I’ve written before about the reasons we all should all be reading more middle-grade novels, noting they tend to be less formulaic and more inventive than YA; that they are more joyful; and that they avoid the dreaded love triangle. However, the book blogging community tends to look down on MG, disparaging it the same way outsiders often seem to disparage YA. Routinely my reviews on MG books receive comments such as, “I thought this looked cool, but then I realized it was MG.” A subtle dig if ever there was one.
Of course, we all know that “middle grade” and “young adult” are somewhat arbitrary designations used to market books, and do not often reflect on the sophistication of the content within. Bloggers point this out all the time when someone dares to attack adults for enjoying YA novels. Indeed, a simple look at your library shelves or at the community’s Goodreads shelves can reveal the perils of trying to label books. Works such as Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series, Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co., and Rick Riordan’s books are routinely listed as both MG and YA because they have crossover appeal. Another little secret? Books are often labelled based on the age of the protagonist. You can be reading the exact same book, but if the author notes the character is fourteen, suddenly it’s YA! This can make shelving series such as L. M. Montgomery’s Anne books tricky for stores and libraries. If a character ages from twelve to thirteen and older, are the books MG or YA?
It’s quite obvious that MG and YA can both offer sophisticated, nuanced, and entertaining selections, but readers sometimes seem to distance themselves from MG as a response to the backlash to YA. That is, since we’re so used to being mocked for reading “books for children,” the instinct seems to point out that, no, the real books for children are those MG ones–the ones we are too old, sophisticated, and intellectual to read. We try to save ourselves from stigma by casting the stigma onto someone else.
Of course, many readers and bloggers simply do not enjoy or are not interested in MG, and that response is acceptable. Read what you enjoy! However, it can sometimes be worthwhile to question our reading choices and why we make them. I don’t like to avoid books because I worry about what others will think, or because I worry they will place me outside my normal reading comfort zone. Reading is very often meant to stretch us, to make us uncomfortable, to show us a different perspective.
Perhaps I am fortunate in feeling secure in reading whatever I want because I routinely read a wide variety of books including drama, poetry, nonfiction, literary theory, picture books, graphic novels, classics, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, etc. Maybe it’s because I actually read and love Shakepeare and Dante (for fun) that I am able to not care what others think of me when they see me reading MG. If someone wants to suggest that I am juvenile or incapable of understanding “adult” books, I simply chuckle softly to myself. I cannot take someone seriously if they want to judge me based on a book or two they see me reading.
However, I firmly believe that a good story is a good story, no matter what age it was written for (or maybe just marketed towards). I do not believe I need to feel ashamed of my reading choices if someone else thinks them “juvenile”, nor do I feel that I need to distinguish myself as more sophisticated than other readers. If reading has taught me anything, it’s that there’s always more to learn. Maybe I can’t understand what someone sees in the books they read, but that does not mean the books have nothing valuable to offer, but rather that I might need to attempt to broaden my perspective and learn to see what they see.
MG does not have to become the new YA, the group of “juvenile” books we’re afraid to be seen with and eager to move on from. MG has so much to offer, from a higher level of diversity than YA to more inventive formats and more original premises. We can celebrate all that without feeling self-conscious about it.