Is a Sixth Grader a Young Adult?

Here's my peeve about writing for middle schoolers (ages 10-14): when it comes to library budgets, review space, and award competitions, our books have to compete with hefty (thematically and word-count-wise) reads targeted for high schoolers. You gotta wonder if adult gatekeepers favor older YA novels because they read more like adult literature, as evidenced by the interesting discussion on author Justine Labarlestier's blog (source: Chicken Spaghetti) and the adbooks listerv.

Exceptions abound of course, but there's a big difference between an eleven-year-old and a seventeen-year-old when it comes to literary appetite, maturity, and attention span. I thought the books nominated for the Cybils in the middle reader category, for example, were perfect for most 8-12 year olds. But in the YA category, it seems odd that Hattie Big Sky (classified by School Library Journal as a middle school read) has to compete with Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (which Booklist considers appropriate for grades 10-12) and The Book Thief, which is causing some of the fuss in the YA vs. adult lit debate.


Liz B said…
The thing is, what's so weird, is that the definition of "YA" can vary. I've been in libraries where it's up to 18, clearly, from the titles; and other libraries where it's also clearly for up to 8th grade, with the "high school" books shelved in adults.

As for sixth graders...I sometimes think it's about what your local school systems do. seriously. If it's a 6 to 8 school, the public library tends to include the 6th graders as YA.

All that said and done, the hardest decisions I make as a YA selector (in a system that says ages 12 to 18) is when is a "10 to 14" book "J" and when "YA"? So I look at reviews, age of main character, content....It's not easy, and putting it in both areas isn't easily done.
Mitali Perkins said…
Liz, your personalized process of selection demonstrates why we need local librarians who read like mad and know their own community of readers better than anybody.

I guess my main problem is with awards and top-ten lists and the like -- all "YA books" compete for these mentions (which have a big effect on sales), and they seem unfairly biased toward older teens perhaps because adults make the decisions. YALSA has lists of best popular paperbacks, reluctant reads, and books that don't make you blush, but they lump in 10-14 year old reads with older YAs.
Liz B said…
I think its a very interesting question about where "10 to 14" falls. Given Criss Cross's win last year of the Newbery, ALSC books and lists also cover this age group.

For what it's worth, also, I just began reading Hattie Big Sky I think it's more a high school book that is "appropriate" for younger (middle school) readers reading up.

What's interesting about the middle school reader vs high school reader: is many librarians see "YA readers" as being readers who are 10 to 14 reading YA books; so where does that leave Nick & Norah or That is All?
Our middle schools are 6-8 in our community, and we generally-but not always-consider YA to start at 6th grade. This was decided before I got here.

However, I am lucky in that our collection development librarian does ask my opinion if the book seems to be geared toward the younger end of that spectrum. And if I think the cataloging should be changed, I feel free to express that opinion.

I read as much YA as I possibly can, and I know that I am not reading enough. I read teen services blogs, reviews in VOYA, SLJ, etc, and if I see something that hasn't been ordered but should be ordered, I can usually get it ordered. My title is youth services librarian, and not children's librarian. I cover both children's and YA literature and activities. My office is on the children's floor, and YA is upstairs. I pass by YA to and from the children's floor. I make a point to check out at least three new YA books every week. There is one adult services librarian who will occasionally read a YA book, but otherwise I am it. I feel guilty about not reading enough YA. We are a small system (3 branches with 2 youth services librarians), and I don't anticipate a YA librarian position being created anytime soon.
Sara said…
This is a really interesting discussion. We (the Cybils nomination committee) really tried to take it into consideration when we were narrowing down our list.

In fact, part of the reason we included Hattie Big Sky in our list of finalists was the fact that it could appeal to a broader age range than say Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (And I do agree with Liz B. that Hattie is more of a high school book that is still "appropriate" and accessible to middle schoolers.)
Mitali Perkins said…
I'd love to see YALSA or SLJ or Hornbook or Booklist come up with a list of books every year that resonate perfectly with middle schoolers, like Jenny Han's Shug, for example. That might help librarians who are doing three or four jobs at the same time to discern where and how to shelve reads for their 10-14 year olds.

My opinion when it comes to libraries is that YA rooms/alcoves should focus on the 10-14 age range. They definitely don't want to go to the kids section, and the grownup section seems boring and inaccessible. Besides, my hunch is that most readers over 14 who go to the library are browsing everywhere, not just in the YA nook -- nonfiction, fiction, graphic novels, etc. Can't stop addicts like that, let 'em roam. I know, because I was/am one.
Little Willow said…
Hi there! Nice to meet you. I'm Little Willow.

Great topic, great post/discussion. Thanks to Liz for the link. I commented at Liz's blog:

I really want more book bloggers to recognize the middle school category. That's why I don't say 'middle grade' or 'MG' as much as other people do -- I prefer to say juvenile fiction or teen fiction if we're breaking the children's full-length fiction department into general halves, but better still, I prefer to say elementary school, middle school, and high school. If you want to go past those thirds, though, I will: early elementary school, late elementary school, then ages 8 to 12, ages 10 to 13, ages 12 and up, and ages 16 and up.


I was on the YA panel along with Sara, and I too really liked Hattie, so I was pleased to find the other panelists enjoyed it too. I put Hattie on my best books of the year list in two spots - juvenile fiction, because I definitely think it will appeal to and be clean enough for younger kids, and teen fiction because that is where the publisher wants it and where bookstores shelve it.

included Hattie Big Sky in our list of finalists was the fact that it could appeal to a broader age range than say Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (And I do agree with Liz B. that Hattie is more of a high school book that is still "appropriate" and accessible to middle schoolers.)
cloudscome said…
I find this a challenge too. I am a school librarian in a K - 8 school. We started shelving the YA books downstairs to give the middle schoolers their own section, which they like. Now the 4th, 5th, even 3rd and 2nd graders want those books. Particularly the Graphic Novels.

We try to buy only books meant for ages 14 and under because that is the ages of our students. It's hard to know for a lot of what is called YA fiction, if it is right for us.
Mitali Perkins said…
I wonder if this issue of middle school books will be discussed (perhaps again) at ALA or AASL this year. If so, I hope there's a tangible outcome for those of us serving this amazing demographic.

Little Willow, hello to you, too. And kudos to you and your fellow Cybil YA-fiction-nominators -- I think you did a tremendous job straddling the age groups in the category. One of the reasons I didn't sign up for the YA nominating team was the very issue I raised in this post. We "middle grade" (what's THAT label about and where did it come from?) folks had an easier task, I think.
Mitali Perkins said…
And cloudscome, your task is daunting. Kids certainly have a tendency to want to grow up and read up and video game up and movie up ... it's confusing these days when they are maturing early in some ways and growing slowly in others. Every ten years or so the labels/rating systems we rely on to feed stories into their souls need to be re-evaluated.
Little Willow said…

Expanded into my own post, and linked here!
J. L. Bell said…
Is part of the confusion the not-exact match between "middle grades" and "middle school"?
Mitali Perkins said…
I think you're right. Where did that "middle grade" label come from? It seems like our culture has moved to a breakdown like this:

kid 4-8
tween 8-12
teen 13-18

But does that work for books? Especially when school separates children like this:

elementary 5-11
middle school 11-14
teen 14-18
Little Willow said…
J. L. Bell: Exactly re: "Middle Grade" (MG) and "middle school." That's why I say something different.