Middle Grade Titles

Eleven-year-old Tommy said to his school media specialist, “I just read Wonder. It was the best book I ever read! Could you help me find another like it, please?” Every librarian loves to hear words like that. We’re born to play the role of reader advisory. However, a knowledgeable librarian, bookseller, parent, or friend isn’t always around when kids are looking for the “best” book to read. That’s why giving middle grade fiction a shelf of its own is a fine idea.

What is middle grade (MG) fiction, and how is it different from beginning chapter books and young adult (YA) fiction? The following table should help clarify the differences between these three separate genres.

Liz Szabla, Associate Publisher of Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends imprint, says, “Middle grade is the space between chapter books and teen fare.” Abby McAden, Scholastic Associate Publisher, agrees: “Middle grade is for truly independent, confident readers, whereas chapter books are all about building that confidence.” McAden stresses, “There’s a frame of reference that a 10-year-old has that a seven-year-old doesn’t yet. Year over year, kids become ready to look around and explore alternate experiences, and I think middle grade is a giant leap in that process.”

On her website, The Learned Fangirl, Sarah Hannan Gomez states that YA literature “is an amazing gift to give the demographic that feels (rightfully, thanks to a combination of actual neurological symptoms and sociological beliefs) betrayed, confused, alone, on display, and ignored…YA characters are gritty.”

Take a look at the following three books. The first is a chapter book, the second is a MG title, and the third is YA. After reading the annotations, it becomes clear how each category is distinct from the others. This further indicates that MG titles don’t need to be mixed in with either of the others; they need a place of their own.

Ivy and Bean are two very different seven-year-olds in Annie Barrows’s Ivy and Bean. Ivy wears sparkly headbands and dresses and reads all the time. Tomboy Bean is full of energy and loves to play tricks on her big sister. Bean’s mother urges her to befriend, Ivy, the new girl on the street. But Bean is not interested, saying that Ivy has “probably never even fallen out of a tree.” However, when Ivy helps Bean after her newest prank on her sister goes awry, they become fast friends. Short chapters and a steady stream of humor make this an ideal chapter book.

In The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, 10-year-old Ada suffers from both a club foot that has never been repaired and a cruel and abusive mother. When bombs start falling in London during WWII, her mother sends her little brother, Jamie, to Susan Smith in the countryside for safety. Although Ada has never been permitted out of her apartment, she sneaks out and follows Jamie. In this new world, Ada learns to ride a pony and to read, which gives her a new freedom and perspective of the world. She also watches for German spies. Miss Smith, a self-described “mean woman,” grows to love the two children and dreads the day that their horrible Mam might seek their return. Heavier subjects, a broadened world view, and a 10-year-old protagonist put this title squarely in the MG column.

Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give is a gritty, emotional story about 16-year-old Starr Carter and her life in two worlds: her gang-ridden inner-city home, and the fancy, mostly-white prep school she attends with her white boyfriend. She has learned to speak with “two different voices and only say certain things around certain people.” Her balanced life is cruelly toppled when her childhood friend, Khalil, is shot by a white police officer at a traffic stop. Starr is the only witness and must testify before a grand jury that will decide whether to indict the cop. She realizes that silence has hitherto granted free reign to the racist, violent policing of her black neighborhood. Her mother reminds her that, “Sometimes you can do everything right and things still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right.” Strong language, drug references, violence, and a 16-year-old protagonist place this book in the YA category.

It’s important for all of us, not just young people, to have the freedom to select books we feel are “right,” regardless of age group. But it’s also helpful for kids to have some guidance when no knowledgeable human help is available—and that means giving middle grade books a shelf of their own.

You can find solid MG titles on our special Middle Grade Fiction Bibz list.

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