What qualities do you like to see in middle grade novels?
As with any novel, I like to see a thought-provoking premise that is executed thoughtfully in the narrative and compelling characters. Often when I read middle grade novels, I’m reading not only for my own enjoyment but also to determine whether I would recommend the book to teachers. For the latter, I look for novels that inspire deeper exploration and conversation, that introduce difficult questions and invite readers to continue the conversation after the book is over.
Sarwat Chadda’s The City of the Plague-God, which I received from Net Galley, is exactly that kind of novel. I highly recommend it for readers of all ages and especially for middle school teachers doing mythology units.
Set in Manhattan, the story kicks off with 13-year-old Sik (short for Sikander, Persian for Alexander, meaning “defender of the world”) encountering two demons outside the deli owned by his Iraqi immigrant parents. Nergal, the eponymous plague god, has sent the demons to recover something he needs, which may have been sent to Sik by his brother, who died in Iraq while helping rebuild his native land. After his parents, and gradually the entire city of Manhattan, fall ill, Sik races against time to figure out what Nergal wants and why before it’s too late. His quest leads him to team up with Belet, the adopted daughter of Ishtar, goddess of war and love, as well as Daoud, the beloved friend of his brother, and Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh.
Sik’s search for answers raises difficult questions about what it means to be a hero and about the interconnection between rot and vitality, adversity and perseverance, competition and integration, whether cross-cultural, inter-cultural, or within a family unit. Sik’s relationship with his brother, his accommodation of Mesopotamian mythological concepts with Islam, and his struggle to find a creative vs. destructive solution to the challenges he faces are handled with sensitivity and nuance.
I hope we will see many more books in this universe.