Thursday Thoughts: The confusion of MG books

The idea of middle-grade books, or MG books, shouldn't be a complicated one.

It's an age range above picture books, early readers, and chapter books, but below young adult (YA) and adult books.

The characters, shockingly enough, are usually in middle school. They can be dealing with a variety of issues, but school and friendships tend to play at least a small role.

The plots and writing styles are accessible to younger readers but can also be quite profound, tackling complex themes in nuanced ways.

There shouldn't be any confusion over what qualifies as an MG book. And yet, not only do I believe there is confusion, but I believe that confusion is emblematic of the ways in which the entire idea of an MG book might be flawed.

For me, the confusion began when I reviewed certain books that I considered to be MG, but that others didn't seem to think fit into the MG category.

Sometimes it's clear why this happens. Take This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. That should be an MG book—it tackles some extremely mature themes, but the entire point is that it's about middle schoolers grappling with adult topics for the first time, against their parents' wishes—just as tons of middle schoolers are doing.

But I guess nobody wants to get into some whole controversial thing, so rather than letting it taint MG's precious family-friendly image that it doesn't even have in the first place, or even saying it's between MG and YA, they just let it linger on the YA shelves where I'm certain it's not getting into the hands of the readers who need it.

Moving on from that mini-rant, sometimes it's not so clear where the MG-YA confusion comes from. Take my second-favorite book, The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen. It is marketed as a YA book, but why?

It's about a middle schooler, TiαΊΏn, having specifically-middle-school experiences. So that's MG.

It involves experiences of being an immigrant or being gay, but you'll find those in quite a few clearly-MG books—Measuring Up, Felix Yz, When You Trap a Tiger, etc.

It has multiple points of view, but so does Goodbye Stranger, and no one would argue that's YA.

So I can't fathom why The Magic Fish isn't considered MG, besides random bigotry and incompetence or something. (Or some kind of weird prejudice against graphic novels, since all of my examples of mis-categorized books are graphic novels—though I read so many graphic novels that all of my examples for anything are graphic novels.)

Now, here's the thing. It's easy to get all embroiled in the definitions of an MG book and trying to apply them properly.

But then I stop and think for a moment about the crucial question, the entire point of designating books as MG.

Will middle schoolers want to and be able to read books designated as MG?

And, often, I fear the answer is no.

Now, I'm not sure I'm the best person to answer that question. I am not a teacher or educator, so my primary experience with middle schoolers was actually being one.

Also, I attended a bizarre and terrible private middle school, so the middle schoolers (and teachers) I met there were likely not a representative sample.

Still, when I think back to middle school, I recall just two instances of kids besides me reading for fun outside of class. One was a kid reading Smile, and the other was a kid reading The Mysterious Benedict Society. And those kids were near the top of the class-grade hierarchy—the kids nearing the bottom could barely read a passage aloud in class (not that such an exercise was ever terribly useful anyway), much less actually navigate an entire book with chapters and a plot and, perhaps worst of all, themes.

I suspect there were a lot of reasons why this was the case. One of them was that a bunch of my classmates had poorly treated dyslexia, which obviously doesn't help with reading skills.

Another was that my middle school's teachers, who were usually not certified teachers (at least where I lived, you didn't have to be certified to work in a private school), didn't really know how to get kids interested in reading. If you think teaching Johnny Tremain will inspire a lifelong love of reading in modern-day kids, I have news for you—it won't.

The kids I knew in school had never been taught how to hear the words of a story in their mind, and the words must have looked like a jumble of squiggles they had to drag their eyes over, rather than the sparkling voice of a protagonist with big dreams and a brave soul.

Another issue: these kids' entire emotional capabilities were stunted, thanks to distant, unloving parents and a bizarre mix of high- and low-pressure environments. If you haven't developed any empathy, how are you going to feel what a main character feels? How are you going to learn about their life experience?

If your parents haven't encouraged you to learn and to understand, why are you going to care what authors and characters have to say about the world?

If you are so distant from your own emotions that you can't even relate to a protagonist's struggles and successes, then what joy are you even going to garner from reading?

The aforementioned readers forming
massive lines at book festivals
Now, I realize that the middle schoolers I knew were a strange bunch that isn't necessarily reflective of normal kids. I know that there are fabulous teachers out there, like some of the wonderful bloggers I've seen, who could probably singlehandedly get tons of kids to love reading. And I know that there are middle schoolers who actually do have that reading voice in their head, who can actually engage in empathy and critical thinking, who form the massive lines I've seen at book festivals in front of authors' booths.

But even when you have middle schoolers who actually read, I would also argue that they're only reading a small, specific subset of the kinds of books we categorize as MG.

I visited Target a few days ago and found myself in the children's books aisle. If you've ever visited the books aisle of Target or Walmart or some other non-bookstore, you've noticed they tend to have only the most popular kinds of books—the slow sellers and obscure picks aren't there at all.

So what was there? Interestingly, there were quite a few things I had read.

There were a few graphic novels—Raina Telgemeier's memoirs, the "Emmie & Friends" series by Terri Libenson, the Olive books by Kayla Miller, and even When Stars Are Scattered.

I recall a copy of Clean Getaway by Nic Stone (the only one I hadn't read).

And there were some common series, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or former MMGM show runner Shannon Messenger's own Keeper of the Lost Cities (I believe they had all 9 books in stock, which was impressive for a Target).

What's my point here? (I mean, besides being surprised at the reasonably thorough selection of MG books in a Target, which I felt bore mentioning in and of itself.)

My point is that, for the most part, those books, the popular ones that were presumably actually selling to kids, are not the life-changing, gorgeously written, immensely deep MG books we all love.

There were some graphic novels about middle school drama.

There were some series for the younger end of MG or for the kids who want to geek out about some fantasy world.

There were some deeper picks, like Telgemeier's Guts or When Stars Are Scattered (which I cannot imagine middle schoolers want to read, honestly—it's gorgeous but more depressing than most Newbery winners).

But there was nothing dense. There was nothing overflowing with different viewpoints. There was nothing offering up huge insights about life and death and adulthood. And there were absolutely no Newbery books—virtually every winner of that award can be automatically considered an MG book, but if you think I didn't see any Newberys because copies of The Girl Who Drank the Moon were flying off the shelves, well, I suspect you're mistaken. (I got 3 comments on that review alone that basically said, "That's a great book, but kids will not like it." So of course it won the Newbery.)

Those shelves at Target were a microcosm of the books I suspect middle schoolers actually want to read. And I wish that wasn't the case—I wish middle schoolers were gobbling up gorgeous stories of wisdom and love and hope by the handful—but my wishes don't change reality.

There was a lot of rambling here, and I'm frantically revising this last-minute so it goes out on Thursday, but here's my main takeaway.

The term "MG book" may be a great catch-all for books of a certain complexity and format. But it is an act of self-delusion on the part of authors, publishers, and award nominating committees to think that these books are actually impacting middle schoolers. I don't believe today's middle schoolers have been given the tools to process the complex narratives and themes in these books.

That's not to say that we should change the books. I think the complex themes in MG books are immensely meaningful in opening younger readers' minds to the situations of others, in helping kids succeed in their own situations, and in solidifying valuable beliefs early so they don't have to learn them later when it is far harder to do so.

But I think we need to do a better job of teaching children empathy, healthy coping mechanisms, the value of constantly learning, and the actual skills necessary to read a book and follow a plot. And we need to change the way we categorize books as well, so that it isn't just this bizarre one-size-fits-none situation of books written for a specific audience but incomprehensible to that very audience.

If we make these changes, two things will happen.

First, all these wonderful books being created by talented authors won't just fall on deaf ears.

And second, we will have created empathic, informed, and confident individuals who will grow up to be the adults that our world will inevitably depend on for the decades to come.


I think what I've said here might be super-controversial and woefully uninformed, so I'd appreciate thoughts from any viewpoint in the comments below!

Stay tuned for Monday's book review (which is of an MG book that I am certain middle schoolers will actually want to read), and stop by in a week for another round of Thursday Thoughts. See you soon!


  1. Ok. I know that Johnny Tremaine isn't the point of your post, but it has now come up 3 times in the past few days. My daughter had to read it with her class in 5th grade (they took about 3 months to do it!) and she HATED it. Hated the book so much she stopped reading other books and has no interest in early US history. 10 years later, she is still resentful of that book. It came up in conversation a few days ago and then my new supervisor (an elementary person) mentioned it as well and we agreed to stop our elementary teachers from using it. And now you've brought it up. I want to tell all teachers that it is time to move on from Johnny Tremaine!

    1. Honestly, if the result of my post is that less teachers teach that book, I would be thrilled! I recall it being such a slog when I had to read it in 5th grade too, and they really do teach it for a ridiculously long time. So I'm glad to hear you all are trying to get teachers to use it less! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

  2. You always write such thought-provoking posts. Clearly, you are right about the confusion as to what is middle-grade because as a reviewer (I used to write reviews for Family Fun magazine), I always considered anything between picture books/early readers and YA to be middle-grade, roughly grades 4 through 8 in the U.S. Basically, the grades in the middle :)

    No offense, but your middle school really does sound awful! When I was that age (admittedly a long time ago), lots of my friends read for fun. For my own kids, one has been an avid reader since he learned to read, and the other has never enjoyed reading (though he is very good at it - he just doesn't like sitting still!). Sometimes, though, we could get my younger son into a series, and then he'd enjoy it while it lasted! My son's 8th grade English teacher asked me to do a series of talks with her classes on reading and writing, and it was so much fun! Not all of the kids were engaged but many of them were talking excitedly about books :) I think Harry Potter really changed things for a whole generation (or 2) of kids - books and series became cool and trendy!

    Very interested in your comments on which books are stocked at Target and WalMart - I think it's very much the same for the adult sections there! Just the most popular - the ones they can sell the most of!

    Great discussion -


    2021 Big Book Summer Challenge

    1. Thank you! That sounds like a very reasonable definition of MG you used as a reviewer (also, I didn't realize you wrote reviews for a magazine—that's so cool!). My middle school was definitely unusually awful, so no offense taken! And that's very uplifting to hear about the kids at your son's school being excited about books—it makes a lot of sense that Harry Potter would have played a big part in that. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

  3. Thanks for this. This designation always confuses me too. I'm not even sure it's really relevant all the time. As a retired teacher librarian I would like to say that lack of access to a school library with a qualified TL makes a huge difference in how much reading kids do. I used to book talk new titles at our Monday morning assembly and would have readers coming in to add their names to a reserve list for those titles. I considered it a challenge to put the right book in the right hands to get those reluctant readers excited. I still get shivers thinking about those kids who would come in asking me if I had more like the one I sent them home with. I once got a group of grade seven boys - who told me they didn't really like reading - hooked on the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness. Our goal should be to get them reading first and foremost and to heck with what other people think they should be reading.

    1. I can definitely imagine that having a teacher-librarian putting in the work to find the right books for each reader would make an enormous difference! There's a part of me that suspects every person would love reading if they would just find the right book—I'm not sure that everyone would get quite as enthusiastic as us bloggers, but (especially when you're younger and reading a book requires more effort) making sure that people put in the effort on books they'll actually enjoy is definitely important. I am so grateful for people like you who put in the work to get kids to love reading! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

  4. I just found your blog, so I'm not sure what your background is, but I have to say that my views on what makes a MG book "appropriate" change depending on if I'm thinking about it from the perspective of a reader/book critic/book lover or as a parent of middle-grade children. When my kids were in this age category, I wanted them to read books that were engaging, well-written, thought-provoking, and fun. When it came to books about subjects considered taboo/inappropriate, I proceeded with caution, based on their age and maturity level. Was I prepared to discuss things like homosexuality, gender dysphoria, genocide, human trafficking/sex slavery, suicide, etc? Were they prepared to learn things that might confuse and disturb them? It's important for kids to learn about other cultures/lifestyles/experiences, but it can be scary as a parent to introduce kids to uncomfortable topics and to venture out of "safety" in the picture book section. Also, there's a HUGE difference in maturity and exposure between an 8-year-old and a 13-year-old. MG books are becoming increasingly diverse and serious in dealing with topics that have previously been left unexplored in the genre. It's wonderful in a lot of ways, especially if it opens up discussions between parents and kids and, like you said, helps kids be more empathetic and inclusive. My parents basically let me read whatever I wanted (which led to confusion about certain subjects that I was WAAAYYYY too embarrassed to ask them about). I'm not that kind of parent. When my kids are/were in the MG age group, I keep an eye on what they're reading so that we can discuss whatever might come up. To me, this is much healthier for all of us than banning certain books outright or just letting an 8-year-old have free reign. I'm the same way about PG-13/R-rated movies with younger kids. In my opinion, there's no reason to expose young children to material they're not equipped to handle and when they do come up, I want those discussions to happen with me, in my home, not with strangers on the Internet or with friends at school. I know these will happen anyway, but I do what I can to control it and to provide a safe place for my kids so that they can learn about new and potentially confusing/disturbing subjects in an informed environment, if that makes sense.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for the interesting discussion!


    1. I appreciate you sharing your perspective! I think it's a great mindset to monitor the kinds of topics your kids are reading and have conversations with them about those kinds of topics—although I'm not a parent myself and can't speak from that perspective, I can definitely imagine that doing so allows your kids to learn about different ideas and important concepts in a more manageable way. It sounds a lot like the kind of perspective teachers take when utilizing books in the classroom, which is a really valuable thing—just putting a book in a kid's hands doesn't necessarily lead to the kid understanding that book or its message! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on this topic!


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