Maile Meloy on “Aspirational” Reading for Middle Schoolers


You may know Maile Meloy from her award-winning literary fiction (including the novel Liars and Saints and the story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It). Your kids, however, would recognize her as the author of the thrilling Apothecary series, which continues right here at Parnassus Books next Tuesday, November 3, with the release of the third book, The After-Room. 

after-roomJust the other day in our back office, a group of booksellers were discussing the Apothecary series, how much we love it, and who its ideal reader is — which then snowballed into a bigger discussion: What’s the difference between “middle grade” and “young adult” when it comes to fiction? And — putting aside those labels, which one might argue exist largely for marketing purposes — what makes a book appeal to a kid who’s 10 or 12 versus someone who’s 14 or 16?

Stephanie Appell, our manager of books for young readers, pointed out that several books that are now considered “children’s classics” were actually written for adults (take The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Little Women, for example). “What makes the contemporary explosion in books for children and teens such a good thing for readers is how true the young voices are to their ages,” she says. While the Apothecary series has teenaged protagonists, it is suited perfectly to older elementary schoolers and middle schoolers, because “there’s something about it that’s firmly rooted in a younger time.” Bookseller and author Rae Ann Parker agreed and added: “YA books tend to be about learning to be an adult and making an adult decision. Middle grade books are more about learning to exist within your family or community.”

We decided to ask Meloy what she thinks. Who does she have in mind when she writes for young readers? And how does she switch from writing for adults to writing for kids? Here’s what she said:

“There’s a Rubicon you cross when you become a parent. Your emotional viewpoint shifts, and you start identifying with the parents in stories, rather than with the children. That’s a good thing — it’s hard to make rational decisions as a parent if you identify too completely with childhood hurts and desires. But if you don’t have kids, or until you do, you tend to identify with the children in any story.” – Meloy in “Whose Side Are You On?” for The New York Times

The first thing I wrote in The Apothecary was the note to the reader, where Janie says that this is the true story of what happened to her when she was 14, in 1952. Then she switches back to a more immediate perspective: what it felt like to be having that adventure at that age. That was my way in, and from there it just felt like writing a novel about 14-year-olds in the 50s. I had readers in mind, my friends’ kids, and I knew it had to have a faster plot than most grown-up books have, but I like that kind of plot anyway.

I didn’t know “middle grade” existed as a category, when I started writing the first book. I thought it was a YA novel. I understand now why it’s shelved as middle grade, but I also think books can easily cross those category lines. When I was a kid, I read books written for kids, but I also took books off my parents’ shelves. I never had a sense that there were books I couldn’t read — except a few that I’d been told were really scary. Or that looked really boring.

The kids are 16 in the two sequels, but the books are still absolutely readable by 9-year-olds. (Middle school reading is aspirational — who wouldn’t want to read about teenagers?)

I don’t think there’s a switch I flip in my head, because on some level I still see the world as kid-Maile did. When I was a kid, I thought 15 was the perfect age, and I was really bummed out about turning 16. I have a strong connection to being 15, I really remember what it was like. And I was a little bit 42 when I was 15. There are ages we all connect to, and kind of inhabit all our lives.

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The Exciting Finale of The Apothecary Series Is HERE…

as we launch The After-Room!

This event is FREE and open to the public!

Read the whole series:

The Apothecary

The Apprentices

The After-Room

More from Maile Meloy in literary fiction for adults:

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It

Devotion: A Rat Story

Half in Love

Liars and Saints