Saturday, February 19, 2011
Why Middle Grade and Middle School Are Not the Same Thing
Writers are often confused by the terms middle grade and middle school. This leads to uncertainty about age ranges and target audiences.
In the United States, middle school is the educational level in between elementary school (usually kindergarten through 5th) and high school (grades 9 through 12). Middle schools encompass grades 6, 7, and 8, with students between the ages of 11 and 14. Certainly, there is overlap. Younger middle schoolers may still be reading middle grade fiction. However, many of these preteens and young teens are rapidly moving into YA literature.
Middle grade refers to literature for children ages 8 - 12 (usually third through sixth grade). Why is it called that, writers often wonder, if it isn't intended solely for middle school students? Well, here's why: once upon a time, before the sixties and seventies when middle schools became common, elementary school was known as "grade school" or "grammar school", and included grades 1 - 8. Even today, many parochial and private grade schools go through the eighth grade. If you think of first and second grade as the "primary" grades, and seventh and eighth as "junior high", what's left? Yep, third through sixth. The "middle" grades--for children ages 8 - 12.
To make things more confusing, publishers and booksellers advertise books for the widest range of age levels possible, in the hopes of increasing sales. Thus, especially with longer books geared toward upper middle grade, you will see suggestions for "grades 5 - 9" or "grades 4 - 8". And, naturally, children do not all mature or develop reading skills at the same rate. Still, if you are communicating with agents and editors and want to appear to know what you're talking about, it's best to use the accepted definition in which "middle grade" targets readers ages 8 - 12.
Middle grade has often been called the golden age of children's literature. Children at this age have time to read--they're not yet caught up in the academic and social demands of the teen years. Middle graders have left picture books and early chapter books behind, and have jumped enthusiastically into the world of novels. They read widely and are interested in a variety of topics. Third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders can handle challenging vocabulary and ideas. When it comes to novels, they look for humor, adventure, fantasy, mystery, and fast-paced action, as well as realistic stories about animals, families, and friendship. Good middle grade novels do not "talk down" to kids. They have complexity and depth, and are interesting to many adults as well as to children.
Do yourself a favor and check out a great middle grade novel today! Here are a few terrific ones I've read recently:
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Seventh Level and The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman
The Candymakers by Wendy Mass
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee
The Boy Who Howled by Timothy Power
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Spellbinder by Helen Stringer
Falling In by Frances O'Roark Dowell
If you've read (or written) a wonderful middle grade novel, please leave a comment.
Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com