Where are the YA Books for Younger Teens?

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.

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35 thoughts on “Where are the YA Books for Younger Teens?

  1. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I read this post while I was in the midst of a middle grade fantasy novel I hadn’t read since I was about 12. I am enjoying it much more than many of the YA fantasy novels I’ve come across in the last few years.

    I think you’re right in that 13- and 14-year-old teens might not be interested in middle grade, if only because it sounds like something meant for 9- or 10-year-olds. But you’re right. Many of these middle grade books are more complex than their YA counterparts and contain fewer of the cliches and annoying tropes than YA novels. I don’t remember who it was, but there was an author who said that you have to write things twice as smart for kids, because they know when a writer means what they’re saying, and when they’re just blowing smoke.

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    • Krysta says:

      I’ve preferred MG to YA in recent years because I think MG books are more original and often more complex. The YA market tends to follow trends and have far too many tropes. It seems like you often have a basic story line and you just change the location and character names and you’re done. But the books keep selling so maybe I’m the only one who’s unimpressed.

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      • Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

        You’re not the only one who is unimpressed. I see the same thing- new names and locations slapped on to the same old story. It makes me wonder if YA readers will expect the same story from all books, or if they will get tired of reading the same old thing and go looking for something else.

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        • Krysta says:

          I often wonder! But the books keep becoming bestsellers, even when I think they are, objectively speaking, not original or well-written. So maybe the average reader doesn’t care? I’ve been reading more international YA authors lately, though, because I find their YA books are very different and don’t recycle the same old story lines.

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          • Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

            I guess they don’t care, or they are more concerned about the characters than the story. What are some of the international titles you’ve read and enjoyed? I’m always trying to read more books from around the world.

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            • Krysta says:

              I like Frances Hardinge. She’s from the UK and writes darker, kind of creepy and twisted tales. I also recently enjoyed The Letter to the King. And Vango, which is a French title. I’m going to try to I LL the sequel because it was very exciting, but ended without a tidy resolution. But I’m still looking for more titles because I just started looking for them in earnest. I used a list of award winners to try to find some to start, but my local library only had one so I’d have to ILL anything about else I wanted.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Anna says:

    I agree 100%. As an adult in my 30s I consume a lot of YA, but restrict my young teens from reading most of them. I think there is a certain prejudice with middle grade books. Especially for the older middle school students. I’m not sure that there is so much of gap in literature for this age group as a mislabeling of YA books that really target the 20s crowd.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think there is a problem where a lot of upper MG is perfect for young teens, but they want to move on to YA and feel mature and like they are “smarter” for reading “older” books. (I use quotes because the majority of YA is really written with great simplicity. I don’t believe that it’s harder to read a YA book than a MG book.) But then there isn’t a lot in the YA section that I think is developmentally appropriate for young teens. I would feel uncomfortable with them walking out of the library with Six of Crows or a Sarah J. Maas book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Neveen Badr says:

    The YA market has changed from reproving for all ages between 12 and 17 to just the upper and older ages; in my country some YA is just for adults because who would expose a young child -middle school- to critical issues, children just aim for the adventure. As for myself I find the current YA books satisfying for my taste (it is darker than ever), but I am always careful when I recommend to my students. I wish if there were more MG novels because I would want a ride full of magic, because writing for children is literary enchanted.

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    • Krysta says:

      I do think a lot of YA is being written for adults because they buy most of it. But this is creating a problem where the younger teens are being edged out of what is supposed to be the “teen” section. Maybe we should go back to calling it “teen” and not “YA” to remind ourselves that younger teens need books, too. I think the market will be fine because a lot of schools and libraries will buy these books. It isn’t like they wouldn’t sell at all.

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  4. bella says:

    Completely agree! I remember being around 14 reading some YA novels that even then were completely out of my range of understanding! Even now at 19 the protagonists of 16/17 are being pushed to act more ‘adult’ like and I can’t even relate to that yet! There is definitely a gap in the market that sadly has not been filled for sometime.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I’m in my 20s and relate to a lot of YA (fantasy, so they’re not obviously attending high school or something) characters just fine. It is incredibly easy to read Six of Crows and simply believe the characters are, say, 25. If you handed the book to someone who didn’t know it was supposed to be YA and they missed the very occasional age references, they would probably assume it’s an adult book. I’m sure a younger teen could read and enjoy the book, but I don’t think anyone really believes these characters are 15 or that they’re “relatable” as 15-year-olds.

      Liked by 1 person

      • lesserknowngems says:

        Or they end up giving the impression that this is what a 15 year old *should* be like. I do see a trend regarding a lot of books aimed at children and teens, that readers are pulled to the characters a little older than themselves. Children i kindergarten read about children in kindergarten, but also characters whom have started scholl. 10-12 years old want to read about 14-15 years old etc. It seems to me, and by all means correct me if I’m wrong, that people are curious to the “what’s comming next” in their lives. I don’t really mind 13 year olds wanting to read about 15 years old. I get that you are curious. But, what happens to the 13 year old reader when the 15 year old *acts* like a 25 year old?

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        • Krysta says:

          I remember being so disappointed growing up because teens in media always seem so mature and independent. Then I was teen and I wasn’t. At all. I didn’t get to roam at will and hold a job or solve crime or anything. ;b

          Liked by 1 person

  5. SpinesthatShine says:

    Interesting post. Hmmm. Yes. I enjoy reading YA books myself, but I’m no longer a teenager. I agree that it often seems that the label “YA” doesn’t necessarily equate with “teen” any longer due to “mature” content.

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    • Krysta says:

      I do feel that maybe YA books are being written primarily for adults now because they are driving the market. Six of Crows, for instance, is, to me, an adult book, but one made into YA by making the characters in their teens–even though they don’t act much like teens and more like characters in their 20s.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Offbeat YA (@OffbeatYA) says:

    Quote: “Protagonists who are their first or second years of high school are missing both from upper middle-grade and from YA.”
    That’s absolutely true. And though there are a lot of YA books without mature content (like sex or violence), it’s not always easy to tell which is which for a younger reader. It shouldn’t be up to us reviewers only to address these issues or warn kids (though for instance, I do have a “Warning!” section in my reviews). I wouldn’t know what to suggest though. A new category? I don’t know if a 14 or 15 y.o. kid would want to read a book with the MG label, even if it were called “upper MG”; and I don’t think anyone in the book business would accept a “lower YA” or “clean YA” label…

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Someone in publishing told me several years ago that publishers classify YA as 12+ and 14+ and the main difference is sex or no sex , but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a little “12+” or whatever written on the book, just on some of the in-house documents when I was doing internships. I think even just printing that on the back cover and making sure people are aware of it could be useful.

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  7. ashley says:

    I consider the teen age group to be 13-17/18 and then young adult to be 18-25. When you’re 18-25 you’re still an adult but you’re a young adult.

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    • Krysta says:

      Well, the “young adult” section used to be called the “teen” section. Perhaps we could go back. I’m not sure what the motivation behind the change was. If it was to make teens feel older and more mature, or if it was to appeal to all the adults reading teen books.

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      • ashley says:

        At the library where I volunteer it’s called “The Teen Room.” And you brought up a great point about appealing to adults reading teen books.

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        • Krysta says:

          My library still refers to “teens” and the “teen section,” but the books themselves are called young adult and not teen books, so that’s always interesting. I’ve heard people ask what “YA” or “young adult” books are. If you don’t read a lot or aren’t familiar with the publishing industry, the term can be confusing! I think people would understand what “teen” books are, though!

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  8. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall says:

    Another fantastic discussion, Krysta! I too, agree that YA has been maturing at an alarming fast rate, and believe that many titles marketed at YA are aimed at older teens. When I was first introduced to the Young Adult genre at 12/13, I read titles that were popular, yet, mostly tame, as far as sex, drugs, and violence are concerned. I began stumbling across books with more mature content in the YA section, in my high school years, and this was deeply concerning to my slightly overprotective parents. They insisted on looking up content reviews for all the books I was reading, online. Though I found this to be a nuisance growing up, I understand now where they were coming from. And seeing the trend YA is currently heading in, they had reason to be hesitant about me freely roaming the YA section of the library.

    YA is such a broad genre now, and it’s difficult to narrow down what content can and can’t be included in a book for it to labeled as such. I personally believe it would be great if books, and YA especially could have a content rating similar to the MPAA system. YA is essentially the “PG-13” rating equivalence for books, and I would personally love it, if publishers could provide a short label, indicating what kind of content is present. Something as simple as “heavy drug use” or “brief sensuality” could be greatly beneficial to parents and teens alike.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think a distinction between lower YA and upper YA could be helpful. My library, for instance, stickers lower and upper MG differently, so you know if you’re a third grader, the lower MG is more developmentally appropriate than the upper MG. Content warnings could be a little trickier. Years ago, publishers wanted to age band books and people were calling the idea “age branding” and saying it smacked of censorship and would prevent children from wanting to read books “below” or “above” their grade. So I think content warnings could also be controversial. Publishers want to sell books, so they’re not necessarily going to open up a debate around what they’re selling.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Milliebot says:

    I totally agree! Also with these younger teen books being shelved with MG, some readers might not want to go to that area, thinking it’s for younger kids. B&N comes to mind – a wonderful children’s area but maybe not the section a 14 year old wants to browse if they see the picture books heavily displayed, etc.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I’ve even seen people on Goodreads say middle-grade books are for, say, ten-year-olds. No…I think they’re wonderful for people in actual middle school to read (and, of course, everyone, really). But people always seem to think MG books are too “young.” I think this is partly a problem, though, because adult readers can sometimes judge a book from their perspective and not actually know what books are developmentally appropriate for which ages.

      Also, now that you mention it, I do think Barnes and Noble would do well to redesign their children’s section. It’s difficult to navigate, for one thing, but also does appear to be designed primarily for younger children. I don’t know if I could see a fourteen-year-old comfortable wandering the “small people” shelves and dodging the screaming children.

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      • Milliebot says:

        Yeah I think it’s great B&N has a dedicated children’s area but even I sometimes get annoyed at being in there because I often buy middle grade. I’m not sure why it’s ok to combine mg with children’s, but not with ya, or just give it it’s own section. I figure the same thing might happen in libraries depending on the layout. I can see why young teens might not want to go browse what they see as baby books.

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        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, I actually feel a little awkward in the Barnes and Noble children’s section because it seems designed for kindergarteners with MG books randomly in the one corner and in the middle (confusing). Most libraries I’ve seen usually separate picture books and MG from each other a little more. It would be nice if Barnes and Noble did the same. It would be more welcoming and could possible mean more MG books. I felt like there was a very limited selection last time I went there.

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          • Milliebot says:

            Yeah my local one is the same, one corner and then a random section in the middle. Makes it hard to find what I need sometime. And if story time is going on or there’s lots of kids running around, it’s harder to browse. I appreciate that the little readers get their own section and it’s interactive. But I don’t need to be in it

            Liked by 1 person

  10. Annemieke says:

    Yes so much yes. There do need to be more ya on the younger end. Its why I was so pleased that Lockwood starts of with 14 year olds, and yes they age throughout the series somewhat but I think that is fine as the readers will age along with them.

    I know a lot of people like to go off and say that kids/teens can handle more mature things and all that,and hey, kids who can handle it can read older YA. But there needs to be options for kids/teens that can’t deal with that yet. And saying they can just read over the sex and other bits is just really dismissive.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think the Lockwood & Co. series ties in nicely to the conversation because I’ve always seen it shelved in libraries and stores as MG, not YA. (But I once put it in a list of MG books for YA readers.) It’s one of those weird books that probably should be in the YA section, but it doesn’t seem like the majority of what’s being published in YA. So…it ended up in the MG section instead. Younger protagonists, no sex, no love triangle…what IS this book?!

      Yeah, I think people sometimes also confuse wanting developmentally appropriate books for censorship. It’s not censorship to acknowledge that children typically need information given in different ways based on their age. Younger kids actually can and do read about a lot of “difficult” topics, but in ways that address their specific needs. For instance, the average younger teen is not ready for explicit sex scenes–that doesn’t mean they can’t have romance in their books.

      I also see a lot of the “teens can read anything, even Fifty Shades!” coming from teens themselves. And, sure, you feel really mature and capable as a teen. I don’t want to dismiss teens. Many are mature and capable. But, I think, as you age, you realize that your teenage self was…well, a teenager, not an adult, and there are different developmental needs there.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. RebeccaReads says:

    I agree! When I was a younger teen I found it so hard to read books that I deemed appropriate to read. Of course people mature differently but I think the YA market needs to start catering for younger teens more. Maybe a sub category between middle grade and YA? I do believe that YA books are moving more into new adult.

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