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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Labeling Children’s Books

On 06, Jan 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

It turns out what I’ve been calling middle grade is not actually middle grade. At least, not exactly. Publishers call books for 8-12 year olds middle grade. This seems rather absurd to me. To begin with, the difference in simple ability to read between an 8 year old and 12 year old can be so vast. Most 8 year olds are in second grade. They’re just learning to read and can tackle basic chapter books.* Most 12 year olds are in 6th or 7th grade and are reading considerably harder novels. I was 12 at the start of 8th grade when we read Of Mice and Men and The Old Man and the Sea. Those are a far cry from what a second grader can/would/should read. Second, a 12 year old is in a very different developmental place than an 8 year old and is probably struggling with very different issues. There are different social dynamics at 11 and 12. There are different interests (romance!) at 11 and 12.

I think these age ranges and labels are designed to sell books. Publishers are trying to capture the biggest market they can for any one book. Saying a book is good for 13+ is not exactly helpful, but you get a lot of parents who think it might be right for their kids who are 13+. Same with saying a picture book is for 4+ or 3+. I also think that these age ranges are indicative of how we are pushing academics younger and younger. Eight-year-olds are, with rare exceptions, reading fluently enough to pick up a middle grade title. I worked in an elite private school in second grade and even those kids with all their privilege were not able to. But we love to place that expectation on kids. It plays into parents who refuse to let their first graders read picture books because those are for babies. Nevermind that the actual reading level of many picture books is higher than those early chapter books and easy readers they replace them with.

Ultimately I prefer broad terms like kidlit, middle grade, and YA to refer to books. They capture a broad audience and line up with how we already group kids (lower, middle and high school). It’s an easy system for parents to understand. If I had to state a preference for age ranges, I would cut out those young kids from middle grade and tack on another year or two. So the age range would look more like 10-13 or even 11-14. I know there is still big difference between a 10 and a 13 year-old, but I think for the most part these kids are in middle school and are facing some of the same issues and are better able to handle more “mature” content (like crushes and kisses, not sex). I also think by fifth/sixth grade or 10/11 unless there is a major issue either with the child or with the schooling system these kids are fluent readers.

In looking back at the age ranges for the books I’ve called middle grade, I’ve mostly been in line with the category. The most glaring difference is that I’ve lumped the books that fall into the 8-10 year old range into kidlit and put some books that are better suited to 12 and 13 year olds into the middle grade category. I’m not out to change the publishing industry here, I’m just trying to explain the terms I’m using on my blog and rant a bit about something that baffles me. So, just to clarify for the blog:

Kidlit: books for kids, especially picture books, but includes chapter books appropriate up through fifth grade

Middle Grade: books for middle schoolers, these books will potentially involve more explicit romance (but no sex!!), language, drugs, and growing pains, they’re for kids in sixth grade through eighth grade

YA: books for high schoolers, kids who are 14 and up, sure there’s a range here but they definitely tackle some serious stuff and look at relationships and language in a more mature way

*Which the publishing industry labels as for 6-8 year olds or somewhere close to that, This is also absurd since 6 is the age of many kindergarteners and they are learning letters not reading chapter books.

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