Discussion Day: Middle Grade

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We all have a pet peeve when it comes to reading. For some, it’s grammar issues. For some it’s certain kinds of characters or certain kinds of plots. For me? It’s the concept of the “Middle Grade Novel.” (Among other things, of course. I’m not a “one pet peeve” kind of person.)

When I was going through Junior High, I was having trouble with my reading. I was born in the wrong time, obviously, because by the time I hit about 10, my reading ability was far beyond the books that were appropriate for my age. I might have stopped reading altogether if it weren’t for Harry Potter coming out that year, and for the lucky find of a few adult authors who wrote “clean” novels. At the time, there weren’t that many “middle grade” novels, and my reading was suffering because of it. I struggled through adult lit, and if there were a few concepts I didn’t understand, and some innuendos I completely missed, well, I don’t seem to have suffered for it.

Young readers these days are very lucky. In the wake of Harry Potter there was a flood of new novels, all geared toward that age group. MG and YA both got their start from that trend, and I think it’s great. We need to have books that will keep tweens interested in reading. My problem? A lot of times authors resort to simplifying a book to make it MG. That seriously rubs me the wrong way.

Just this morning, Beth Revis posted this discussing the difference between MG and YA in plot. She goes into a lot more detail, but the big difference she points out is MG is about discovering the world, while YA does more with discovering yourself. I’m okay with that description, though I’m not sure it applies in all cases. I’m even okay with making that distinction between audiences – an MG audience is more likely to be dealing with the “discovering the world” phase, while YA audiences are more likely to relate to inner turmoil. And I can say without doubt that I like both kinds of stories – let’s face it, my favorite genres (fantasy and sci-fi) are all about discovering new worlds! So why am I able to say that I dislike MG, in general?

I would argue that the root of the problem is that authors, or possibly their editors, believe that for an MG novel to fly with their audiences, they must simplify it. I can understand why they think that – there are so many other things shouting for our attention it’s easy to get distracted. But I also think that if a tween or teen is picking up a book in the first place, they’re saying they’re willing to give it a shot. Maybe I’m alone in this, but when I was reading at that age, if I didn’t understand something, I used context clues, or figured if it was really important it’d get explained later on (if it didn’t, I’d usually forget about it anyway). Looking back, this was how I learned many things in those years. I still use books as an opportunity to learn about things I don’t know. But, if the challenge to learn these things isn’t there, if the books are too easy, then what message are we sending the kids reading them?

That’s not to say I don’t have my favorite MG novels that I return to time and again. Harry Potter is the obvious series, though later it becomes more YA. The Faerie Wars by Herbie Brennan and The Neverending Story by Michael Ende are two others that I reread on a regular basis. In fact, on a recent revisit of The Faerie Wars I discovered a mention of the TARDIS (a reference to Doctor Who) that I never would have understood at the time – I only discovered Doctor Who a few years ago. I loved finding that little tidbit, but obviously my reading the first time around didn’t suffer from not understanding something.

I know I don’t have much say in the matter, but I would hope that there are some authors out there who can believe in their audience. I don’t mind having some MG novels that are easier – everyone develops at different speeds, and some tweens wouldn’t be ready for a challenge. But for the ones that are (and for those of us who still like to discover the world) can we please have something a little more complex? 10-year-old me is still cringing inside at the idea of being talked-down-to!

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11 Responses to “Discussion Day: Middle Grade”

  1. I blew through books like Piers Anthony’s Xanth series and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series when I was 10-12. By 13, I’d discovered trashy romance novels. I have a feeling if I went back and read the Xanth series, I’d see A LOT more than I did when I was 10, but I think that kids have every ability to read books geared for adults.

    From a teaching reading standpoint, a student (of any age) needs their level + 1 (i.e., it must be challenging) in order for them to improve. This is mainly second language reading, but I think the general idea applies: you need a challenge to improve. When I read through MG or YA and it no longer appealed to me, I jumped straight into adult books.

    Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Which, of course, I think is a good argument to make for MG needing some complexity. There has to be challenge, but it also has to be disguised as a good story.

    • Anne says:

      I was exactly the same way, though for me it was Anne McCaffery’s Pern and Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar stuff. I wasn’t far behind on the romance novels either, though I got a lot of my stuff from my mother, and she liked the inspirational romance, so they probably weren’t *quite* so trashy.

      The +1 thing makes total sense, though I hadn’t thought about it that way. Yet another good reason to think less about making the books easily accessible and more about making them complex and challenging!

  2. I really like Beth Revis’s description of the difference between MG and YA books — that makes so much sense! But I also agree with you that sometimes MG books are just wrapped up a little too neatly.

    BUT the same can also be said for some YA and even adult books. It really depends on the writer. And I think it depends on my mood while reading — sometimes I want a book that doesn’t overcomplicate things, one that has a perfect ending.

    I have that Herbie Brennan series on audiobook! I’ll have to listen to it soon — it looks super good! And you’re right — Harry Potter is one of those series that i could read over and over. It’s the perfect blend of mystery, action, friendship, and magic. I love it!

    As for the MG genre in general, I see a lot of awesome books while volunteering at an elementary school library. Admittedly, I go for books with beautiful covers and take photos so I can see if the public library has them. Sometimes they’re just written too juvenile for me, but I do like it when the author writes an MG book that can still span generations. I think that’s a great thing for families, when parents want to read WITH their children and the book can be something they both can enjoy.

    And kids aren’t stupid, either. Sometimes it’s nice when a book still has a resolution, but there’s still some kind of conflict as well — something to make the book stick in their head once it’s over and done with.

    And I also think that books should remain challenging, but there will always be varying degrees when it comes to the child — some are ahead of others, so there still has to be that variety when it comes to the books being published.

    Great discussion, Anne!

    • Anne says:

      *gasp* you have the Herbie Brennan series and you HAVEN’T READ IT YET?!?!?! I will poke you on twitter until you do! *pokes*…*pokes again*
      Sadly I have been burned so many times with pretty MG covers that I’ve pretty much stopped picking them up except on strong recommendations from sources I trust. It’s too bad really, but I only have so much time to read so I have to narrow it down somehow :(

  3. […] Anne has a great discussion on Middle Grade books! […]

  4. Agreed. I’m trying to recommend some quality MG contemporary books & I’m at a loss. The list is long for dystopian & fantasy, but when it comes to contemporary (aka dealing with self) *crickets* . Most are YA, which is fine for my MGer but not as a required read in a conservative school district. Urgh!

    • Anne says:

      Frustrating isn’t it? And it’s not just contemporary – even the dystopian and fantasy MG novels that I’ve read (because lets face it, I’ll read dystopian and fantasy ANYTHING) are just a little bit to easy. Living in a conservative school district probably wouldn’t help either, that majorly sucks :(

  5. […] discussed what “Middle Grade” means to me as a genre, and why it bugs the heck out of […]

  6. Oh, I think that’s a wonderful point, and it applies all round. I LOATHE a book coming across as condescending and, sadly, it happens. Even in YA, and even in adult fiction.

    And your SECOND great point is that it’s uneccessary. Phillip Pullman/’s Dark materials are middle grade and he doesn’t dumb down a single point. Same goes for Harry Potter. And they’re amongst two of the best-loved MG series around.

    I think it depends on the author, and I guess on the age the book is aimed at. There are MG books aimed at 8 year olds who could easily read, say, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but might struggle with a book like Goblet of Fire?

    LOVE your post ♥

    • Anne says:

      See, THIS is exactly what I mean! I totally didn’t even think of Philip Pullman’s books when I was trying to come up with MG examples, even though it’s one of my favorites, because to me it doesn’t fit in the “easy” MG category that I’ve come to expect. But you’re totally right! It is! And if one (or two or three) people can do it without dumbing down and come up with bestsellers, why does the rest of the world feel they need to?

      Thank you :) I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way – I was a little worried that this post would come off as rant-y and over-reacting, but it turns out I’m not the only one :)

  7. […] Anne (Creativity’s Corner) discusses middle grade books. […]

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