Not All Ice Cream and Teddy Bears: Tackling Heavy Subjects with Middle Grade Readers

by Jessica Vitalis
published in Writing

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. I suspect that’s a somewhat universal pastime given that we’re on what will hopefully be the tail-end of a global pandemic. But it’s also because my debut novel, The Wolf’s Curse, is narrated by a Grim Reaper-like character. I’m often asked why I chose to tackle such heavy subjects with middle grade readers. As one librarian recently pointed out, kids aren’t exactly banging down her door asking for books on death.

I’m sometimes tempted to respond to this query with one of my own: why wouldn’t I choose to tackle heavy subjects for middle grade readers? 

Even before the pandemic, kids were grappling with school shootings. And since the beginning of time, they’ve had to deal with the loss of loved ones––mother, fathers, extended family, friends, and community members. 

As a society, we like to pretend that childhood is a place of innocence and wonder, a place filled with ice cream and teddy bears, a place where nothing bad ever happens. 

That’s not to say that I don’t understand the temptation to shelter children, to provide them with books that reflect the gentler side of life. Those types of books are wonderful, and important. 

But keeping children from stories of loss and grief deprives them of a safe space to grapple with difficult subjects. It deprives them of the chance to reflect on their own beliefs, to internalize a model for how they might one day not only encounter trauma and survive, but thrive.

The Real Question

The question, then, isn’t why it’s important to tackle heavy subjects with middle grade readers––it’s how do we approach these subjects in a way that’s age-appropriate? 

For me, the answer comes in the form of writing fantasy. 

More specifically, I reinvented the traditional (and often frightening) Grim Reaper mythology to make it more kid-friendly. Instead of a skeletal figure dressed in black, my Reaper is an invisible Great White Wolf. And instead of exploring concepts like heaven and hell, I utilized my setting––a French-inspired fishing village––to create the Sea-in-the-Sky, where stars are lanterns lit by the departed while sailing to eternity. 

In replacing funerals with a Release ceremony, flowers with feathers, and coffins with boats, I’ve removed some of the immediacy of real death, giving readers the chance to approach the subject on their own terms and at their own comfort level. 

Knowing the Middle Grade Market

This is especially important because the middle grade market ranges from kids as young as eight all the way up to twelve and thirteen years old. The needs of kids on the younger end of that spectrum are far different than the needs of older readers. 

Fantasy books are unique in that they offer a layered reading experience, allowing each reader to pull from the book whatever they need depending on maturity and interests. Young readers or those who are looking for fun, adventure, mystery, and escape can find it in the pages of fantasy novels. Older readers looking for more depth and emotional resonance will tune in to the darker themes that younger readers may gloss over. 

Books such as Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate, The Boy, The Boat, and the Beast by Samantha M. Clark, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman are all great examples. 

Humor and Tackling Heavy Subjects with Middle Grade Readers

Another important tool in tackling heavy subjects with middle grade readers is the use of humor. In The Wolf’s Curse, the Wolf acts as an omniscient narrator, offering moments of levity with wry observations about the villagers’ many superstitions, including their insistence on carrying dead rabbits’ feet to protect them from death. 

Such moments offer young readers a reprieve, a release from the darker truths reflected on the pages. 

Author Tahereh Mafi uses this same tool with great results in her middle grade novel Whichwood, in which a young girl is tasked with washing souls from their bodies. She’s haunted by her mother’s ghost, a spirit she tolerates with observations such as, “Ghosts, it turns out, were excessively insecure creatures, offended by every imagined slight; they required constant coddling and found comfort only in their romantic musings on death––which, as you might imagine, made them miserable companions.”

Including humor can be particularly important when writing contemporary, realistic stories that tackle heavy subjects. Debut author Yvette Clark uses this technique in Glitter Gets Everywhere, a novel about a young British girl trying to cope with the loss of her mother. Among all the grief, the main character manages to find small moments of humor, such as turning her ponytail wearing, bully-squashing older sister into an imaginary superhero called “Ponytail Girl,” who she imagines will save the world and then film Youtube videos about avocado hair conditioners. 

Clark also utilizes quirky and humorous side characters, such as Mrs. Allison and her French bulldog, Sir Lancelot, who is described as a “glum-looking creature, constantly snuffling and with numerous digestive issues resulting in horrible farts…” These touches result in a story that doesn’t shy away from the grieving process, but still provides an enjoyable read. 

More than ever before, the middle grade market is opening up to books that address nearly every heavy topic out there; there’s no doubt that writing these stories can be a challenge and carry a great responsibility, but offering young readers books to help them process traumatic events is essential, and incorporating fantasy and humor can help make the stories more palatable for the young readers we’re trying to reach. 


Jessica Vitalis is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer. After leaving home at 16, Vitalis explored several careers before turning her talents to middle grade literature. She brings her experience growing up in a nontraditional childhood to her stories, exploring themes such as death and grief, domestic violence, and socio-economic disparities. With a mission to write thought-provoking and entertaining literature, she often includes magic and fantastical settings. As an active volunteer in the kidlit community, she’s also passionate about using her privilege to lift up other voices. In addition to volunteering with We Need Diverse Books and Pitch Wars, she founded Magic in the Middle, a series of free monthly recorded book talks, to help educators introduce young readers to new stories. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two precocious daughters. She loves traveling, sailing and scuba diving, but when she’s at home, she can usually be found reading a book or changing the batteries in her heated socks. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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