Last week I discussed picture books, early readers, and chapter books. I didn’t give any examples of chapter books, because frankly the internet doesn’t know industry standards. A typical search of chapter books gave me everything that had chapters in it. Just because a book has chapters in it, doesn’t mean it’s a chapter book. The difference between a chapter book and middle grade (lovingly abbreviated as MG) is not only in vocabulary, but also in brevity.After much contemplation, here are the types of books I would deem chapter books:
- The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne
- The Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine
- Baby-sitters Little Sister series by Ann M. Martin
- The American Girl series
These books all contain chapters, but they’re really short. Like usually an hour read (or less) short. If they were regular fiction, you could probably label them as novellas.
So what exactly is a middle-grade book? Initially I wanted to tell you about the history of the term. I most certainly have never heard of the term “middle-grade fiction” before entering the publishing industry, but I’m too lazy to sift through websites about middle-grade fiction and what’s trending and much to my dismay, Wikipedia doesn’t have an article on it. Someone should fix that.
Back before 2007 and the huge explosion of Twi-hards and the YA section of bookstores, there was just simply the children’s book section. It was tough to navigate through for a reader like me who wanted something like Harry Potter but had to wade through younger stuff to get to the stuff more suited for me. Sometime in recent years (or so it seems) bookstores have been able to magically organize their shelves accordingly for frustrated younger readers who got into reading via beloved chapter books such as the ones stated above and wanted something more mature and longer. At the same time they don’t want to read about silly adult issues (they are still children) and the YA section provides way too much romance and high school issues and teen angst for them. Ew, right? Well, middle-grade books is the bridge between YA and, well, children’s children’s books. Another cool note: middle-grade books tend to be the most beloved and encompasses the most well-known books. And here’s why, as stated by an article found at Write4Kids.com:
I’ve always had a fascination with middle grade books. These were the books that I devoured thanks to my wonderful elementary school librarian. Honestly, I remember grabbing early readers and as soon as I got a handle on how to read, I pretty much skipped over everything else and went straight to these books. Not only did my librarian love recommending me books, she also introduced me to the Newberry Medal (though she didn’t realize it). I’ve come to the decision that the Newberry dishes out medals to books with great literary merit in middle-grade fiction. As such, I became smitten with the novel Bud, Not Buddy. It hits upon everything from running away from home to first kisses. Seriously, I can’t recommend it enough.
The author of the true, classic middle grade novel does not worry about vocabulary choices or simple sentence structure; once children are ready for these books they are good readers. Middle grade novels are characterized by the type of conflict encountered by the main character. Children in the primary grades are still focused inward, and the conflicts in their books reflect that. While themes range from friendship to school situations to relationships with siblings and peers, characters are learning how they operate within their own world. They are solidifying their own identity, experiencing the physical and psychological changes of puberty, taking on new responsibilities all within the boundaries of their family, friends and neighborhood. Yes, your character needs to grow and change during the course of the book, but these changes are on the inside. Middle grade readers are beginning to learn who they are, what they think. Their books need to mirror their personal experience.
Certainly YA books can have MG themes. And why not? I’m sure there are plenty of young adults who are trying to find their own identity. So when that doesn’t help you determine who should be reading your plot then look at the age of your character. Children’s fiction is all about putting the child first. You need someone that your audience is going to identify with. Can a child identify with a 20-year-old trying to find themselves? Maybe, but they haven’t experienced as much life as the 20-year-old so won’t be able to identify with all of their problems. If you’re writing a MG novel, be sure that your protagonist is within the ages of 8-12. I think any younger than that, and you might have something else unless you have strong themes. It’s uncommon, but there are adult books with a 5-year-old or 12-year-old protagonist. So just having a young character doesn’t automatically put you in children’s fiction. You need to write about things that age category wants to read about and needs to identify with.Though Diary of a Wimpy Kid looks like something for younger audiences (like those who should be reading chapter books) it’s still regarded as MG. Why? It deals with middle school life, which is the target audience. It hits upon and speaks to the people who are in between children and those who have already hit puberty — exactly who the MG audience should be speaking to. In other words: tweens. There, I said it.
My list of recommended MG books:
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
- Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
- A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith
- Holes by Louis Sachar
- Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
- The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
Next week, I’ll hit upon the wonderful world of YA novels! And I’ll also explain why I’m labeling Harry Potter as middle-grade and not YA and why people really should stop calling it YA before I smack them.