Why Pacific Beach author Greg van Eekhout finds magic in those awkward middle-grade years

A lot of things can happen to a person between the ages of 8 and 12. You start out in third grade, and you end up in middle school. Your friendships become deeper and more complicated. School gets harder and your world expands beyond your neighborhood and your family. And then there is your body, which is busy expanding, too.

With one foot still in the cocoon of childhood and the other in the adolescent jungle, middle-grade kids are all about big changes, big challenges and very big feelings. Which is why author Greg van Eekhout loves writing for them.

“I feel like with the middle grades, I can make a real impact on readers. When an adult reads a book, it is in conversation with all of the other books they’ve read. With kids, the experience of what they’re reading is more immediate,” the 55-year-old van Eekhout said of writing middle-grade books, which are aimed at readers from 8 to 12 years of age.

“With middle-grade kids, their brains and hearts are open, but they have had enough experiences and they are developed enough to deal with some complicated subjects. There is no such thing as dumbing down. You just need to use the right words and the right approach to have a conversation with them.”

In his 20-plus year career, the Pacific Beach-based van Eekhout has written award-winning science-fiction and fantasy short stories; an adult novel trilogy about life in a California; and even a few comics. And beginning with 2010’s “Kid vs. Squid,” in which a young man named Thatcher Hill must save the citizens of Atlantis from a witch’s curse, van Eekhout has given middle-grade readers six books combining magic, mythology and real-world anxieties into literary adventures that reflect their action-packed lives.

The newest arrival is “Fenris & Mott,” a story about a girl named Mott and the puppy she rescues from a Culver City dumpster. And since it is written by van Eekhout, whose past middle-grade books have featured a 12-year-old boy who is actually a highly evolved robot (2019’s “Cog”) and a normal-looking kid who is really a shapeshifter (2021’s “Weird Kid”), it should come as no surprise that Mott and her puppy are not what they appear to be.

The apparently abandoned puppy — who looks like a fluffball and smells like pine — turns out to be Fenris the wolf, a legendary figure from Norse mythology. And according to that mythology, Fenris is destined to bring about the end of the world by eating the moon.

As for the root-beer loving, best-friend missing Mott, she turns out to be stronger, braver and a lot more resilient that she thought she could be. All skills that come in handy when you have a world-ending wolf on your hands. Also when you are a middle-grade girl trying to adjust to a new life in a new city when your mom’s promising job prospect didn’t pan out, and your estranged dad never comes through when you need him.

Also when you’re a middle-grade kid trying to deal with anything, really.

“I wanted Mott to be motivated by a sense of kindness and a sense of justice. I also wanted her to be out of her depth. Nothing in her past experiences of her prepared her for a world where she would be interacting with Norse gods and moon-devouring wolves, ”said van Eekhout, who will be discussing“ Fenris & Mott ”on Aug. 3 at the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in the Midway District and at The San Diego Union-Tribune Festival of Books, being held Aug. 20 at the University of San Diego.

“That feeling is sort of a major thread throughout all of my characters. You are reaching an age when you are capable of going places on your own and doing things by yourself, but there is this structural power of families and school. These structures in your life are designed to protect you, but at the same time, they contain you. In my books, the things these characters have to do can’t afford to be contained. I like that tension.”

When he was a young reader growing up in colorful Venice Beach and in Culver City, where he lived a block away from the studio where “I Love Lucy” and the original “Star Trek” were filmed, van Eekhout liked the mind-expanding kick he got from reading comic books and sci-fi and fantasy novels. If a book took him to a world with aliens, spaceships and/or robots, van Eekhout was there.

Now that he is the one doing the writing, van Eekhout wants to take his readers to worlds that spark their imaginations while also easing an anxiety or two. And no matter where they go, he wants his middle-grade book lovers to feel like they have landed in a good place.

“I have two rules. First, ‘Do no harm.’ I don’t want to expose them to toxic tropes or societal roles that reinforce negative stereotypes. Second, I want to leave them with hope. I don’t feel like that when I’m writing for adults. I don’t feel like I owe them that. But with kids, I absolutely owe them hope. I have to leave them with a sense that things can get better through their actions.”

Greg van Eekhout will discuss “Fenris & Mott” on Aug. 3 at 6 pm at the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, 3555 Rosecrans St., Suite 107, in the Midway District. The event is a virtual/in-store hybrid. Go to mystgalaxy.com. He is also participating in The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Festival of Books, Aug. 20 at the University of San Diego. Go to sandiegouniontribune.com/festivalofbooks for details.

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