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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.