One of my favorite authors as a kid was Margaret Peterson Haddix. I still have most of her novels on the bookshelf I reserve for childhood nostalgia books, and I’ve been re-reading some of them. This time around, I’ve been struck by something I could never have put into words when I was 10 or 12 years old: the books deal with real issues kids face through sci-fi and fantasy metaphors.
Let me explain. One of her books – Claim to Fame – is about a girl who can hear everything anyone says about her, no matter where they are. No real kid is going to have that experience, but kids do deal with gossip and peer pressure. They do worry about what their friends are saying behind their backs. Another book, Double Identity, is about a girl who is a clone of her older “sister”, who died in a car crash before she was born. Real children might feel that they are living in an older sibling’s shadow, and twins – the closest real-world equivalent to clones – certainly struggle to define themselves as individuals. Game Changer talks about school cliques, bullying, and popularity, but uses an alternate world where the nerds are popular and the jocks are outcasts to do so. Turnabout features two women who are aging backwards and are now teenagers. Aimed at an age group that may be dealing with losing grandparents or other older relatives, the book explores old age and death via characters the readers’ age in a way that would not be possible without the sci-fi element. And the Missing series is about time travel and historical mysteries, but it’s also about adopted kids who want to know where they come from – which happens to be different time periods instead of just different parents.
I think there’s a lot of value in this. Kids who read middle grade books are old enough to be dealing with serious issues, like identity, peer pressure, bullying, and even death, but not necessarily ready for books high schoolers or adults might read which address these issues directly. Tying it into the supernatural aspect of the story seems like a good way to let kids explore these issues without hitting too close to home. I know it certainly worked for me when I was younger.