The magic of the middle reader – Diane Rios

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By Diane Rios

Magic. Wonder. Talking animals. The world of the middle reader is a marvelous one. Brim-full of imagination, creativity, and immaculate storytelling, middle readers are one of the most important genres in literature.

We never forget our first friends in fiction, even as adults. Before the adolescent angst sets in, before the worries of adulthood and the pressure of being cool overwhelm our lives, we read middle readers. And for a time, we are utterly transported to worlds beyond our comprehension. We accompany heroes and heroines such as Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth, or James in James and the Giant Peach, or Charlie and his amazing Chocolate Factory on their wondrous adventures, and nothing else is needed. What more could be needed?

Within the pages of these books we have the best friends we could ask for, the coziest scenes we could imagine, and the most exciting adventures. These brilliant stories educate, entertain, and inspire us, they make us laugh, and if we were honest with ourselves, probably taught us most of what we needed to know in life.

There is so much to be said for charm, wit, and gentleness. Middle readers accomplish that and so much more. In my opinion they are:

1. A balm to the spirit, and I believe a child needs that, growing up. We all do. We are all constantly bombarded with noisy intensity, suffering, fear, and drama, in the name of entertainment. Film, television, books and games all buy into this paradigm, and it is bad for our health, and bad for society. In the middle of this chaos the middle reader gives us permission to relax, to savor, to imagine.

2. They give us a passport out of the petty, painful world, and teaches us how to solve problems with creativity. In my opinion the middle reader is an unsung hero of literature, and too often dismissed as “just for kids.” This is far from the truth.

3. The middle reader is an important development tool, one that not only teaches vocabulary and grammar, but that teaches us about life – about our own value systems. They give us a more benign filter through which to view life. They are full of complex, intriguing, and downright hilarious characters, that can – as in my case – become life-long friends, and teachers.

Even at 50 I still call Dorothy Gale of Oz a friend. She inspired me because she never lost her cool. Dorothy’s sheer pluck in the face of the crazy Nome King, or frightening Hottentots, the hammer-swinging giant, or Mombi the witch – helped me face my own challenges as a nomadic hippy kid in the 1970s.

Another old friend of mine who dates back even further is Laura Ingalls Wilder. And she feels even more real than Dorothy because she WAS real. Her stories were true – just like mine were. Though living a hundred years apart, I found we had a lot in common. My parents were hippies and we lived on the road for three years. Laura traveled in a covered wagon, I in a house truck. She drew water from the creek and so did I. She froze in the winter and burned in the summer, and so did I. Her parents made things by hand, as mine did. I felt like I was Laura sometimes – driving across the United States in a covered wagon or a hippie house truck, both of us on an adventure not of our own making. I remember really wishing my step dad played the fiddle!

A couple of other friends of mine live in the Times Square subway below New York City. I’m speaking of course, of Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat from “Harry Cat’s Pet Puppy”, the second in the Cricket in Times Square series, by George Selden. These characters go far beyond the normal range of a cat and a mouse, Selden gives them all the charm and wit of the best human characters, as well as the anxieties, vanities, and fears, but without any melodramatic, cloying, distracting emotional drama so common in the entertainment industry.

Now of course there is plenty of drama in the middle reader – just look at what poor Harry Potter had to go through! But somehow, in the middle reader it always seems to wrap up in a very satisfying, even comforting way. And that is important for all of us to see modeled.

The middle reader still deals with provocative, fairly adult themes. It just does so with restraint, and with charm. There is great excitement and drama stemming from Toad of Toad Hall in The Wind and the Willows, tear-jerking scenes between the mute stable boy Agba and an emaciated horse named Sham in King of the Wind, and plenty of nail-biting episodes in Stuart Little as the intrepid New York mouse searches far and wide for his lady love, a small brown bird named Margot. You can learn a lot from a dapper mouse in search of his lost lady love.

My shelves at home are full of my old middle reader friends. The name “middle reader” refers to the age of the reader, who is assumed to be in the “middle” – between picture books, early readers and young adult fiction. But I would rather say it is because the middle reader is truly for everyone. It is the genre in the middle of everything else. It is the place we can all come together. I could even say that it stands for The Middle Aged Reader, which I certainly am. It may be 2017, and I may be 50 years old, but I find I have an awful lot in common with a New York City mouse, a pioneer girl who lived a hundred years ago, and a Kansas orphan who travels by cyclone to a magical land. And I’ll bet you do, too.

Diane Rios lives in Portland with her husband and rescue dog. Her passion for the forests and coastline of Oregon stem from her own childhood spent living in the woods with her artisan parents. Real-life Oregon places mix with fantasy in her debut novel Bridge of the Gods, Book One in the Silver Mountain Series. Diane has been published as illustrator for Gayle Forman’s 2006 travel diary You Can’t Get There From Here on Rodale Press, and wrote and illustrated the whimsical picture book about a dog who wants to be a photographer in Dizzy’s Dream.

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