There is a blurred line between YA and middle grade books of late. YA has stepped into darker, more adult themes in order to keep the adult market reading YA. According to a 2015 Neilson poll, 80% of YA books purchased by adults are for themselves. Fifteen years ago, young adult books were marketed for ages twelve through eighteen, but adult readers reading YA are causing publishers to market up. Young adult characters can be in college and in their early twenties now.
Middle grade readers either have to read chapter books for eight to ten year olds or step into YA books, and this worries some parents and educators. Readers generally like to read about characters a few years older than they are. The dilemma for middle grade books becomes: if readers read a few years older than they are, do middle grade books include fourteen-year old characters and their problems? Or does middle grade stay “safe” and keep writing books for eight-year olds? The answer is both.
The fact is that eight-year olds don’t purchase their own books. Their parents or other adults buy them. While the child may ask for a title, the decision is the adult’s. Typically, parents want to keep their young children protected, but some tend to “mollycuddle” them. Age ten and younger children often play violent video games either at home WITH parents or away at friends’ homes. If a child has access to the Internet through a tablet or phone, chances are they've seen some form of pornography, intended or not. R movies often have parents in the audience with their TODDLERS and babies. While many parents think age eight or ten is too young to have “the conversation” about sex, drugs, dating, drinking, date rape or sexual orientation, clearly children have these conversations with classmates and friends.
In my interview with Greg Howard, middle grade author of The Whispers, I asked what topics he’d like to see in middle grade books. He answered: “I love that we are seeing more difficult topics tackled in middle grade because kids that age are dealing with these issues every day. I would love to see more middle grade books tackle the problem of racism and xenophobia. Kids are taught this thinking from a very young age, so it’s never too early in childhood development to address, in my opinion.”
Author Jarrett Lerner (Revenge of the Enginerds) was asked what he hopes his books do and responded, “I hope they bring joy. And help turn kids into lifelong readers. And show them that books can be launchpads for their own creativity and inquiry. And that their wildest, wonkiest ideas have value, and may even be their awesomest.”
Middle grade books must let readers see themselves and their struggles in a book. There is no better way to build empathy and self-reliance than through a favorite book. In a recent middle grade book chat (#mgbookchat), one teacher said she was glad to see more middle grade books that were about mental illness or with a main character with mental illness. The consensus among those teachers and writers in attendance seemed to be that mental illness is fine in middle grade books as were #LGBT characters if the book was not focused on that as its main focus. According to writer Rajani LaRocca (author of Midsummer’s Mayhem due out in June): “...any topic that MG readers have to deal with in their lives is appropriate. The key, though, is to write with the right sensitivity understanding that kids as young as eight (or younger) may be reading these books.”
Today’s middle-grade aged kids are bombarded with adult ideas through television and the Internet. Keeping these ideas out of books is not the answer. If a book can save a child, it deserves to be on the shelf. Teachers and librarians do not have to push books on readers, but a strong collection of age-appropriate books that feature characters who face normal situations helps a child see himself/herself in the world. Greg Howard said he would tell eight-year old Greg: “You are not alone. You matter.”
A good librarian and library program can find the right middle grade books for every reader. A good bookseller stocks every option for every reader, including middle grade books that deal with real life topics.
Today's guest blogger is Thompson McLeod, YA librarian, reviewer for SLJ, VOYA, Cybils Fiction judge
Reviews at http://booksbypamelathompson.blogspot.com/
MG chat #mgbookchat
Jarrett Lerner @Jarrett_Lerner jarrettlerner.com
Rajani LaRocca @rajanilarocca rajanilarocca.com
Greg Howard @greghowardbooks greghowardbooks.com
Kate and Judy welcome you to Talking Middle Grade, where our intention is to chat about the problems of catering for such a wide audience. If you have something important to say as part of this important discussion, then please use the Contact Us page to get in touch.