So, What is the Purpose of YA and Middle Grade?

Sometimes, you get into an argument–it was a very polite argument, by the way–and it just gnaws at you for the rest of the… Well, what is this? Thursday? Well, week, then.

A Middle-Grade Writer on Twitter was grousing about Middle Grade literature making references to (things she considered to be outside a MG-er’s frame of reference.) She thought of this as the author flaunting his own intelligence at the dear children’s expense. She called this something like “above the head winks” and thought of it as very disrespectful.

And, obviously, I disagree. I have no problem with a child having to pick up a dictionary from time to time, and none with having him pick things up from context. I don’t think children’s literature should be dumbed down to the point that the snot fountains **ahem** dear children never encounter so much as a word about anything they don’t already know.

I’m also incredibly concerned about the idea that somewhere–somehow–someone gets to be the Universal Arbiter of the Standard Childhood Experience. I mean, are we talking about an Airforce brat? A San Francisco hippie’s kid? A Korean immigrant? At what point do you hit the “Children don’t know anything about THAT!!!” Button?


I’m no expert on children. I don’t have any. I hardly ever borrow any. And for the purposes of this post, I’m pretty sure I never was one. I also don’t write for them. Note the disclaimer on my stories page: Any resemblance to children’s literature is purely coincidental. I mean that.

But the comment got me thinking, and within a couple of hours, I’d run the question past a couple of people (one is raising children, and the other intends to be at some point. And one of them writes for children, as well.)

The writer’s general thought was that in fact, young adult and middle grade fiction do exist to insulate children from certain things. (Vocabulary in general was not on the list.) That it presents better morals, and a…well, somewhat selective window into the world. Less cussing.

Yeah. Well. I suppose they do learn enough cussing in school. But I’m not convinced. Wasn’t there a death match in some of those books? And again… whose morals?

So… here’s my question. Well, Questions, maybe.

1.) What is the purpose of Middle Grade or Young Adult as a separate thing? Protect the morals? Indoctrination? Strictly marketing? Something else?

2.) Why do you believe that MG or YA is better for children than popping over to the library and just choosing books that interest them? Or vice versa?


  1. Reply

    I believe it has to do with maturity levels. Sure you hear swearing at school and you can’t help what things your kids are exposed to in life. But with books you can ease them in to things that they relate to at a level they relate to.

    The Harry Potter books are a great example of this. The first book is about an 11 year old and the story reflects that but as he grows older (and so does the audience) then so too does the maturity of the story. They start using stronger language, drinking coffee, small things but things that seem relatable to the age group. There is no reason to grow up all at once.

    I am working on two YA books right now and one has copious swearing and mature content because that is the nature of the drama, the other is much more innocent. I think it depends on your audience and what the parents feel comfortable exposing their kids too.

    I hope that helps, I don’t have kids either, this is just my take.

    • Reply

      There’s such a huge range in parents! I’m just now figuring out that mine were on the permissive side, and just how far on that side they were. I had the whole library as soon as I was old enough to stop playing with the giant globe.
      Are you writing YA or editing it for others? I’d love to hear more about working on kidslit as a non-parent.

      • Reply

        I’m writing. I am starting IVF so having a kid may well change how I view things, I would be surprised if it didn’t to some extent. I’m reading some of the other comments on this topic and have to say I agree that each kid is different and that you shouldn’t dumb down your work for them. I still have books that I read where I have to bust out the dictionary and that’s a habit best learned early. It’s part of critical thinking, in my opinion.

        We were big readers as a family as well and my mom was reading us The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner in 1st grade, possibly younger. I think then it becomes how willing the parent is to learn with their kids or to teach their kids. But I think learning is important and critical thinking skills are developed by reading things that make us think as well as entertain us.

        I’m not published yet, I’m hopeful that this is my year! But I’m always open to chat about writing. Again, I think that’s how we learn.

        • Reply

          Good luck with the IVF! Could be that you agree with me, but I can see you raising some really smart kids.
          I’m a total dictionary addict. I actually read them for entertainment and enlightenment from time to time. I’m still in awe of the whole idea.
          I think part of it is that we all write a little bit for the kid we were. I’d be heartbroken, if there weren’t people who could enjoy my stories (once I get the craft down), because that would mean I really am alone.

          • Ooh! I totally agree that we write in part for the kid we were. That’s a great way to say it!

            I’m really enjoying this post and the comments. Everyone seems to have something insightful to say and it gives me a lot to think about.

            Thanks for the well wishes!!

          • On an unrelated, I’m trying to make sure EVERYBODY who can get pregnant knows, they don’t enrich corn flour with the same vitamins as wheat flour in the United States. This is leading to a spike in neural tube defects in new immigrant enclaves, so pass it on!

  2. Reply

    I come at this as a parent and as a former kid. I’ll start with when I was a kid – I read just about anything I could get my hands on. Of course, it had to be something that interested me, but I was never restricted by genre or age range. Okay, maybe up until kindergarten or first grade, but heck, at that age I was only reading a year or two above anyway. That being said, I had parents and teachers recognize the fact that once I started voraciously reading, it was best to let me go. If I didn’t understand something, I asked questions or I looked it up. It’s how you learn.

    Now, as a parent, I’ve tried to take that same approach with my kid. When her third-grade teacher wouldn’t let her read above that grade level (and she was already reading at a 5th and 6th-grade level when she started third grade) I put my foot down. The teacher’s excuse was “what will she read when she gets to those grade levels then?” The look I gave her pretty much told her how wrong she was and I followed it up with “whatever she wants to read. We have a great library, if the school doesn’t have books for her, I’ll take her there.”

    All that to say, I think that each kid is different. They have varied interests, but to say that books should be dumbed down so to speak, does a disservice to us all. Let them read at whatever reading level they are comfortable with.

    If this particular author has an issue with certain books being out of frame of reference, well then perhaps she ought to look at other books that fall within her frame of reference for her kids. But to make a blanket statement that we shouldn’t allow the kids to read and be challenged, that’s just wrong.

    • Reply

      What will she read when she gets to those grade levels?!! Now, I am traumatized. And a “teacher” said that? Uhm… things that challenge her when she gets there.
      Of all my worries for gifted kids, running out of books never even crossed my mind.

  3. Reply

    Middle-grade books often feature a greater stretching of the audeince’s disbelief, I think. The best writers, like Lemony Snicket, do it in such a way that older readers will gladly buy in wholesale as well, but on the whole, you’ll find more outlandish, random, and frankly odd premises and happenings.

    Middle-grade books often feature middle-grade protagonists! Not that kids would never want to read about adults doing adult shit, or that adults could never be engaged in the life of a youth, but you gotta admit, it’s less probable.

    Middle-grade books often feature a middle-grade humor level. I thoroughly enjoyed Artemis Fowl, but as I got older, I found myself cringing rather than laughing at the plethora of bathroom humor that abounded…

    Of course, it’s also notably free of /bed/room humor, at least explicit. I don’t see anything wrong with that–I wasn’t shielded from the facts of life by any means, but books that were explicit on the matter of physical longings I didn’t have yet (and their sating) would have disturbed me. Think of it this way–kiss scenes they have, because a little kissing might be (on average, I know people mature at different rates) the only thing they’re actually imagining doing with the kid they have a crush on.

    And that hasn’t even touched the non-consensual side of that coin. And–let’s put it this way, I still have vividly scarring memories of a partial rape scene I glimpsed on TV. The guy was only unbottoning her shirt, but I could tell that it was Not Okay, and it needled into my child brain and stuck in a way such things haven’t in my older brain. I don’t see anything wrong with shielding kids from that…

    If there are older kids who shy away from the more mature content, there’s nothing wrong with them sticking around in middle grade. If there are younger kids who want to read above their Standardized Maturity Level, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them doing just that

    But there’s shit out there that glorifies substance abuse and abusive relationships and self-harm, and it’s not a bad idea to serve that with a side of parental guidance, or else reserve that risk for a point that a person’s mind is /slightly/ less… spoungey.

    …In any case, those are my rambling thoughts on Middle Grade and why it exists!

    • Reply

      Oh, the parental guidance thing! I never quite know how to figure other peoples’ parents. Mine were very present, but not terribly restrictive in what I could read. They knew, of course–and probably did guide me away from some things–but there was never an age restriction. I’ve actually had friends with parents on both sides of the extreme. Either super protective–don’t read above your grade level–or… let’s call it ambitious, and say “don’t read below your grade level.”
      Out of curiosity, I have to ask… do you think it was because you were so young that the rape scene hit you, or because it was the first one? I mean, that moment when you realize people do really bad things to each other sticks with you, regardless of age.

    • Reply

      Oh, but hell no, whatever you do, don’t dumb it down! THAT’S disrespectful. There’s a difference between assuming a lower maturity level and just assuming a lower intelligence level. Same as for adults, actually: don’t assume they know a thing, but don’t assume they can’t /get/ a thing.

      • Reply

        That’s a really good way of putting it. Maybe that’s what really bugged me about the woman… the idea that kids *can’t* understand the topic.

  4. Reply

    I’ve been on all sides of this issue. I think I was in 6th grade when I started reading Ludlum… clearly not a “middle grade” appropriate author. But who cares, right? And now I’m nearly 50 and I still enjoy reading YA and MG fiction. Go figure.

    For me, it’s about creating expectations. MG fiction will usually not have cussing, sex, drug use. The stories will be good, but less complex than fiction aimed at older audiences. Generally, the topics will be things that interest younger readers – but that can vary a lot. Anything that goes into issues that might raise red flags for parents or educators will have a specific purpose that’s made clear by the context of the story– things like LGBTQ issues, politics, drugs, sex, death, etc. As an author, if you’re writing for middle grade, you have 3 audiences – kids, parents, and educators. The parents are the biggest gatekeepers there, so if you want the kids to read your words, you can’t scare off their mom.

    With YA things are way more flexible. The biggest difference between YA and Adult/mainstream is the age of the protagonist. (Also true of MG – characters will usually be the same age to a few years older than the intended audience.) But in YA, the primary audience is the kid, not the parent. You can be more free – to an extent – with things that are very taboo for MG, but there should still be a purpose for it. Sex in YA is rarely about the sex, for example, and shouldn’t be graphic. Instead, it’s about the emotions and testing the boundaries of pre-adulthood, and dealing with situations that you might or might not be ready for. Things like that. But topic and themes? It’s really an anything goes situation. Politics, for example, might be simplified to something real teens might be involved with – local issues, school elections, marching for causes. But I can’t think of any issue at all that couldn’t be discussed in teen-oriented fiction. If there are any rules, it might just be that much of YA is written in a way to cause kids to consider difficult issues in a way they might not otherwise – a classic example being Ender’s Game and discussion of politics, war, genocide, and putting children in battle. It doesn’t specifically say any of those things are right or wrong, but because they’re central to the story, most readers can’t help but think about the ramifications and choose sides.

    But really, for either MG or YA, it’s all about what the market will buy and who is doing the choosing. Nothing is really entirely off limits providing you present things in the right way.

    • Reply

      I think I read more kids books now than I did, when I was a kid. I guess there’s less pressure to be a grown-up when you actually are one, or something. 😉
      I’ve never been wildly happy with the way sex is presented to kids, but that’s probably a blog post or six.
      When I was a bookseller, I had a parent track me down from my name on the kid’s receipt to yell at me and return a comic book (Which was clearly labeled “mature audiences” and which the mother admitted she’d been present for the purchase of) because *I* should know better. I was horrified by the idea of outsourcing parenting to a stranger. But I do think you’re right that the parents who are paying the least attention want the “rules” most stringently enforced.

  5. Reply

    Forgot to answer the second question. No, I don’t think age/audience specific reading is better for kids who are prepared to handle other work. Within certain limits, I think kids should be allowed to read whatever they want to read. (The limit being things like hard-core sex should stay off-limits.) But I was a reader as a kid, and my kids were readers. My rule for both books and movies was you can watch/read anything you want, but you have to be willing to discuss it. We didn’t always take the time to sit and talk about things, but we did it often enough that our kids knew we might ask. And when our son at about 12 wanted to get one of the war-based 1st person shooters, we first made him sit down and watch the first half hour or so of Saving Private Ryan to give him a graphic example of what war is really like. (Both our kids loved the movie, but that opening scene created a bit of shell shock, for sure.)

    I think the reason so many parents want kids literature to be completely sanitized is that they don’t want to take the time to read and understand what their kids are consuming and have hard discussions about it when necessary.

    • Reply

      I really love that rule. If the kid is willing to discuss what they’re reading, that really is half the battle, isn’t it?
      Do you think it’s harder to have a rule like that, now that libraries are less selective about the books they spend money on? I mean, when I was a kid, you wouldn’t have found something like 50 Shades in the library, and even the educational books about sex were locked behind the librarian’s counter.

  6. Reply

    Maybe not quite what you meant but in my view it’s a marketing thing. The literature existed before but not the categories. It’s like all the different shampoos we get these days. There once was a time when everyone just had hair. Now we all have different types of hair so we need different shampoos.

    • Reply

      Marketing makes everything so much more complicated! Honestly, if I were a guy, I’d shave every last bit of hair off my head and do the Jason Statham thing! Maybe I can find a literary equivalent.

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