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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Innocent Pleasures: The magic of middle-grade fiction

The Tufts English Society Instagram lies. Contrary to what the account’s introduction of me as the society’s public relations manager claims (and setting aside the question of whether a play can rightfully be considered a book), Sophocles’ “Antigone” (circa 441 B.C.) is not my favorite written work. The objective of this column is to uplift the practices that spark joy in us, to remove guilt from the equation of pleasure-partaking. Yet in the previous context, and most other ones, I won’t publicly profess my love for “The Seems: The Glitch in Sleep(2007) — my actual favorite book and possibly the closest thing I have to religion. It’s smart, clever, punny, begins with an NDA, raises philosophical queries about metaphysics and faith and is written for 10- to 14-year-olds.

I have long surpassed the age range of middle grade’s target audience, but I still devour books generally considered within the reading ability and interest of 8- to 12-year-olds on a daily basis. Middle-grade fiction often gets labeled as “juvenile” or “childish,” and while those descriptors are technically accurate, I disagree with their connotations. It is one of my core beliefs that there is something uniquely pure and real and transcendent about this literature and that its magic doesn’t have an expiration date. It touches upon universal and timeless themes of finding acceptance, purpose, family — and it’s fun.

As an English major, I feel guilty for spending my free time not reading “highbrow” literature but, instead, exploring worlds bursting with dragons and “tweenage” angst. But why? My love for reading as a child is what made me gravitate toward English classes, what motivated me to declare a major in English. These books are where I first learned empathy, fear, how to mispronounce facade and satyr, what narcolepsy is, the meaning of life. They’ve made me into the person I am today, a person who derives enjoyment from tracing the development of characters in 19th-century British literature and early 2000s middle-grade fantasy alike.

I’m currently TA-ing a course on epics in which we’re comparing the stories of various ancient cultures, stories featuring monsters and demons and magic that have been the study of scholars for centuries. Neither the material nor the work we’re doing with it is taken any less seriously because of the fantastical content that was meant to appeal to all ages, and our discussions reveal the historical and contemporary significance of such works.

Yet something doesn’t need to have hidden depth for us to justifiably enjoy it. It can simply be an escape, and middle grade’s trademark mixture of humor and heart is perfect for that. I never had an official “Percy Jacksonphase — I was scarred after getting in trouble for reading “The Sea of Monsters” (2006) during class time — but lately I’ve been traversing campus with a spring in my step. My secret? I’m listening to the series on audiobook, contemplating how the 100-eyed Argus winks — with all eyes but one open, all but one closed, 50-50, somewhere in between? It’s a puzzle that blows the Mike Wazowski debate out of the water, and I’m reminding myself that you can never be too old for this.