We’ve all heard the arguments about young adult novels. They’re juvenile, formulaic, written for an audience with low intelligence, and read only by adults who can’t seem to let go of their youth and move on to the deep and complex works more suitable to their years. In short, if you’re not a teenager, you apparently have no business reading this stuff, written in a generally straightforward manner with simple sentences–you’re better than that.
The book-loving community has dismantled these arguments time and again (and one suspects that they only crop up periodically precisely because they tend to provoke a large backlash and generate large page views). It’s fairly simple, after all, to point out that YA books deal with complex and deep themes, that not all YA books are the same (and we’re certainly past Twilight, which was written ten years ago but still stands as the poster child for everything “wrong” with YA), and that a good story is a good story, no matter the intended age range.
It’s also easy to point out that, in many ways, YA is just a label used to sell books. Sure, there are standard features of the YA novel such as the presence of a teen protagonist, the ubiquitous love triangle, the unspoken agreement that you can write about sex and other adult themes but you don’t cross the invisible line and make anything too explicit. And, yes, YA follows trends so the market will be glutted for a time with vampire novels, then werewolf romances, then dystopian novels. But, in many cases, YA just means “the protagonist is a teenager and this book will sell better if we say it’s YA.” Indeed, you can change the way your book is marketed simply by changing the age of the protagonist; say she’s twelve and your book is MG, but say she’s thirteen and suddenly the same book is YA.
But though the bookish community gets up in arms anytime someone dares to disparage YA, middle-grade books continue to suffer from the same accusations leveled at their YA brethren. Indeed, many in the bookish community tend to participate in the shade thrown at MG. Any time we post a MG review on our blog, we’re likely to receive a comment to the effect of, “Oh, it’s MG” or “I thought this was interesting until I realized it was MG.” The implication is that, oh, this would be a good story if only it were written for older, more discerning readers.
Middle-grade, of course, is not written any more simplistically than YA (which, incidentally is written more simplistically than many adult novels–though that doesn’t mean the story is any better or worse than one written with bigger words, longer sentences, and the ubiquitous “lyrical prose”). We have even seen above that the exact same book can potentially be marketed as MG or as YA. In many ways, MG and and YA are not very different at all.
It is true that MG protagonists tend to be in middle school while YA protagonists are of high school age. YA novels thus have more romance and, yes, sex. YA novels can, sometimes, also seem darker than MG books. But many MG are also dark. Adam Gidwitz’s fairy tale retellings honor the spirit of the Grimm brothers by providing readers with incredible gore. N. D. Wilsono’s protagonists suffer greatly while on their heroic quests–hunger, wounds, rope burns are all described graphically enough to be realistic. Jennifer Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish mentions meth addiction. Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish depicts the effects of heroin addiction on a family. The subjects MG and YA books deal with are often the same.
So why doesn’t MG receive the same love as YA in the blogosphere? After all, MG has a lot of positives going for it:
- The MG market doesn’t follow popular trends as much, so the shelves aren’t all full of paranormal romance or whatever genre is selling at the time.
- Ignoring market trends allows authors to come up with more creative storylines and often MG will find ways to make their book stand out, perhaps by making the puzzles interactive, for example.
- MG books often focus on friendship rather than romance so you can avoid the dreaded love triangle.
- MG protagonists are even less jaded than their already-not-very-jaded-in-comparison-to-adults YA friends. For example, their romances tend to be their first sweet brush with love, not a rebound after a breakup.
- MG books celebrate life. Yes, they can be dark, but they’re not all dystopian novels and post-apocalyptic novels. Large-scale societal oppression is less prevalent in MG at this moment.
Perhaps readers simply don’t want to read the stories of eleven- and twelve-year old children. Perhaps they really are invested in all the dystopian novels in the YA section and don’t yet feel they need something new. But perhaps, just perhaps, MG has become the YA of the book blog community, the embarrassing younger sibling one can mock to prove intellectual taste and superiority. “Oh, you’re reading those children’s books?” one can sneer. “I have progressed to more challenging selections.”
But if the bookish community exists to celebrate stories in all their forms. we cannot look down our noses at certain books simply because they feature younger protagonists, or simpler prose, or a label on the cover that reads “Gr.5-8.” The stories in MG are worth telling–stories of heroic quests, personal growth, and personal less. They are the stories we all share. They just happen to have been labelled “middle-grade” by a marketing department.