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Middle Grade Reads for Young Adult Readers

2013 July 24
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harry_potter_hunger_games

Photo by Casey Fleser

As a librarian, I encounter a lot of young readers who want to read about characters older than they are, experiencing things they’re still anticipating. It’s alluring and educational all at once! Erin Bush wrote a terrific post here on The Hub about “cross-unders,” including a great list of teen books for tweens and insights on why younger readers might want to read “up.”

YALSA’s Popular Paperback for Young Adults committee created another great resource for teens in search of transitional books in 2006 with the  “Books that Won’t Make You Blush” list, and updated it this year with “More Books that Won’t Make You Blush.”

But for all the teens eager to read about characters a few years ahead of themselves, there are also those who prefer to stick with the tried-and-true. They’d rather read Harry Potter than The Hunger Games. These teens aren’t reluctant readers, and they’re not intimidated by the reading level of young adult books; they simply feel more at home with books aimed at a younger audience. They like middle grade literature.

I can identify with this, because I had a hard time getting out of the kids’ section of the library when I was a teen. I felt self-conscious browsing shelves clearly meant for a more mature audience. I had no idea what to read — I didn’t know any of the authors or the series. I had no idea what was considered “quality literature” versus something I might get in trouble for reading. (Even though my mom never actually policed what I read, I still worried about it!)

The line between middle grade and young adult literature is often blurred, and sometimes it’s just more comfortable for a new teen to stay on the middle grade side of things. Here’s a round-up of some middle grade books that I’ve noticed teens at my library enjoying:

close_to_famousClose to Famous by Joan Bauer (a 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection)
Bauer writes both for a middle grade and young adult audience, so it’s no surprise that her middle grade books tend to have a teen following. Even the photographic cover of Close to Famous looks more like a teen book than a juvenile one — and the book’s subject matter includes some pretty heavy topics, like illiteracy and domestic abuse. But Bauer handles these issues in a way that’s approachable to younger readers, making this book just right for teens who are ready to explore issues but prefer a gentle read.

The Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian is a 2013 Odyssey Honor Recording)
In this eight-book fantasy/adventure series, a young Irish criminal mastermind seeks to restore his family’s fortunes by stealing the fairies’ gold. Filled with fast-paced action, a quirky cast of characters, and inventive descriptions of magical technology, this series has appeal for readers across a broad age range. In fact, a good portion of the series’s storylines focuses on older characters surrounding the young Artemis, making these books a natural choice for teens looking to stay in their comfort zone — and maybe their parents, too.

Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke (a 2013 Odyssey Honor Recording)
Perhaps the tone of this latest story from a beloved fantasy author reminds teen readers of their Harry Potter-loving days — after all, it’s about a young English boy who goes to a boarding school and encounters supernatural phenomena. On the surface, it sounds like a light fantasy, and indeed, there’s enough ghostly adventure to keep a younger reader intrigued, but teens will stick around to find out how the main character copes with issues they can relate to: trying to fit in at a new school and the challenge of coming to terms with his father’s death as his mother introduces a new man to the family.

lions_of_little_rockThe Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine (a 2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection)
Even though this book reads squarely as middle grade to me, the fact that it was recognized by YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list is a testament to its complexity and appeal for a teen audience. The protagonists may not have hit the teen years yet themselves, but young adult readers will relate to the characters as they navigate friendship and loyalty against a backdrop of social change. This powerful story, set in the aftermath of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, is thought-provoking for readers of any age.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (a 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection)
The question of how to categorize this book is a mystery to me. Is it young adult? Is it middle grade? It’s shelved in the YA section of my library, but I think this book could go either way. The heartbreaking story of a young boy struggling with grief and loss is dark, dark, dark — and maybe that’s how it ends up in the YA section of a lot of libraries and bookstores. But it’s also about a monster that comes to life in the form of a yew tree, and reads like a fable — not your usual teen fare. I honestly can’t tell if it’s middle grade or young adult, but I would recommend it for both age groups … and beyond.

What about you — did you have an easy time transitioning from children’s to young adult when the time was right? Were there any children’s books you clung to as a teen?

– Allison Tran, currently reading Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

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3 Responses
  1. July 25, 2013

    I wish that list had been publicized more! It’s a great idea to put something like that together for transitioning readers or just for people with more sensitive sensibilities. I’ve noticed some of these end up on BFYA lists even though they’re published as MG, so that’s good that YALSA’s keeping an eye on them.

    • Allison Tran permalink*
      July 25, 2013

      Thanks for the comment! I think it’s really interesting that some MG books are recognized by YALSA– it goes to show how the distinction between MG and YA can be open to interpretation.

  2. August 27, 2013

    As a teacher and writer, I’m finding myself struggling to categorize my own novels! I’ve noticed that while some students definitely gravitate towards much more mature novels (with VERY adult themes), I have other students who would be shocked by some of the YA books we have in our school library. Personally, I grew up on Nancy Drew and Sweet Vally High – tame by today’s standards – and I think that has strongly influenced my writing. It’s refreshing to see that you have recommended some books that are appropriate for younger YA readers that don’t shy away from tough topics but do so in an age-appropriate way. Sometimes I have worried that there may not be many tween and teen readers out there who enjoy a realistic fiction/mystery & thriller books (unless they are overly-salacious and graphic… which my book is not!). This gives me hope…

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