I can tell you the exact day that my son lost interest in reading. He came home one day, with Dairy of a Wimpy Kid in his bag and told me that it was too easy. That weekend we went book shopping. Books across a number of different genres sat in his room without being read. He thought they were “boring” or they made him feel dumb as the language was too difficult. He was eleven. I was not in a unique situation. Other parents, particularly those with boys, were going through the same thing.
This was also around the time that games and gaming content became readily available, so he started playing online games. Games were fun, easily accessed via phones, tablets, PCs, and consoles. He could choose from a variety of genres: fantasy, adventure, shooter, strategy, etc. His friends were from around the world. They had their own language. If he got bored, he simply changed games. When he was bored of games, he would watch his favourite streamers play games and interact with that community.
In an ideal world, books would be seen as an equal to games; they should co-exist, with the upper MG reader just as likely to pick up a book as they are to pick up a mouse. To do this we need to look at the gap between MG books and YA books and find a way to bridge it, make it relevant to the upper MG group. At the same time, we need to study gaming, understand its appeal and write stories that appeal to this group.
Below, are four factors that I believe are instrumental in getting the reluctant MG teen reader, reading.
If a game isn’t seen as fun then the audience will drop it in droves. Books need to be fun, to be relevant to what the kids are doing and their interests today.
Challenging storylines without the complex language. Many games involve complex game rules, strategies. Kids thrive on these challenges. They cope and they excel. Books need to reflect this. Our kids are far savvier then we give them credit.
Shorter is sweeter. The MG gets easily bored if there is not enough of a challenge for them to continue. Keep the books short, don’t give them an opportunity to get bored.
In games kids are able process a lot of information simultaneously. The more going on, the more they need to “master” / process, the more they try. And when they achieve what they set out to, there is enormous satisfaction. Page-turners keep the kids interested, and when they finish, they have a sense of accomplishment.
My son and I sat down and had a discussion about games and books: what he liked, didn’t like, what he wanted to see more of. At the time, I wrote a short story taking into consideration what I had learnt (the four rules, as I call them), and applied it to a story that I thought he would read. He finished it in one sitting and then took it to school and shared it with his friends. By the end of the week, all kids (30) in the class had read it. I wrote two others and had the same response.
This experience was the reason I started on a journey to becoming a writer.
Today's guest blogger is Sophie Hiotis, who has a Bachelor of Arts, with Majors in Psychology and Sociology, and has worked 30 years in IT, working in a variety of roles including training and development, organisational transformation, project management and as an analyst. A lover of coffee, travel, and dogs, she also has enjoyed 30+ years of gaming, with a particular interest in MMOs lore. If children are not reading, it's because they haven't found their book.
For some extra reading, check out this fantastic blog post: Leveraging the Lore of 'Dungeons & Dragons' to Motivate Students to Read and Write
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 recently asked the following question on Twitter:
"Do you think a lot of kids this age (though more the upper end) lose interest in reading because books are "boring" or because other activities are more appealing/interesting/fun?"
Here's a link to the Twitter thread if you prefer to read it all there.
But, here are a few of the very interesting answers we received from booksellers, parents, librarians, teachers, authors and more!
"This is such a great question. I think it depends on growing # of friends & interests. Mine slowed in their reading by 12/13. Sports and hmw took up free time. And netflix. But they came back to reading by 16-17yrs, but then preferred adult books to YA."
"I think it's a mix of both. For my kids, they started losing interest high school when they were being made to read books they weren't interested in! My 15 yo reads more MG than YA books! Their biggest problem is that publishers weren't publishing the books they wanted to read! It's not even classic texts. Two books that put my son off are The Hunger Games and The Handmaids Tale - he's just no into Dystopian. He loved A Christmas Carol :) There is also little encouragement for kids to just read for fun, especially in high school!"
"Our kids are being taught that reading is something you "have to do" rather than something they should "want to do.""
"They totally are - my teens stopped reading as they got the message from school that it was something that had to be done! Until they discovered books from unexpected places. I want to teach kids that reading is something that is fun :)"
"Both, but also libraries not making it easy to find what they were interested in and so many not being encouraged to continue reading. When I was in school our teachers mourned kids didn't know the Bible so they didn't get the references in books. Now many schools don't have"
"I do think that finding what they want is probably one of the most important factors. My big reader is a book omnivore: her current reads include an adult NF, a YA fiction and a MG graphic novel. My other will only read the specific things she wants."
"I wonder sometimes if it's because the market is too chopped up. My 10y/o doesn't want to read what my 7 y/o reads. Everything is so labeled that kids will find a series then age out of it. The industry creates a stigma with labels."
"Honestly, by this age most of the kids I see who aren't big readers never developed a passion for it because they struggled with reading when they were younger or still do. I wish there were more books on lower reading levels that were still geared toward middle grade kids. My degree is in Middle level education, and I just can't advocate enough for struggling readers. 12 year olds reading on an 8 year old level, don't want to be seen with the books that they can read."
"Teacher here. lack of interest is because it’s not funny or the books are trying to teach a lesson. Kids want entertainment, not for an emotional breakthrough"
"Electronics has taken our MG minds, so I guess you could say its gotten boring to read than play video games, they never even know how the book is if they never even pick it up!"
"As a teacher I would say both. It’s interesting that a lot of them feel there aren’t a lot of books that represent what they’re into but rather what adult authors think they are"
"With my kiddo, it's because the books intended for his age are either too young in content ("for little kids") or too high in vocabulary (which is "too schoolish"). It's like he needs a book that is mature in content w/low vocab. I mean, we see it all the time for adult books."
"I think a lot of it stems from the fact that we keep telling them they aren’t allowed to read what they want to read. “Graphic novels don’t count.” “You’re too old for those books.” “Read something more challenging...” All reading should be celebrated!"
"I think it’s more the appeal of social media and outside activities (sports etc) But they are also in-between age ranges since there’s not a ton of upper mg so my more mature readers bump to ya but some aren’t ready"
"My students start losing interest in reading in 3rd grade. I have to work harder to promote books. I think some of the books written for this age are too long and they don't have the stamina to complete them."
"My kids got frustrated because they were ready for more difficult books but didn't want the romance and issues so common in YA. They moved right into certain adult books (which were more adventure driven than YA!). The MG books I'm writing now are intended to fill the gap. :)"
"My daughter is a voracious reader at 11. I'm concerned, though, that she's going to have a harder time as she gets older. She's a very gentle soul and doesn't like a lot of scary content (among other things). I think books for her age are getting a little too dark for her."
"I believe a love of reading is either destroyed or never started because schools force kids to read uninteresting things. Or things that may have appealed to other generations, but this generation is so different from older ones, it doesn't work. Letting a kid read a book of their choice not only inspires a sense of freedom, it also allows a kid to develop their own taste in books, and to find something they love reading"
So, some pretty interesting thoughts and opinions. But what do you think?
Join the conversation and leave a comment below!
WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT FICTION BOOKS FOR CHILDREN in secondary school, you tend to run into two categories: middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA). MG books often sit firmly in the 9-12 age group, but in many cases children at the higher end of this age group will feel that these books are too juvenile for them. And then YA spans 13-18, but recently it seems to skew older – often with content that might be considered too old for those in the 11-14 age group.
So where is the balance between MG and YA, and why does it matter?
I’m sure parents can attest that 11-14 is one of the hardest age groups. These “tweens” are very much wanting more independence, wanting to be treated like adults, but they’re still young, and their parents will want to protect them from some content. As you can see in regard to MG and YA books, there isn’t as much catering for this age group. Kids this age tend to want to read about someone their own age, or (even better) slightly older, but the content should still be “age appropriate”.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what age appropriate content is for tweens, as every child is different, as is the view of their parents/guardians. And while authors and publishers can argue not allowing certain books into a school library is censorship, you can equally understand that a school librarian knows their community and also doesn’t want to face the hundredth parent whose child has brought home a book that they deem inappropriate because of a four-letter word.
I would prefer to be of the view that you can’t box content into a certain age group when every child has a different maturity level, but that only works when you’re looking at one child. The moment you have to write, publish or buy a book for every child, you have to start making some broad generalizations and considerations. So as an author, there are things you should take into consideration with language, violence, sex and drugs in books. Generally, the tamer the better. That doesn’t mean you should shy away from difficult issues – it all depends on how they are handled.
For example, if you compare Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give with Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ghost Boys, you’ll quickly work out that both focus on addressing racism, particularly challenging white police racism against young black men. But when you look at the specific content and language, it’s clear that Thomas’s book is firmly YA, whereas Parker Rhodes’s is comfortably in the MG category. Both books have difficult content, with violence, death, prejudice and racism, but are packaged up in very different ways making one more appropriate (broadly speaking) for a younger audience.
It’s Also Not Just About Pleasing Parents and Guardians
You may have heard of some booksellers who go directly into schools and put on fairs. This is where students are able to buy a book, often at a discounted price. It’s a real opportunity for authors to have their books put directly in front of kids, but these fairs can be really selective with the books they are willing to sell. Like all retailers, they want to make sure they have books that will be popular – but there’s an additional element on top of this, which comes down to suitability. Does the book have a few curse words in it? Is there a lot of descriptive violence? Is there reference to sexual abuse? No matter how good the book is, these things can mean the fair won’t choose the book because they know they, and the schools, can face parental backlash. And if that happens, they might not be invited back to the school again, thus losing customers. So in short, the more conscious you are with your content, the more opportunities you’ll have in reaching retailers and readers.
The fact of the matter is, when you’re presenting a book as a children’s book, most adults are going to assume it is clean, won’t scare the child, won’t upset them, and that it will be free from expletives and other strong language. If it is YA, you can push the boundaries more as parents tend to be a little more hands-off in their child’s reading choice.
So how do you cover a controversial topic in a book if you can’t use language or violence? It’s a real art, but there are a lot of books that do this really well. The important thing is writing from the perspective of a child that age – retaining the innocence.
Here are a few of my favourite “clean teen” books that have been particularly popular with 11 & 12-year-olds, some of which deal with really challenging and upsetting subjects in a way that makes them still appropriate for this age group:
Geek Girl by Holly Smale
Booked by Kwame Alexander
13 Hours by Narinder Dhami
Murder in Midwinter by Fleur Hitchcock
Haunt: Dead Scared by Curtis Jobling
Boy 87 by Ele Fountain
Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar
A Good Day for Climbing Trees by Jaco Jacobs (translated by Kobus Geldenhuys)
Being language and content appropriate:
· An Ofcom study in the UK assessed public feelings towards appropriate language for children in TV shows and on the radio. It makes for an interesting read, and they ultimately created a ranking of what was considered the mildest to harshest swear words (on page 44). https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/91624/OfcomOffensiveLanguage.pdf The takeaway from this is that often context is key. For instance, some people feel usage of the words “damn” or “hell” are ok in some settings, but not in others.
· Check out reviews of books you’re familiar with on Common Sense Media. The organization recommends an age group based on appropriateness ratings, and then parents/guardians are able to provide what their views are on this. You’ll see some wild differences, which can be really interesting if they are specific in why they have a problem with the book (also includes film, tv and games). https://www.commonsensemedia.org
Guest Blogger Bio:
Lisa Davis is a freelance children’s book consultant and editor. She has worked across several departments for some of the UK’s top publishers before running the book selection and purchasing for the BookTrust, the UK’s largest reading charity for children, which saw her purchasing over 3.5 million books annually that were given directly to children across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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.