The Middler - Kirsty Applebaum
I heard Kirsty reading an extract from this on Pie Corbett's online radio show during lockdown, and was hassled into buying it there and then by my Y6 class who thought the story sounded 'very exciting'. They were right - definitely meeting 'Age-Related Expectations' for predictions, that lot!!
The story is set in the village of Fennis Wick, where the inhabitants live under the rules imposed on them by their local mayor and the dictat of national leader 'Andrew Solsbury': all 'eldests' must be sent away from the village at 14 to 'camp' to help fight in 'The Quiet War'. The central character in the story is Maggie: one of three children, and as stated on the front of the book: a 'middler - worse luck'. As such, the story reveolves around Maggie and her struggles to accept her place in the run of things: she feels ignored, put upon, excluded and not special, and throughout the book we see her struggles to prove her worth and value, not just to others but to herself as well, by challenging her own views and beliefs and having to make choices that put her and her family at risk for the sake of doing the right thing.
This story has some parallels with lockdown for me - a village under curfew and restricted from leaving a certain geographical area ('Never go beyond the boundary'), a bumbling, slogan-spouting leader (Together we must save our country'), a village and society under attack from an invisible menace ('Dark times are upon us'), and the constant threat of outsiders ('wanderers' who are 'dirty, deceitful and dangerous')...there could definitely be links made there and metaphors seen if desired! If you're using this in September, how about this for a relevant hook and discussion prompt: in the first few pages (Pg.11 in my edition), we see Maggie's teacher talking about 'before the Quiet War and 'what summer holiday were like then. She said people used to go to other countries on aeroplanes.' Topical!?
At heart though, for me, this is a classic underdog story, showing the battles and determination a young girl must face and display in order to challenge and change the way things are and ultimately succeed and find her place and true value. Kirsty Applebaum does a marvellous job showing the inner struggle between what Maggie is told and how she feels. The story is structured beautifully so that we can see the changes occuring in her thoughts and actions as she moves towards having to make major decisions about what is going on and how to act - should she challenge the rules? Help a 'wanderer' she comes across? Go over 'the boundary'? Accept being 'just a middler'?
There is a beautiful moment just after Maggie meets a wanderer girl called Una, and is battling with the decision about whether to help her or not. As Una walks away, Maggie notices 'Something tiny....A chrysalis, sawing, suspended under a leaf. A brand-new butterfly inside. All wrapped up and thinking itself safe, but hanging by only the tiniest thread.' For me - this is the metaphor of Maggie (this theme of butterflies is carried throughout the book) as the butterfly waiting to emerge - we just have to wait and see if the tiniest thread (her sense of justice, and of right and wrong) will stay strong enough to give her time to emerge...
There are themes of right and wrong, choices, values, self-worth, secrets and challenge throughout the book, and it is a joy to read and see the characters and how they deal with the issues that crop up. As Maggie faces a major decision about what to do later in the book, the advice given to her by another village member is a quote that could be easily transferred to classroom/school:
"Being brave doesn't mean not feeling afraid. True bravery is feeling your fear, but going ahead and doing what's right anyway."
I've tried very hard not to give away any plot spoilers in this write-up, so forgive me if I haven't manged to convey just what a good read this is... it isn't just a moral-compass story - it's action-packed, heartfelt and affirmingly inspirational at the end too. I know my Year 6 class were keen to get their hands on it, and rightly so - it will be a highly-recommended read from my classroom library shelves for many a year to come!
Links to other books:
Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen
The Island by Armin Greder
The Middler was written by Kirtsy Applebaum (@KirstyApplebaum and www.kirstyapplebaum.co.uk) and published by Nosy Crow (@NosyCrow and @NosyCrowBooks www.nosycrow.com). She has more recently written the novel 'Troofriend' available to order through those links.
Review August 2020 by Rich Simpson (@richreadalot)