by Lynn Mazur, youth services supervisor at SCLSNJ’s Bridgewater Library branch
You may be asking yourself, ”what in the world is a middle grade reader?” It’s not a foolish question. And, quite frankly, there is no easy, straightforward answer.
“Middle grade” is a vague industry term that offers no obvious guidance as to the grade or age of its intended audience. Goodreads.com, the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations (according to their website), defines middle grade as “…aimed at children aged roughly between the ages of eight and twelve.” Novelist K-8 Plus, a go-to reader’s advisory tool for the SCLSNJ reference staff (and a resource that is available to our patrons to use from home), considers middle grade to be ages nine to twelve or grades three to six. Scholastic, one of the world’s leading publishers for children’s material, published a blog post in 2014 that describes middle grade as ages eight to eleven or grades three to six. Clearly there is no universal definition for middle grade, and the definitions that do exist vary and have wide age and grade ranges.
So, what is a middle grade book? And how do you choose the right middle grade book for your child? Here are some tips:
- Look at the age of the characters. Middle grade books will feature characters that are the age of the reader or slightly older–likely in the ten to fourteen age range. A good example of this is “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” which features a sixth grader documenting his experience during his first year of middle school. If the characters are younger than the reader, the story will probably skew too young and your child may be bored. If the characters are much older than the reader, elements of the story may be too mature for your child.
- Check reviews for graphic content. Middle grade books will have no profanity, graphic violence, or sex. Romance will rarely go beyond crushes and first kisses. Finding reviews for books is easy–SCLSNJ’s catalog links to reviews for the books found in our collections–just click on the cover image in the results list (it says “Reviews & More” directly under the image). Please note: not every book in our collection is reviewed. For example, the first book in a series may have a review, but the subsequent titles may not. You can also check Commonsensemedia.org for popular titles–this site offers developmentally age-appropriate, unbiased information in their reviews (which are written by experts, parents, and children) to help you decide if material is appropriate for your child.
- Read the summary to make sure the story is appropriate for your child. Middle grade books tend to focus on the friends, family, and personal experiences of the main character. While there are many humorous and realistic middle grade books that focus on personal relationships and the everyday obstacles that young people face, there is a trend of much more serious topics showing up in middle grade fiction. Some examples include: “Crenshaw” by Katherine Applegate, about an imaginary friend that reappears to help a boy overcome concerns as his family faces homelessness; “The Thing About Jellyfish” by Ali Benjamin, about a girl coping with the drowning of her former best friend; “Out of My Mind” by Sharon Draper, about a girl with Cerebral Palsy who discovers an electronic device that will allow her to speak for the first time; and “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio, about a fifth grade boy who was born with facial abnormalities and is entering a mainstream school for the first time in his life. Though these stories are presented in an age-appropriate way, not every reader may be ready to tackle such heavy topics.
- Don’t ignore your child’s interests, comprehension, and vocabulary. Anytime you make a book recommendation, the reader’s interests should be kept in mind. Reading should be enjoyable, and SCLSNJ has limitless choices for middle grade fiction and nonfiction–you’re bound to find something your child will love. You also want to keep in mind your child’s comprehension and vocabulary. While you may want to challenge your child, you also want to be sure that he or she understands what they are reading.
- Turn to the experts. If you are having trouble finding the right book for your child, stop by the youth services reference desk at any of our ten branches. Our staff members will work with you and your child to find the perfect book.
If your middle grade reader is ready to dive into a good book right now, here are my top 10 middle grade books of 2017 (so far):
- “Tumble & Blue” by Cassie Beasley
- “100 Women Who Made History: Remarkable Women Who Shaped Our World” by by Stella Caldwell, Clare Hibbert, Andrea Mills, and Rona Skene
- “The Castle in the Mist” by Amy Ephron
- “Scar Island” by Dan Gemeinhart
- “Baseball Genius” by Tim Green and Derek Jeter
- “Real Friends” by Shannon Hale
- “Lemons” by Melissa Savage
- “Short” by Holly Goldberg Sloan
- “Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team” by Steve Sheinkin
- “Clayton Byrd Goes Underground” by Rita Williams-Garcia