Assigning Age Categories to Books


Rachel Seigel

As a buyer who handles books that range from toddler to high school, one of the biggest challenges I have is trying to determine the proper age category for the novels I purchase, and particularly when it comes to books for Middle School or Junior High. (12-14 years old) It should be easy right? Look at what the publisher has recommended and place it accordingly. WRONG!

While it’s true that most publishers do suggest reading levels, they tend to keep them as broad as possible, understandably being afraid of limiting their audience by being too specific. A typical novel for middle-grade can be listed at 8-12, 10-14, or just 10 and up. The majority of young adult novels are listed at 12 and up, or simply “teen”(though more publishers are starting to recognize the importance of a 14+ category). When you consider that many kids turn 12 in sixth grade, you can understand the challenge.

In my showroom, Middle Grade, YA 12+ and YA 14+ are three distinct sections, and I spend a great deal of my time considering the divisions between them. One of my first considerations is the age of the characters. It is generally agreed in the book community that kids will read up by about three years, meaning a child of 12 or 13 will be interested in books with teenage characters. Regardless of the publisher’s suggestion, if the characters are in high school, it goes into the Teen 12 section. If the characters are seniors in high school, it goes into the Teen 14 section.

My next consideration is content, and this is tricky, because cover copy is written to sell the book, and I’m making decisions on books I haven’t necessarily been able to read. If a 10-14 or 10+ novel is particularly thick and if the topic seems like it would appeal to a slightly older audience, into the 12+ it goes. If reviews (and this is where I really rely on posts from bloggers) tell me that a YA novel has sex, graphic violence, drug use or a lot of swearing, into 14+ it goes.

My customers rely on our 12-14 section being what they label “clean teen”, or suitable for younger tween/teen audiences, but we also want to stock material in that section that will satisfy more mature readers in grades 7 & 8. (Such as Hunger Games and Divergent

For all of you who have or work with tweens and teens, what criteria do you use to determine the age appropriateness of books?

Rachel Seigel is the Children’s/Young Adult Book Buyer at wholesaler S&B Books in Mississauga, Ontario. She also maintains a personal blog at and can be found on Twitter as @rachelnseigel.


12 Responses to Assigning Age Categories to Books

  1. Julie
    Julie May 9 2012 at 6:10 am #

    Hey Rachel – great post! I always thought it was interesting how Harry Potter grew up over the course of the HP books, right along with his audience. (Made it less likely readers would “outgrow” the books.) <3

    • RachelSeigel
      RachelSeigel May 9 2012 at 9:03 am #

      Thanks! When a character grows up with the reading audience, in a way it’s ideal. On the other hand, when you have younger kids beginning with the books and all are already out, it’s a hard call whether or not to let them continue. 🙂

      • Carla Peele Aug 14 2013 at 3:42 pm #

        THAT is a good point. My kids are too little to read ANY of the books (8 and 6, too thick), but, they love some of the movies. Unfortunately, after the forth movie hubby and I decided it was just too dark and we didn’t want them to see it. REALLY hope “Percy Jackson” doesn’t get continually darker, because they love him and I enjoy having something to enjoy with them like that; hoping they make even more movies with him.

  2. Amie Kaufman
    Amie Kaufman May 9 2012 at 6:16 am #

    Oh wow, there’s a LOT to think about here. I know when I’m buying books as gifts for the teens in my family I’m constantly trying to think back and remember the content, so I don’t gift anything too advanced. I can’t imagine doing it for so many books, especially when of course there’s no possibility of reading them all.

    • RachelSeigel
      RachelSeigel May 9 2012 at 9:05 am #

      I am constantly grateful for the internet, and if I haven’t read something, I try to find reviews from parents/teachers that rate violence, swearing, sex, etc…. Sometimes it’s just impossible to find anything, but thankfully I have the freedom to move books around as I learn more about them!

      • Carla Peele Aug 14 2013 at 3:40 pm # is the BEST place for that. Not to mention, they give you book suggestions every time you log in, based on what you’ve rated on there as good/bad/don’t want to read.

        (Plus, most of the time people who write reviews, you can reply to their review if you have a question and they’ll answer you pretty promptly. AND, sometimes the author of the book themselves is on goodreads. Not always, but a lot of authors are.)

  3. Stephanie Allen May 9 2012 at 9:07 am #

    I teach 6th graders. So some of them are ready for things like The Hunger Games (most of them are reading it right now) and Divergent (one or two are reading it right now because I mentioned it one day), but others are still back with Diaries of a Wimpy Kid and other things more aimed toward their age group. When I recommend books to kids, I try to think about a) the maturity of the kid, and b) what they are already reading.

    • RachelSeigel
      RachelSeigel May 9 2012 at 9:20 am #

      Grade 6 is a funny age, and my friends who teach middle school have the same experiences! Some of the kids are incredibly mature and are interested in Twilight, others are still into Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I read my first Stephen King at 11, but was also still into Sweet Valley High!

      • Carla Peele Aug 14 2013 at 3:38 pm #

        Ha, ha. When I was 11 I was SO eclectic. I read “The Outsiders” (A book that EVERYONE should read), “It” and “The Stepsisters #5” all in a two week period. You never really can tell what’ll strike a kid’s fancy…but I tell you what, the book was no where NEAR as scary as Tim Curry as Pennywise… :::Shudder:::

  4. Carla Peele Aug 14 2013 at 3:36 pm #

    I’m a writer myself– I’m having difficulties determining at the moment. Two of the four things I’ve published were “Adult”, one was YA 13, and the other was a cookbook. What I am working on at the moment is a book that goes back and forth between fantasy and real family life. I’m wanting to gear it towards that sort of audience– clean, like 1980s family shows I adored. It’s the sort of book I would have read at ten, but I was always at a higher level because my older cousin had great books and I’d read her stash. So, I am not sure. There will be some innocent smooching, but nothing too graphic, unless it is merely implied. POSSIBLY little swearing, but only if absolutely necessary and not if I can avoid it. But. though the main character is merely 15, she will be going through some major philosophical decisions. (Not abuse.) What do you think? How should I target my book when I am finished?

    • Jennifer Evans Oct 26 2013 at 2:02 pm #

      I have been pondering this exact inquiry as yours for awhile now and researching the matter led me to your post on this website.
      I consider myself a writer though I have not been published. One of the main obstacles deterring me from that goal, in regards to a particular piece of work I’ve written, is which age appropriate category it should ultimately belong to? I am very interested in any helpful response to your inquiry as I have struggled with this same dilemma.

  5. Ingrid Ludgrove Nov 26 2015 at 5:50 am #

    I would like a website where I can go to enter the title of a book to find out the age group classification.

    I have found so many books I think my teenage boys (12 – 15 years) would enjoy reading but don’t know if they would be suitable.

    It is difficult enough to get boys to read anything but when you find a niche you like to encourage it.

    Is there such a site???

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