Why adults should read it:
I’ll admit to everyone here that I haven’t read, watched, or even listened to the full score for Les Misérables. I do know just enough about the story to see the resonance Soontornvat intended when she calls this novel her twist on Victor Hugo’s story. I think adults who love Les Misérables, and I know there are many, will get a lot out of seeing the ways Soontornvat has taken the themes and ideas in Hugo’s work and transported them from Paris to a Thai-inspired fantasy world.
Soontornvat doesn’t shy away from issues of justice in the story, either. Some of the characters are forced, over the course of the novel, to confront their own privilege, a theme that resonated with me as such conversations have become a huge part of my own social discourse. She does a fantastic job of balancing the needs of middle grade fiction in presenting these problems with the sheer complexity of the issues surrounding poverty, incarceration, and justice, and while most of the answers that the characters arrive at in the novel don’t have direct real-world equivalents…some of them do. And it’s inspiring to see that presented with such empathy within a beautifully drawn fantasy world.
Sal Vidón has a problem. He misses his Mami Muerta so much after her death that he keeps pulling alternate versions of her into his reality through the weave of the multiverse. This isn’t just a problem for his family (Mami Muerta is not a huge fan of seeing Sal’s Papi married to American Stepmom), it’s also potentially a problem for the sheer fabric of the multiverse. Every time Sal pulls anything through time and space, particles called calimtrons shed everywhere. This ability is a secret—until he meets Gabi Reál, student body president and future investigative reporter (if not president), who knows something is going on with Sal, she just has to figure out what. As the two of them start to put their heads together, it becomes clear that sometimes the only solution to fixing a problem is breaking a few eggs (or a chicken) in the process…
Why adults should read it:
I cannot say enough good things about Sal and Gabi, as is pretty clear from my social media and articles I’ve written elsewhere. Carlos Hernandez (who, disclosure, has contributed to Outland projects) does this incredible job of crafting a story that’s got humor, adventure, friendship, deeply empathetic characters, and wacky science fiction. He also does some really amazing things with structure that, on first read, you may not care about because you’re just having too much fun reading. For the savvy adult student of literature, however, you can check out these elements:
- Lack of a principle antagonist. This series doesn’t fit into any of the easy “Man vs.” conflict structures they taught when I was in high school.
- Worldbuilding on the go. Understanding Sal and Gabi’s world is like unfolding origami. Each time you see one part of it, a little more gets revealed. This is especially true because the multiverse keeps expanding the deeper readers get into the series.
- Characters with agency. Sal and Gabi are both fully fleshed, deep characters, who make choices and deal with their own consequences. Sometimes these are big, and sometimes they’re small, but that choice/consequence element is present throughout. Hernandez does this without any of the traditional shortcuts of middle grade (orphaned children with too little supervision, etc.). In fact, Sal and Gabi have wonderfully supportive communities surrounding them; Gabi’s nontraditional family is especially wonderful. Even secondary characters (including a complex and sympathetically drawn bully) have the feeling of full lives we’re only just peeking into through Sal’s first-person narration.
- AI ethics. The story doesn’t delve into issues of ethics and artificial intelligence, but it poses a lot of questions that will stick with readers well after they’ve finished reading. It’s hilarious to have an AI toilet be the moral center of Break the Universe—but what implications does that have for the way we think about AI, or moral centers, or privacy?
- Multiple epilogues. I am pretty sure no one has done as many epilogues as Break the Universe since Tolkien.
Another cool feature for grown ups: you get a whole extra book that the middle graders don’t. Sal and Gabi originated as adult characters in Hernandez’s short story collection An Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. These stories tackle some of the same themes as the middle grade novels, but with more adult content and even more challenging ethical questions to tackle.
So many more
Have I whet your appetite? Great! Because I have so many more titles to recommend!
- The Sal and Gabi books are part of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, which is producing these tremendously awesome middle grade fantasies. I’ve liked every single one I’ve read, so if this list isn’t enough for you, start there.
- Like Shakespeare? Check out Rajani LaRocca’s Midsummer’s Mayhem, which takes Midsummer Night’s Dream for a spin in small town Massachusetts.
- Like martial arts movies? Katie Zhao’s The Dragon Warrior and its sequel The Fallen Hero set Chinese mythology in American Chinatowns.
- Ever wanted Einstein to show up in a fantasy that mixes astronomy with rakkosh demons and serpent kings? Sayantani Dasgupta’s “Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond” does all that, also drawing on reality television and pop culture.
What middle grade fantasy novels would you recommend to fellow adult readers? Tell us in the comments!