7 Middle Grade Books That (Stealthily) Explore Big Ideas by The Next Great Paulie Fink Author Ali Benjamin

Among the 43,248 reasons I love writing for middle grade is this: kids of this age (8-12) are so…philosophical. They ask huge questions about themselves and the world around them. They explore identities, learn to separate their own thinking from that of their families and friends, navigate the complex relationship between self and other. They wrestle with issues of justice, freedom, conformity, and obedience.

Much attention has been to the Very Big Questions lurking inside classics like The Little Prince, Winnie-the-Pooh, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and A Wrinkle in Time. Contemporary middle grade novels ask some pretty huge questions, too—often stealthily sneaking these Big Ideas into works that are lighthearted in feel.

That’s what I tried to do in my new book, The Next Great Paulie Fink. In it, a group of oddball seventh graders stage a reality television-style competition in an attempt to “replace” their beloved class clown, Paulie Fink, who for some reason doesn’t return at the start of the school year. In part because they’re studying ancient Greek philosophy in class, their competition gives way to some pretty big questions: Where, exactly, is the line between reality and myth, between truth and legend? Is it possible that we don’t perceive the world as it truly is? What is a hero? What does it mean to show courage or honor? How well can any of us ever really know another person? And in the end, how should I live?

But my book is hardly the first to ask these questions. Here are some terrific middle grade books that offer lighthearted spins on some very big—and in some cases ancient—ideas:

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, by Uma Krishnaswami and illustrated by Abigail Halpin
This utterly charming story—about a Bollywood-obsessed girl determined to meet her favorite film star, Dolly Singh — is a pleasure to read. It’s got vibrant characters, inventive language and structure, impeccable plotting, a hefty dose of whimsy, rose petal milkshakes, and (in true Bollywood style) dancing! But it’s Krishnaswami’s witty, astute reflections on timeless concerns like celebrity, fandom, loss, communication, and kismet that elevate this book to the realm of the philosophical.

The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, by E.L. Konigsburg
Twelve-year-old Margaret Rose Kane is sent to a summer sleepaway camp that values, above all, conformity and compliance. Echoing Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, Margaret Rose refuses to participate in camp activities, infuriating the prickly director by repeatedly stating, “I prefer not to.” The book expertly explores issues like passive resistance, art for art’s sake, civil disobedience, conformity, consumerism vs. authenticity, and the difference between rules and principles.

As Brave As You, by Jason Reynolds
This heartfelt book—about two brothers from Brooklyn who spend a summer month with their grandparents in rural Virginia—is a testament to the power of asking questions. Insatiably curious Genie, age 11, fills his notebook with questions. Some have clear answers, but many are of the type that can’t be answered by Google: What does it mean to “see?” How are fear, grief, or regret invisible currents in our lives? How might vulnerability open our lives to new possibility? What does true courage look like? Even as the book tackles serious topics like divorce, injustice, and death, these heavy issues are deftly balanced by Reynolds’s pitch-perfect (and often hilarious) middle school voice, as well as Genie’s keen sense of wonder.

Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom, by Booki Vivat
This humorous, highly illustrated, fast-paced read begins smack-dab in the middle of an existential crisis. Delightfully neurotic sixth grade Abbie Wu is stuck in the “middles” (middle school, middle child) with no clear sense of who she is or what her purpose—or “thing”—might be. She’s excited only for lunch. But when she learns the eighth graders get all the best cafeteria food, her existential angst gives way to a search for justice, a bit of civil disobedience, a newfound activist streak, and an attempt to make peace with the unknown.

Flora & Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo
A book about a poetry-writing superhero squirrel that also manages to explain Pascal’s wager? Yes, please! On one level, DiCamillo’s (second) Newbery winner is a comic—and comic book-esque—tale of a squirrel who develops superpowers after being accidentally sucked into a vacuum. But it’s also an inquiry into some of the biggest questions there are—Of what use is faith? Does absolute truth exist? Does darkness always lurk inside the human heart? How does having language alter our subjective experience of the world? And are we all just donuts waiting to be dunked?

Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
Okay, so it’s not a middle grade novel, but these deceptively simple comics are profound. As the titular heroes (ironically named after two of the less joyful philosophers) resist homework, lounge beneath trees, and exasperate adults, they’re actually wending their way through some of the oldest and biggest ideas in philosophy: the nature of reality, freedom and liberty, ideal political systems, the artistic impulse, humanity’s search for meaning, and even colonialism. There’s a reason the late political scientist James Q Wilson described Calvin and Hobbes as “the only popular explication of the moral philosophy of Aristotle”—the entire series is an inquiry into the Good Life.

Einstein’s Dreamsby Alan Lightman
While this “novel of ideas” was intended for adults, I’ve read the book to my own kids—and other peoples’ children—many times. The bulk of the book is comprised of fictional dreams that plague Albert Einstein in the spring of 1905—that is, as he finishes his world-altering theory of relativity. Each dream imagines a world in which time unfolds differently. In one world, time flows backwards. In another, it swirls like eddies in a river, making it possible to get stuck in the past. Many of the dreams are grounded in principles of physics, but Lightman (a physicist by training) captures beautifully not just time, but also our very human responses to it. All read like highly poetic fables, making this a wonderful read-aloud (which also allows adults to skip over the occasional oblique, brief reference to adult themes).

The Next Great Paulie Fink is on B&N bookshelves now.

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