The Middler- Kirsty Applebaum

This book gripped me from the very beginning. It’s a book that snakes into your consciousness and prickles at your core wondering how you would be in any of the character’s shoes, eldest, Middler, youngest, wanderer or adult.

It’s an intensely thoughtful book quietly observing the human condition and packed with the quirks of a society suffocating under the pressures and laws of a nation at prolonged war and what happens when the flint of questioning is struck.

YA Dystopian novels were such a hit that the proliferation of titles meant there came a point of over-saturation even perhaps becoming a cliche thanks to the Hollywood fuelled adaptations phenomenon.
However, Kirsty Applebaum breathes fresh life into Dystopia by shifting perspectives; from a Middle Grade voice and viewpoint; telling the stories not of those taken, sent, or volunteered as tribute but of the left-behinds; and the psychological impact both the anticipation and aftermath of this can be.

Book cover of the Middler
Cover Illustrations by Matt Saunders Cover Typography by Joel Holland

‘Marsha Marsha Marsha!’ Was the cry of Middle child Jan in The Brady Bunch (I’m mostly familiar with the 90s pastiche film) and much like Jan Brady, Maggie Cruise has had enough of the adulation of eldest children, they get the best things, new clothes, win all the prizes at school, birthday parties, don’t have to do chores and every day they All chant to the greatness of the eldests like a responsorial prayers.

However, there is a twist. This isn’t just favouritism in parenting, it’s social engineering, in Maggie’s world the eldest is adored for 14 years then taken off to ‘camp’ to fight for everyone’s freedom in The Quiet War, they never come back.

Wanderers are the enemy, the chants make children learn this from an early age and to never cross the boundary. When Maggie comes across Una, a Wanderer her interest is piqued both by her experience and stories from beyond the hawthorn, and the possibility that if she catches a Wanderer she will be more than just a Middler.

‘Our eldests are heroes
Our eldests are special
Our eldests are brave
Shame upon any who holds back an eldest
And shame upon their kin
Most of all
Shame upon the wanderers
Let peace settle over the Quiet War
Truly and Forever
Morning Chant

This book is brilliantly pitched at the middle grade bracket but thoughtfully so. There are big questions here about society, about war, about sacrifice and survivor guilt and about sibling rivalry and resentment, but it is just set within the realms of comfortability. The possibilities of the imagination are left to imagine the gaps meaningfully left by the narrative which holds it enough from being too scary for the audience.

There’s a plentiful seam of teaching and learning opportunities to be mined with such a rich tapestry of talking points and compare and contrast possibilities peeking through; from the claustrophobic bucolic life behind a forbidden boundary reflecting M Knight Shyamalan’s film The Village; the ‘reaping’ of children seen in many Dystopian dramas such as The Hunger Games; and in this case the value of the Eldest child which reflects many mythical and folk stories from The Plagues Of Egypt to Rumpelstiltskin and more.

‘You eldests get everything- big parties, the best clothes, you win all the prizes, you get praise for stuff you didn’t do, we even chant about you every day in assembly..’

There’s also the exploration of a everyday effectively powerless society at war, the juxtaposition of everyday struggle in this bucolic idyll of sun shining and endless green of forests and fields where the hard grind of labour and hidden tears of loss and fear hide behind caring faces, beautiful settings and routine .
The book has echoes of WWII set or evacuation dramas with the indoctrination of patriotism in children through songs and prayer-like propaganda chants in the assembly hall, living behind blackout curtains, the normalisation of supply shortages, the incredulity at recollections of a different life before the War for those who had not experienced it, and ultimately the question of the weight of responsibility, civic participation and dare I say it obedience and sacrifice which hints at something a little magnificently ‘Handmaid’ about the society within this novel but suitable for MG as it’s without the gender politics or odd bedroom ‘rituals’ .

There’s many questions of what the readers would do in Maggie, Jed, Una, the parents and even the Mayor’s situation and the potential for juicy conversations unpicking current political machinations and worrying social attitudes after all the best kind of Dystopia is the kind that you fear could happen, which makes it such a fascinating book that will stay with the reader long after they have turned the last page and that exactly what I love about this book.

The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum is published by Nosy Crow Books and available from bookstores and online.

A huge thank you to Nosy Crow for gifting me a copy of this book, this has not affected my opinion.

3 thoughts on “The Middler- Kirsty Applebaum

  1. Oh you’ve definitely brought me down firmly on the ‘read it’ side of the fence I was sitting on!
    (laughs at the ‘it’s like handmaid’s with fewer dodgy bedroom rituals’ bit too)

    Liked by 1 person

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