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?