Monday, April 21, 2014

What Is Middle Grade?

Every middle grade author seems to get this question:

"Should my kid read your book?"

Of course the correct response to this is "Yes, yes, absolutely! Buy it at once. In fact, just to be on the safe side, buy a copy for every room in the house."

But really, we just don't know. We're not sure what you're asking.

Recently someone phrased the question in a way that made the issue clearer to me. "Would my kid like your books? You said you write middle grade. She's in 3rd grade. Is that middle grade? She reads at a 9th grade level, though."

Now I understand the question.

The "middle grade" label hasn't been around that long, and it's not clear to most people what it means. It's not clear to me, come to that. The books tend to have grade levels or age levels stamped on the jacket flap, leaving both children and adults with the impression that "middle grade" is a measure of reading difficulty.

I think that it is not.

Most middle grade novels are not easier to read than most adult novels. In fact, they may be harder. However, they are not too hard for most upper elementary children. Neither are most adult novels too hard for them, come to that. The Hobbit has a higher lexile level (whatever that is) than Cry, the Beloved Country.

Vaguely, the age levels on the book jacket might suggest interest level. But the suggestion is not exclusive. I hear from a lot of adults who read my books.

So I thought maybe what the parent was really asking was just what "middle grade" means. And here's the definition of middle grade fiction I came up with.

In a middle grade novel:

  • There may be some swearing, but it's usually limited and/or not spelled out on the page.
  • Romance may happen, but it's not the focus. There will be no sex scenes.
  • Bad things may happen, but despair is never permanent. Ultimately it turns out that life is worth living.

That's not a full and exact definition, of course. Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny is middle grade under that definition. (A book I loved at age ten, by the way.) But it's the best I can come up with right now.

Every time I try to add something to it, I either think of exceptions or realize that I'm trying to impose my own preferences.

After writing this definition, I started googling to see what other people think "middle grade" means. And I'm afraid I disagree with a lot of them. Here's what I think middle grade is not:

  • It's not a reading level.
  • It's not written with simplified sentence structure, easier vocabulary, or lower expectations for plot and character development.
  • The plot is not external-rather-than-internal. It can be either; it can be both.
  • It does not necessarily feature a protagonist who is between 8 and 13 years of age.

Anyway. My definition may be so much blather. But it's what I've got for the moment.


  1. I LIKE your definition! It makes more sense than anything I've seen yet, and I'm definitely using it as a term for my book list instead of the normal 'middle school', etc. Would you have any definitions/better terms for upper and lower grade reading???

  2. Thanks, Jean! :-) You mean within middle grade, or outside it? I don't really know very much about early chapter books or YA, I'm afraid...

    Within middle grade, I know there's sometimes a distinction drawn between upper middle grade and lower middle grade, and I think this probably has to do with content... but I'm not really sure about this.

    1. Mostly in that nebulous genre between middle grade and YA - where books like Dealing with Dragons sometimes will get put in the YA section but is equally likely to be in the J section.

    2. I guess I tend to think of that as upper middle grade. It pretty much follows the description I gave, right? I know my books sometimes get shelved as YA or "teen" and that bothers me a little...

      The Harry Potter books do a good job of segueing from MG (books 1 to 3) to YA (books 4 on) and I suppose the difference is the amount of mayhem and horror that's going on. Not sure though. What do you think?

    3. Well, once you get to human sacrifices I'd say that pretty much puts a book squarely out of middle grade. But on the other hand, I hate it when books 'talk down' to kids - I've hated it ever since I was little - and I think it's disrespectful of kids to not let them read books that deal with hard subject matters. Of course, it's up to the parent or the kid to decide what they can handle at any given age, but I was reading books like Uncle Tom's Cabin by the time I was eight, so I tend to be slightly skeptical of the 'oh they can't read that they're still in elementary school' line of thought. ((that might be just me, though...))