Is It Cool to Hate on Middle Grade?

Discussion Post

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. Wilson’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 book 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.

Krysta 64

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35 thoughts on “Is It Cool to Hate on Middle Grade?

  1. Victoria says:

    I’m definitely bias towards MG books, I guess because I get that backlash for reading YA. I feel like I need to be reading more adult books, not “going backwards”. But you’re so right, there’s a whole new type of book I’ve barely explored, and I don’t really know why!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I find the attitudes about MG and YA puzzling as they’re mainly marketing terms. They just didn’t exist years ago. If they had, books that are considered classics now and that adults read such as Anne of Green Gables, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Catcher in the Rye would have been published under such a heading and people who enjoy them now and aren’t ashamed of it would be too snotty to read them.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Risa says:

    This is a nicely written discussion post.

    I don’t know much about theYA-MG-bashing trends as I don’t really follow these. But if I don’t read much YA or any MG it is for one reason and one reason alone. I cannot relate to them — not in plot and not in written style. For example, many enjoy reading Narnia even when they are well past their teens. But I’m afraid, since I never read Narnia as a child, I can never truly understand its magic, for it most certainly isn’t written for an adult. I have tried one book from the series and it was enough for me to regret never having read it as a child, and to know that I simply cannot read it now for I cannot relate to the characters or to the writing style most suited to young readers.

    Does this mean it is beneath me? No. It most certainly isn’t. It is merely that it doesn’t suit me. It does not have the power to lure me into its pages. If a book is labelled MG or YA, yes it is meant for a particular age-group. Is it okay for an adult to be reading them? Sure! why not? If an adult can still capture those years in their youth through the reading of these books then that’s great! There’s no harm re-living your past or young dreams through the written word. After all most of us read for escapism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I don’t relate to all MG and all YA, either. (Especially those YA protagonists whose lives revolve around becoming prom queen. Like…wow. That’s the most important thing happening in your world? How…shallow.) But many books do engage with themes I find relatable, such as loss and loneliness and the need for courage. I don’t find myself reliving my past so much as I find myself recognizing aspects of myself in characters who simply happen to be younger than I am.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Risa says:

        Ah yes! I’ll have to agree with that ’cause if I read a YA I like it’s usually because of the themes dealt with or the fact that the characters are so very real.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. lynneawilson says:

    I enjoy reading a vast selection of books across the age spectrum. I review MG & YA for my blog because I am currently writing a MG novel, or perhaps it’s classed as YA as the protagonist will turn 13 in the story. I have had the pleasure of reading some inspiring & brilliant MG books. Kids need inspiring and something to believe in, we can teach moral lessons through the characters of a great story and help to expand their minds. As you may be able to guess, I’m a huge advocate for YA & MG books.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    Interesting post! I think yeah, there is a slight bias against MG books. I have a pretty bad memory, but from memory, I always remembered MG books as having more simplistic writing, larger fonts as well – which is why I don’t love reading it anymore.
    Despite this, I don’t agree with people who make comments like “Oh, I didn’t realise it was MG” and disparage it. In general, disparaging others’ reading tastes is poor taste imo :S

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    • Krysta says:

      Lower-level MG are more likely to have the more simplistic writing style and the larger fonts, but upper-level MG can provide a reading experience more akin to YA. Often it’s just the age of the protagonist that had the marketing department shelf it with MG rather than with YA.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kourtni @ Kourtni Reads says:

    LOVE this post!
    I find myself being biased against MG a lot and have been trying to change that. There’s one series, The Land of Stores by Chris Colfer, that’s MG that I love. But other than that, I tend to assume the book is too simplistic or not thought-provoking enough. Basically, I think the same thing about MG that a lot of people think about YA.
    I definitely want to branch out and try to incorporate even just a tiny bit more MG in my reading. I have two younger siblings and while one of them reads some YA, the other reads exclusively MG so it’d be nice to be able to talk about books with both of them. Plus, I’m sure there are a ton of great stories waiting for me to discover them. 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      There are ranges even within MG so something that’s an “upper-level” MG will actually be much closer to a YA reading experience than a MG written for younger kids. I find I do appreciate upper-level MG more just because the younger stuff can sometimes be written in an over-simplistic (dare we say, patronizing) style and I don’t need that in my stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Puput @ Sparkling Letters says:

    I honestly love MG and enjoyed some of it, especially Rick Riordan’s books and sometimes I enjoy a good children book as well, like Benedict Society. But I feel like the more I read (not the older I get), I kinda outgrow a lot of things from MG. Like the innocence of the characters, the jokes, and frankly, the way the story was told. It’s true what you said that it focused on friendship and as a notorious shipper, I feel ‘itchy’ whenever I read MG :’) I was so eager for Percy and Annabeth to be together but that didn’t happen until the last book haha while in YA and NA, romance usually shows up pretty early on.

    That being said, I still read and enjoy some good MGs and I do not at all consider people who read MG as a lesser reader. Great discussions! 😀

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    • Krysta says:

      There are different age ranges even within MG. I find I enjoy upper-level MG more. It’s darker and the writing level isn’t as basic (like the author feels the need to explain “big” words to the reader). It also tends to have more hints of romance even if that romance doesn’t go anywhere (which is fine by me–I like romances that blossom over time rather than the notorious insta-love). Though it can be annoying to be shipping a MG pair only to have them end up as long-lost siblings or something. Oops.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. kirstyandthecatread says:

    What a great discussion. I deplore book snobbery in all forms I don’t care its YA, NA, MG or baby picture books reading is reading. It is the best way to understand our peers as well as the people around us all ages, genders and ethnicities!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, if it’s a good book, it’s a good book! It doesn’t matter who the target audience is! Though I do find it problematic that the implication is that somehow children and teens aren’t to be taken seriously, just like their literature.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Briana says:

    One of the more puzzling things to me about these types of criticisms is the implicit assumption that people read exactly ONE type of literature. Like, if you read YA you ONLY read YA because you’re too dumb to read anything else. If you read MG you must ONLY read those silly stories for children and be trying to recapture your youth. I read extremely widely. The fact that I’m reading YA or MG does not read I’m not reading books for adults or classics or “hard books.” If we’re going to be snotty about reading habits, I’m pretty sure I can rip out my credentials and prove I read more stereotypically impressive books than half the people who want to insult me for reading YA or MG.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, that’s true. I admit I’m often secretly laughing inside at the people who insult me for reading YA or MG because I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t know how to respond if I revealed the full range of my reading habits. But I never bring it up because I don’t want the exchange to sound like I’m saying “It’s okay I read these books for something light. I also read ‘real’ literature so obviously I’m not as unintelligent as you seem to think.”

      Like

  9. Lauren @ Wonderless Reviews says:

    This is a wonderful discussion post! Middle Grade is such a wonderful genre and I really want to explore more of it. Percy Jackson is one of my all time favourite series and I was like 22/23 when I read it for the first time. I really don’t think it’s fair that it gets such a bad rep. I feel like it’s often overlooked too (I know I’m guilty of this) which is a shame because it really has so many wonderful elements. I really hate when things are automatically taken less seriously because their target audience is for children/teenagers.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, when we say media isn’t serious because it’s for teens or children, it’s like we’re saying we don’t take teens and children seriously! What kind of message is that?

      Like

  10. Stefanie says:

    I love this discussion 🙂
    I used to have a teacher who would always say that “a good book can be enjoyed at any age” meaning that whether or not if it was written for a younger audience, a good book should be enjoyable by more than it’s market demographic. And I definitely agree with this. Of course this is only true going back (i.e. enjoying MG at an older age) and not forward (i.e. reading horror at way too young age).
    I love middle grade for many of the reasons you list above, especially how it tends to be void of relationship drama, i love that it’s friendship based or just coming to that very first feeling of “like”. The stories in general are just a bunch of fun to read, even if they are a bit darker.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, exactly! I don’t see why we disparage art just because children and teens like it! And that’s offensive to the artists, too. It’s saying they’re not creating “real” works of literature when in fact writing for children isn’t any easier than writing for adults.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Anonymous says:

        I agree! I’m sure J.K Rowling, C.S Lewis & Roald Dahl, to name but a few, would be offended if their work was not classed as ‘real’ literature.

        Like

      • Stefanie says:

        So true, just because it’s targeted at a certain age group does not make the artist less good because it takes less skill to cater to this specific group. Maybe it takes even more skill to write a book that is both compelling and appropriate for a younger age (striking the write voice can be quite challenging I imagine)

        Liked by 1 person

  11. TeacherofYA says:

    I have a hard time reading middle grade because I like the romance in YA. There’s a book I’ve been working on forever called Sunborn Rising, and it’s a great middle grade, but I keep waiting for characters to kiss or get together that never will. So I guess I’m inpatient with younger protagonists…
    I did check out The Girl Who Drank The Moon because the cover was so pretty. 😳

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think one of the nice things about MG is that, if there is a hint of a romance, the characters really have to get to know each other–they can’t just jump into bed and have the writer go “Oh, isn’t this romantic!” Maybe if you’re lucky they’ll hold hands at the end, but the rest of the time is the two of them learning about each other.

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  12. DoingDewey says:

    I would never give someone else a hard time for reading MG books, but I typically avoid them myself. The handful I’ve picked up have felt very simplistic to me, so that’s my impression of the genre, accurate or not! I don’t feel the same way about YA.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I prefer upper MG myself as some of the lower ones are a little patronizing towards their readers (which I would have hated when I was that age, too, incidentally).

      Like

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