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.â€
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 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.
The 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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