Middle Grade Books: Increasingly Inappropriate?
An eleven-year-old boy and an eleven-year-old girl feel awkward after the girl compliments the boy, and they don’t know what to say as they look at each other with uncertainty. The boy’s eleven-year-old friend says, “Get a room.” As everyone knows, “Get a room” is a euphemism for “go make out or have sex” in private.
This scene occurs in a very popular middle grade book I bought for my then-ten-year-old, Little Brother mentee. As any responsible parent or mentor should, I read the book first. When I got to that line, I threw it into the trash—something I never do with books.
This book has rave reviews from parents on Amazon. If those parents actually read the book and think eleven-year-olds having sex or even hinting at such behavior or joking about it is cute, there’s something wrong with those parents. Sadly, pushing the envelope in middle grade fiction is happening, just as it did long ago when teen lit was christened “Young Adult” (even though young adulthood, according to psychologists, and the law, ranges from age eighteen to twenty-five.) Thirteen years olds are young adults? According to the book industry they are. In reality, they are far from young adulthood. These are middle school kids, still adolescents, still children. Not young adults. Not even close. Even at eighteen, legal adults are still teens. But pushing kids to leapfrog over necessary developmental stages seems to be the current intent of all media, including books.
On Amazon, a middle grade book featuring twelve or thirteen year olds is listed as suitable for eight-year-olds. Why? To make more money for the publisher and Amazon. Anyone who’s ever raised children or taught them knows that a twelve-year-old is way ahead of an eight-year-old on the developmental scale, and no conscientious parent would allow their eight-year-old to pal around with twelve or thirteen year olds. So why is it suitable for eight year olds to read books aimed at twelve and thirteen year olds? It isn’t.
The excuse has been that children are demanding books about kids older than themselves. Not true. Children are curious about everything. If you put age-inappropriate material in front of them, they will watch it or read it, and then their brains will have been rewired so that they want more inappropriate stuff. That’s how our brains work, and it’s the essence of addiction. It’s bad enough that Hollywood seems bound and determined to rob children of their innocence, but the book industry used to take its job more seriously. Way too many TV shows aimed at children depict ten, eleven, twelve year olds on the prowl for a boyfriend or girlfriend, and the on-screen kids lament that they’re not in a relationship. Children haven’t changed. What they’re exposed to has. Especially social media. No child under high school age should have a smartphone, but millions do.
I often see what middle school kids post on social media, and it’s not good. A ten-year-old once told me he wanted a girlfriend. I asked why, and he didn’t know. But I know. That boy already has a smartphone and is on social media, where the message is loud and clear—if you’re not in a relationship, you’re a worthless failure and have no value in your own right, no matter your age.
I know twelve year olds with babies. This is a bad situation, for them and the babies they produce. Encouraging children and teens to have sex—even in wink, wink, nudge, nudge ways—is beyond disturbing, and I can’t understand this agenda to adultify children at younger and younger ages. It makes no sense. How often do you see boys and girls as young as eight or nine referred to as young men or young women in the news or on social media? Attune yourself to that notion and you’ll see it everywhere. Labelling children “young adults” defies all common sense and rationality. And it damages the children more than anyone else. If you convince twelve-year-olds they are young adults with such verbiage, and allow them to access age-inappropriate media that calls them young adults, they are going to think they can engage in adult activities, like sex or drinking alcohol, to name two.
An acclaimed middle grade book is called Wonder. In most ways, this is a terrific book with positive messages about acceptance. However, in this story, ten-year-olds are depicted as partying like teens, pairing up in boy-girl romantic relationships, and dating. And the worst part? These behaviors are presented as normative. Only one parent in the entire book tells her son he’s too young to date. At ten, he’s too young to date? Ya think? Of course, he is!
The fact that editors and publishers allow such messages to be sent to children brings me back to the agenda question. What is the agenda, and who stands to gain by it? I know who stands to lose—the children. They are sent so many mixed messages by media and society these days, it’s no wonder the number of adolescent mental health cases in America has skyrocketed in recent years.
As authors, I believe it is our responsibility to present developmentally appropriate stories for children and teens. Books should be a more conscientious form of entertainment than Hollywood and social media, which seek to suck children into the addiction trap. Middle grade fiction should be for eleven, twelve, and thirteen year olds only, since they are middle schoolers, and the publishing industry needs to stop telling Amazon and other sites to list them as suitable for eight-year-olds. In addition, books with thirteen-year-olds can certainly involve skittishness on the part of boys and girls with each other, because that is reality, but nothing more is needed. Just as violence is kept at bay in middle grade fiction, romance/sex should be even more so.
As parents, we have so much to do without having to police the books our kids read like we police the media they pursue. But for the sake of children going through their natural developmental stages, we must be vigilant, and at least skim through any books our preteens want to read. At the very least, check the book out on LitPick.com, an online review site wherein teens and children review books aimed at their age group. They rate the books and provide content warnings, under the supervision of adults. Commonsensemedia.org also has content ratings for children and teen books that are well-articulated, written by both parents and kids. Also, if a book on Amazon is rated for age eight-twelve, it’s important to read the “What’s Inside” preview and the reviews. Check the negative reviews and look for clues to inappropriate content.
Childhood is already too short. If we allow Hollywood, social media, and now books to steal it away, that’s a crime of insurmountable proportions. Unplugging our kids from media, and making sure they have good books with positive, age-appropriate themes and messages, is an essential step toward molding them into healthy teens and decent adults.
Michael J. Bowler is an award-winning author who grew up in San Rafael, California. He majored in English and Theatre at Santa Clara University and went on to earn a master’s in film production from Loyola Marymount University, a teaching credential in English from LMU, and another master’s in Special Education from Cal State University Dominguez Hills.
Michael is a passionate advocate for the fair treatment of children and teens and serves as a volunteer Big Brother with the Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters program and has been a volunteer within the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles for over thirty years. He has been honored as Probation Volunteer of the Year, YMCA Volunteer of the Year, California Big Brother of the Year, and 2000 National Big Brother of the Year. The “National” honor allowed him and three of his Little Brothers to visit the White House and meet the president in the Oval Office.
Michael’s goal as an author is for teens to experience empowerment and hope; to see themselves in his diverse characters; to read about kids who face real-life challenges; and to see how kids like them can remain decent people in an indecent world. The most prevalent theme in his writing and his work with youth is this: as both a society, and as individuals, we’re better off when we do what’s right, rather than what’s easy.