Middle Grade Is a Muddy Name

Alison Morris -- September 7th, 2007

A question for the masses. If you worked in a bookstore or library and were creating a section containing middle grade fiction, would you actually label it as "middle grade" or would your sections signs feature some other moniker?

At Wellesley Booksmith our children’s fiction sections currently run in this order (youngest to oldest): Beginning Readers, First Chapter Books, Intermediate Fiction, Young Adults, with "Intermediate Fiction" being home to fiction the publishing industry would call "middle grade." This "Intermediate Fiction" name was inherited from our Brookline store, which I’m sure coined the name years ago, and it’s always seemed a bit confusing to me, but then so does the term "middle grade," now that we also have something called "middle school." And so the "Intermediate Fiction" designations in our store have remained, just as the section signs at the Dartmouth Bookstore continued to be labeled as "Middle Readers" during my days there, even though customers frequently asked me what the name meant — were those the books for kids in middle school?

I’ve asked a number of other booksellers what they call the middle grade section of their stores, and most seem to either label it "Middle Grade Fiction" or label it according to ages, e.g. "Fiction Age 8-12" as I recently observed on the section signs at Books of Wonder. The former seems to mean about as much to the general book browser as "Intermediate Fiction" or "Middle Readers" (meaning, not much). The latter imparts more specific information and seems apt to steer most customers in the right direction, but it makes me grimace on behalf of those kids who aren’t reading at grade level. The 14 year-old reading books intended for 10 year-olds is frequently book-shy enough without having to be reminded that he’s reading books written for kids many years younger than him. Imagine browsing at age 14 and realizing that 8 year-olds are browsing the same books as you — ouch! And then there’s the confusion of stating that books are for ages 8 to 12. Your average 8-year-old may be able to handle the content in a lot of those middle grade books, but be much better suited to the reading level in our first chapter books section. Likewise a lot of 12 year-olds are ready for the content of many of the books we call young adult. I don’t want the parents of either child to mistakenly say, "But you should be browsing HERE, because the sign says that this is the section for you."

So, what’s the solution? Is there a name that could possibly suggest "ready for Sharon Creech but not Edward Bloor"? Something that means "Moderate Content for Fluent Readers"? How about "Neither baby-ish nor grown-up"? It’s so easy to see how someone arrived at "middle" grade, as these books are rather betwixt and between… Hmm… Of course the section could be called "Betwixt and Between" but the question would be the same asked by "middle" or "intermediate" designations — betwixt and between what?

Send me your wild and not-so-wild section name suggestions, and if our store adopts yours for use I’ll send you a lovely reward (read: gift certificate and totebag).

11 thoughts on “Middle Grade Is a Muddy Name

  1. Maggie

    Kathy Burnette’s “Teens and Tweens” was great – knowing from my own kids, if they saw 8 & Up at a store, they’d only want to shop in that section if they were 8 or under. It’s a big deal at that age to be able to read ABOVE – simply on a skill level (although content’s a big deal, too, which gets scary) – the given age for a book. After reading her suggestion I wonder if TWEENAGE might also work, or is it too cute? At least it avoids the muddle of ‘middle.’

  2. Bonnie Doerr

    As an author of what are commonly called MG novels, this question fascinates me. I find I go on and on when parents ask me for what age my books are intended. Lots of hemming and hawing. My fabulous brand-new-in-the-business publisher LeapBooks, puts me in their Frolic line. How cool is that? But I’m intrigued by cataloging books by subject, also, no matter the intended target.

  3. Sherryl

    Here in Australia, bookshops tend to use ages (e.g. 8-12) but these don’t work for me either – and we don’t have middle grade at all. I like Lisa’s suggestion, but I’d shorten it to 8 UP. Alternatively, one of our review journals divides reviews into Younger Readers and Older Readers – that would be OK, but I’d also like a section in the middle just called Great Reads. It could have a mix of popular books but also the great books that often don’t get the publicity and readers they should.

  4. KATHY BURNETTE

    Lisa Yee? Millicent Min, Stanley Wong and Emily Ebers Lisa Yee? My daughter absolutely loves you and keeps watching for new books!!! How cool! (if it’s you of course. not that any other lisa yee wouldn’t be cool….:)

  5. Liz

    I never understand why a lot of book stores just don’t display books by subject matter, Fantasy, mystery, animal stories, horse stories, etc. Children between 8 – ? should be able to look at a wide variety of books without having them labled at grade level in my opinion. Why limit them to something they may enjoy be it under or over there “grade level?” Some children can read way above their grade level, but would like to read at their age level, while others struggle to read. Putting ages on books has always bothered me. There are even great picture books that adults enjoy! Do we tell them they cannot buy them for themselves they must give them to a child? Stop with the age and grade level, if they can read the book, let them take it home (I mean buy it =:o). I refuse to follow the rules! Liz

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