There has been much discussion recently among publishers & booksellers on the topic of defining age categories for children’s/YA books. When I was a kid, the kids’ section of the book store had novels for under 12, and a section of “YA” books for 12 and up. Today, while some bookstores still may not offer more than these two areas for novels, assigning age categories for these books has become a great deal more convoluted. There are first novels (beginning chapter books), Middle Grade, Upper Middle Grade, YA, New Adult, and figuring out where these books fit is an even bigger challenge. Is there really a difference between Middle Grade and Upper Middle Grade? Is there/should there be a such thing as junior and senior YA?
A few years ago, when Megan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book reviewer at the Wall Street Journal suggested that YA fiction had become too dark, she received tremendous backlash from the YA community who passionately argued about the necessity of exploring difficult themes in YA literature. While I do agree that teens need to be able to read about the tough topics and explore some of the darker elements of life in the books they read, I would also put forth the argument that both YA and Middle Grade fiction cover a broad spectrum of readers, and the tween reader of 12 or 13 who is not necessarily ready for these difficult themes straddles a line that as a bookseller/publisher can be really difficult to define.
Lately, I’ve been seeing a new age designation of 10-14 appearing in publisher catalogs that seems to address this limbo, and I’ve seen it referred to both as a new Young Adult category, and Mid Elementary. Recently, books like School for Good and Evil, The Riverman or The Thickety (Three of my favourite reads this year) which are better enjoyed by grade 6,7,8 readers who aren’t necessarily ready for A.S. King or Lauren Myracle. They push the envelope of dark and sophisticated themes that challenge readers, but they aren’t quite YA.
Just as New Adult (which is still regarded with some wariness) was created to reflect the experiences of older teens and college-age readers, more and more these 10 to 14 reads are necessary to keep these tween readers engaged without pushing them too quickly into books that they simply don’t have the maturity or experience to fully comprehend.
While having a tween category in a bookstore could prove difficult, hopefully as the selection grows we will find a better way to make sure that these complex and interesting reads find an audience.