Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman
As a reader and as a bookstore employee, I’ve become very familiar with how we age books. As a young person who is often found fixing up the shelving in our children’s nook, I get asked a lot by people where on earth their favorite book from childhood is. It’s one of those supposedly easy questions; it’s in children’s, but where in children’s is it? It’s so easy for novels to cross the adult/young adult barrier (see Malinda Lo’s Ash) and how many “classics” written for an audience that was divided solely into adults and children now fall into into a trisected market (young adult, middle grade, and children’s). But nobody wants to hear me expound on the sociological and marketing factors behind all that at work, so I just do my best to be helpful.
But it does make me ponder those signifiers more than I have in the past. Obviously, reading level is the biggest determining factor, but there’s also an element of style involved. For instance, I tend to think of young adult fiction as being breezy and very readable, although that is by no means true of everything written for that audience. But the protagonist’s age is also pretty important in middle grade and young adult fiction. No so in picture books, where protagonists range from mice to cute old ladies to middle-aged tigers to actual children, but, at a certain point, children begin wanting to read about children slightly older than them. When puberty begins to loom over you, you start seeking out information on what kind of person you might end up, no matter what genres you read. This can range from the more straightforward—I want to be a kind person—to the more aesthetic—what constitutes “Goth”?. You never really stop seeking out role models, obviously, but when you’re a kid, it can seem like the most important thing in the world.
So, for the most part, middle grade and young adult novels focus on characters slightly older than their readers. This works even if the character is just coded as older instead of actually being older, because numbers don’t mean anything to kids—agency means something to kids. When Ariel howls “I’m sixteen, daddy!” at King Triton in Little Mermaid, little girls are awed by her ability to stand up for herself and her wants. (Adults are more astonished by just how young sixteen is.) Agency is clearly powerful stuff; kids want to know what about what they can do with that magic thing.
All of this is to say that you don’t really see adult protagonists in middle grade and young adult novels. After all, they’ve got their own books, don’t they? It’s called regular fiction. (We have two speculative fiction sections at the store—YA and general—and I find myself directing people up to “Adult Fantasy” a lot, which is actually a totally different section.) But I think there’s room for adult protagonists in middle grade and young adult fiction. Reading fiction, after all, is a way (ideally) for us to stretch our empathic muscles. I always did think Boneshaker had the makings of a successful young adult novel, with a perspective that flips between a teenage boy and his mother trying to find him. Kids will always read whatever they want to read as long as mass market paperbacks exist (they’re the easiest to hide), but these age ranges are audiences, not imperatives.
Fortunately the Milk does not try to tackle this at all. It’s a very simple, silly story about a dad telling his kids the fabulous story about how he went to go get the milk for their breakfast cereal. But, nonetheless, the father is the protagonist, even if the narrative tries to soften it with the first person perspective of the son. It’s the father who does things, even if it that might be only telling his kids a tall tale. Outside of this device, Fortunately the Milk is not terribly remarkable. It’s cute and engaging, to be sure, and Skottie Young’s hyperkinetic and stylized drawing style will be catnip to the budding kindergoth. But it lacks the quiet bite of Coraline and the adorable universality of Chu’s Day, the two books in Gaiman’s canon it tries to straddle. There’s not a thing wrong with cute and engaging, but I wonder if Fortunately the Milk would have gotten as much attention if it wasn’t written by beloved Neil Gaiman.
Bottom line: Fortunately the Milk made me contemplate adults as protagonists in literature for children, but little else. If you would like.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.