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.
It's not everyday even a large Waterstones store brings attention to this hole in reading material for the upper middle grade reader. You have to check out these links. So many voices joining in the discussion. Just click on the links for different important opinions...
SALES OF YA FELL
THERE ISN'T MUCH FOR THE 11+
THERE IS A GAP BETWEEN MG AND YA
Emma Finlayson-Palmer runs a great chat on Twitter with the hashtag #ukteenchat, and on January 22nd, a discussion took place asking others to classify the target audience, some recommended books within this category, and exactly what can and cannot go content-wise. Here's a link to the first question, but scroll through and see what you think.
Should More Agencies Ask Specifically for Teen Fiction?
Skylark Lit are a UK literary agency specialising in children's fiction, and they have given 12-14-year-olds their own category entirely. If only more agencies did the same, and in turn publishers and booksellers jumped on this train and categorised these kids separately. But can it work? Will it work? Here's what they have to say...
Teen Voices Are Being Overlooked!
And here's a really powerfully written opinion piece by a teen on how many YA books actually isolate teens. It's a fascinating take and, in our opinion, a very important read for all the adult gatekeepers. Check it out here.
We're trawling the net for related articles and blogs to help bring wide perspective to this conversation. Here's a great article that is definitely voicing similar concerns, from Stacy Whitman, publisher at Tu Books. Take a look and let us know what you think.
And here, the fab @steftran opened up an important chat on Twitter yesterday asking for opinions. Take a look at the responses. Very interesting, we think!
If you find any articles that you think we and everyone else should read, send them to us so we can link to them on this page.
Striking a Balance
AS THE new year begins, we’re filled with more determination than ever to strike that perfect balance of dry-mouthed, heart-stopping terror to keep readers on the edge of their seats until the final pages of a suspense-filled book. Phew! Tension and pulse-pounding fear, apprehension, and anticipation are our favorite parts of writing—and reading!—but when it comes to our particular audience, striking a balance is not all that easy. And even shifting the focus away from the mystery and horror that we write, the darker fiction that we love, concerns over content in all genres is widely discussed.
Because this is an audience which spans such an enormous age range, as well as maturity levels and reading ability.
Because this is an audience which, more often than not, doesn’t buy or choose their own books to read.
Because this is an audience which is impressionable.
And what’s most upsetting, because this is an audience renowned for losing interest in books.
Yep, we’re talking about middle grade readers.
Age Limits & Middle-Grade
MIDDLE GRADE is generally defined as ages 8 to 12, though definitely includes advanced 7-year-olds and 13, 14, and even 15-year-olds not interested in what’s currently out there in the young adult market—more on this in a moment. But, roughly speaking, what’s categorized as a middle-grade book should be suitable for readers in grades 3 to 8. The books enjoyed by both third graders and eighth graders are few and far between. Of course they are; it makes sense that the content an eight-year-old enjoys should be different than that of a twelve-year-old—the development gap is enormous—again, not a new conversation.
We know that middle grade is already split into lower middle grade, ages 8–10, and upper middle grade, ages 11–12. Again, it’s important to emphasize that these are guidelines and there will always be a huge crossover. It certainly seems there are sufficient books available for the lower end of the age group, but where does this leave the upper end? And, perhaps the real issue is with the upper end of this upper end? Another question could be: are these subcategories enough? We don’t think so. Because not all early teens, the ages where they become exposed to young adult books, are ready for or want to read what’s out there; because these kids are still kids and young adult books appear to be becoming much more adult in content thanks to a huge surge in the popularity of this category.
Where upper grade ends at 12, maybe there needs to be another category, which covers 12 to 15 year olds. Some people refer to this as TWEEN or TEEN books; but, be honest—if you were still a kid, would you find these titles cool and appealing? We’re doubtful, and when talking to kids they definitely don’t seem keen either. Perhaps these labels are still treating them too much like young kids. We’re aware that some bookstores have tried to create these sections on their shelves already, but it doesn’t seem to have caught on. Why? What exactly is missing from, what appears to be, a seemingly obvious answer? We’ve seen what’s happened/ing with the New Adult category, it’s struggling to catch on, so will the same thing happen if we add another category between middle grade and young adult?
YES, YES, this isn’t a new topic of discussion, we know that. Though, fundamentally, the problems still exist and changes, from our side of things, don’t appear to be afoot. And, as someone pointed out recently, is this really a discussion to be had by adults at all? Well, all the time the middle-grade gatekeepers control the reading material then yes, it is. But, maybe, by speaking to and hearing from the right gatekeepers as well as these readers themselves, we can get close to pinpointing just why this age group is so difficult to write for, to entertain, to deliver what they want, and to deepen their love of reading so it continues uninterrupted through their teen years, a love they can then pass on to the next generation.
As writers, readers, and mothers, we know what’s out there for middle grade kids. We understand the need to protect our kids, to cherish their early years, and to vet what they see and hear. So quite right, adults like us should have a say in what goes into middle grade books.
We also know firsthand how disappointing and frustrating it is when a book-loving child suddenly decides age 12 or 13 that they aren’t interested in reading anymore, that the books they want to read aren’t available, that there’s nothing appealing on the shelves. And on top of all that, worrying that the books they do want to read simply aren’t suitable for them.
But, here we land upon our first major issue. Kids approaching and hitting their first teen years want more: more danger, more challenges, more shock. They are intrigued by what comes next; they want to be older than they are, dip a toe into more grown-up affairs, and they are forever pushing boundaries. And no matter how much we try to protect our youngsters, the world around them has other ideas. So, when kids don’t find what they’re looking for in books, they’re going to look elsewhere. And where’s that? TV, movies, video games, YouTube, their peers. All far too easily accessible and with far more risky content than what’s in books aimed at their age group.
Is it not time to push the upper middle grade book content that little bit further and bring it into line with everything else kids are exposed to? Will this actually fix the problem of kids “going off” reading? These other channels offer escape, full blown fantasy as well as real life, and they offer a chance for kids to be entertained, so is the problem really that we’re trying too hard to educate in middle grade books and thus neglecting that basic need to have fun? Another example for illustration purposes: curse words are a strict no-no in middle grade books, yet these kids are hearing them every single day via all these other mediums. So, even through this small point, middle grade books are clearly not in line with their reality.
We would never discourage readers from enjoying books intended for other ages. However, we wonder if the powers-that-be, the ones who are the heart of influence, are still neglecting to fill a gap for the upper end of this age group. Authors, parents, booksellers, educators, agents, and publishers all have the same goal: to enthrall readers with wonderfully written books and addictive, eye-opening stories, letting them learn about the world, increase their empathy, understanding, and compassion through the stories told by people they may never meet in real life. The entire spectrum of middle grade emphasizes teaching readers about the world more than any other age group, but has this led to fewer books offering pure and simple escape and entertainment?
Maybe we’re stuck in different conversations. Surely our aim should be to unite all groups involved with childhood and teen reading and to find a way to strike the perfect balance and get the books kids want to read, as well as what we, the more worldly adults, know will help enrich their lives, in their hands. Or at least make some headway in doing this.
Identifying the Discussion Points
AFTER SOME thought, here are a few discussion points:
· Are middle grade readers actually reading for pleasure?
· Are middle grade readers reading the books they want to read? If not, why not? What do they want in a book?
· Why do middle grade readers lose their interest in reading? At what ages does this start to happen? What puts them off books, often for life? How can we take steps to fix this issue?
· Are the books that adults think middle grade readers need to read actually what middle grade readers want to read? How do we find this balance?
· Are we happy with middle grade readers satisfying their cravings by seeking out risky adult titles? If not, how do we stop this, or at least try to avoid this?
· Why is the jump from middle grade to young adult titles so extreme these days, in both content and genre variety?
So, rather than rattle on, we want to hear from you. That’s you: authors, mothers, readers, educators, agents, publishers, book buyers, librarians, and just everybody who is a part of middle grade kids’ lives. We want opinions, evidence, statistics, recommendations, arguments and whatever else you’ve got.
But most of all, we want to hear from kids. Kids who are right there in the midst of this age range. We want to know what you’re reading, where you get your books and recommendations from, what you think of the books you study at school, what do you want to read in books?
More of This Maybe?
We stumbled across this exciting website, and we’d love to hear opinions from kids about ways they would enjoy sharing the books they love. Shorter reviews? Q&A? Author participation? Shared reviews where multiple readers could talk about the same book? There is no reason that children cannot be taught about literature using books they enjoy. We simply need to find the right way to make it happen.
Before You Go…
OUR SEARCH led us to this fantastic post and this list written by a 7th-grade teacher. As a yearly tradition, the students of Pernille Ripp recommend favorite books they’ve read during the school year. Before sharing the titles, Ms. Ripp warns readers that not all of the books were obtained from the school and some may not be suitable for all 7th-grade readers.
Browsing the list, we’re thrilled to see that kids are seeking books outside of school, excited that mystery and suspense are top contenders for this age, and disappointed that kids are still looking toward adult titles to find the subjects they want to read. Some of the books on this list aren’t a surprise, as we remember branching out into adult crime novels and Stephen King’s horror at the same age. Looking back now, we can see reasons we were too young for the content though.
What do you make of these lists?
Get In Touch!
SO PLEASE, get in touch. Email us email@example.com, DM on Twitter @winellroad, use the contact form here, or leave a comment below. Got a brilliant idea for a blog we can post here to keep the discussion going? We want and need to hear from you. We want answers. And remember, we’re looking for discussion, not argument. If you want to challenge our thoughts then go for it; we’re prepared to be proved wrong and discover that, actually, this age range is catered for just fine, thank you very much!
Judy & Kate
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.