Previously on the blog, I have discussed how I see YA books maturing; almost every YA book being published today I would recommend for readers 16+, even though the YA section is ostensibly for readers 13-18. Both the content of the stories and the fact that the protagonists are typically older teens (often acting like they are in their 20s and not teens at all) suggest that the bulk of YA is meant for older readers. On April 15, 2019, Teen Librarian Toolbox responded to the growing maturity of YA books by asking, “Where Do Younger Teen Readers Fit In?” My answer to that is simple: younger teens are best served today, not by YA books, but by upper middle-grade books.
Quite frankly, I think we need to acknowledge the current state of the YA market and admit that the majority of YA being published today may not be developmentally appropriate for the average young teen. In the past, it may have been simpler to direct a thirteen-year-old or fourteen-year-old reader to the YA section, where they could find books like Lois Lowry’s The Giver or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time--books with younger characters doing things younger teens could relate to, and not containing content that might be a little too mature for that age group. However, these books types of books are increasingly being labeled and shelved as middle-grade because they do not seem to fit in with books like Six of Crows, Furyborn, A Court of Thorns and Roses, and Children of Blood and Bone. Without an emphasis on sex, violence, and drugs, they really seem too tame to be labeled YA in the current market.
But the fact that younger teens are perhaps currently best served by being guided to upper middle-grade books does not mean that we should ignore the lack of YA for younger teens. Many teens are extremely aware of marketing labels and will not be convinced that upper middle-grade books are for them. In their eyes, moving onto YA books is a milestone showing their growing maturity. Some are even convinced that YA books are written more complexly (not true in my experience) and that reading YA makes them smarter and “on grade level” (read more about my dislike of leveling readers here). These attitudes, combined with a reluctance, even on the part of adults, to admit that middle-grade books can be quality reads means that younger teens will, in many cases, opt to head towards the young adult section, even if it the market is not currently serving them there.
And, really, why shouldn’t younger teens find books written for them in what used to be called the “teen” section? Why shouldn’t they have the pleasure of feeling they have passed a milestone and now have shelves upon shelves of new books opened up to them? The desire to grow up and to move on is natural and should be encouraged and celebrated. Younger teens should find a place that is especially for them. This becomes even more important when we consider that upper middle-grade, while often complex, exciting, and developmentally appropriate, still tends to feature twelve or thirteen-year-olds (maybe). Protagonists who are their first or second years of high school are missing both from upper middle-grade and from YA. This leaves younger teens straddling a gap between age groups, finding themselves represented nowhere.
Until the YA market changes, I believe that parents, educators, and librarians should use caution before directing younger teens to the YA section without any guidance. While the YA label is widely understood to be shorthand for “appropriate for teens,” current trends mean that the vast majority of YA books are developmentally appropriate for older, and not necessarily younger, teens. Upper middle-grade books, however, are written just as complexly as YA (if not more so in some cases) and tend to offer more developmentally appropriate stories. However, the YA market needs to change, opening back up a space for young teens.