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.