I homeschool my children using the Waldorf philosophy. It’s a beautiful education filled with art and music and delayed academics. But part of the philosophy has really helped me understand what a middle grade book should be. And it is the philosophy of the seven-year stages.
In Waldorf philosophy, there’s this idea of the seven year stages of childhood. The first seven years (0-7) are all about the “will.” This is when a child is really learning how to use their body. They are full of energy and constantly moving and exploring and learning new ways to move. Everything from walking, to skipping, to doing the monkey bars. Movement and play is the most important part of this stage.
The stories that are supposed to be brought to kids at this age are simple stories, full of repetition. Which explains why picture books need to have a rhythm and some kind of repetitive quality to them. Children at this age see the world in black and white with no gray area and the stories Waldorf tells them at this age reflect that. In Kindergarten and grade 1, it’s all fairy tales. And think about how fairy tales work.
The princess is beautiful and good and gets a happy ending.
The witch is ugly and evil and gets her just punishment.
Good is beautiful and rewarded. Evil is ugly and punished. The end. Like I said, no gray area.
And this worldview is perfect for that stage of childhood. It makes children feel safe. It makes their world feel ordered.
But then we come to the next stage of childhood. The years from 8 to 14. In the Waldorf philosophy, these years are called the “feeling” years. They are when the child really learns to start seeing outside themselves. They begin to have empathy, to think more consciously about how their actions can affect others. They understand that everyone has feelings. And they start to become more aware of their own emotions, able to talk about them more, name them, and control them.
It’s during this stage that children start to see some of that gray area that was missing from the first seven years. They understand that sometimes good people make mistakes and that “bad” people can do good things. They are beginning to see that their parents are not infallible and grown-ups don’t always know everything.
The stories brought to this age group in the Waldorf philosophy reflect that growing awareness and complexity. In grade two, they learn the stories of Saints and great heroes to help them see the potential people have for goodness. And they also learn fables, to see the potential people have for folly and selfishness. This continues in grades 3, 4, and 5 as they learn the stories of the Old Testament and the great mythologies of the world. Who better to show children that greatness AND selfishness can lie in the same person than some of those Greek gods?
This idea of gently introducing children to the goodness within people and the not-so-good things within them is really what middle-grade literature is all about. MG lit opens up the world to the young reader. It shows them that life can be hard, but they can overcome. That endings can be bitter but also sweet. It helps them see a world that is complex and not really full of bad guys and good guys. But like Jem says in To Kill a Mockingbird, “I think there’s just one kind of folks—folks.”
What a great privilege and responsibility, to bring life with all its ups and downs to this budding reader. To teach them empathy, introduce them to hard subjects, and then fill them up with hope and courage and send them into the next stage of childhood.
I think when we truly understand this idea of where the middle grade reader is in their development, that we can truly honor them with fantastic stories that are what they need for their worldview. Middle grade readers need stories that don’t talk down to them but also still honor their innocence. They need stories where the adults don’t know everything and are flawed characters, but that also show there is always an adult who is dependable and safe. They need stories without a true “bad guy.” They need to learn empathy for the victim AND the bully. And most of all, they need to have hope. I think these words from Anne Frank really sum up where the middle grade reader is when they look at the world, even in the worst of circumstances.
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
This idea is what you need to honor most in your books.