Defining an Age Category

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.

3 Responses to Defining an Age Category

  1. Claire Fogel Jan 7 2015 at 6:51 pm #

    I absolutely agree about the need for more levels of classification in YA fiction. I love YA fiction, although I’m far from a “young adult.” Some of the YA books I’ve read contain so much profanity or so much violence, I had to wonder how they were ever considered “young adult.” Even some YA books that were lighter in spirit were still sprinkled throughout with four-letter words, which has made me wonder if this is a normal part of life for young teens in the twenty-first century. I don’t think so, but maybe I’m just old-fashioned!

    I write Young Adult novels that are clean reads, which means there is no profanity, no excessive violence, and I feel comfortable recommending them to kids from 11 to 16. If authors want to write young adult novels containing profanity and violence, fine, but there should be a specific classification for this type of fiction. After all, we authors want to entertain teens, not convince them that curse words, violence, and casual sex are okay.

  2. Sarah Jan 8 2015 at 9:34 am #

    I love this post for a lot of reasons. One, I agree that there’s a huge need for “tween” novels, though defining them is difficult. For one, at 12 and 13, I wanted to read about older girls, kids in high school. But right now there’s an overwhelming shift of older characters in YA novels dealing with these difficult issues that maybe not all 12 and 13 year olds should be delving into yet. So while the characters are older, I agree with the above commenter that it’s important to offer “clean” reads. I know that Bloomsbury has a new series, starting with “Wish You Were Italian” (I believe) that seems to do this!

  3. Terry Jan 8 2015 at 9:59 am #

    I totally agree that there are YA novels now that are hard to define as suitable for the bottom end of the secondary school market, ie 11-14, but I have to feel sympathy for any bookstore manager trying to sort fiction into so many sub categories. I imagine many stores simply can’t do it, especially since to even try they will be forced to rely largely on publisher blurbs – they can hardly read everything?

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