Fantasy fiction and the Middle-grade reader

As a school librarian, part of my degree focused on understanding the stages a reader goes through from small child to adult and what kinds of books and stories appeal to readers in the different stages of reading development. An American language professor, Joseph Albert Appleyard suggests there are five stages or roles a reader will navigate as they grow older. He presented these roles in the book Becoming a Reader: The Experience of Fiction from Childhood to Adulthood in 1990.

Appleyard’s five reading roles from childhood to adulthood:
  1. The Player – the preschooler, not yet a reader, that listens to stories and learns to become a confident player in an imaginary world.
  2. The Hero and Heroine – the school-age child, continuously adapting and filling in their picture of the world and how people behave in it, who uses stories as an escape to a more organised and less ambiguous world.
  3. The Thinker – the adolescent reader who searching for insight into the meaning of life, authentic role models to imitate and worthy values and belief systems to adopt.
  4. The Interpreter – the college-age reader or teacher who studies literature systematically in order to analyse and interpret a deeper understanding of the text. 
  5. The Pragmatic Reader – the adult reader who combines the four previous roles when reading to escape, to search for insight, to enjoy the literary beauty presented to them, to challenge themselves and to find comfort and wisdom.

The Middle-Grade (MG) reader has reached the second stage in their reading development – the reader as a Hero and Heroine. 

  • They are between 7 and 12 years old. 
  • Their cognitive abilities are evolving and they are capable of organising information. 
  • They are able to reflect over their thoughts and actions.
  • They are less impulsive, having more in self-control and self-awareness than those still in the first stage. 
  • They are curious to explore the world around them and understand how it works.

The MG reader is fairly instinctively drawn to fiction with young heroes and heroines they can identify with and the well established tradition of the “heroes journey” features prominently in fantasy literature as a whole and in MG fantasy fiction in particular. The variations of the hero’s story are endless and more are published every year, but in many ways these stories exist within a framework the MG reader is familiar with, one that promises safe passage while exposing them to danger and problems that need to be solved.

To evolve and cope with the challenges in life they are exposed to, the MG reader needs courage and faith that all will end well. Fantasy themed books with young heroes and heroines can be a strong support for the MG reader and, as such, are a definite favourite with this age group.

The late Dave Farland calls these books: Wonder literature!

Wonder literature is defined by a sense of amazement when you come across something new, something you can’t always explain. Bestsellers within this category, have a sense of wonder on every page, in every room your character steps into and with every person they meet. Farland maintained that this sense of wonder provides anticipation and increases suspense until you find out what is going on and get the “ah-ha” and wow effect and that “…experiencing wonder as a child is something we often remember long into adulthood and should therefore be cultivated with care in children’s literature.” 

In analysing the draw books have on the MG reader, Farland proposes that wonder literature holds a 100% draw to both boys and girls. Humour has a 96% draw, age appropriate horror 92%, adventure 90% and mystery 80-82%. As such he summarises that the MG reader “will enjoy books with a strong sense of wonder, some humour, some adventure, some mystery and a little bit of age appropriate horror.”

And there you have it! The theory of fantasy – or wonder – literature as it relates to the MG reader, from my studies as a school librarian and in Dave Farland’s creative writing courses. 

I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me!

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