Middle Grade, Part 1
If the term “middle grade” isn’t familiar to you in terms of books, the name is relatively revealing: it just means books written for children around the ages 8-12. You know: out of the picture book stage, but perhaps not ready for either the level or themes of Young Adult fiction. A lot of SRL’s dancers fall right into this category, so we wanted to give them a way of learning about Ireland that will capture their imaginations in that magical way only books can do! (Unsure if a book is too advanced for your dancer? While you know your child’s reading levels best, just remember that kids like to read up—i.e. an 8 or 10-year-old generally wants to read about a 12-year-old, and so on!)
1. Kathleen: The Celtic Knot, Siobhán Parkinson
Illustrated by Troy Howell
This story of Irish dance and life in Ireland during the Great Depression is part of the “Girls of Many Lands” series by American Girl. (And yes, there used to be a doll! Unfortunately, she seems to be discontinued, but pops up on eBay. She was so beloved there’s even fan pages for her character.) Kathleen Murphy is a curious 12-year-old girl growing up in Dublin in 1937, who loves to Irish dance and is a clever dancer. Unfortunately, Kathleen’s family doesn’t have the money for the lessons or a costume for her. The book follows Kathleen on her journey to being able to compete, teaching us lessons about compassion, honesty, and Irish life during a time of political, religious, and financial strife with a light hand. American Girl’s books always strike that fine balance between history and story that make the past’s realities accessible for younger readers.
2. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
This 8-book series may sound familiar: the film version, directed by Kenneth Branagh, was released this past summer on Disney+ to widely negative reviews. The main complaint? Too many changes from the acclaimed source material—we’d recommend just getting the first book instead! (There’s a graphic novel version, as well.) Artemis Fowl is the name of the series protagonist, a 12-year-old criminal mastermind and millionaire from Ireland. The first book concentrates on a modernization of classic, Celtic fey mythology, with Artemis kidnapping a tough, pint-sized faerie named Holly Short for a king’s ransom: the faerie’s pot of gold. If you’re unsure about letting your kid read about a child racketeer, don’t worry: this series has been a parent favorite since its debut in 2001 for the main character’s gradual redemption. Focusing on themes of greed and entitlement, this book is for the kid who loves Percy Jackson and adventure. (It may be about Greek mythology, but we highly recommend those as well!
3. Granualie: Pirate Queen, Morgan Llewelyn
Morgan Llewelyn is an award-winning writer of historical and mythological fiction (and some non-fiction!) and has several more middle grade Irish book offerings, but this tale based on the real life story of female pirate, queen, chieftain, and rebel, Grace “Granuaile” O’Malley is sure to excite! Considered now to be a woman ahead of her time, Granuaile was a fearless leader of her clan and an untiring defender of Ireland and its culture. Llewelyn tells her story largely through letters to Granuaile’s son, Tibbot, but also weaves through the historical and political realities of the rise of Elizabeth I and the resulting oppression of the Irish way of life. With many cameos by great figures in Ireland’s history, this story has the hook of adventure, but lessons about girl power, acceptance, and the importance of family, tradition, and standing up for what you believe is right.
4. Scholastic Classics: Irish Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends, Kieran Fanning
While we covered some Irish mythology picture book anthologies in our previous installment, Fanning’s book promises a slightly more elevated version of these classic tales. It’s not fully illustrated, but rather its beautiful cover’s drawings represent different stories in the collection as a reminder of the contents inside. This book covers the first three cycles of Irish mythology: Mythological, Ulster, and Fenian—from the miraculous Tuatha Dé Dannan and Children of Lir, to stories of famed heroes like Cuchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill. While mythology and fairy tales always have a bit of a dark side, reader reviews promise that all the more difficult subject matter is dealt with matter-of-factly, but delicately. This version is perfect for the middle grade age range, letting them feel more adult, while at the right level for them in both content and difficulty.
5. A Slip of a Girl, Patricia Reilly Giff
Patricia Reilly Giff has won two Newbury Honors for her work, which concentrates on strong, brave young women in trying times in history (there’s plenty more where this comes from. Lily’s Crossing is about WWII in America, but is a personal favorite from childhood.) A Slip of a Girl depicts life in rural Ireland through narrative free verse in the wake of the Great Famine. Told through the eyes of Anna—whose siblings have gone off to the New World and whose mother has passed, leaving Anna to care for her younger sister with special needs–and in her lyric voice, the story is one of resilience in the face of deprivation. A much quieter, contemplative read than the others on our list, this family tale is a poignant depiction of the tensions of a feudal, agrarian community and the self-determination adversity can teach.
This post is part of a series—take a look at our recommendations for Adult Contemporary Fiction and Children’s Books. And check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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