YA Books That Work For MG Kids?

Elizabeth Bluemle - May 15, 2015

Kids these days are growing up, at least superficially, very fast. Younger and younger children want older and older books, or at least think they do. I ascribe this to media exposure, social media saturation, and our lovely culture of “cool” that makes every child anxious about being called babyish.
A teacher wrote to a mutual friend, looking for books for 5th to 7th graders that feel “sophisticated and savvy” but that are still appropriate for her middle-grade readers. She says she is “always on the lookout for smart, teen-y books that are stealthy in their middle gradesness. Some examples of the books we’re always looking for more of… Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick, The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart, When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, Paper Things by Jennifer Richards Jacobson and, for older readers, The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu.”
What books do you give to a fifth-grade girl with an eye for YA romance? How about a sixth-grade boy who thinks he can handle all the toughness or violence in the world? The teacher’s examples are all realistic fiction, so that’s where I started.
I immediately thought of Shug by Jenny Han, Flipped by Wendelin van Draanen, After Eli by Rebecca Rupp, the books by Phoebe Stone (The Boy on Cinnamon Street, Deep Down Popular, Romeo Blue, The Romeo and Juliet Code), Alabama Moon by Watt Key, Hound Dog True by Linda Urban, Wake Up Missing by Kate Messner, I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora, The 10 P.M. Question by Kate De Goldi, Abduction by Rodman Philbrick, Addie on the Inside by James Howe.
Given the titles the teacher mentioned, I suspect some of my recommendations are still too young-feeling (i.e., have covers that telegraph MG) for what she’s looking for.
It’s tempting to rail against popular culture and insist on keeping MG kids paired with MG books, but that’s not how reading really works. My own impulse is to steer kids toward the books meant for their ages, the ones I do believe will best meet them where they are, whether or not they agree with me. But that would be hypocritical. I read books waaaay beyond my age, interest level, and appropriateness from an early age, and I managed to grow up without becoming jaded. I can’t think of a book that compelled me to behave differently from my innate self’s natural trajectory or to take risks I otherwise wouldn’t have. I think gaining the trust of young readers by listening to what they want and trying to meet that wish respectfully will earn us the trust to recommend a broader ranger of great MG (and young YA) books than they might discover on their own.
What would you recommend for these young readers who want something older, books that will truly resonate with them given their younger age?

11 thoughts on “YA Books That Work For MG Kids?

  1. Ellen

    I like Maria Padian’s Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best. Touches some “real” issues, but handles them very well and appropriately for a younger reader. Anorexia without being as brutal as Wintergirls (which I love for an older crowd). Sex. One of the main characters and her boyfriend have the opportunity, but decide they aren’t ready. Parents. The girls think they have the worst parents in the world, but it becomes clear that there is love and caring (and the parents aren’t really all that bad). I’ve hand sold lots of them.
    An added note. I, too, have fought with the urge to direct readers to what “I think” is age appropriate. A slippery slope, but I have sometimes managed to dissuade a reader from tackling something that would be better enjoyed in a few years. Sometimes that technique works. I had a 10 or 11 year old who asked for Catcher in the Rye. He was exceedingly bright, but he was only 11! So I told Noah that I had no doubt he could read the book and understand what happened in the story; but, until he was a little older and had some of the emotions and experiences, that he wouldn’t really be able to “get” the book. I talked a number of 9 year old girls out of Twilight by explaining that it was a “teen romance about a girl, a werewolf, and a vampire.” They had no interest in romance; they’d just heard the book was “cool.” Over the years, I’ve come to believe that lots of the book that people read too early are books that they remember disliking. A few years., and a different perspective, might have made a difference. Too often they don’t give those books a second chance.

  2. Erin Murphy

    A few (self-serving) suggestions: On the romance side, Janette Rallison’s books; Amy Finnegan’s NOT IN THE SCRIPT; Heather Hepler’s CUPCAKE QUEEN and LOVE? MAYBE, and forthcoming FROSTED KISSES. On the fantasy-adventure side, Jennifer Nielsen’s Ascendence Trilogy.

  3. Tammy Flanders

    Hi Elizabeth
    I think David Almond and Gary Schmidt’s books are pretty savvy. Okay for Now & Wednesday Wars are two of my favorites.
    Ellen Klages: The Green Glass Sea ; White Sand, Red Menace
    Deborah Wiles: Countdown ; Revolution
    Andrea Davis Pinkey: The Red Pencil
    Jennifer Bryant: Trial
    Apples with Many Seeds

  4. Brenda

    Thanks to a boy-obsessed fifth, now sixth grader who is “very picky” about her books, which has to have romance in them, I have a running list and an eye out for newer titles; so I’m be interested in your list. She has read many of the titles you already came up with. Shug was always my go to book. I adore that book. Swap by Megan Shull. The trilogy by Frances O’Roark Dowell that begins with The Secret Language of Girls. She also enjoyed Switched at Birthday by Natalie Standiford; The Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler; The Swift Boys and Me by Kody Keplinger.

  5. Vicky Titcomb

    Hi Elizabeth! Great topic! Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie and Flipped are some of my favorites! Also Gary Schmidt’s books, Okay for Now and Wednesday Wars, which Tammy recommended. As I think about my favorites for this age, most of them have to do with friendship and family. Here are a few more titles that come to mind:
    Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson – great new graphic novel about friendship
    One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
    Crossover – Kwame Alexander
    Every Soul a Star/Candymakers – Wendy Mass
    Counting by 7s – by Holly Goldberg Sloan
    Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen
    Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm
    Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer
    Red Pencil – Andrea Davis Pinckney
    Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson
    Out of My Mind – Sharon Draper
    Smile/Sisters/Drama – Raina Telgemeier
    Lions of Little Rock – by Kristin Levine
    The Thing about Luck – by Cynthia Kadohata
    Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
    One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams (or any in the series)
    Esperanza Rising or Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
    Endangered by Elliot Schrefer

  6. Jen Malone

    This is very biased as I write for the line, but Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin M!X imprint is geared to EXACTLY this audience (albeit very girl-skewed): 9-13 year olds who are ready for the reading level and subject matter of middle school dramas (complete with some lite romance in most of the stories) but want to avoid some of the more “adult content” in YA.
    For YA, I think a lot of authors do skew younger:
    Alison Cherry’s RED
    Lindsay Ribar’s THE ART OF WISHING
    Lindsey Leavitt’s GOING VINTAGE
    Lori Goldstein’s BECOMING JINN
    Lauren Morrill’s MEANT TO BE and BEING SLOAN JACOBS
    Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series and her new Embassy Row series,
    Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series and ALL-AMERICAN GIRL
    and Bloomsbury’s IF ONLY series

  7. Lynn

    Any book by Joan Bauer would do.
    Confessions of a Serial Kisser by Wendelin Van Draanen, an older title
    The Secret Language of Girls by Frances O’Roark Dowell
    Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roak Dowell
    Star Girl by Spinelli

  8. Jennifer Groff

    I often recommend the Gallagher Girls books, by Ally Carter, for this purpose. Her new series, Embassy Row, might also work.

  9. Kelly S.

    Sharon Cameron’s books are perfect: THE DARK UNWINDING; A SPARK UNSEEN; and her newest, ROOK!

  10. Kerry McManus

    I like JASMINE AND MADDIE by Christine Pakkala. Set in a well-to-do town in CT, the story focuses on a Jasmine, new to town and from the wrong side of the tracks, and Maddie, who seemingly has it all…or does she? Good lessons, great story.


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