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.


17 Responses to Assigning Age Categories to Books

  1. 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 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 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 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 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???

    • Bookworm Apr 23 2021 at 11:39 pm #

      In the past I’ve found that if I’m unsure that a book is appropriate for me a good website to go to is

  6. Robert Aug 11 2017 at 8:30 am #

    Hello Rachel ,
    I live in England so the schools are slightly different in their age groups i.e infant , juniors and senior school starting from infant then juniors from about 5yrs up , senior school age starts from 11yrs up to 16yrs but they must stay in some form of education or training until 18 yrs old ( this is new ,you could leave education at 16 as I did , after your main exams ) all to do with the unemployment figures ?

    I am an avid reader have been since a young boy , one of my grandchildren a girl aged 14yrs is also into reading , she reads 2-3 books per week or so on average .
    The problem is that her mind is a lot more mature than her age .

    Let me try and explain what I mean , when she [ my granddaughter ] speaks she is a mature young person ,its like having a conversation with an adult , I believe that the amount of books she reads has given her a greater understanding of vocabulary in turn bringing knowledge and maturity to her , I must admit I was a first concerned about what she was reading most of it rated as 18 + however when she turns round and says things like I found the Twilight Saga to be childishly romantic dribble and the best thing about having to watch the film with my friends at the pictures ( cinema ) was coming home , after that I allowed her to go through my bookshelfs ! Have a similar conversation with someone who is of the same age and although they may sound like they are mature , grown up they still act like young 14yr old kids raving about the stars wanting pictures of them how lovely they looked typical teenage girls . To me it means they are mimicking the actions of things that they have seen and heard but do not truly understand their meaning . Too much telly and electronic games perhaps , mimicking what the stars are saying with out being mature enough to understand the true meaning of the words .
    So how do you select the best recommended age group books for a school when a small percentage of these pupils are so much more mature than the others are , at my g/daughters school they have an award for excellence in reading , through the school library all the books that are read have got a word count etc a small group of children just through the school library , some have read in excess of 9,000,000 words this term that is without the books from the public library and swapping with others .
    If you could talk to these children over the phone you would picture someone very different to who you are speaking to , this is not the same with others the same age .
    I happened to talk to my g/daughter about this asking her how she feels about the selection and quality of books in the school library , she said quote ” it’s a very poor selection and if I could tell them , the group I’m in find the books aimed at very young children , the ones that are for a 14-16 are edited severely making them unreadable some of the classics are even edited , I feel like I am being penalised for being different from the other kids who act like infants , us in the group are different from the rest , it would be nice to be treated as a person and not a school kid , but that’s life ”
    That is the best I can remember what she said ,you have to find away to allow access to more mature material for the young adults who show they have the maturity to be able to take this leap forward into true adulthood earlier than their school companions.
    I feel sorry for her and others like her , I know from experience being different from the other children at school can cause problems , but through reading and knowledge we gain so much , if groups of students show that much maturity over the over schools should treat them with the maturity they diserve , allow them the access to books they wish to read but this must come with a signed concent form in person from parents or guardians at the school , after all they would know best what they allow that student to access and how they comprehend the contents of that novel or classical literature .
    I for one do not envy any school librarian the adious task of finding and selecting books for their school library .
    My g/daughter said very nearly the same thing whilst in conversation with me , that although she finds the library poorly stocked , it must cater for the majority of the pupils and not the minority who are funny enough the only ones actually using it ! It puzzles her why so few us use the library but those that do are labelled as odd she said .
    I was surprised to find so much stigma attached to those who to read , the library at my senior school had a great many people use it reading , research , chess club and pupil meetings and debates , how times change .
    Back to age groups on books for children , I believe it depends on the child and his/ her upbringing , and what the parents will and not allow them read and see .

    • Lynne Apr 25 2018 at 12:07 pm #

      I was a similar child to your g/daughter back at school as well – finding a lot of books there boring and most of the plot coming from how “controversial” children reading that sort of content seemed to the more patronising adults. I avoided the Hunger Games and Twilight and still haven’t read them because of how I felt they weren’t dealing with the plot premise as well as they should have. So I watched a little bit of the films, but I wanted the Hunger Games to focus more on the actual games and Twilight… I couldn’t put up with such superficial romance. Didn’t like vampires or werewolves in any case.
      So when we went to the library I’d often either take out comic books or murder mysteries (I still remember first reading Murder on the Orient Express and have been hooked on Poirot ever since). The choice that surprised a lot of my teachers and friends though was taking out and reading The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin purely in curiosity and not because I was told to read it by a teacher. I also read a dictionary for fun rather regularly – it was a big old one we had in the house and I even kept it in my room sometimes.
      I also was interested in films and videogames that were meant for an older audience than I was. I remember never being able to play or watch anything I truly wanted to watch because of the age rating. My parents were firm about me staying within my age range, so I couldn’t do much about it. Didn’t stop me from playing Need for Speed, Halo and Soul Calibur though.
      In short, I hate seeing posts by authors that assume that all children need to be “directed” and given a more diluted version of their idea purely because they are children. It’s so annoying! I had the maturity (and still do) to decide what interests me and what doesn’t, regardless of the age group it’s “targeted” for. If it’s a good idea that is written well, in my opinion it doesn’t matter who is going to end up reading it. Good stories naturally attract readers – of any sort. Not only that, but no one seems to complain about fairy tales – which used to be ridiculously dark. I was taught the darker versions one lesson in history and I found it fascinating – almost like the society I knew had finally dropped the act of wrapping its children in bubble wrap and shown me what the world ahead was really going to be like. That’s also the reason why I read mythology more often – because the stories were a lot more interesting because even though they’re more nonsensical seemed more genuine. Greek mythology was my favourite growing up – and some of those myths aren’t for the fragile heart, I can tell you.
      I did like fairy tales and disney films just like most other children – but disney films were the only place (or at least I found) where children were addressed on the same playing field as adults without the need for graphic content unless the story called for it. Even then Disney has been very sensitive about including that kind of thing, with I can appreciate. My favourites are Mulan, Treasure Planet and Beauty and the Beast, which speaks a lot about my personality both then and now.
      When it came to the library, I was definitely seen as the “odd one out” just like Belle.

  7. Em Elizabeth May 5 2019 at 8:58 pm #

    So I’m working on a book, and I have no idea who my target audience is. I have two point of view characters: one is fourteen, the other is twenty-three. As you would imagine, that makes finding a target age difficult. There’s no sex in it, all swearing is merely implied (like, I say that they swore but don’t actually say the word), and there’s no gore or graphic violence, although I guess it can be a little creepy at times. (It’s a paranormal mystery.) I’ve been told it sounds middle school-ish, but it’s longer than most middle school books. Any ideas?

    • Lynne May 5 2019 at 9:52 pm #

      I wouldn’t say it’s middle school for definite. After all, the paranormal mysteries like Coraline can actually be more scary than the more violent or gory ones! With a young teen character and the other being an adult, I would say that it fits in Young Adult, or for teens just coming up to high school but not in college range.
      I’m sorry if I’m mixing these up, since I live in England, but I would say in solid numbers the audience you’re looking for would be between 12-16. I say that because the youngest readers tend to be a few years younger than the protagonist. As for only around 16, because there’s not much violence but it’s more word heavy than most middle school books would be, by the sounds of it. Especially if it’s a mystery novel, that would not be something for middle school, I don’t think.
      Good luck!

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