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 http://readingtimbits.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter as @rachelnseigel.