Middle-Grade Mojo, by Jeff Norton

Jeff Norton's new middle-grade novel, Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie, is a hilarious adventure narrated by Adam Meltzer—pre-teen, worrywart, and now zombie. In this post, Jeff explains how he came to be a reader (hint: divine luck via a good teacher and librarian and an inspirational author).


Middle grade can make or break a reader.

I went into middle school in sixth grade as very reluctant reader, well behind the curve of my friends, and escaped after eighth grade with a reading proficiency that set me up to enjoy (vs. resist) reading for pleasure.

I was lucky.

It was 1985, and my sixth grade teacher spotted my disinterest in books. Television, video games, and films were much more interesting to me than anything I could find in book form. Pineland Public School’s librarian collaborated with my teacher to introduce me to books that might catch my eye and hold my attention. I was reluctant, but they kept at it.

Finally, two genres helped transform me: thrills and laughs. The thrills hooked me, but the laughs reeled me in.

And there was one author who propelled me into a life of reading: Gordon Korman.

Though Korman’s early novels were set in the real world, I found them aspirational and fantastical. He wrote about kids I wanted to be like (Artie Geller), kids I wanted to hang out with (Bugs Potter), and schools I wanted to go to (MacDonald Hall—though we could have never afforded boarding school, making it all the more aspirational).

Korman’s middle grade books kept me laughing so they kept me reading. They were a book-report staple. They turned a chore into a treat.

Middle grade is a special literary playground, freed from the sparse storytelling of chapter books and yet unburdened by the seriousness of young adult (YA) themes. While a middle-grader’s body is overrun by the perils of puberty, good middle-grade books give the mind and the imagination the space to dream, to laugh, and to step out of oneself, if only for a few pages.
Sadly, it’s a section of the book business that often gets overlooked. It’s hard to find middle-grade reviews in mainstream newspapers and they are often dismissed for lack of literary merit. Plus, MG has been has been living in YA’s dark shadow for the past few years.

But it’s a section of the book trade, and a young reader’s journey, that demands more attention and our respect. Today’s seventh graders will support tomorrow’s literary fiction. It’s an investment worth making.

I reflected Korman’s early works when writing Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie, a comic first-person account of a twelve-year-old boy with OCD who finds himself inconveniently resurrected. While I didn’t go back and reread his books (I tend to read only non-fiction when I’m writing, so as to not get another author’s fiction voice in my head), I channelled my memories of the fun I had reading them. It’s that sense of fun that’s infectious for young readers.
And since middle-grade books are their first real novels—and you never forget your formative reads—we owe it to them to write the very best stories we can spin. 

As school starts anew, I can only hope that my own stories will tempt some middle-graders off Minecraft for long enough to lose themselves in the pages of a book.

Just like Gordon Korman did for me (though it was Mario Bros. not Minecraft then).

Cheers Gordon!


Jeff Norton is the London-based author of the middle-grade comedy Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie, out this month from Penguin Canada. His thriller series, MetaWars, will be out in January from Hachette Books Canada. He’s also Executive Producer on Trucktown, a new pre-school TV show based on the bestselling books. Jeff is on the web at www.jeffnorton.com and tweeting as @thejeffnorton.

Gordon Korman is the prolific author of over 85 books (probably more now), which have sold over 25 million copies. On the web at www.gordonkorman.com and tweeting as @gordonkorman.  

September 22, 2014
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