Silent Lee is fifteen and about to go to high school in the first book in her series. In other words, she’s a lot like my intended readers, many of whom are in middle school. This category is rather casually defined by the publishing industry as middle-grade books. There are even hashtags for it: #middlegradefiction for example.
The problem is this category is primarily for younger kids. Tweens of ten to fifteen years of age have a problem finding books because middle-grade fiction is usually calibrated for seven to ten-year-olds. Middle grade does not mean middle school for some unfathomable reason. There’s no publishing category for middle school fiction. These readers are somewhat overlooked.
Once readers reach high school—like Silent and Raahi are in my second book—they still get overlooked because the young adult (YA) category is mostly for older teens. Only a few percent of lead characters in YA titles are as young as sixteen. Many YA novels highlight edgy older-teen behavior, which my middle school readers aren’t so interested in (and nor am I).
Why is there this odd blind spot in publishing books for tweens? School librarians address the reading needs of these younger teens every day and are adept at filtering out the many YA titles that are too advanced, as well as skipping over-simplistic middle-grade titles. They create their own reading lists of tween books, developmentally matched to middle-grade readers. What are these books like?
According to a new article by Katy Hershberger in School Library Journal, ten to fifteen-year-olds want more excitement, action, conflict, and adventure than the typical middle-grade book offers. They want a “bigger reach” that goes “beyond school and family and their known world.” But they aren’t fully ready for adult or near-adult themes. They’re not thinking hard about going to college yet. Nor are they in steady or steamy romantic engagements, but they may have crushes or first loves. They do like scary—not just silly scary but really scary. After all, they’ve seen horror and sci-fi on screen many times in their lives.
I found myself writing to fill the need for more adventurous, sophisticated stories and characters as my kids turned ten. I have children now from eleven to thirty-five, so I’ve seen the reading progression first hand. Fun books about princesses fighting cute monsters are great in elementary school but a yawn for tweens.
And I agree with this quote from the SLJ article: “Many librarians find that YA titles, which can contain more complicated prose, explicit language, or violent or sexual scenes, skew too old for tween and young teen readers.”
So I write for this middle school gap—where I believe reading for the love of it needs to be nurtured with wonderful, memorable books that are sophisticated enough for us older readers to enjoy, but first and foremost are a perfect fit for younger teens. It’s unfortunate that reading for fun drops off as our kids approach their tweens. We want our nine and ten-year-olds to love the books they’re reading so that they’ll continue to read for the love of it all through middle school.
I don’t think I’ll grow Silent, Raahi, and their friends much beyond the first year of high school. They wouldn’t be the same characters if they were 18. If I want to write about older teens I’ll create a new series for them. Silent and Raahi live in that sweet spot where kids are becoming very young adults with lots of courage, curiosity, and insight, but also a lot of charming innocence and a fresh outlook on their rapidly expanding world.
Let’s honor them by giving them stories that fit.
Alex Hiam is a parent, writing coach, and author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure now available at Amazon.com